Have you ever felt like the odd one out at a church service, the only one who’s not “feeling it”? Does it sometimes seem like everyone else is on the emotional mountaintop and you’ve been left behind in the valley?
For some time now, many churches have structured worship gatherings to heighten natural emotional stimulation. Dim the lights. Pick songs that tug the heartstrings, despite their thin context. Make sure the choir or band swells at just the right moment. Deliver the sermon to land with a poignant climax, a welling up of feeling that may not even necessitate the new birth.
All of this may be well-intended. But we will not find any evidence in Scripture that a marked emotional “high” is the normative experience for Christian worship. Will we be moved emotionally, and often? Yes. And hopefully with spiritual affections, not simply natural feelings. Can we depend on a weekly jolt of euphoria? I don’t think so.
In corporate worship we find something far better than a typical rush of feeling. Here are three reasons why we shouldn’t expect each Lord’s Day to produce an off-the-charts mountaintop experience, and why we can instead delight in the regular, ordinary, supernatural joy of engaging with God together.
Ordinary Means, Extraordinary God
First, God has ordained that churches worship him through ordinary means. The elements of a Christian service are quite plain: texts recited and preached; prayer; human voices singing out loud; bread and wine; the water of baptism. The churches of the New Testament didn’t model their worship primarily on the rich ceremonies of the temple, with its incense, sacrifices, and golden trappings. Rather, it seems that they adapted the simpler format of the Jewish synagogue meeting, where the focus was on hearing the word of the Lord (Worship: Reformed According to Scripture, 36).
There is an asymmetry here. We worship a supernatural God. But the building blocks of our worship are natural and unremarkable on their own. Their ordinariness should help us focus less on what we’re doing — and even what we’re feeling — when we’re worshiping, and more on the God whom we’re worshiping.
Since the Spirit of Christ now dwells in us (2 Corinthians 6:16; 1 Peter 2:5), we don’t need certain external aids — whether incense or organs or subwoofers or fog machines — to “feel” his presence. When we engage with God through Jesus Christ by the power of his Spirit, using the simple elements of worship he’s given us, our hearts rise before his beauty, strength, and wisdom.
To be clear, Scripture says we should experience joy when we meet together. Our gladness as Christians, though, is grounded in the character of God and built on his work for us at the cross. We can cheerfully obey the psalmist’s command, “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” (Psalms 32:11). We distinguish the sturdy, supernatural joy of knowing Christ, which endures throughout various seasons of life, from the natural, hyped-up, full-tilt, caffeinated intensity that many today often seek in worship.
Christian joy is supernatural, but that doesn’t necessarily mean our hearts always feel transported to the emotional mountaintop. Rather than granting us the cotton-candy rush of a particular natural feeling, God instead feeds our hearts with the supernatural joy of a wholesome dinner over a lifetime of Sundays.
My Emotions or Your Edification?
Second, the New Testament instructs us to give special attention to others in the body when we gather. In other words, though corporate worship can be wonderfully refreshing to our own souls, we also gather to build up God’s people and find our own good in the good of others.
We might summarize the Bible’s priorities for corporate worship using two words: exaltation and edification. Exaltation is oriented toward God. It involves praise, singing, prayer, proclaiming Christ’s work in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and magnifying God by heralding his glorious word (Hebrews 13:15; Ephesians 5:19; 1 Timothy 2:1; 1 Corinthians 11:26; 2 Timothy 4:2). At the same time, everything done in the public gathering is “for building up” the church, or edification (1 Corinthians 14:26). This involves public reading, exhortation, and teaching (1 Timothy 4:13); “addressing one another” in song (Ephesians 5:19); and mutually stirring one another up to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24).
Notice what is absent from those verses. They don’t reference the emotional state of the worshipers. Certainly, gathered worship will often stir godly feelings. If the message of God’s grace to undeserving sinners, through Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice, does not stir our souls, we may be showing up to church, but we’re not worshiping. If we mainly gather to receive a personal jolt of inspiration, we’ve missed the point. God calls us to assemble to pursue his glory and to build others up. Ironically, our own emotional experience in worship will grow and deepen as we’re increasingly focused on God and his people.
Worship in the Already and Not Yet
Third and finally, we worship in between Christ’s two comings. This is an age of both joy and sorrow, satisfaction and yearning mingled together. Psalms of lament provide us with a vocabulary for pilgrims who have “no lasting city” in this broken world (Hebrews 13:14). Our hearts are deep wells (Proverbs 20:5), sometimes still prone to the deception and sickness that characterized us before redemption (Jeremiah 17:9). This means that on this side of glory, our emotions can be wonderful servants, but woeful masters.
When we join the angelic throngs in praising Christ on that final day, we will experience a full-bodied encounter with God that far transcends any emotional “mountaintop” experience we felt in this age. Until then, our emotions will likely move in fits and starts in this life. And that is why it is better to drop our expectations of natural, high-octane passion every single week in worship, even as we raise our hopes for genuine, God-exalting spiritual affections.
From time to time, or even often, God may graciously bless us with satisfying emotional highs, but there is something far greater we can seek. This is what we get to enjoy each time the church meets: shared wonder at the glorious God who made us and redeemed us for his own praise.