Worship, Feelings and Biblical Truth (or Confessions of a Theologian turned Worship Leader)

Worshipping God at AblazeUK.Wonder what they're singing?
In sundry times and ways throughout the Christian life we can get confused between feelings and truth. C.J. Mahaney addressed this problem in one of the chapters of his excellent book, The Cross Centered Life, called 'What You Feel vs. What Is Real.' Mahaney was writing about the fundamental issue of basing our faith on the Cross rather than our feelings. Yet the same thing comes into play when we gather in our various churches on Sunday mornings to worship: it's all too easy to get confused between truth and feelings. Our worship should be based on the Cross, not on how we feel.

Now for the confession bit...

As a pastor, I'm always reminding people that our worship involves proclaiming biblical truth about God, for our love for God is rooted in the truth of who He is and what He's done. And that's what we're encouraged to do in the Bible: 'Sing to Him, sing praises to Him; tell of all His wondrous works' (Ps. 105:2). So we should be singing songs full of biblical truth, and especially songs full of gospel truth.

But, sometimes in leading worship I'm tempted to look more at the feelings of the people in front of me (as if one could ever really read feelings!). It's tempting to think that when people have their hands in the air, their eyes closed and are singing their hearts out that things are much better than when they're mumbling their way through the fourth verse of a hymn. So, for example, on Sunday we introduced a new/old hymn (new because it was unknown to the congregation, old because it was written during the Reformation). As we often do with new songs, to help people get used to the tune we sang it both morning and evening. The tune was quite simple and the words were full of rich gospel truth. And yet, as we got to the end of singing it for the second time of the day it didn't feel like people were worshipping.

But notice, I say it didn't feel like it. Actually, people were worshipping; they were proclaiming the truth of the gospel and praising God for it. Biblically, that is worship.

So why didn't it feel like it? Probably because the next chorus we sang was so well known. Immediately eyes were closed (as they didn't need to look at the words) and hands thrown in the air. Rather than mumbling words they had never seen until that day, they were singing out words they knew by heart. So of course it felt different. But closed eyes, raised hands and loud singing don't equal worship. Yes, they express worship, but the two aren't identical.

At the time it was tempting to think the new/old hymn hadn't 'worked' and decide not to use it again. But, looking back in the clear light of day, I realise it's only normal for people to struggle a bit more with a new hymn than a familiar chorus. After all, there are a lot more words to get your head around in a hymn. The hymns the congregation love to sing and that 'feel worshipful' (like And Can it BeWhen I Survey, or Crown Him With Many Crowns) are the ones that many of the people have been singing all their lives. But you don't need to have sung a hymn all your life, for in recent years we've managed to learn and grow to love many modern hymns like In Christ Alone, Oh to See the Dawn and Before the Throne of God Above. Getting used to all the words that go into a hymn just takes a bit of time for people to become familiar with it. So the new/old hymn will return. Who knows, one day it might be an old favourite.

Feelings are important in our worship. We are to 'delight' (Ps. 37:4) and 'be glad' (Ps. 32:11) in the Lord. Remember, 'man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.' There cannot be any true worship without this disposition of the heart (Matt. 15:8-9). But we can't read people's hearts. Hearts can be stirred by the truth of the gospel even as mouths stumble and mumble.

We shouldn't be  looking in any way to diminish people's affections for God in worship, but neither should we be looking in any way to diminish the Truth in worship. True worship involves both. True worship is heart-filled proclamation. True worship is delighting in the Lord. True worship is in Spirit and in Truth.