(The following is the next entry in a 31-day blog journey through John Piper’s, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for a Radical Ministry [Broadman and Holman, 2002.]
After reading Lamentations, we can no longer believe that unpondered prayers are more powerful or real or passionate or heartfelt or genuine or alive than prayers that are thoughtfully and earnestly (and painfully?) poured out through a carefully crafted form. The danger of formalism is real. Prayers and sermons that are read from a manuscript are usually stiff and unnatural and artificial. But the danger of spontaneity is also great. If the heart is without passion, it will produce lifeless, jargon-laden spontaneity. And if the heart is aflame, no form will quench it.
But not only is spontaneity no necessary hindrance to deep, personal expression of feeling, but even more, formed affection often strikes deeper. Deeper into reality and deeper into the hearer. Formed grief, while not heaving to and fro with uncontrollable sobs, has a peculiar profundity (147).
Many pastors are not known for expressing deep emotions. This seems to me especially true in relation to the profoundest theological realities. This is not good, because we ought to experience the deepest emotions about the deepest things. And we ought to speak often, and publicly, about what means most to us, in a way that shows its value (149).
I have served in churches in which I have seen the extreme use of emotions, complete with people being fanned. I have served in places where it seemed that the show of emotions was either against the law or quarantined, complete with thermometers to check the temperatures of the assembled corpses. I can be comfortable in either environment, although I think it takes as much effort to err in showing no emotions than it does to err in over-displaying one’s emotions. Of course, you could say to me that I am not in a position to judge anyone’s use of emotions and I would simply have to agree. Emotions are between the worshipper and the Lord. But if you ask my opinion, I will let tell you our Creator created us will a great cache of emotions, not simply emotions that lead to laughter, crying, or silence.
When I meet laypeople who are concerned about “too much emotion” in worship, I suggest the following: Do not label true expressions of worship from the heart as “emotionalism” or “sensationalism” or “manipulation” because they are more expressive than that to which you are comfortable. For “emotionalism” is rightly defined as “the tendency to place too much value on emotions,” or an “undue display of emotion.” Similarly, “sensationalism” is “empiricism that limits experience (rather than using experiment or observation) as a source of knowledge to sensation or sense perceptions,” or “the use or effect of sensational subject matter or treatment.” Moreover, “manipulate” means “to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one’s own advantage;” “to change by artful or unfair means so as to serve one’s purpose.” The “right” (?) display of emotion should not suffer because we fear what is extreme and harmful.
I know pastors who believe that our congregants should not see our clay feet. Thus, we should be careful in the types of emotions we display as shepherds. But I am not sure how we who have been entrusted with the Gospel can lack in passion for our Savior or the accompanying display of such feelings. Again, just thinking of what it means to escape wrath and to be promised eternal joy is enough to make us passionate for Christ for all eternity.
For pastors, as leaders, whatever provokes a passionate display of emotions in us is what our people will esteem as important. If I am passionate about the conversion of souls, my people will know sharing the faith important; if I am passionate about the cultivation of a Christian intellect, my people will know that thoughtful reading and thinking is important. If I am passionate about faithfulness in marriage and saving marriages from heading toward divorce, they will know that marriage is weighty; if I am passionate about prayer, they will know that prayer is not optional or a minimal element of a vibrant walk with the Lord.
I think my people know that I am passionate about the mercy and propitiation of Christ. I am convinced that sinners – at least this one – love mercy more than anything else from God: he is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in mercy (Ex. 34:6-7; Num. 14:18; 2 Chr. 30:9; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 111:4; 112:4; 116:5; 145:8; Joel 2:13). I speak of mercy frequently in my prayers, preaching and teaching. I hope to see the reciprocation of mercy cultivated in my members (and students). For me, people who love the Cross should be full of mercy.
A good way to see if our people are hearing what we think is most important is to ask, “What is important to your pastor?” Whatever you hear repeated is that about which they perceive you to be most passionate.