Sentimentality in Worship

March 12, 2012

In his book, Worship: Together We Celebrate, Leslie Flynn notes:

In many churches the art of worship has markedly declined. The so-called hour of worship has become a time when mind and emotions are anesthetized into neutral. Out of habit, church obligation, affection for the minister, peer pressure, family togetherness, patriotism, or community expectation, people sink into their usual pews.

I don’t know Leslie Flynn, nor much about him.  (In fact, I didn’t even know Leslie was a “him” when I wrote the first draft of this post.) But while I may not know much about Leslie Flynn, I do concur with his assessment.

Worship of the One True God, which is  an action hardwired into the essence of humanity and, as John Calvin once said, is “our highest calling and most noble endeavor”, is a largely misunderstood and vainly practiced experience. Genuine worship, as Tozer lamented, has too often been replaced by a “program” or “show”.

While I sympathize with Flynn’s lament of vapid reasons that motivate many people to occupy a pew, his assessment that emotions have been “anesthetized” resonates even more.  I am disappointed whenever I participate in an emotionless worship service, whether the absence is from within me or in the general atmosphere.  Genuine and acceptable worship carries deep and real passions, and engages both the head and the heart.  But I am at least equally chagrined when I participate in a service where emotion is present but substance is lacking.  In such cases, which are all too common,  what is passing for worship is really various forms of sentimentalism.

What’s the difference?

I am thankful that the folks from the Center for Christian Study in St Louis  have taken the time and effort to describe the differences, giving both examples and historical patterns.  Their perspective in a Q & A session below is worth consideration:

Q: You say biblical music is emotional, but you reject sentimental music in corporate worship. What’s the problem with sentimentality, and how can you develop emotion in worship?

Sentimental music is music with lyrics directly addressing the affections. All worship music should work on the affections, but there are two ways of doing this.

The biblically faithful way to work the emotions in music is indirect – through God-centered content. A song addressed to God, a song that proclaims his holiness, power, transcendence or grace, or which expresses to him our utter needfulness of him; such songs work the heart with the head.

A sentimental song seeks to bypass the mind and speak to the emotions directly. It’s the “I’m so happy” syndrome. If you sing about being happy, you won’t necessarily be happy. In corporate worship, sentimental lyrics communicate how we’re supposed to feel, rather than directing us to a God who is altogether desirable.

Sentimentality can work in private worship, provided you actually feel the way the lyrics say you should feel. It doesn’t work in corporate worship, however. What actually frees us to worship God is a demonstration of who God is and how he is committed to us. It’s the truth that sets us free, not singing about how syrupy we feel (or don’t feel, turning us further inward on ourselves).

Q: Is there a period of hymnody that is more characterized by sentimentality than others?

Sure, there is a history here. Of course, you have to exercise the same care in evaluating songs – no guilt by association. That said, tons of sentimental hymns were written between 1850 and 1950. Broad cultural shifts in that period led to sentimentalism. One feminist historian has described the period as the “feminization of American hymnody”.  We’re still dealing with the fallout.

Before the mid-nineteenth century, religion was a mental category in its own right. The Victorians engendered religion, however.  For the Victorians, religion became a girl-thing. Politics and commerce were part of the man’s sphere; they involved action and power, which were considered male attributes. Family and religion, however, were defined as the woman’s sphere. Since worship was feminine, it (“obviously”, they would add) had to be about emotion rather than action, feeling rather than thinking – sugar and spice and everything nice. (This is when Christian men first became viewed as a bunch of sissies, by the way.) I like the Victorians’ architecture, but I don’t like their assumptions about religion and gender.

Because religion was defined as feminine, Victorian and post-Victorian hymns became characterized by “womanly” sentiment. (I should have sent a roll of Tums with this article; I know it.) Calvinism – and its sovereign and majestic God – became unfashionable and even offensive.  Instead, one sees the rise of the God-crying-cosmic-tears-for-the-lost-pleading-begging-them-open-the-door-he-can’t-open-it-please (“God as Battered Victorian Wife”).

It’s often hard for American Christians to realize how far such language is from the language God uses about himself in Scripture.

Instead, God became viewed primarily as arms we lean on, the one who talks to us in the garden, that sweet baby in the manger, calling to us tenderly. Waltzes and lullabies replaced anthems. (Can you imagine Isaiah in the temple singing a lullaby to God about how “sweet” he is?)

Pre-Victorian hymnody, by contrast, had stressed God’s rule, transcendence, power as Defender, the liberating power of his gospel, and his amazing commitment to us in Christ.

Contemporary examples of sentimentalism aren’t hard to find, either. Tim Keller observes the implications for worship leadership:

We should not tell others how they should feel at the moment. (“Don’t you really just want to…?” or “Isn’t the Lord just so good?”)   Both are manipulative and “bathetic”, working directly on the feelings instead of pointing to the Lord.

I want worship to be more emotional, not less. However, authentic affection for God comes as we turn our hearts to him, not as we sing about how we feel. Earlier Protestant sacred music, some new worship music, and ancient Christian liturgical patterns are designed to turn us to God, working on our emotions indirectly by turning us beyond ourselves to the Desired of Nations.

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