Porn and Worship: A Look At Emotionalism In The Church

Remember the “worship wars” of the Eighties-and-Nineties? Churches were split over whether they should start a “contemporary service” or perhaps jump into the deep end and “go contemporary” altogether. People got mad . . . like, mad. Christians turned on each other over whether we should keep singing “Sweet Beulah Land” with the organ or start awkwardly clapping along with an acoustic guitar while sort of half-knee-bouncing our way through some “Songs from the Loft.”

I was one of the few to spend time in both trenches in this particular skirmish. Full disclosure: in college, I was in a Christian rock band called “Dead Ostrich.” Yes, I know it’s a stupid name. No, I didn’t choose it. It meant something about rejecting ignorance and apathy or . . . something. Anyway, we had a song that touched on the worship wars. The lyrics included these gems:

There you sit with your hands in your pockets

Afraid to show a little emotion.

Your friends may not approve

Your family may not approve

Your preacher might not approve[1]

But I guess it’s up to you

REFRAIN

You really make me sick

You’re such a typical Baptist

Aside: we gave a copy of our CD to Rob Bell (yes, that Rob Bell) and sat in his living room while he explained that, while he really liked the song “Typical Baptist,” we shouldn’t play it at our concerts if we were trying to reach the lost for Christ. Life is weird.

Dead Ostrich

Anyway.

A few short years later, as the nineties and the worship wars wound down, I—hip-deep in cage-stage Calvinism—did a one-eighty on the topic. My reason for abandoning my college angst in favor of a premature middle age grumpiness was again rooted in emotions. Having embraced a full-on Sola Scriptura stance as well as affirming the total depravity of man, I just didn’t trust them anymore. Extreme emotions threatened to get between God’s Word and me and gum up the works. Better to stick with dusty, albeit doctrinally sound, songs that would engage my mind but little else.

In the ensuing 15-20 years, my personal pendulum has, of course, swung back from the extreme position once again. I found myself having what could be described as “emotional experiences” while worshiping God, and being almost embarrassed about it. With more study, discipleship, and maturity, I’ve come to embrace emotional worship (along with those dusty hymns), while still being on guard against some of the aspects of emotionalism that caused Calvin and Luther to scowl beneath those weird aviator-slash-scholar caps they always wore. (Note to self: get one of those caps.)

Allow me then to offer four reasons to be a little leery of emotionalism in worship and one big reason not to be.

First, emotions can be deceptive. The seat of the emotions in the Bible is alternately the bowels and the heart, and neither are to be trusted intrinsically. The heart of man is deceitful above all else and desperately wicked, after all, and who can know it? (Jer 17:9). In a world where emotions have replaced the written Scriptures as the conduit for God’s will (“God has totally released me from keeping this particular commandment. I can just feeeeel it.”), we do well to be on guard against exalting our feelings to a position equal to God’s word.

And when you add music to the mix, it’s like our emotions are on steroids. Was it St. Francis de Sales or Third Eye Blind who said, “I believe . . . the four right chords can make me cry?” That’s true in the church more than anywhere else. Pelagianism was roundly condemned at two councils and one synod, and yet it hung around for a long time afterwards, largely because there were catchy songs that taught the error floating around in the Christian communities. We see the same thing in many of today’s uberemotional worship songs, many of which are just sort of shallow and many of which are downright heretical (and a few of which are actually solid). But good theology or bad, if they make the singer feel good, they’re unlikely to be rejected.

Secondly, when emotionalism is given undue emphasis, the emotions involved are often contrived. I’ve attended churches where it is clear that people are trying to outdo one another with how passionately “into” the worship they are. Are they all faking it? Doubtful. But when we create the expectation that authentic, sold-out believers in Jesus will necessarily be showing their deep emotions through waving hands, pained expressions, and the like, we leave many with the unfortunate decision between forcing it/faking it and admitting they’re just not that into Him.[2] But maybe they’re just not wired that way.

If lifting your hands helps you worship, do it! But remember, the Church existed for nearly two thousand years without the modern manifestations of hand-raising (see Tim Hawkins for a primer). And if you don’t do it, it doesn’t mean you’re “holding back” or “not giving in to the Spirit.” Likewise, if you are moved to tears in worship, praise the Lord. But God doesn’t command tears every time you praise him and he doesn’t want your fake tears. When we play that game, I imagine we look a little something like this to the Almighty:

lindsay

This brings me to my third point: emotions are often used to manipulate in the Church. I’ve been affiliated with a particular church camp for decades: first as a camper, then a counselor, then (for the past seventeen years) as camp pastor one week each year. I love the place, but that whole time, I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable with the prevailing expectation that Thursday night will be a time of moving the junior highers to tears in a high-pressure walk-the-aisle Finneyfest. Now, I’m all for using the Law to convict and then offering the Gospel as the remedy, but it’s neither fair nor biblical to wait until a group of already emotional (see: crazy hormones) adolescents are super sleep-deprived and kind of sad that the week is winding down and then telling emotional stories until the waterworks get going.

I just saw a Kevin DeYoung quote on Twitter that said, “Pastors, do you believe the Word of God will accomplish the work of God? If you don’t, you will resort to gimmicks.” Exactly. And an easy gimmick to employ is the raspy-voice, tinkly piano, vans-will-wait emotional blackmail of the mid-twentieth century, which can still be found in certain settings. Or its successor, the quick-cut video clip that raws-up our emotions so the speaker can come in for the kill amid low lights before the hearer has had a chance to count the cost.

And just as our hearts can use emotions to deceive us within, false teachers can use them to deceive and manipulate people from without, to affect behavior, whether motivating them to give money to a particular cause or to simply fall in with the expectations of the group at large in whatever way. Mormon missionaries have been using this tactic for years: “Do you feel a burning in your bosom while reading the Book of Mormon? That’s totally God!”

Fourth, emotionalism in worship has led to some wonky and embarrassing phenomena in the church: barking like dogs, “Holy Spirit glue,” convulsions, and the like—the sort of stuff that makes John MacArthur even madder than usual. Luther designated such groups “enthusiasts,” meaning not that they were really into model trains or baseball cards, but that they were convinced they were being sort of possessed by God, who was making them do all sorts of bizarre stuff. While probably not a valid reason to throw the baby out the window, there’s been some seriously funky bathwater along these lines. And we are right to lament the negative witness some of the madder manifestations have been to non-believers.

However, even putting aside the logical fallacy of “poisoning the well,” we should remember that Christians have always been mocked as bizarre, refusing to indulge in the world’s carnal pleasures, gathering to eat their God’s flesh and drink his blood, etc. The world will say what the world will say. We don’t want to put any unnecessary stumbling blocks between a sinner and the cross, but fear of freaking out the world cannot be our yardstick for faith and practice.

So now let me unload the one big reason not to let those four cautions turn us into the “Frozen Chosen” or some insufferably elitist ivory-tower Christians: while all four of these concerns have to do with in some sense falsifying emotions (or emotions trying to falsify us), we must not let falsehood determine Truth.

All sin involves taking something good that God gave us and twisting it back toward ourselves. Gluttony, sloth, fornication—all are sinful excesses and abuses of God’s good gifts, but they do not cause us to reject food, rest, or sex. At least, they shouldn’t. This is elementary stuff, of course, but for a long time I failed to make the correlation with worship.

Here’s what I mean. Pornography doesn’t change our view of sex, but confirms our view of fallen humanity. It takes something that should be beautiful—a desire for connection and intimacy that God has placed in us, something we’re supposed to feel and experience—and gives people a fakey, cheap, plastic, lead-paint-covered substitute, by taking a short cut. Can you imagine a married couple discussing sex and concluding, “We can’t do that! We can’t take that crass ‘sex act’ from pornography and sully the sanctity of marriage with it?” I’ve met some Christians who are almost Gnostic enough to go down that road, but it would be both unbiblical and Lloyd-Christmas levels of stupid to do so. As Christians, we must not let the cheap knockoff set the standard instead of the true gift.

Just as porn doesn’t change our view of sex, emotional abuses, artificiality, and manipulations shouldn’t change our view of emotional experience. Yes, someone can use the four right chords to make you feel ecstatic or melancholy, whether at a praise and worship event or a Mumford & Sons concert. It’s not hard to produce a cheap shortcut to give you a momentary emotional high—a sense of fleeting satisfaction that will fade with the sound of the music, but just as the marriage bed is the right place (the ordained place!) to feel sexual gratification, worshipping God is the ultimate place to feel emotional gratification. God wants us to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever.

The cynic in me still gets a little suspicious when the emotions start to well up during worship, and that’s kind of sad. I feel a sense of, Wait, is someone manipulating me? Is this me turning worship into something about ME, not GOD? Am I letting my guard down so my mind won’t be fully engaged?

And I suppose those thoughts are valid enough, but even if it feels similar to the knock-off, remember this is the real thing. Oreos are similar to Hydrox (or, rather, vice versa), but they’re not Hydrox. They’re heavenly. And so is worship. We were made to have a connection with our Creator that involves our minds, hearts, wills, our whole person—including our emotions. And while chasing after warm fuzzies gets worship backwards, we should not be alarmed or concerned when we feel Christ present with us. We should be thankful. Sure, chasing the thrilling “experience” in worship is unbiblical, but so is fearing it.

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[1] You’re correct to assume that these three lines get higher and shriller as they go.

[2] I know worship and fasting are two very different things, but I think we can learn a little something from Matt 6:16-18 here—namely, if we’re consciously twisting and stretching out our facial expressions while worshiping, because we’re conscious of being seen by our fellow humans and aware of what they will think . . . well, we’ve already received any reward or benefit on earth and this whole worship thing isn’t even making it to Heaven.

Zach Bartels

I’m pastor at Judson Baptist Church in Lansing, MI and the author of Playing Saint, The Last Con, and a few other books. I’m husband to Erin, father to Calvin, and lover of gourmet coffee and fine cigars. He's the author of Playing Saint and The Last Con