Music & Emotion in Worship

Music is a powerful emotional tool in the worship setting.  Do we participate in music to invoke an emotional response?  Is it my calling as your music director to engage these reactions in worshipers?  Is it my duty to include certain hymns because they touch an emotional chord within the congregation?  Or do we simply plug & play all the expected seasonal hymns as called by tradition?

Most people are passionate and expressive about the types of music they love.  In my many moves across the country, and the different churches and denominations I have served, there is always the same debate on the worship music.  Yes, there is the question of contemporary vs. traditional, but I believe the real discussion is about our emotions.  Whether a congregant likes or doesn’t like a particular song or style of music probably reflects on their positive or negative emotions while they are listening or singing.  That congregant has perhaps developed expectations for the music at particular times in the worship service.  They may expect the music to be uplifting and upbeat during the beginning or the end of the service.  They may expect communion or prayer time to be accompanied by quiet, contemplative music.  They may think that the choir’s anthem should always result in goose bumps.  What one person thinks or expects will most certainly be matched by someone else who has quite the opposite feelings about the same music.  That someone else will be just as adamant about their views.  They may feel that the music should be subdued and peaceful for the opening or closing of worship, that communion should be celebrated with festive music, and that the anthem should be hushed and reverent. 

As a church musician, my task is to engage every congregant in worship through music.  It is not my task to evoke an emotional response from the congregation.  In order to engage the congregation, we use music people can relate to, music we enjoy, music that is mostly familiar, or at least attainable, by us.  To keep the congregation engaged, though, the music ought to slowly evolve over time.  New songs can be introduced at regular intervals.  New styles of music can be used to keep the worship fresh and inclusive.

As a church musician, it is also my task to uphold the integrity of the chosen music.  We choose music that is appropriate for the season and for the topic/scripture that is being taught.  But just because a song matches the time of year or the lectionary, that doesn’t mean it can be plugged in.  We consider many variables, including if the song is well-written, if the congregation can relate to it, or if it matches the style of music we are accustomed to hearing.

There will be times when the occasion is right for a favorite hymn that may make us cry, or a praise song that evokes hallelujahs and applause.  But these occasions can be carefully spread out so that the congregation is not feeling manipulated every time the closing hymn is sung, or every time the praise band performs.  Emotions are best left to be spontaneous, unfettered, and led by the Holy Spirit.  A congregation will catch on to any attempts made by church leadership to have a particular reaction from the music.  According to John Wesley, music is presented as a humble offering, with our intentions fully aligned to worshiping God and engaging the congregation in worship through music.  Can we hear an “Amen?”

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