When I was studying scriptwriting I came across a quote from a screenwriter that could well apply to worship. He said, “I want to move the audience so much that they leave the cinema thinking.” He understood that emotions are what motivate most of us most of the time. In fact the words ’emotion’ and ‘motion’ and ‘motivate’ and ‘move’ are all from the same root. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are motivated most powerfully, not by our rational facilities, but by our emotions. Like the old Russian proverb says, “The heart moves the feet.”

In the best worship too, our hearts (like the Methodists’) are “strangely warmed”. The heart moves toward the object of its real desire, and if the worship is emotional, then the movement of the heart toward God feels stronger and our passion for God is intensified. Those who plan and pray over the liturgy must be aware of the emotional dimension and not be afraid of it.

When I say emotion I am not simply referring to the more obviously emotional forms of worship like the charismatic. A simple daily Mass said reverently can be a very emotional experience as can a solemn high Mass. The emotion that is communicated is an important and valuable part of the whole experience.

It gets tricky, however, because one form of worship that may move my emotions may leave you cold, and what moves you may leave me cold. As a result we have to avoid a couple of pitfalls.

One pitfall is believing that the worship that motivates and inspires me must necessarily motivate and inspire others to the same degree. We have to be prepared for the fact that the worship we like doesn’t touch others at all, and may even repel them. We also have to be prepared for the fact that the worship we don’t particularly like may be just the thing which really does inspire and motivate other people.

So, for example, I am deeply moved by a liturgy that is restrained, dignified, noble and understated. It is good hymns with fine music and beautiful architecture that can move me to tears. I admit that others would sit through the same experience and be bored. 

Likewise, at a charismatic praise and worship meeting it is clear that many people become very emotional in their worship. It leaves me cold and cynical. This is not because I have a hard heart necessarily, but simply because I am an introvert and those extroverted displays of emotion don’t work for me.

And that’s OK. It’s OK both ways.

Another pitfall is imagining that worship is only about emotion in worship. If this is our main goal, then we will soon find ourselves church shopping for the right emotional kick, and if we don’t get it we’ll go somewhere else. In the same way, it is easy to be critical of the worship we are committed to, and if the homily or the hymns or the liturgy is just right, we can start criticizing it because we feel cheated, “It didn’t give us the emotional oomph we wanted…”

Then there are those who deny that emotion has anything at all to do with the way they worship. They simply believe that they are doing the ‘right’ thing and doing things the ‘right’ way, and emotion doesn’t enter into it. Indeed, any emotion at all in religion is suspect. These folks miss the obvious fact that there is a certain satisfying emotion in being ‘right’ and in getting things right which is just as emotionally pleasing as anything else. Sometimes those who deny that there should be any emotion in worship at all will experience the most intense inner emotions in worship although they are never outwardly expressed.

To seek only emotion in worship is imbalanced. We must also pay attention to the whole life of belief and worship in the church, and the subjective emotion in our worship must always be subject to the objective rule of faith and worship given to us by Holy Mother Church.

But the desire for emotion in worship is not a bad desire. The reason we long for emotion in our worship is because we know deep down that worship is about love, and love involves the deepest emotion and the deepest mystery. We cannot define the desire or identify the emotion, but we seek emotion in worship because underneath it all we are seeking to love and to be loved with that primal love that “moves the Sun and the other stars.”