What is the role of emotions within the Church?

It goes without saying that I am not an overly emotional person. Now, I am not as emotionally inept as Mr. Spock from the old Star Trek series. I do feel things, and I am known to emotionally react at times. Rather, my weakness lies in the expression of emotions, as well as the ability to handle other people’s expressions of emotion. I do not make a habit of pursuing emotional experiences, and I am heavily suspicious of anyone who attempts to manipulate me via my emotions.

Because of this, I am having a little bit of trouble figuring out how to approach emotion within the Church. I am by nature emotionally constipated, and many churches are by nature heavily emotional. I often feel (though I may be quite wrong) that many churches handle emotion in improper ways. How do I reconcile this without doing something or holding a way of thinking that may harm my relationship with the Church at large and with God?

I may sound like I’m ranting below. That is not my intention. I am not against any of the things I mention; I am merely voicing my own personal perceptions of them. I want to know how those of you who read this (especially the pastors among you) feel about what I say.

Not too long ago, (due to a situation which I will not detail in order to avoid embarrassing other individuals) my siblings and I left the third church in which we have become heavily involved within the last three years. Over the time spent at those churches, I have made some observations in regard to how emotion is currently handled within a church setting.

  • The first thing that I noticed is that it seems as though emotion is heavily used to manipulate people into a “spiritual” response. How many of you have sat through an altar call where the pastor’s voice is cracking and tears are running down his face while the band is playing a sweet, minor-key worship song to which you cannot help but respond? Altar calls always make me grumpy, because I am blocked from viewing them as anything more than emotional manipulation trying to masquerade as the calling of the Spirit. This is only how I am perceiving altar calls; I would love to hear some of my pastor friends give me their thoughts on why they do altar calls, and where emotions play a part in them. I would love to take part in altar calls, but I’m not going to do it unless I am sure that I am responding spiritually, and not just because “Like a Rose” sounds pretty.
  • Another place that emotion is used a lot in the Church is in worship music. I am thoroughly convinced that every worship song written after 2005 or so was written in a special key that makes people melancholy and open to suggestion. (For some reason, this same “hypnotic” musical key also causes a yawn reflex within me. Odd.) Over the last three years, I have struggled heavily with how to handle worship music. I don’t sing well, and when I do participate in worship through song I end up spending all of my focus and energy just trying to stay on tune. Putting that aside, it is impossible for me to either put anything into or take anything away from the spiritual act of worship that is supposed to come with the music. (I hypothesize that a suspicion of emotional manipulation within worship music is what causes that). As a result, if I sing, I am only doing it to make others think that I am worshipping, when I am not. That feels dishonest both before man and God, so I usually don’t. Again, this is just my perception. If any pastors or other smart people have any thoughts on where emotions play a part in worship music, please chime in. It’s the same as with the altar calls. I want to participate, but I don’t want to do it if I’m just responding to emotions.
  • Where I really struggle with most is the role of emotion is in the daily spiritual life of a Christian. Where does emotion play a part in our interaction with the spiritual realm? Does it have any role? Despite the Church’s current obsession with emotional manipulation, it seems to me that it doesn’t really like emotions. How many times have you heard the phrase “Love is not an emotion” or “Joy is not an emotion” while you were at Sunday School? I hypothesize that you can argue that any virtue or good activity mentioned within the Scriptures is not an emotion, since the Christian virtues and fruits of the Spirit are meant to transcend emotions. But what does a person who has achieved all of the virtues and fruits of the Spirit look like? Does emotion play a role in their spiritual life? Or is it (as the Church tells you) just something that is a stumbling block for the virtues and fruits of the Spirit to transcend?

Okay, that’s it. I think I am setting some sort of a record for longest use of bullet points within a text.

I do believe that God created the emotions. Therefore, He has a purpose for them. I don’t believe that He creates things just so we can use them to manipulate others, nor does He create things for us to ignore them. I think that emotions play a role in the Church and in the life of the believer. I’m just having trouble figuring out what it is.

I welcome feedback and thoughts so I can make sense of this. 🙂

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4 Comments on “What is the role of emotions within the Church?”

  1. Eric Novak says:

    In the New Testament, worship is not presented to us as something humans set up, so that other humans can find some “spiritual high” or emotional fix. The object is to respond to God with reverence and obedience: “God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be held in reverence by all those around Him,” (Psa. 89:7). Therefore, when we go to church, we are to worship God not out of a human compulsion, but rather out of a genuine desire to express our admiration and indeed “worship” for Him.

    On the other hand, we are to worship God with music and the role of a worship leader *is* to draw us into worship. I think of this as motivaion, not manipulation. Consider the definitions:

    Minipulation:
    To manage or influence skillfully, esp. in an unfair manner: to manipulate people’s feelings
    to adapt or change (accounts, figures, etc.) to suit one’s purpose or advantage.

    Manipulation
    the state or fact of being manipulated.
    Skillful or artful management.

    Working Definition
    To encourage someone to do something when the primary objective is to benefit yourself.

    Motivation:
    Motivate
    give an incentive for action.

    Motivation
    the state or condition of being motivated.

    Working Definition
    To encourage someone to do something when the primary objective is for their benefit.

    (Dictonary.com)

    The question is, what do the worship leaders gain by leading you in worship?

    Though I know you bring this up as a legitimate question, Jacob, I must caution you: The road of criticism for the church leads in many directions and only few are good. If we seek to worship God in purity and truth and if we seek to build up our brothers and sisters in the body, we will find a much richer meaning to the gospel.

    -Eric

    (Written on my iPhone, so pardon errors you may find).

    • Thanks for commenting! What you’re saying is very true. I am not trying to criticize; and I did what I could to make that clear. You’ve been writing long enough to know that criticizing an individual or group gets big page views, but it does little that is truly good. I am doing what I can to present how I personally perceive things, and asking questions to find out if my perception is wrong or in need of an adjustment. In other words, it’s a request for others to build me up so that I can know where my personality type fits within the church. 🙂

      As for worship, I agree with you again. Worship is a human’s spiritual response to God, but does it mean that it is emotional?. And is music the only way to do it? If not, is it still a mandatory form of worship, especially if all the music does is cloud a person’s mind and make it harder for him or her actually focus on worshipping?

      As for the word “manipulation,” I think we’re just having a difference in terminology. No point in putting too much weight on it. My dictionary defines “manipulate” as the following:

      “Handle or control (a tool, mechanism, etc.), typically in a skillful manner: “he manipulated the dials”.”

      The point of this article really isn’t to bash churches, nor is it on the topic of worship. Worship is a spiritual matter, not an emotional one. The point of the article is to ask questions regarding the nature of emotion in the church, especially in light of the existence of the spiritual realm.

  2. Robin Spencer says:

    Hey Jake,
    I am here by your mom’s recommendation.

    I have done a lot of brain research and while I do believe in the Holy Spirit moving in church services, I must confirm some of your thoughts on music.
    I have done some listening therapy with my kids to help with their autism. EEG’s show that certain music does stimulate blood flow and activity in particular parts of the brain while some music actually reduces brain activity. Other brain research seems to show that there is a part of the brain more responsible for spiritual thought. This made me curiously wonder if a traditional alter call song like “Just as I Am” actually affects this part of the brain. And while we could be very guarded about something that encourages us to respond in a certain manner, we must also wonder why God made us this way???
    Also, people who respond more freely to alter calls put much more trust in their emotions, which may also be why they need to respond more often. lol. While a person who puts more trust in their intellect may only ever need to respond once to God’s call and perhaps not during an alter call.
    Blessings
    Robin

    • Wow Mrs. Spencer, that’s really quite incredible. I am synesthetic (which is apparently close to autism, in terms of the physical structure of the mutations within the brain.), and I am constantly working on figuring out how to balance physical limitations with spiritual expectations.

      Due to this fact, the connections you have discovered between music and physical brain really fascinate me. I have always assumed that music has an influence on the brain, whether positive or negative. The potential correlation between the fact that parts of the brain are sensitive to music and the fact that others are responsible for spiritual thought is very interesting, especially when I’m working to understand where emotion is used.

      Based on this fact, this question comes up: is music supposed (as in, intended by God) to make us react spiritually? And if so, does the fact that I am merely put off by music that is supposed to make us react a sin or a bad thing? Or am I just different from other people?

      Thanks for your thoughts!


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