“The thing you have to do is make people feel their own emotions.” Bob Dylan, 2012
In this installment we will be looking at the role of a worship leader as an emotional shepherd and our role as emotional beings in relation to the liturgy of music and worship.
Now, I know you may be thinking that giving a title like “emotional shepherd” to a worship leader may seem a bit vain, or egotistical. I felt that way at first after reading this chapter in Zac Hicks book, The Worship Pastor. However, after reading through the chapter it became clear that this title does not seek to elevate the rank of a worship leader, but to clue in that leader on what is already going on in the worship service. The title of emotional shepherd is a call to responsibility and stewardship. It is a reminder that emotions should, and will, be flowing during a service; and as a leader we must be aware of the impact of our actions, music, lyrics, and prayers on people’s emotions.
Before we go any further, I want to talk about emotions. Emotions are more than just a mood. A mood may come and go quickly, and can easily be changed by outside stimuli. You wake up feeling tired in the morning and it puts you in a grumpy mood, but after a cup of coffee or two you get a pep in your step and the mood dissipates. Emotions are much stronger and more central to who we are as a person. Emotions come from our gut and our heart, and they can help us experience truth more deeply. For instance, when I see someone suffering, I have a strong emotional response of empathy for them. If I see and injustice occurring, I have an emotional response of disgust for the perpetrator and pity for the victim. These emotions are tied into my personal beliefs and experiences, and they are guided by the Holy Spirit.
God made humans to be holistic creatures. Humans having emotional responses was an intentionally created part of our being. An unfortunately widespread belief in our time is that emotions are somehow a weakness or fault. You’ve probably heard a dad saying to his son, “suck it up and be a man! Crying is for babies!” Or maybe you’ve heard someone described as the “emotional type,” which carries a negative connotation for dramatic overreaction. That line of thinking, to me, is folly. Emotions, if they are true and guided by the Spirit, are important signals for truth and the experience of reality. A human does not operate only on logic and reason (like a robot, calculating and cold), nor is a human prey to total emotional rapture (like an animal, reactionary and wild). A human is a masterpiece creature, a thing that reflects the glory of God, made in His image. That means we have a heart, mind, and soul. The bodily parts of us are just as important as the abstract mind. Thus, our emotions are God-given and vital. We as human beings must awaken to the reality of our wholeness, we cannot disregard a part of ourselves. The author, Zac Hicks, puts it this way:
“When God summarized the central duty of humanity as loving Him, with heart soul mind and strength (Deut. 6:5, Matt 22:37), He was saying that being human is a holistic endeavor.” (Hicks, The Worship Pastor, 2016)
Jesus is the perfect example of a human, and in turn a perfect example of an emotional being, and emotional shepherd. When His friends were grieving over the loss of Lazarus, he felt pity toward them and shed tears. When he found money changers disrespecting the Temple, He felt anger. When He knelt in the garden of Gethsemane to pray and shed tears of blood, He felt anguish and fear about his future. Yet, these emotions did not totally take control of Jesus. He experienced them, then took action in accordance to the will of God. His emotions alerted Him to the grieving of His friends, and Jesus, in order to bring glory to God and to assuage their doubts, called Lazarus back from the dead. When anger signaled to Jesus that injustice was occurring at the temple, He took the time to make a whip and cleansed the Temple of the money lenders. Fear and anguish threatened to overwhelm Jesus in the garden, those emotions were almost strong enough replace God’s plan with a plan of self-preservation. However, Jesus trusted in God, and continued to pray for His will to be done.
Now that we have triangulated the relationship between the realities of holistic being, our emotions, and our Creator, let’s discuss how that ties into worship. Jonathan Edwards talks about musical worship services this way:
“To stir up the pure minds of the saints and quicken their affections, by bringing the great things of religion to their remembrance, and setting them before them in their proper colors.” (Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, 1746)
The phrase “proper colors” is brilliant. This is like experiencing emotions in the proper way, and processing them as Jesus did. Music is emotion. It is a unique transcendental mode of expression and a multi-sensory experience. Music has been described as moving color, or living art. It is an inevitable fact that music will illicit an emotional response to some degree. As I said earlier, the title of emotional shepherd is a harkening call to responsibility and stewardship of the emotions of the worshippers, not an elevation of status or rank. As a worship leader, I must be aware of the emotions around me, and aware of my impact on the service. This means I should not seek to manipulate, or sensationalize, any part of the service. Instead, I should seek the truest avenues of expression, and seek to portray the “great things of religion” in the light of reality. That reality is the Gospel message. A worship service should follow the pattern set forth in the Gospel: Joy from the revelation of Christ, Immanuel; the sad and desperate knowledge of the gravity of our sins; praising and exalting His glorious work on the cross that grants us the gift of pardon; and the bright hope brought forth in the resurrection. These are the primary set of emotional experiences that are found in the Gospel story, and when we relive the Gospel in our worship, we can walk through these emotions, and feel them in their proper place, and color.
Allowing ourselves to be open to the Spirit, and to feel emotional responses imbues our rituals with meaning and depth, and connects our souls to each other, and God, so we don’t lose the joy, pain, celebration, and hope found in the Gospel. The end goal, whether you are a worship leader or worshipper, is to be led by The Shepherd, to feel the truth in the right way, as the Gospel is enacted by us, the Church, through our worship and observance.
So, come awake! And feel and live the Gospel when we worship! If you feel the sadness and pain of the cross and our sins, then weep! If you feel the joy and hope of our pardon and His resurrection, then give a happy shout! Be open to the Spirit and acknowledge your holistic humanity! Feel the depth of truth, and the reality of the Gospel which are accessible through our God-given emotions!
Blessings to you, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!