How are your feelings related to your worship? That is a question that is behind many of the arguments in the church related to worship. Talk to enough people from various congregations and it will not be long before you come up against a division between those who, on the one hand, know that they have been to church if they feel good, or different, or forgiven and, on the other hand, those who do not seem to care whether they feel anything at all. The division can be seen most clearly when someone leaves a particular (“stale,” “dead,” “boring”) congregation for another (“refreshing,” “alive,” “exciting”) one in which the Spirit seems to be moving more noticeably. What is striking about those conversations is that the descriptive words are completely tied to individual perception: that is, for worship to be good, everything depends on the feelings of the individual who is participating in the worship experience. If someone does not feel (there’s that word again) that he or she “got anything” from the service, and if this experience goes on long enough, such a person may be inclined to seek out a church where something (the “something” is rather ambiguous) is “gotten.” You may recognize a friend or a family member—or yourself—in that description.
Notice how purely subjective are the standards for good worship: if you do not feel anything, then nothing is there. Quite apart from whether God is present, what matters is that you are present with your full attention, with all the right motives, and with your heart and mind open—open to how your faith might be deepened or how you might learn something new or how you might be moved by your worship of God. At the least, if something or Someone is there, it or He cannot get to you because you have not opened yourself or you have not prepared yourself sufficiently.
I am not saying that you should not feel anything while worshiping the Creator of heaven and earth. The prophet Isaiah in chapter 6 felt something when God’s Presence was shaking the temple. Moses certainly felt something when he encountered God in the burning bush. And the disciples felt something very significant when they found themselves addressed by their heavenly Father in the presence of the transfigured Jesus. If God has made us to be creatures who experience emotionally the events in our lives, it would be strange if we did not also experience emotionally His presence with us when He gathers the Church to receive His gifts and worship Him. The question we should ask is: Have our individual feelings and emotions overstepped their bounds and become the standard by which we judge whether God is present in His Church? (As if we had some say about whether or not God might choose to be present!) The question is whether the feelings we have as we worship are created from within or whether they are a result of something that comes to us from outside ourselves.
So, what is actually happening and who is actually working in the services of God’s House? Are feelings and emotions beneficial for the worshipers of God? Yes. But they are not nearly as important as we have made them to be in the context of American Christianity. It is not a secret that American individualism has infected the Christian Church, though its destructive results go unrecognized more often than, for example, materialism. It is precisely this individualism that has enthroned my feelings and my response as the judge of an authentic or meaningful worship experience. When I make “how I feel” the way to tell if this week’s worship was good, I put God’s action in the service in a footnote and position my own subjective experience as the deciding factor in whether what God is doing is valuable. The person who makes feelings supreme might say that I receive Jesus’ Body and Blood only if I feel His presence. But does God speak His Word only if I experience His speaking as such? In other words: is God really present with and in His Church as I worship—or, more starkly: whether or not I worship? Or are my right feelings required? (Because they have some sort of influence on whether or not He is present?) If the questions are answered according to how I feel, then all certainty is removed from the people of God. And uncertainty about where God is acting is the enemy of faith. Uncertainty keeps you questioning and wondering, rather than rejoicing in the assured presence of a God who is present, without any doubt, to save.
The Church of Christ has never been the Church of How I Feel. God created us to be men and women who feel and experience emotionally, so I take it for granted that feelings are important and necessary. But when we make our feelings the gauge of what we get out of a service in God’s House—which is to make our (sinful, fickle, distorted) feelings the gauge of God’s presence itself—we elevate our feelings above the God in whom we should be rejoicing and whom we should be worshiping. Believers call that idolatry, and since we do not have feelings apart from our actual selves, we might as well call it self-idolatry. (Is there really any other kind?) The solution to this idolatry of feelings is to repent of feelings created from within and allow God to do His work from without. As God comes to us in Jesus Christ to forgive and save—always from outside of us—we may or may not experience an emotional response to God’s action (although it might be a warning signal if we feel nothing more often than something). God does not promise that we will feel something in the services of His House, but He does promise that He is present to forgive. If God is present to forgive, and if He actually delivers that forgiveness in His Word and Sacraments, then how strange it would be for me to say that I did not “get anything out of the service”! Such a statement makes sense only if God does not actually give out His forgiveness in tangible and experiential ways. It only makes sense if everything depends on me.
We Lutherans call the main service of the Church the “Divine Service” in order to remind ourselves that God’s saving service to us in the really present Person of Jesus is most important. If the presence of God really depended upon whether I left the church building feeling inspired, or educated, or uplifted, God simply would not be present every week. This does not mean that the forgiveness of Christ should not inspire and uplift, or that the Word of God should not educate, but it does mean that God’s work within the Divine Service does not depend in any way on our work. To make my inspiration, education, or uplifting the determining factor in the Church’s worship is a reversal of how things actually happen between God and man, and it is a denial that we remain sinners until our dying day. Taking our sin and God’s grace seriously requires that we go to church to receive the gifts of God, even when we do not feel like it, or when we think the pastor is a bore (that is a different problem), or when we do not like the people.
Thank God that He works for, on, and in us no matter how we feel! And if we do not feel like being present at the services of God’s House, we only demonstrate how much we need to be there, where the Spirit of God is driving out those sinful feelings and creating in us new hearts, with new feelings and new desires.
*St. Augustine said, as Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; but with you I am a Christian.”