Sunday, January 28, 2007

Emotions in church--hell yes!

I would like to pose some questions about emotions in church. What should be the emotions expressed from the pew? From the pulpit? How might the church's emotion-rules hurt it's people and hinder its mission?

Here are my thoughts:

The week before thanksgiving I noticed that my early class was rather sluggish, and I asked them if they were looking forward to Thanksgiving. Most the students nodded their heads and murmured affirmations, but one student shouted "hell yes!" We all laughed and then went on with the class material, but I spent the rest of the day appreciating her emotional candor and wishing that I experienced it more often.

In most churches there are clearly defined implicit rules about which few emotions are appropriate to express.

For the church goer, the modal expression should be polite interest, and the face should show either a neutral expression or, even better, a smile. It's okay to sometimes laugh or look troubled when prompted to from the person leading the service. Attending a church service in the U.S. often proves to be a cognitively-rich but emotionally-passive experience, and I wonder if these services would hold more appeal, and have a greater impact, if the congregation was more emotionally involved in the service. Black churches, with typically more active participation from the pew in all parts of the service, seem to get this more right than white churches.

For the pastor, the rules of emotion are even more strict. Before and after the service itself, when greeting people or talking with them, pastors are limited to showing friendliness and interest... sort of like what stewardesses are supposed to do. During the service they can remain in this mode, though at appropriate times can show emotions such as distress (when talking about someone having a difficult time), enthusiasm (when exhorting the church), maybe light forms of anger (when righteously based).

Compare this with the emotions expressed by Jesus in his ministry. He laughed, he raged, he wept--one could not accuse him of being emotionally stunted.
This very-limited, narrowly defined range of emotions for pastors causes various problems.

1) A unchurched visitor, not used to these emotional rules, might experience the emotional environment as "fake" and have a correspondingly low opinion of the church itself.

2) The emotional-restraints placed on a pastor can easily carry on over into other parts of their lives such that any time the pastor is in public (and maybe even in public) they have to be quite limited in the emotions they display, which would seem to be harmful to them at various levels.

3) These emotional limits could easily cultivate an inauthentic church environment. If we're not expressing what we really feel, then we should probably not say what we're really thinking and so one such the church, and its people, become less authentic.
For additional essays on church life:


Knumb said...

There's definitely a pressure to go with the emotions of others in church.

Once, in a church in Melbourne, I started a wave of laughter that engulfed the whole congregation. People were falling over (it was a charismatic joint), crying, and the pastor was blessing the laughter and the spirit that brought it.

Well, I can't vouch for the spirit that started it, much less my maturity. How it got started was a man got up to the mike and gave a very generic prophecy, something to the effect of "God wants to bless the families in the church." He had a somewhat high voice, so when my friend leaned over and whispered, in the same pitch, "and a man shall lose his friend's hammer," a Monty Python bit poking fun at vague prophesies in Life of Brian, I started laughing. I had such a hard time controlling it, I prentended I was coughing and walked out.

When I came back, "the Spirit" had descended on the church.


On a less funny note, there have been times that I really wanted to stand and confront a pastor who was criticizing other Christians, but the pressure to paint within the lines kept me in my seat.

Good post, bro.

trrish said...

The church I attend is pretty good about "allowing" rogue emotions and thoughts being expressed. It's one of the things I liked about it from the first time I went.

I chuch-hopped for many years, and found the lack of authenticity to be something that would eventually stop me from going to a particular place. I should say that that is true about me in general. I don't really tolerate that too well in life, so why would I tolerate it in church.

I love the idea that we can be who really are in a church. I don't know that I'd ever seen it in practice until I found the church I attend now. I first went in July of 2006 and have gone every week since.

ps. Brad, I found you through Jay Livingstons blog. I enjoy your blog.

Brad Wright said...

It's interesting that we have stories and feelings attached to this issue, but it's rarely discussed in churches. A bit of an elephant in the room.

Virginia Lee said...

I am a person who loves to shout, clap, and dance to the Lord, but that seems to be too emotional for some (humble?)people.Even at my pentecostal church, but its like a Baptist church. (its quiet)