Emotions in Church

I would like to pose some questions about emotions in church. What should be the emotions expressed from the pew? From the pulpit? How might the church’s emotion-rules hurt it’s people and hinder its mission?

Here are my thoughts:

In most churches there are clearly defined implicit rules about which few emotions are appropriate to express.

For the church goer, the modal expression should be polite interest, and the face should show either a neutral expression or, even better, a smile. It’s okay to sometimes laugh or look troubled when prompted to from the person leading the service. Attending a church service in the U.S. often proves to be a cognitively-rich but emotionally-passive experience, and I wonder if these services would hold more appeal, and have a greater impact, if the congregation was more emotionally involved in the service. Black churches, with typically more active participation from the pew in all parts of the service, seem to get this more right than white churches.

For the pastor, the rules of emotion are even more strict. Before and after the service itself, when greeting people or talking with them, pastors are limited to showing friendliness and interest… sort of like what stewardesses are supposed to do. During the service they can remain in this mode, though at appropriate times can show emotions such as distress (when talking about someone having a difficult time), enthusiasm (when exhorting the church), maybe light forms of anger (when righteously based).
Compare this with the emotions expressed by Jesus in his ministry. He laughed, he raged, he wept–one could not accuse him of being emotionally stunted.

This very-limited, narrowly defined range of emotions for pastors causes various problems.

1) A unchurched visitor, not used to these emotional rules, might experience the emotional environment as “fake” and have a correspondingly low opinion of the church itself.

2) The emotional-restraints placed on a pastor can easily carry on over into other parts of their lives such that any time the pastor is in public (and maybe even in public) they have to be quite limited in the emotions they display, which would seem to be harmful to them at various levels.

3) These emotional limits could easily cultivate an inauthentic church environment. If we’re not expressing what we really feel, then we should probably not say what we’re really thinking and so one such the church, and its people, become less authentic.


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  • As a pastor’s kid and then pastor’s wife, I relate to what you say. (We’ve been out of the pastorate for four years, have visited several churches since that time.) There are – without a doubt – approved emotions for the pastorate (and those who love them.) 🙂 It *does* create a false life, and that can’t be good for anyone.

    From the point of the person in the pew, though, how do they perceive emotion from those in charge? We have been part of churches who are not above emotional manipulation from both the pastor (the righteous indignation you spoke of, trying to effect change, or $$$ giving, etc.) and from the worship team. Personally, I guess that I’ve known it for so long that it doesn’t bother me too much – I know that’s just how it is. But my oldest son is 19, and an intellectual of sorts (well, at least he responds better to logic than to emotion.) He blogged a few months back on this issue:


    Unfortunately, I don’t really have answers for him other than to try out more formal church.

  • Thomas R

    I don’t know. I guess this might be cultural, but I like that Catholic priests are usually somewhat restrained in outward terms. I mean I think maybe they go too far with it sometimes and I like that my current priest is more emotive. Still I think of our faith as both intellectual and emotional. I think Jesus did have discussions with people. I don’t think he was laughing, crying, and raging every moment.

    The “preacher” style my Dad was raised with would probably turn me off as it did him. A pastor/priest who was constantly yelling, jumping, crying, and laughing would possibly unnerve me. I might feel like I’m getting wrapped up in “a display” without necessarily understanding what’s happening. I like that my faith is a bit more contemplative than that.

    Although as indicated I’m thinking more “in outward terms.” I say “outward” because I think the outward expression of emotion doesn’t always tell us the inward feeling. I’ve had really intense emotional experience at Mass that might not be outwardly visible or only barely so. In fact it’s possible the most deeply emotional experiences I’ve had, in general, are not accompanied by clear visual displays while clear visual displays were sometimes due to something shallow. (Like “I’m really tired and I lost my notes for class” or something) So even though I like the restrained style, by and large, I would hope the pastor/priest is feeling something.

  • It seems we expect emotions to be restrained in any public gathering and not just church. Isn’t it the nature of gathering publicly that makes people follow “public” rules rather than merely church rules? I suggest nearly all people are far more animated in private than pubic. That may not be good.

    I agree that expectations can alter pastoral emotional responses around services. And if the church is large, expectations affect public behavior too, because you know there are always church attendees (current or future) nearby. But in private, with your staff, friends, family….most healthy pastors are themselves. If you can never respond normally, the culture or the individual has to change.

  • Stephen Heleman

    As a pastor, I have never felt pressure to limit my emotional response. My nature is to be pretty laid back but I have shead tears, shown frustration, experienced confusion, and been overwhelmed with joy in church. I have also seen a wide range of emotions from the people of my church.

    While I am sure there are many churches with strict, unwritten emotional rules there are also many churches where people are free to be themselves. I would guess it has more to do with things like the size of the church, smaller churches tend to be more like a family and people are more free to express themselves, and the culture of the people in the church. Just as some people are more expressive in their emotions, some churches are as well.

    I am not sure if one way is better than the other. One of the many realities I love about the church universal, is that God allows each local church to be unique while still a part of his body. One size does not fit all.

  • Anar

    How should someone read Psalm 88 in front of a congregation?

    • Probably calmly and “appropriately”… the complete opposite of how it was written.