As I write this I’m listening to U2’s seminal album, The Joshua Tree, and I hear Bono singing about how he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. After that album was released, the band did a documentary called Rattle and Hum, in which they traveled to Harlem and sang the song with a gospel choir. After the second verse, Bono stops singing, the Edge stops playing, and you just hear the force of dozens of voices crying out, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Anytime I see that video or hear that song, my heart swells. Every sense is tuned in, and my emotions are fully engaged. This is the work of a worship leader.
There is a delicate balance worship leaders carry. For years now, the call from many voices has been that modern worship manipulates emotions. Bands are accused of forcing people to feel certain emotions or eliciting a certain response. And I would argue that in some cases that is true. I see it myself. Yet, I still believe it is the work of a worship leader to help people to engage the emotions, without having to manipulate them. It is a delicate but necessary balance.
A Practical Perspective
One way is to do this is to care for the aesthetic of the room. At Valley Life Tramonto, we care deeply about people recognizing their brokenness and need for restoration. Our space echoes this sentiment. We have chosen to decorate the room with raw, unfinished wood, and exposed metal. This communicates that we expose ourselves; we have nothing to hide. We also keep our room dark. This helps people stay focused on the preaching of the Word and the singing of the gospel without looking around and getting distracted.
Another way is by singing songs that speak truth in creative ways. Many in our church know the truth of the gospel and cognitively understand the reality of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. But, when we sing together, “Christ has died and/Christ is risen/Christ will come again…” it adds an emotional resonance that is sometimes missing when we simply speak to one another.
A Biblical Perspective
The idea of helping people engage their senses and emotions is not new; in fact, it is biblical. 2 Chronicles 4:19-5:1 details the ornate decor of the temple built under Solomon. There are statues of gold, elaborate furnishings, and places to burn incense in the temple. They did this to bring glory to God, but also to help engage people with the things going on around them. God created us with a natural desire to have our senses stimulated to direct our focus. Churches should deliberately design their space in order to focus worship.
However, bad leaders can distort anything, and this is true for shaping worship. Most worship leaders with any experience know how to manipulate a room. Typically this looks like playing the same droning sounds over and over, feigning emotions themselves to evoke a response, and an overreliance on technology or added elements. But that is not our goal. I do not want to create a once-a-week experience for our people. I want our people to know they can worship in their homes with their families similar to the way we worship as a congregation. My goal is to help our people learn how to engage their emotions to worship our Good King, not manipulate them.