Emotions in Corporate Worship

by Johnny Zacchio

We are emotional creatures who desire to know, touch, feel, and handle. God designed us this way and when we read of a God who “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:16), a God “we cannot see” (1 Jn. 4:20), a God whose ways are “past finding out” (Rom. 11:33), it is natural that we desire a real, tangible, and emotional experience with Him.

To seek an experience with God is not necessarily a bad thing. As Christians, one of the beautiful things about living life as a follower of God, changed by the love of Jesus, is that we can and do experience God. All throughout Scripture, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, this principle is seen and lived out by the heroes we read about. Unfortunately, our tendency toward emotional experience has given rise to a problem that is prevalent in the Church’s music ministries and corporate worship times today. This problem is a destructive thing called “Emotionalism”.

What is Emotionalism?

We could define emotionalism as the pursuit of emotions as the end in themselves. It occurs when emotions are given a wrongful place in our hearts. My brother-in-law summed up this issue well during a conversation we were having about this subject. He said, “You know Johnny, I think too often we worship our emotions as God rather than worship God with our emotions.” Think about that — we can worship our emotions as God rather than worship God with our emotions. At its very core, emotionalism is an idolatry issue that needs to be dealt with in our hearts.

As a worship leader, I hear this a lot: “Hey that was great worship!” And I’m sure the people who tell me this have good intentions. But more often than not, what they really mean is, “That was a great emotional experience!” The result of this kind of thinking is that when the feelings aren’t necessarily there, we feel like God wasn’t there. Or that the “worship was off” today. We become discouraged and our worship of God becomes dependent upon how we feel. This mentality in our corporate worship will inevitably cause the worship of God in all other areas of our lives to suffer; or at the very least, serve as a reflection that it is already suffering.

What is our Cure?

Here are four ways to combat emotionalism in our worship:

1) Come to a true understanding of worship

Worship is not merely a genre of music nor is it supposed to be, at its very core, an emotional experience. It is supposed to be a proper response to who God is and what He has done for us with our will, actions, and affections. The apostle Paul points out in Romans 12:1, as he defines worship, that it is “by the mercies of God” – or in light of God’s great mercy toward us – that we present our bodies as living sacrifices. This is our reasonable worship.

2) Recognize the nature of our emotions

Our emotions are often deceptive and should not be given a place of prominence in our hearts. In Genesis 22, when God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, one thing that is NOT mentioned in the chapter is how Abraham felt about the situation. It says that “Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey…” (Gen. 22:3). He didn’t waste time; by faith, he went. Abraham knew that at this moment His feelings were irrelevant and that God wanted obedience. This volitional response was considered “worship” in God’s eyes (Gen. 22:5).

3) Put our emotions in their proper place

Emotions are good things given by God but they must be set in a place of submission to God’s truth. In John 4, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that the Father is seeking true worshipers who worship the Father in “spirit.” But we can’t stop there. He also desires that we worship Him in “truth” as well. As we allow God’s Word and His truth to fill our minds and take up residence in our hearts, we receive the ability to properly respond to God with our hearts and our emotions.

4) Look to Jesus

He willingly submitted Himself to the will of the Father and worshiped Him as He walked all the way to the place where He was crucified for our sins. He didn’t allow His emotions to rule but “committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23). At the same time, He would often pour out His heart and praise to the Father and worship Him with a sincere heart. The gospel shows us that the narrow road, the path of the cross that we are all called to walk on, is a path of affectionate submission leading to true abundant life!

May we continually worship God in spirit; to love God with “all of our hearts” (Matt. 22:37). But may we also worship God in truth; allowing God’s truth to fuel our emotions so that we may by faith respond to Jesus in real worship. As we restore this heart in the corporate gathering, our praise and worship will glorify God, edify the church, and further the work of the gospel!

Johnny Zacchio is the Director of Music and Media and leads worship for Sunday Night Chapel at Calvary Chapel Bible College.