Revised 23 February 2023.
Many a theologian has said that worship and Christian life is too emotion-driven. I have said this myself many times, and to this day I still struggle with the emotional versus intellectual aspects of Christianity.
One of the downsides of earning a Masters and especially a PhD is the strong emphasis on academic intelligence. Seminaries ask students to depend less on what they feel and trust more on what they know, or better, what they will come to know after much study.
I applaud this intellectual emphasis because it is very much needed today. However, emotions never should be dismissed, either explicitly or implicitly. There is a place for emotions and intellect in worship and in our daily Christian living. It is my intent to delve into this issue and, hopefully, offer ways to help maintain a balance.
The Problems with a Mostly Emotional Christianity
We are emotional creatures, blessed by God with feelings. We feel love, passion, joy, and hope; we also feel fear, anger, frustration, and sadness. Sometimes we act or react based solely on emotions.
Some people openly show any and seemingly all emotions, wearing their proverbial hearts on their sleeves. Frequently such people are criticized as being overly emotional and lacking in rationality. These criticisms are often inaccurate and are usually demeaning.
Others are more reserved, showing few emotions. They are often seen as withdrawn, cold, and uncaring, lacking in compassion or feeling. Like those directed at their emotional counterparts, these criticisms are often inaccurate and demeaning.
Regardless of how much or how little emotion we share, every one of us are emotional people. Thus, our worship and Christian lives must include emotions. Some, however, go overboard, trusting more in their feelings than any other thing.
When we feel good after a worship service, we say the worship was good. When we feel bad, we think there was no worship, or that it was bad. When we are overwhelmed, sad, depressed, or otherwise not doing well emotionally or mentally, we wonder where God went. When we feel happy, content, and at peace, then we believe God is with us. In other words, people often let their emotions determine their relationship with Jesus.
The overemphasis on emotions also impacts how many view worship services. Every aspect of the service is about worship and should be acts of worship. However, for many churches, there is the time of prayer, preaching, the offering, special music, and then there’s the worship time (i.e., congregational singing). Thus, worship is the music, the rest are companions to the worship.
Biblically speaking, preaching (and listening to it) is worship, the offering (and giving) is worship, prayer is worship, the special music is worship (though it’s sometimes treated as a concert), and the congregational singing is worship. Many, though, associate worship with only the singing because that is the time when (1) the congregation actively participates and (2) because music affects our emotions. Nevertheless, the sermon can be just as emotionally moving as the music, and the songs can be as theologically educational as the sermon.
Finally, emotions are sometimes overemphasized in Bible studies and worship services. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “I feel that God is saying . . .” or “I feel the Spirit is leading me to say . . .” rather than opening the Bible and reading what God actually said. Thus, by overemphasizing emotions, people understand God’s Word based on their own feelings or what someone claims God told them rather than a careful exegesis of the text itself. This makes our emotions the interpreter of Scripture (a form of idolatry) rather than the Holy Spirit and Scripture itself.
Although emotions are too often overemphasized, one cannot reject or diminish them. As I stated, we are created by God as emotional beings. We feel. As a result, our worship and our lives must rightfully include our emotions. But not only that, our worship and Christian lives must include our intellect (see Rom 12:2, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind”).
The Problems with a Mostly Intellectual Christianity
While some people overemphasize their emotions, others overemphasize their intellect. No, I don’t mean those who exhibit inflated egos and love to make sure everyone recognizes their mental superiority, though such people are a problem. Rather, I mean those who place too much emphasis on the academic aspect of worship and Christian living.
God gave us his Word. God’s Word is educational. We are to study God’s Word. We are to teach God’s Word. God’s Word is to be the supreme basis by which we organize and judge our lives, beliefs, and religious practices (see Deut 6:4-8; Josh 1:8; Ps 1:1-2; 2 Tim 3:16-17; 4:2). God’s Word is far more than merely a work of academic literature and information; it is a work that address the whole being. Despite this, there are those who tend to treat Scripture as merely something to be memorized and regurgitated rather than revelation, lessons, and principles to be discovered, learned, experienced, and applied.
Those who place too much emphasis on the intellectual aspect of worship and Christian living advocate theology, exegesis, and formal training as more important than other aspects of life. Theology, exegesis, and training are very necessary, but not at the sacrifice of experiencing God through Scripture, service, and surrender.
An overemphasis on the intellect often leads to treating the singing as somehow less important than the sermon. It can also result in making small groups so dedicated to theological training that evangelism, fellowship, and discipleship are discounted. It can also lead to sermons that are more academic and less applicational.
Worship and Christian living should be both emotional and intellectual. They should balance both the heart and the mind. We are called to learn and to experience, to know and to apply. Worship and Christian living is not about one or the other, but about the holistic person. Thus, there must be a balance. The difficulty is finding a way to create that balance.
Balancing the Emotional and the Intellectual
Whichever camp you tend to fall into (and we all tend to hang out in one or the other), we all must find a way to balance the two. Below are some keys that, I hope, will help individuals and churches strike a balance between the emotional and intellectual aspects of worship and Christian living.
- Spend more time emphasizing the one you’re weakest in. If you tend to emphasize emotions, spend more time learning and strengthening your intellect. If you lean toward the intellectual, find ways to experience and feel God (serving others is a tremendous approach).
- Include both information and emotions in sermons and lessons. Sermons should include information about God’s Word, but they should also appeal to emotions and provide applications to daily life.
- Use music that is emotionally appealing and theologically sound. Some songs may appeal to us emotionally, but are theologically questionable, heretical, or support churches that teach false doctrines. Other songs may be theologically sound but do not appeal to the emotions.
- Speaking of music, use music that is relevant. Music that does not appeal to today’s culture will be ignored and, thus, will neither have any significant emotional impact nor provide any theological teaching (because people will not be listening). Just because it was sung in 1921 does not mean it will work today. That said, just because it was sung in 1921 does not mean it is irrelevant or cannot be updated to become relevant (e.g., “Grace Like Rain,” “Jesus Paid It All” and “The Wonderful Cross”).
- Make sure small group lessons consider people’s feelings, but also focus on what the Bible says. We do feel, and the Bible can address those feelings. Thus, Bible studies should respect participants’ feelings, but also deal with the text as it is written.
I’m sure there are more ways to balance the emotional with the intellectual in worship and Christian living. The key is to include both while emphasizing neither.
What ways have you found to balance the two? Comment below and share your thoughts on social media.