A worship service can be a highly emotional time. The powerful music, crowds of people, the aura of God’s majesty, and turning one’s attention to him can create intense feelings of joy, anticipation, or even sorrow. Some people weep. Some people laugh. Some people are unmoved.
And all that’s okay.
The problem comes when leaders of worship services make a concerted effort to change people’s emotions in an attempt to coerce certain behavior. This is known as “emotional manipulation” and can be a harmful action that hijacks true worship.
How to Avoid Emotional Manipulation During Worship
Why does emotional manipulation happen?
It’s helpful to start by understanding why emotional manipulation takes place. Some of us may engage in emotional manipulation without even being expressly aware of it. Here’s why emotional manipulation happens.
• We want other people to experience the same emotion that we are experiencing. A worship service is a social event. The leaders of such services are trying to do just that — lead. Sometimes, however, this leadership tends toward leading others’ emotions, rather than the true focus of worshipping God.
• We confuse emotion with true worship, and feel that it’s our responsibility to cause such emotions in others. Because of the “high” associated with emotion, it can sometimes seem as if the emotion itself is requisite for worship, or at worst, a substitution. Emotion, while not at all wrong, is simply a byproduct of worship. In some cases, it can even be disconnected. Even an unbeliever can go into a worship service and feel emotion. It’s important for us to remember that worship does not require any certain type of emotions.
• We mistakenly assume that a state of high emotion is a state where heart change will more readily. I have attended worship services where emotional manipulation was used to induce dramatic responses to an invitation. One powerful speaker would use highly emotional language, scare tactics, and passionate speaking. Then, he would invite people to come down the aisle in response to his invitation. At this point, the instrumentalist would play a slow, reflective piece. The response was predictable — people poured down the aisles in droves. Many people were weeping. There are many instances where such outpouring of emotion and mass response is good and right. Truly God does work through emotions, and He uses powerful speakers to prompt change in hearts. However, in some cases, the skills of the speaker and the talents of the musicians combine to stir up strong feelings and cultivate an intentional atmosphere of high emotion. In such emotional situations, people are much more ready to make a “decision.” However, in states of high emotion, such “decisions” may become unmoored from careful thinking or soul searching. An “emotional decision” is not a true decision. Why? Because it is a decision predicated on one’s emotion alone, exclusive of other critical decision-making faculties.
• We want to feel good about our own leadership abilities (musically or speaking) and feel reciprocated in our efforts when people become highly emotional. Any public speaker or musician loves to get a reaction out of people. There’s something of a dopamine rush when a speaker can bust out a witty one-liner that causes the crowd to convulse with uncontrollable laughter. In a similar way, the worship leader who croons a convincing tear-jerked cadence can subtly coerce others to become teary as well. The worship leader feels as if he is successful, because he has caused others to feel emotional intensity. While there is nothing wrong with getting a laugh or creating a tear, there begins to be a serious problem when this becomes our motivation in leading worship or speaking. It shows us that we have misplaced our effort. Rather than attempting to lead people towards Christ or worship, we are focusing on an emotion.
• These are some unfortunate things that happen intentionally or unintentionally in worship. The problem is compounded, because music is an inherently emotional language. Sometimes, it’s hard not to manipulate! To avoid such emotional manipulation, it helps us to have a deeper understanding of how emotions and worship correspond.
Understanding Emotion in Worship
What motivates emotions? Emotions can be caused by a variety of factors. First off, we must understand that emotions are part of the human psyche. Humans are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26). Therefore, we must accept the legitimacy of emotions.
I’ve often heard emotions contrasted with logic, stating that emotions are bad and logic is good. Sometimes, this takes derogatory comments like, “Ah, men are logical and women are emotional!” Neither emotion nor logic is superior to the other, and to compare them is folly. Both are good. Both are helpful. To remark that one person (or gender) is “emotional,” and to suggest the inferiority of their constitution or abilities, is to totally misunderstand the rightful place of emotions.
There are, of course, inhibitory emotions that can create negative feelings and behaviors. At the same time, emotions can have a positive impact and result in good behavior. In Scripture, we read of God having emotions that relate to human emotions. For example, God has anger (Psalm 11:5), compassion (Genesis 19:16), sorrow (Genesis 6:6), and joy (Nehemiah 8:10). Even Jesus acted with emotion, as when he cried at a friend’s death (John 11:35), and cleaned out the temple crooks with holy zeal (Matthew 21:12-16; John 2:13-22).
Emotions are highly individualized.
Emotions are as varied, complex, and unique as the people who experience them. One person may have an emotional response that drives him to tears when he sees a touching commercial on TV. Another person may be completely emotionally unmoved by human suffering on a massive scale. Just because one person isn’t outwardly expressive in worship doesn’t mean that they aren’t worshipping in a rightful way. As we look at the issue of emotion in worship, we need to recognize this vast range, and accept it.
Emotions in worship are okay.
God created emotion. He uses emotion in our lives. Emotions, just like every bit of us, can and should be part of our worship of God. Worship, stripped of ordinary human emotion, may be unnatural and strained. On the other hand, worship that is crammed with emotionally manipulative tricks is artificial and disingenuous.
Emotions in worship aren’t required.
There may be people who aren’t quite as emotional. These are people who are seldom carried away with their emotions, and who find it weird or awkward to express or even feel much emotion in worship. But that doesn’t make them any less worshipful. Worship doesn’t require emotions, but it may include emotions.
In conclusion, we should learn to accept the range of emotions in worship. At the same time, we must take care not to try to force people into any emotional state. The peril of both manipulatively emotional worship and emotionally sterile worship is false worship.