Emotion and Beyond

This is the fourth in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

Music is emotional. Music arouses passion. Who would want it otherwise?

Not I! As a child of God and as a hymn writer, it’s my goal to be fully responsive to the truth. That includes being emotionally responsive to the wonderful truth of Jesus Christ. Who can believe what God has done for us in Christ and not be emotional? How can we grasp that truth and not be passionate about Him?

That’s why music is such a magnificent gift. It combines meaning with emotion.

But the Church is not the only party speaking to people through emotion and the senses. We minister to a people on sensory overload. Communications media saturate their senses and coddle them with entertainment, desperate to get a hearing for their products. Radio, TV, recordings, billboards, everything is designed with maximum sensory appeal and maximum entertainment value.

When we in the Church attempt to communicate with these people, we sometimes use the same tactics. We feel our music must have maximum energy level to break through to people accustomed to high-appeal communications.

So in our church music, we turn up the emotional volume to maximum. And why not? What is more deeply emotional than the truth we are communicating?

But there are negative effects. We further addict our congregations to high-energy emotional appeals. We feed them salt, increasing their thirst for emotional stimulation and entertainment. More and more, entertainment values saturate our expectations and our judgments of quality. “Good” Christian music is music that excites and impresses us, whether or not it improves our lives and draws us closer to the Living God.

With this increased desire for music that emotionally stimulates us, some themes–critically important themes–are minimized in our songs because they don’t readily lend themselves to musical thrills. Topics like holy living, prayer, perseverance, and self-sacrifice tend to be edged out of our church music. I’ve spent over 35 years in church music publishing, and I can assure you that this is true.

For hymns, the problem grows worse because of a blurring of the line between performance music and congregational music. Choirs, ensembles, and soloists believe that their music has to generate enough emotional energy to jump the gap to static listeners and stir them to emotional involvement. And remember, these are listeners numbed by constant, high-energy sensory appeals all around them.

Whether performance music actually needs such emotional levels, congregational music should not need them. The emotional dynamic is completely different. Hymns don’t have to jump a gap from performer to listener. They don’t need to stir static listeners to involvement. In congregational singing, performers and listeners are one and the same. As they sing, they are already physically involved in the music. With performance music, the congregation has to be jump-started into involvement. In congregational singing, they are already involved. No jump-start is needed. That involvement advantage, along with simpler tunes, should free hymns to focus on meatier words.

But the performance and entertainment mentality has so pervaded our congregations that congregations approach their hymns looking for emotional stimulation as the measure of value. Additionally, as performance increasingly pervades congregational music, singability becomes less and less important. The discipline of simplicity is often lost.

There’s more fall-out. With our church music addicted to high emotional energy and focused on narrow, high-emotion topics, our songs get further and further away from day-by-day, moment-by-moment Christian living. We talk less and less in daily, believable tones about daily, practical issues. And let’s face it: happiness, holiness, and the salvation of needy people are won or lost more on Monday morning than Sunday morning.

None of this is doom and gloom, nor is it intended as an indictment of any particular style of music. The solution is not easy, but it is simple: remember and refocus. Christianity is less about feeling better than about being better. For yourself and for your people, do you want to feel better temporarily or be better every day through a closer relationship with Jesus Christ?

In our society, music is usually focused on temporary emotional stimulation. Music makers gauge their success by how much they can stir their audience to excitement or sentiment, though only for passing moments. Music can do much more than that. Expect more from your church music. Expect more from your hymns. As you sing, look to the Living Christ. Desire to know Him better and to live closer to Him. Let emotion be only an overflow of your faith in Him.

One comment

  1. James Lowery says:

    VERY insightful.
    Thank you for THINKING!
    And saying things that not too many are saying, or want to say, or want to hear.

    Just last week one of the senior ‘pillars of the church’ I serve as Minister of Music commented on one of the songs we sang on Sunday, “We need more peppy songs.” (In context, the implication was ‘We need more emotional music stimulation.’) The Spirit granted me a ‘soft answer’ (Praise the Lord!).

    Where in Philippians 4:8 is ‘peppy’ included? After three decades in ministry, I still can’t find it!

    I’m appreciating this series very much. Thank you for being willing to pay the price to bring it to us.

    Jim Lowery
    Richmond, VA

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