Why Are We So Afraid of Emotion in Worship?

Why Are We So Afraid of Emotion in Worship? September 10, 2016

Why Are We So Afraid of Emotion in Worship?

Who’s “we?” Well, of course, I mean we white American evangelicals and especially Baptists/baptists. (For those not “in the know,” “baptist” refers to Baptists  and all who don’t call themselves “Baptists” but hold basic Baptist conviction.)

The other day I was worshiping with some fellow American evangelical Christians, mostly baptists, and the worship leader had us sing a particularly moving modern hymn about the cross and the atonement. I was simply unable to sing the last verse and chorus I was so moved emotionally with feelings of joy. I began to cry quietly and had to take off my glasses as they were steaming up and getting tears on the insides of the lenses. I was wiping away the tears throughout the final verse and chorus.

At the same time as that joy for Christ’s sacrifice for me was welling up in me I was thinking “Oh, no. What will people around me think?” I realized that even crying in church, during a worship service, is so unusual, so rare, so seemingly out of place, that people around me, noticing that I had stopped singing and was wiping away tears might think, probably did think, that I had some special problem.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

We white American Baptists/baptists tend to eschew displays of emotion in worship. Why? Why would we not at least occasionally demonstrate some physical response to profound gratitude, joy, conviction, etc., while hearing or singing the gospel? And yet, it is so rare among us.

Occasionally one of my international or African-American students will mention to me that they have trouble attending white worship services because they do not feel comfortable. What if they suddenly experienced deep emotion and shouted something like “Hallelujah!” or cried or fell on their knees? These are expressions of emotional response to the good news common in many non-white baptist churches. But for some reason we have created a white baptist church culture that discourages them.

I think the most vivid example of that in my memory—where the strangeness of it all really came “home” to me—was when I attended an annual “Homecoming Hymn Sing” at a Christian university a few years ago. The majority of the people were older than sixty. Many of the songs were from their/my generation—harking back to a perhaps more revivalistic style of worship that is largely now past if not forgotten. The congregational singing was slow and quiet and almost funereal.

Then, after the benediction during which we all stood, the pipe organ struck up the university’s “fight song” and suddenly (!) the elderly congregation came to life and began raising their arms in the air with the typical gesture that goes along with that song in that university. Suddenly they were singing loudly and enthusiastically; I could feel the emotion and energy in that sanctuary that was not there while we sang “Amazing Grace” other great songs of the faith.

Why? Why do white Baptists/baptists rarely express emotions in worship?

I’m not normally a very emotional person in terms of outward demonstrations. The most emotional demonstration I ever show in worship is crying. And I have been in some Pentecostal worship services that absolutely disgusted me with extreme displays of emotion. (I’m thinking of one in particular where people were literally running up and down the church aisles and bumping into walls screaming and shouting.) I have no desire for that. But I do have to wonder how it came about that white baptists (and other Christians) seem to check their affections at the door when they enter a worship space for worship?

Some years ago a white Baptist church of which I was a member invited me to lead worship and preach. In the middle of the worship service I invited anyone present who had a Spirit-inspired response to share to stand and do so. Of course, for a few minutes nobody stood or even stirred. Then an elderly man stood in the middle of the congregation and sang a hymn—just one verse and the chorus—and sat down. His voice was not strong and his performance was not polished, but there was genuine feeling in it. After the benediction two little old ladies came up to me and said—about the man and his song—“That’s why we don’t DO that here!”

I think we need to work toward a change in our typical white baptist ethos about worship, inviting people to cry, to raise their hands, to kneel, to say an “amen” or a “hallelujah” if they feel so led. But I don’t think just inviting it will do much; I think the worship leaders will need to find ways to incorporate some emotional displays, done decently and in order, into the worship—using the choir and/or worship team.

Too much white baptist worship is inclined toward the mind and the will avoiding any attempt to touch the emotions. I suspect much of that has to do with not wanting to be thought of as fanatics, but to me that’s a shame—to be controlled by what others might think.


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