Bishop and Christian*, March 2017

What is the goal of what happens on Sunday morning? What is your goal when you come? What are you looking for? What is your expectation for what you will have when you leave?

Those are some of the questions we can ask to get at our real motivations and expectations for gathering on a Sunday morning. Our answers to those questions are probably formed by many things: our childhood experience in church, or our lack thereof; our adult experience in church(es); what our friends and family tell us they get; what we’ve observed at other congregations we’ve attended; and the (sometimes) subconscious desires and preferences and prejudices we bring with us. There is not a single person in a given congregation who is not formed and shaped by some combination of those things (and probably more).

But one thing that consistently comes up in conversations around worship is some variant of the following thoughts and words: I felt uplifted and inspired/I want to feel uplifted and inspired. I want to leave happy. I don’t feel what I used to. I don’t feel the way I think I should when I leave. There’s a lack of joy now that I used to have.

Is there anything wrong with these sentiments? Of course not. God has created us with feelings and emotions that run the entire human spectrum. And it probably goes without saying that people who feel good when they leave a place or finish a particular experience are more likely to return to the place or repeat the experience. Social scientists and psychologists and others have spent a lot of time and money studying the power of such human experiences, including in religious contexts.

When Lutherans gather together on the Lord’s Day, we understand how powerful human emotion is. Lutherans have always understood the connection between those emotions and music, in particular.

But there’s another side to that, which makes emotion the end and goal of worship. Once, an organist told me that when she filled in at a certain congregation, she was instructed to play louder or softer, and that the lighting was adjusted, in order to create particular emotions and feelings. Admittedly, that’s a crude and extreme example. But that is the logical result of aiming at particular emotions, rather than the emotions accompanying what happens.

When we aim at emotion, our feelings become the measuring stick for whether something good has happened. When we aim at emotion, we model that to our children and then they measure their experiences by it. Our world is full of emotions, both positive and negative. We all know how emotivism (the theory that ethical statements are not really true, but simply express the feelings of the speaker) rules our daily social interactions in the world. Our world is full of emotion, but it is not full of Jesus, crucified and resurrected, for people whose emotions are constantly changing and shifting based on the day, the month, the year, the experience, and the circumstance.

So Lutherans will never aim at emotion. We will never manipulate people into feeling a certain way. We will aim at proclaiming and delivering Jesus to people who need Him. If we do that according to His own Word and Sacrament, the emotion may or may not accompany church on a given Sunday. But we can be absolutely certain that Jesus is doing His work, whether the feeling is present or not. That’s assurance that doesn’t change, no matter how we feel.

We cannot make particular feelings, experiences, and emotions into the goal or point of the Divine Service. That is emotional idolatry. But if we look for Jesus, hear His Word, eat His Body and Blood, and know His promises about where and how He is present among us, then there can be no doubt that we will receive what He has promised to give.

Will we always feel the way we would like to feel? No. But I thank God that His gifts to me do not depend on my own fickle, fleeting, changing emotions. There is no certainty in me. But there is always certainty in the promises of Jesus, whose forgiveness is delivered with His own Spirit-sealed guarantee. With such a promise, true joy cannot help but follow.

Pr. Winterstein

*St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; with you I am a Christian.”

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