Q&A | Godly Emotions vs Emotionalism in Worship – Can We Tell the Difference?

Yemi Osinubi: I like this question because so many of us have see-sawed in our spiritual journey. From our early Pentecostal days, to “It’s the word, it’s the word” days, and then you’d always have discussions around Christians worshipping and really getting into their feelings. Then, people would say, “Ah this is going too far, people are being moved by the music and not by the words.” What I’d say as a bit of a corrective based on experience is that for many of us who are either hyper logical or who are men, our understanding of the scope of emotions that God has given to us is limited: anger, sadness, anxiety, and sometimes joy in very limited circumstances. So, when you see women, or other people who are built differently, fully express themselves you say, “Yeah, they are extremes.” Our emotions are part of how we are meant to serve the Lord – love the Lord with all your heart, mind, strength, emotions, and intellect which are all part of our makeup. And make no mistake, when you’re in a place of worship personally or in a congregation, the aim of the composed music is to take your emotions to the very end of itself! It’s the same thing about the words or lyrics of a song, it is meant to help you contemplate God, to give you an understanding of God and then take you even beyond the words or logic of what has been presented. Why? Because God wants every single fibre of your being to be moved to love and serve him. Our emotions are not an external part, they’re not some additional benefit – it’s all fully part of the experience of worshipping God. Why? So that when you leave the place of worship, you are already moved in a particular direction – every part of you is meant to serve God and I don’t think we should make any apologies for that.

Now, that doesn’t mean that some people are not being purely emotional, that is, they express great emotions in the place of worship but afterwards, they may not be moving in the direction that their hearts have been stirred. So, the question you want to ask as Christians is: “Are we merely responding with our emotions and not going beyond them to use our bodies, minds and lives to serve God in line with the emotions that we’ve expressed?” These are my thoughts.  


Femi Osunnuyi: Let me come from another angle. I agree with it, but I want to add something else. One answer I will give to the question: how do we know whether it’s emotion or emotionalism? – Who cares? I say this because, even when you know, you can’t avoid it – some parts of your worship will be the right stirring of your emotions, while the other parts will just be emotionalism. For instance, when I’m praying, how can I be sure that I’m really praying in the Spirit (and by that, I don’t mean tongues, I’m just saying praying in line with God’s will) or I am praying from my flesh? How can I know? If I try to explain it to you, it doesn’t mean that when you pray you still won’t sometimes pray out of your flesh. So, what do we do? Just pray! Music is a very important thing. I remember there was a time I used to say stuff like, “It’s about the words, it’s about the lyrics.” Nah, the lyrics are a part, but it’s not just about the lyrics. It’s about the music itself! If it were only by the words that we’ll recognize a good song that wouldn’t encourage emotionalism, we wouldn’t need to sing, we just have to say the words. There is a reason why the Bible says not only to preach and teach but to also sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord.

I was listening to something recently; it was a brain science study on the effect of music. It had a little bit of good evolutionary biology and was talking about the four different aspects of our brains and how they respond to music. One of the things the professor of Music said that stuck with me was that when we’re listening to music, we don’t even need the words because music is actually more precise than words. And I was like, “Yes! That is true!” That’s why when a particular song comes up, it’s more than the words, it’s conveying a feeling that you can’t even describe with words, but you just know that “Ah! Omo when that song came – you just start trying to use words – it was sweet, it was…” There’s an emotion but words can’t convey it. That’s why sometimes when as friends we hear a song from back in the day, we would often squeal in excitement, “That’s our song!”  But it’s more than just saying it’s our song, there are memories and different other things which the music encapsulates as a medium. Do you see that?

We then have to think about things in this way: should we really classify tunes as sacred and secular? Is there a tune that comes from Satan? I don’t think so. I really do think tunes come from God and that some people are uniquely gifted to get tunes. I remember one of my favourite artists, a guy called Leonard Cohen. I’d say Leonard Cohen was one of the greatest Western singer-songwriters of all time. Bob Dylan, another very great singer-songwriter said about Leonard, “All of us know how to write wonderful lyrics, but Leonard Gordon was like a poet”. I think Bob Dylan got the Pulitzer Prize recently, but he said the thing about Cohen is that he’s able to get tunes from somewhere that we can’t get. There’s something about the melody. Melody matters o. There are many songs that we don’t choose for congregational singing, you know why? While the lyrics are fantastic, they’re not sweeting our bodies. If it’s about the theology, you’ll hear that when we are preaching. When we say sweeting the body, think about when your hair stands on end. You then say, “Was it the spirit or was it…?” It’s everything together! There’s no problem. You know, I love this Luther Vandross song but then one guy tweaked it to say, “God so amazing…” (laughs). And I’m like, “It’s God that gives the tunes, right? So, I can sing it for my wife, and I can sing it for the Lord. What I’m trying to say is that we should not the lyrics.

But now, how do I distinguish between a Coldplay concert or a Dbanj song and a song to God? Well, first of all, the context matters. We are in church, I’m in a time of worship, all of those things. The main fact that you showed up there already sanctifies that thing that you are doing. Even if you are not totally fully in it, the context does sanctify it. Just like sometimes when I am with my wife but not fully there. The fact that I am not with another woman but with my wife sanctifies that thing. And so, I’d say that we should get rid of our modern scientific way of thinking about precision – that’s the problem. Stop trying to figure out your time in the worship moment. Just do it. When you catch yourself not thinking about God, then just start to think about God – but just be there. God knows how to say, “Femi, 60% of that wasn’t for me but I’ll take the 40% as a fragrance offering for me.” Then maybe next week, I can do 70/30. God’s grace covers that 30% that I wasn’t there.

Finally, I do think – and I will plug the sermon series again – the more we spend time in the practices, and can I say this to some of you, the less you fill yourself with a lot of satanic junk musically whose tunes may be nice but whose words are not great at all and the more you fill yourself with the presence of God, then all of a sudden your musical experiences will be less than just emotionalism and it will be more of godly emotions. So, I hope that helps.

Answered by Yemi Osinubi, a Leader in City Church and Femi Osunnuyi, Lead Pastor of City Church.


[This transcript has been edited for easy readability]