By Chris Foxton, LST Theology and Worship alumnus.
In January 2011, a close friend of mine from church was pushed in front of a bus by a group of muggers and was instantly killed. I remember the morning when my Assistant Pastor rang the churches youth group volunteers to inform us of the news and how long it took to come to a realisation that I had lost a friend who I sat next to at church, had gone to school with and who was talking about how to spend his 18th birthday that was a few weeks away.
The mood at our church that week, as you might guess was low, but our corporate worship reflected something that was not representative of how our church family was feeling. This led to my friend’s parents and family leaving the church, some of them completely isolating themselves from the church community for years. I came to the conclusion that the church has forgotten it needs to lament in these situations and ask God; “why should something so horrible happen?” I noticed that this was not an isolated case in my church, but that it happens at churches all over the UK and I asked myself two questions; does our corporate worship reflect a spectrum of emotion, especially in the places of suffering, pain and insecurity and is it important for the church to worship God with the emotions they are feeling?
Before we delve into the questions we should first of all remember that from a biblical standpoint, it seems fine for us, at least personally, to worship using our emotions. Within the Old Testament, for example, we have the whole the book of Lamentations dedicated to expressing the grieving of a nation in worship. The book of Psalms is filled with worship from all sorts of emotions; Walter Bruggemann finds that consistently in the Psalms we find “a move from a context of disorientation to a new orientation” throughout the book. [i] The psalmists are seen on a journey of emotions and they still worship God, whatever emotion they are feeling and expressing themselves in it. Let us come back to our two previous questions and firstly, does our corporate worship reflect a spectrum of emotion, that we might find in the Psalms or Lamentations?
When we think of the songs available to us in places of suffering, we might instantly think of Matt Redman’s Blessed Be Your Name, especially the verse:
“Blessed be your name
on the road marked with suffering,
though there’s pain in the offering,
blessed be your name.”[ii]
But beyond this many churches seem to struggle to think of other songs or even sometimes even to have the musical ability/confidence to rearrange the style and mood of songs in their repertoires. A local church holds a service around Christmas every year known as ‘Christmas Blues’, aimed specifically at those who find Christmas a difficult and depressing time, those who are going through a period of suffering, it is a service that aims to mix contemplation with prayer and encouragement with a few hymns. The regular feedback from this service is that the secular music used in contemplation had more impact on the congregation than the hymns for encouragement. The secular music helped emote feelings of doubt, insecurity and pain far better than singing worship songs in the context of that service, so are Christian songwriters failing to reach out to those in our churches who are going through these emotions? The answer is actually no.
It’s not like we don’t have the songs and settings; we can all think of hymns that we sing to give us hope, those used in times of grief, the psalms we use as responses and settings. Contemporary Christian music has seen a focus on worship and the emotions, a recent example of this in worship music can be found in Does Your Heart Break by The Brilliance, a song crying out for intercession, asking God in the first verse:
“When the walls fell and the hungry child
Cried out for help did you hear the sound?
Did your heart break?
Does your heart break now?”[iii]
When describing the experience of writing this song, The Brilliance describes it as a freeing experience, that it is important to have doubt and that we should look the darkness straight in the face to help inform our worldview.[iv]
The Iona Christian community regularly write worship songs in times of difficulty and depression; John L. Bell in the introduction of When grief is raw explains that “a hymn should convey what God has to say to the people and/or what the people need to say to God”.[v] Worship is a two-way conversation between God and his people and sometimes we need to be honest with how we are, not just glossing over what we might actually be feeling.
To start looking at our second question of emotion in worship, Russian author and Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy speaks of the importance of emotion expressed in any art, including the music we use to worship with. He speaks of three conditions and if they are not met, the art becomes a counterfeit:
“Art becomes more or less infectious owing to three conditions: (1) the greater or lesser particularity of the feeling conveyed; (2) the greater or lesser clarity with which the feeling is conveyed; and (3) the artist’s sincerity, that is, the greater or lesser force with which the artist himself experiences the feelings he conveys.”[vi]
In the context of worship this is very important, as we express ourselves to God through music, drawing/painting, drama, dance, etc, we see worship as being an art. If we apply Tolstoy’s definition of art, if we are not expressing it with the correct, clear and sincere emotions we are feeling at the time, our worship, as an art, risks becoming counterfeit.
One important aspect that is key to bring up at this point is musical arrangement. The words we use to communicate are important, but the way the music arrangement will influence the mood, direction and emotions in worship. Particular genres and styles will naturally emphasise particular emotions more than others: happiness and joy can usually be best expressed in upbeat pop, club and dance music; pain, suffering and despair in rock and metal music; perhaps unrest has been best expressed in rap music (although this is not usually the case, I believe that in the music of Public Enemy, Lecrae and Zac De La Rocha from Rage Against the Machine, political and social unrest has been best expressed through this genre).
This is not to say that we should be replacing our current forms of musical worship with these genres of music in our corporate worship to express the emotions conveyed by them: we may frighten particular individuals in a church congregation if they turn up to a service built around free-style rap as worship. However, we can draw out ideas for arrangement in certain situations, using them as vehicles to bring out the emotions that the church needs to express to God. Perhaps an example of this could be a rearrangement of Noel Richard’s Come, Lord Jesus. The first verse of the song goes as such:
“Great is the darkness that covers the land.
Oppression, injustice and pain.
Nations are slipping in hopeless despair,
Though many have come in your name.
Watching while sanity dies,
Touched by the madness and lies.”[vii]
Normally if you think about how this is arranged in our churches this is sung in an upbeat and positive way in a major key, which is almost the exact opposite of the lyrics the congregation is singing. You could say that the arrangement does not seriously engage with the subject of the song, almost to the point of musical irony. But if we changed it into a minor key, slowed it down, drew some ideas from genres of music that help compliment the serious nature and cry of helplessness of the lyrics such as rock, perhaps we can reflect the hopelessness that this verse seeks to express, then revert to its positive, upbeat feel in the chorus to express the hope that we have. Using this, we can ‘paint with sound’ and help reflect the emotions that the singers want to express to God.
It may not be easy introducing and teaching a number of new songs, especially those focused on lament to a church, but as we can see from the example above, we can take the songs that we do know and rearrange them to invoke and express the emotions that the congregation needs to communicate to God.
I hope within in this short article I have started to convey the need, where appropriate, for our worship to actually reflect the feelings and emotions of our congregations and for us to consider the perspective of worshipping in suffering, pain and insecurity. Even if the church is in the place of suffering we are still called to worship, Kazoh Kitamori writes: “Through our service in the pain of God, the wounds of our Lord in turn heal our wounds, thus our pain can actually be relieved by serving the pain of God.”[viii] We can be confident that if we approach God in our weakness and pain he will seek to heal and restore us as Christ suffered for us and I believe our worship should reflect that.
[i] Bruggemann, Message of the Psalms, p.20
[ii] Redman, Blessed be your name.
[iii] Brilliance, Does Your Heart Break.
[iv] Brilliance, Song Story.
[v] Bell, When grief, p.8.
[vi] Tolstoy, What is Art?, p.121.
[vii] Richards, Come, Lord Jesus.
[viii] Kitamori, Theology of the Pain of God, p.53.
Bell, John L. and Maule, Graham, When grief is raw, Glasgow: Wild Goose, 1997.
Brilliance, The, ‘Does Your Heart Break’, Track 4 from Brother, Integrety Music, 2015.
Brilliance, The, ‘The Brilliance – “Does Your Heart Break” Song Story’, taken from YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okQDEMcBhWg#t=90, 2016.
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984.
Kitamori, Kazoh, Theology of the Pain of God, Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2005.
Redman, Matthew, ‘Blessed Be Your Name’, Track 2 from Where Angels Fear to Tread, Survivor Records, 2002.
Richards, Noel, ‘Come, Lord Jesus (Great is the Darkness), Track 11 from Thunder in the Skies/By Your Side, Kingsway, 1993.
Tolstoy, Leo, What is Art?, translated by Pevear, Richard and Volokhonsky, Larissa, London: Penguin Group, 1995.