Corporate worship and moods

A few years ago I always struggled with almost violently angry or despondent moods during corporate worship. That’s not been true for a while, but sometimes I face a much milder form of the same struggle, and I decided today I should be more deliberate about fighting back against it.

I started asking questions to myself about one of the songs we sang: The Joy of the Lord.

First, a note about worship songs. Many songs talk only about God and his worth (example: Revelation Song, which we also sang this morning). Others talk about our feelings as worshipers. There’s some controversy about which kind of song is better for worship. Some people think it’s inappropriate to sing about our response as worshipers. They feel it focuses on us instead of on God, or on the experience of worship instead of on God, or on feelings instead of on truth.

I’m sympathetic to those concerns, but in fact there are lots of Psalms that emphasize the feelings of the worshiper.  Biblical worship is incredibly varied. I think corporate worship probably should be also. As long as it’s not all we sing about, I think there is an important role for each kind of song.

Another criticism of the feelings-of-the-worshiper type of song is that it makes liars of those worshipers who aren’t feeling the way the song says. That is a difficulty. On a given Sunday, different worshipers will all have different emotional responses, because we will all be in different places in our lives. So when I worship, what am I supposed to do when my mood is out of synch with everyone else?

Maybe it depends on God’s purposes in corporate worship. Is the worship leader, or are the songs, expected to draw us into worship in a way that unites us all in a shared emotional response, no matter where we started? Sometimes I think that can happen, and when it’s Spirit-led it can be powerful and freeing. Other times, though, it just becomes pushy.

Am I expected to align my mood to that of the songs? Sometimes, I think, the answer is yes. But there can also be the danger of worshipers gathering just to chase a certain kind of emotional thrill, worshiping worship, instead of focusing on God. Maybe sometimes if I’m not “feeling it” I should just accept that and not worry about it.

Today I realized that most of the time, I’m in one of four common states when I start a worship service.

  1. Inner and outer world both going well – I’m feeling blessed and full of joy and thanks.
  2. Outer world going badly, but inner world going well – My life is full of problems, but I’m feeling loved by God anyway, and just enjoying spending some time in His presence.
  3. Inner world transitioning from going badly to going well during the worship – I start despondent and make a deliberate choice to focus on praise and worship, and find as I proceed that my mood changes and my spirits lift and God brings me joy again
  4. Inner world is hard, and worship doesn’t change it, but I hang on in faith –I just focus on the truth of God’s goodness without feeling it, and find intellectual comfort in knowing his truth is real

Each mood corresponds to a different kind of worship song especially well. For example, songs like Revelation Song, which is, as I mentioned above, about God without mentioning the worshiper much, are particularly helpful for me in moods 2 and 4.

The Joy of the Lord, interestingly, is clearly a song tailor-made for 3. It tells a story of a transition. It moves from one mood to another.

In the first verse the worshiper commits to praising God even though he’s definitely not feeling it.

Though the tears may fall, my song will rise to you …

While there’s breath in my lungs I will praise you

In the dead of night I’ll lift my eyes to you

While there’s hope in this heart I will praise you Lord.

You can hear the sense of determination. The worshiper is saying, “I don’t care how I’m feeling or how bad things look. I will praise you right now, and that’s settled.”

Then we come to the chorus the first time and sing this:

The joy of the Lord is my strength. In the darkness I’ll dance, in the shadows I’ll sing. The joy of the Lord is my strength.

At this point, the worshiper doesn’t feel the joy of the Lord. So what does he mean?

One possibility is that he means that there is joy in the Lord in some sort of intellectual way. While there is an important sense in which that is true, I don’t think that’s what this song is referring to.

I think this chorus is a chorus of anticipation. The “joy of the Lord” is not something the worshiper feels yet, but it’s something he is working toward. He knows he needs to break through his despondency into the joy of worship. He is singing and dancing as a way of attacking his despondency, forcing himself to focus on God’s goodness. He knows this is worth doing, because he knows he will find strength to face his struggles if he can just fight his way through to faith-filled worship.

The first part of the second verse continues in the same vein,

When I cannot see you with my eyes, let faith arise to you.

When I cannot feel your hand in mine, let faith arise to you.

Perhaps it’s significant that the emphasis has switched from action (singing) to attitude (faith). He keeps singing but he commits himself to keep believing what he’s singing, too.

Then, suddenly, in the second half of the second verse, there is breakthrough.

Oh you shine with glory, Lord of light, I feel alive with you.

In your presence now I come alive, I am alive with you.

Especially notice the “now”. The mood lifts, and the worshiper finds himself enjoying intimacy with God. He notes the moral of this experience:

There is strength when I say “I will praise you Lord”.

The joy of the Lord, which is his strength, came because he decided to praise God, before he was feeling it yet.

Now comes the chorus again, and this time it’s completely different.  “The joy of the Lord is my strength” is now a happy declaration of what has just happened. “I have found the relief I needed in you,” the worshiper is singing. “Truly, you are what I needed. I’ll remember to seek you every time I am hurting.”

Finally, he re-declares what he’s learned, and commits himself to keep pursuing the Lord even more doggedly both now and in future times of discouragement.

When sorrow comes my way, You are the shield around me …

I hear you call my name, Jesus.

I am coming, walking on the waves, reaching for your light.

I started this post with the question: what do we do when our mood does not match the corporate worship? I’m still not completely sure, but for some reason, the analysis above helped me. Now that I see that this song tells a story, I can enjoy the story even if it isn’t currently my story.

Worship varies widely from one Christian tradition to another, both in terms of the forms of worship we use and the theology of worship we hold. My question may not even make sense in the context of your own church life. I’d still be interested in hearing your ideas, though. Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments.

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