Crying black woman I knew the memorial service would likely be emotional.  I knew it might be difficult at times to sing the notes and words that I had sung hundreds of times over the 26 years that I had been part of the male chorus directed by the one who was being memorialized.  I felt somewhat prepared for occasional swells of emotion since I knew the deceased had put his mind and heart into arranging these very pieces we were singing with unparalleled artistry.  Part of my preparation had been to review musical scores where I once again saw nuances crafted into the scores that painted text with astounding mastery.  I thought by reviewing all of that ahead of time I would get my proverbial trips down memory lane over with prior to the memorial service, and thus be ready to just sing through the songs – make the music – as a member of the ensemble without losing it.  Even though I am prone to tear up pretty easily, I was going to be tough.


Ah…but then came the actual moments of combining life stories, songs, presence of friends with whom all of these things had been shared, and the dose of stark reality with which we are confronted at memorial services.  Life on this earth is temporal, it has an endpoint.  Occasional humor in relational stories helped shift the mood momentarily, but the hard work of grieving continued to call for our attention.  In my case grieving often leads to weaping.  All things considered, I thought I made it pretty well, contributing the bass part through most all of our songs with a couple of exceptions.  I was even surprised to sing with strength on “Be Still My Soul,” which is so loaded with deeply emotive expressions of faith.  Lost it on “At the Cross,” so I mouthed words while uttering no sounds part of the time, and just let go and sang with tears streaming during the rest.


Fast Forward three nights to a concert of worship music in which the music is purposefully arranged by textual content based on a structure of fourfold worship.  The rise and fall of musical drama seems naturally accompanied by emotive response among singers and listeners.  Moments of confessional lament and subsequent pensive mood and some tearful expressions.  Moments of joyous declaration of freedom because of the cross were met with warm smiles and verbal replies.  Applause and spoken “Amens” seem accompanied songs of thanksgiving and praise.  A sending song that anticipates the Lord’s triumphant return was nearly interrupted with the shouting response of a worshiper overcome in the swelling crescendos of proclaimed hope and anticipation, whose shouts at times rose above the soloist and chorus.  As a director this was a first for me.  I was slightly frightened at first, and strangely gratified at once.


But enough about me and my emotions.  What I would like to draw attention to from these personal experiences has to do with the power of emotion in worship, and some consideration of its place and our response.


First, God has made us emotional beings.  Scripture indicates that this is one manner in which we are created in God’s own image, since it tells us something of God’s anger, joy, sorrow, rejoicing, and more.  Worshiping involves the whole person, and our emotions are integral to worship.  Certainly, musicians recognize music as an emotionally expressive art form.  As indicated above in my own experiences, some emotion just happens in us individually and we face the challenge of self-control vs. release.  The Apostle Paul helps us in 1 Cor 14 when he calls us to worship in a way that edifies the body, and in a way that is “fitting and orderly.” (40)


Second, while we can certainly anticipate that some worship experiences will likely be emotional, whether joyous or sorrowful, we in worship ministry must never seek to elicit emotion as the sum and substance of any setting that we call Christian worship.  This deserves its own article, so I must leave it at that.


Third, any worship gathering will include people whose emotional inclinations will vary.  Those who pastor in worship settings will do well to assist worshipers in exercising respect for one another in these differences. Romans 12:9 even says we should “outdo one another in showing honor.”  Imagine that environment of the worshiping church.  Philippians 2 paints such a beautiful picture of the people we are to be as “everyone should look not only for his own interests, but also for the interest of others.”  What if we not only make room for the worshiper whose hands are raised at the mention of God’s praise as well as the worshiper whose silent reverence and bowed head indicates his or her humbling in the Lord’s presence.  We do well to consider how we help each understand the other and embrace their contribution to worship as a body.


Fourth, healthy worship embraces tension, which naturally leads to varying emotions in worshipers.  As Paul reminded us that he “prays with the spirit but with the mind also; and sings with the spirit but with the mind also,” (1 Cor 14:15) so we must encourage full participation in the exercises of gathered worship.  Full participation is not only indicative here of all people, but all of each person engaging with God in worship – bringing our whole selves to join this community of worship.


I would encourage you to contemplate just these few tensions that are inherent in the worship of God.  In doing so, consider the emotional stirring that may come with each side of the tension as well as within the very tension itself.  They are to be embraced, not shunned:


  • Joy and sorrow
  • Holy Other and Friend closer than a brother
  • Eternity past and eternity future
  • Old self and new self
  • Sacred place and sending out
  • Personal spirituality and community of faith
  • Local church and Kingdom
  • Steward of the earth and pilgrim passing through
  • Forgiveness and discipline
  • Old Testament and New Testament
  • Vertical and horizontal emphases
  • Participation and Meditation
  • Tradition and Innovation
  • Familiarity and Mystery
  • Word and Symbol
  • Transcendence and intimacy


Because worship “does God’s story” as Robert Webber has said throughout his writings, it is little wonder that our emotions are stirred within the wonder of that story.  Certainly, when we are in the throes of discovering our own place in it (the story), we can be overwhelmed as we participate with heart and mind, singing, praying, praising, ministering, serving, expressing hospitality and enjoying fellowship in community.  I often say, “there is no such thing as passionless worship.”  This is not a call for specific emotionalism in worship, but rather simple fact that the very nature of bringing our whole selves implies passion in the engagement with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and with His bride, the Church.


Robert Webber reminded us that worship remembers and anticipates.  Indeed as worship does God’s story it fully embraces the tension of yet and not yet.  I cannot help but realize that even in these two experiences upon which I reflected above, the Memorial Tribute for Buryl Red and the singing of the Centurymen, or the shouting expressions of a worshiper in East Tennessee at a concert of the Tennessee Mens Chorale, these two experiences were characterized by these two directions, one a service marked especially by remembrance and the other by anticipation of what is to come.

Explore posts in the same categories: Choir Ministry, Church Music, Congregational Singing, Singing Worship, Spiritual formation through singing, Worship Leaders, Worship Pastors, Worship Reminders, Worship theology, Worship thoughts, Youth Worship


  1. Becky Payne Says:

    Paul – this is wonderful insight. So many people think emotion has no place in worship. This is truly inspired writing.


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