Should We Embrace Emotion in Worship?

I don’t really remember seeing anyone even raise their hands in worship until middle school. It wasn’t until I graduated out of Vacation Bible School and moved into the teen tent at camp one summer that I finally saw emotion exhibited in the church. As the teen tent began to sing, I was confused to see people raise their hands and belt out notes as loud as they could.

What were they doing? And why were they doing it? I eventually joined with them to find out and was quickly overwhelmed with both emotion and embarrassment. Breaking this emotional wall was so powerful that I then began to engage in all the other things people were doing: raising my hands, closing my eyes, kneeling, clapping along, even getting a little bit of a dance on. That summer became what was probably the first mountaintop experience of my life.

The fire in me grew as new retreats and giant conferences brought about new mountaintop experiences. I wasn’t entirely sure what the Holy Spirit felt like, but it seemed like I was feeling him when I expressed my love for him physically—and I loved it.

But then one day, a pastor questioned a bunch of us about what it was we were really feeling. Was it really God we were coming in contact with or were we just being swept up in emotion? This question, along with some other drama in my life, ruined me for years. As the question sank in I soon found that I couldn’t even raise my hands in worship anymore. I couldn’t focus on God because I was too busy analyzing myself. Am I just just trying to look spiritual to everyone else when I do this? Am I really experiencing God or are these tingles just my body responding to these acts? Is it wrong to have emotion in worship? Is it wrong to react physically like I’ve been doing?

I was ruined. I started overanalyzing every single emotion that came my way in worship. My joy turned into confusion and anxiety.

I was battling the enlightenment period. Everything became intellectual, scientific and rational. My engagement with the Holy Spirit was left to science. Soon I didn’t care if it really had just been my body reacting to physical movement in worship—I wanted my joy back! I wanted to be able to lead others in worship from the stage without wondering if I was authentic or not the whole time.

John Wesley had a similar fight back in his time. As people heard about the odd outdoor services he held and the things that happened in them, they decided to go check it out. They were in for quite a surprise, because these Methodists were being pushed to the ground by God and convulsing around on the floor.

Just as these kinds of acts of the Spirit offend people now, so it did back then. Many outsiders didn’t believe God had anything to do with any of this and that these Methodists were crazy or psychotic. But even some of these outsiders were eventually convinced. Wesley writes in his journal:

We understood that many were offended at the cries of those on whom the power of God came: among whom was a physician, who was much afraid there might be fraud or imposture in the case. Today one whom he had known many years was the first (while I was preaching in Newgate) who broke out into ‘“strong cries and tears.” He could hardly believe his own eyes and ears. He went and stood close to her, and observed every symptom, till great drops of sweat ran down her face, and all her bones shook. He then knew not what to think, being clearly convinced it was not fraud, nor yet any natural disorder. But when both her soul and body were healed in a moment, he acknowledged the finger of God.

A few days later, a Quaker in attendance at one of Wesley’s meetings, was growing angry with the craziness he saw going on around him. Wesley describes him as, “biting his lips and knitting his brows, when he dropped down as thunderstruck.” God personally settled the debate for this Quaker by knocking him down to the ground like he had done to so many others in Wesley’s ministry.

Wesley could have easily been accused of stirring up people’s emotions just as people still accuse the church of doing today. But that wasn’t what was going on. He was bringing people into the tangible presence of the Holy Spirit and letting God do whatever he wanted with them.

At my time of struggling with emotion in worship, I didn’t know any of Wesley’s experiences. I didn’t know the debate between emotion and spirituality had been around for so long. And I also didn’t know what to do.

So eventually, I just turned my brain off. And it worked! Yes, surely there had been times in worship where I was responding to emotion—but surely there had been times where I was also responding to God. I decided that  the ambiguity was okay. Having emotions and being the way God made me was much better than trying to analyze it all and live life as an unemotional Vulcan. It was incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to find joy when I was in a state of constantly questioning my emotions, so I stopped. Finding myself mostly free from this torment, I was able to engage in worship again.

Sometimes I respond to emotion, sometimes I respond to God. Sometimes God will give me emotion to respond to and sometimes I’ll be caught up in the way I was made. And I’m okay with that. I’ve learned to discern these experiences, not by overanalyzing them, but by allowing them to come. Joy and other emotions can hardly be analyzed. They must be felt. For what are emotions if they aren’t felt?

This is an adapted excerpt from my new book, “A Taste of Jesus.” Grab the Kindle version for $10 or a physical copy for $20.

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The Importance of Experience

Out of the four components of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, experience would probably have to be the hardest source of theology to sort out. This is simply because every single person in the entire world has their own experience. We have one Scripture, debates about tradition, opinionated reasoning, but a million experiences, each unique in their own way. And on top of that, we continually endure new experiences, which changes our outlook on life and could potentially remove us from those whom our ideology was once compatible with.

This is not to downplay the importance of experience whatsoever. In fact, we have no choice but to approach life through our own experiences. It’s impossible to read Scripture without incorporating our own life into it or even to be truly affected by Scripture without experiencing it. Tradition continues over time typically because it gave someone some sort of experience, and we can hardly reason about anything without incorporating our own experiences into our debate. It is not only essential to use experience in our faith, but it’s impossible to do otherwise despite what some might say.

This is where the problem comes in. The hundreds of different experiences we have can cause us to disagree with the legitimacy of the experiences of others. If we are not open to at least considering their experiences (no matter how insane or unique they may sound), we will most likely find ourselves creating God in the image of our own experience and the experiences of those who have lived a life similar to our own.

Actually, due to the fact that America seems to be processing individualistic Christianity, we may rarely even find ourselves looking to agree with others on experience anymore. “Why do we need them anyway?” we ask ignorantly. “After all, God looks and acts exactly like me.”

Though we won’t say this out loud, it is how many of us think. But when we allow ourselves to experience God more fully rather than judge experiences from a distance, we may find ourselves changing in opinion. Darren Wilson, for example, had this opinion of God before he discovered that God still did miracles today: “There was one thing I was pretty sure of: no matter what God did, He was very, very normal. And He always made perfect sense.”

The issue of experience is especially seen in the fight between evangelicals and charismatics. At the extreme of evangelicalism, we write experience off as emotionalism or enthusiasm. Therefore, if we’re caught crying or reacting to a worship service in any way, we’re told that we are doing so because the music is really good or the message was well written—not because we’re experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit. For that reason, many evangelicals write charismatics off as insane.

Emotions are high in charismatic circles and their experiences of God are weird, confusing, and at times, naturally impossible. If they shake on the floor under the power of God, evangelicals write them off as insane. If they cast a demon out of a Christian and evangelicals call them heretics. If they see sick people get healed, evangelicals will even resort to calling them demonic.

So what do we do with all of this? Is it possible for us to experience an evangelical-charismatic lifestyle or do we have to choose one or the other? Well, it is in my opinion (and experience) that we can indeed live in a blend of the two. In fact, I’d even say that Christianity at its maximum potential is found between the lines of the two and not on one side or the other.

The problem with charismatics is that because of their experiences, they are not very reasonable people. And let’s face it, if you grew up in a church where people were prophesying, healing the sick, doing miracles, speaking in tongues, (which are all gifts of the Spirit as listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10) you probably wouldn’t care too much about trying to be reasonable. After all, this kind of phenomena denies the natural world and is fairly difficult to explain rationally. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to explain, but difficult. I myself have experienced (or at least seen) these gifts take place in church services and because of this, I affirm them to be true. I would even take a step further and affirm sightings I haven’t seen, such as manna appearing in Bibles, gemstones popping up on the floor, rain pouring down inside of churches, and even gold teeth appearing in people’s mouths.

And it even gets crazier! So crazy that I hardly even want to mention these phenomena, because it makes me look completely insane for considering their validity! But, these sightings have been documented throughout time and visited in John Crowder’s book, The Ecstasy of Loving God. In his book, Crowder mentions past and current phenomena that have taken place within Christian circles. These phenomena include levitation, glowing faces, trances, invisibility, walking through walls, sleep-preaching, prolonged fasting, and much more.

Do I know why God does all of these things? No, I don’t. But I don’t always need a firm reason to believe in signs and wonders because I believe in a supernatural God who can do supernatural things. That is not to say that I don’t search for understanding in these things, but rather that I am capable of believing despite my inability to fully understand.

I do, however, need to borrow the reason and even a little bit of the skepticism that evangelicals have. Since charismatics have been so exposed to God’s signs and wonders, they have at times become emotionalists and enthusiasts. This is not always the case, but at times charismatics do on occasion push themselves so hard to feel a move of God that they eventually find themselves either faking it or fooling themselves into thinking that they are experiencing Him. This is why a little bit of skepticism is good to have so that you can discern what is and isn’t of God.

It also becomes dangerous when you live off of experience alone, which both charismatics and evangelicals are capable of doing. In charismatic circles, if you ignore Scripture, reason, and tradition and focus primarily on experience (which has been known to happen), you will find yourself not only preaching weak messages, but even bordering blasphemy at times. God has given us more than just experience to live off of in our faith, and denying other components will put us in situations where the gospel becomes misrepresented and misunderstood. That is not to say that experience is blasphemous in and of itself, but rather that it has potential to get to that point if it is given an overemphasis. That’s why it comes fourth in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It is given a chance to be screened by Scripture, reason, and tradition so that we can see its legitimacy.

But as I said, evangelicals are capable of doing this as well. In their own reasonable, unemotional way, they can deny charismatic experience and go so far as to attribute Satan with the phenomena that takes place in charismatic churches. Now this is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, which is identified by Jesus as the unforgivable sin (Mt. 12:22-32; Mk 3:20-29). This turns that accusation into a much bigger deal than evangelicals have made it out to be.

If the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind (Mt. 22:37; Mk. 12:30; Lk. 10:27), then surely we need to learn how to combine evangelicalism with the charismatic movement. Evangelicals tend to need a little more heart and soul and charismatics tend to need a bit more mind. Now I realize I’m stereotyping a bit here, so I would like to say that there are churches and speakers out there who have learned to blend the two together quite nicely. But for the most part, many of our churches still have a long way to go.

For most of my life I have lived without even knowing what a Pentecostal was and so I know quite well how most evangelicals feel when first discovering the charismatic movement. We ask questions. How do we know these things are from God? Do we have these gifts? Is this just a bunch of hype or is there really something to this? These questions are good to ask so long as we actually search for understanding, but unfortunately, most Christians don’t pursue the questions due to fear, confusion or disbelief.

Altogether the aspect of experience is a difficult one to grasp, but I think that if we’re going to move in the power of Jesus and true Christianity, it is essential that we seek to have experiences in which God empowers and rejuvenates us. Whether we find that experience in the quiet of our room or in the loudness of a conference, we should seek for it with a heart to get closer to God. No matter what side of the experience spectrum we fall on, we all, as Christians, desire some kind of experience with God, don’t we? This is why it seems foolish to me when people advise others not to seek an experience with God.

After all, the Bible is full of stories in which God gives Himself to His people so that they may experience Him. When we refuse the experience of His nearness, we become like Israel who begged Moses to speak instead of God, because they feared that they would die if God spoke (Ex. 20:18-19). While we certainly would be afraid of God making His appearance to us in the same way that He did to Israel, I think many today are dying so much to experience God’s presence and hear His voice that they would be willing to hear Him speak—especially those who have been told not to be emotional, but believe that there has to be something more to this thing we call Christianity.

The experiences of God found in charismatic circles is for everyone, but unfortunately many reject it. This isn’t new at all. In fact, with every revival there has been phenomena and those who rejected it. Author Howard A. Snyder points out that even John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed in “healing, miracles, prophecy (in the sense of foretelling), discernment of spirits, tongues and the interpretation of tongues” (95). But since many Christians (even Methodists today) lack experience with these gifts, they create doctrines and scientific reasoning as to why these gifts aren’t experiences of God, even though the phenomena Snyder listed above are all Biblical.

We all seek experiences of God. Whether it’s to know Him better with our soul, our heart, our strength, or with our mind, we as Christians look to experience God in some way. I believe, however, that we will find God most clearly when we seek Him in all of these ways and not in just the aspects we are most comfortable with.

Works Cited

Crowder, John. The Ecstasy of Loving God: Trances, Raptures, and the Supernatural Pleasures of Jesus Christ. Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Pub., 2009. Print.

Finger of God. Dir. Darren Wilson. Perf. Darren Wilson. Wunderlust Productions. DVD.

Snyder, Howard A. The Radical Wesley & Patterns for Church Renewal. DownersGrove, IL: InterVarsity, 1980. Print.