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Emotional Clarity in Worship Songs

Emotion in song writing is essential and even more so in worship songs. Our near and living God should be loved and glorified with all of our hearts. Our songs should be filled with passion, longing and fire. I have often argued against those who would suggest otherwise. As I read the Psalms, they do not strike me as emotionally sober. They are heady, often giddy, with the most powerful of human feelings. They are a song book of unrestrained empathy towards the human condition and experience of God.

And, oh, how my heart needs them!

So as I look at the songs that are currently being written and sung, I notice two things. Firstly, there is a high value placed on the importance emotion - songs of worship that move us and stir us are now the norm. That is a very good thing - far better than the somber nobility, but ultimately sterile and lifeless, worship music of many older generations.

However, the second thing I notice is that although many of our songs are ‘emotional’ it is very hard to discern what exactly those emotions are. There is a sense of being moved without the emotional literacy to determine what those emotions are and how they are working.

Many times I have felt moved by a worship song, and presumed that feeling was the work of the Holy Spirit, and left it at that. But as I have sought to improve my own emotional literacy (the ability to discern and define emotions - my wife can confirm my great need for this!) I have begun to think ‘what exactly am I feeling?’. I’ve tried to discern it and I’ve tried to define it.

And more often than not, I cannot. I just feel moved. Sought of emotional. Don’t get me wrong, I really like it! Because so much of our modern life is steadily numbing that when we do feel, when we are moved, when we are stirred - it is exhilarating. But can I actually discern what these emotions are?

They are neither joy nor sadness.

They are not melancholy.

They are neither the highs of victory, nor the despair of the valley.

I usually cannot discern disappointment, relief or deep holy awe.

Instead it is just the kind of greyish emotional obfuscation that results from the atmospheric textures of Nord keyboards and Strymon pedals. Tried and true chord sequences that circle round into an endless loop of emotional fuzziness. Emotional-ness, but not emotion.

This is the most common state of our worship songs - truths about God sung over vague emotional music. Often the kind of music they use in montages on the X Factor (or whatever it is people watch).

This is primarily the fault of those of us who write but is exasperated by worship leaders as we fully uphold the emotional obscurity in our arrangements and use of the songs.

Writers need to become writers again. We need to have something to say, we need to say it with clarity and we need music that reflects and amplifies the message of our songs. Our first question should never be ‘what will work on Sunday?’ but should be ‘what do I HAVE to say?’. What cannot stay inside me? What is my heart bursting to say and sing? What cannot be left unsaid?

That is where a good song begins.

A worship song writer should have intention. Clear and vital intention.

A worship song writer should have command. Command of lyric and music and how they work together.

A worship song writer should be ever seeking to add songs of emotional depth, theological richness and authentic resonance to the wonderful history of the Church’s canon.

I am not wanting us to recede from our desire to create emotional worship music but rather to fully embrace that drive. That we push ourselves headlong into expressing the spectrum of human emotions that will result in songs of clarity that lead to higher praise and truer worship.

Because, oh, how my heart needs them!