Experiencing God in Worship…

An interesting report recently came out from the Barna group that raises questions on the nature and purpose of Christian worship. Missional guru Skye Jethani commented on it in his January 11 post over at Out of Ur.com: http://www.outofur.com/archives/2012/01/study_says_godc.html  

[N]ew research released this week from Barna reveals that most churchgoers rarely experience God in worship services. While most people surveyed can recall a “real and personal connection” with God while at church (66%), they also reported that these connections are “rare.” Among those who attend church every week, less than half (44%) say they experience God’s presence. And one-third of those who have attended church report never feeling God’s presence in a worship gathering.

If worship is reduced to how you or I “feel” about God, or how we “feel” connected to God, there should be no surprise by the meager reports. Feelings are like the wind. They can come and go, swirl and gust. They change directions based on the day we’re having, how much sleep we got, how the kids are behaving, how the job is going, and how the marriage is doing.

Feelings are subjective. But God is objective. His Word speaks to feelings and through feelings and it imparts faith. And the thing about faith is that it is not “felt,” but it is “believed.” Yes, of course, emotions flow from our faith. And yes, of course, the Scriptures declare that God is love. But faith is “believed.”

Emotions are prone to fail us and fool us. Yet faith is believed, even when our emotions might tell us otherwise. Jesus begins his ministry with a call to “repent and believe the Good News” (Mark 1:14-15). Sure, “good news” can have a way of enlivening us and making us “feel” better. But this Good News is not felt, it is, above all, believed!

The fact is, contrary to what some may claim, we will not “experience” God through our emotions. Can you imagine how easy it would be to mislead someone depending on how you or I might be feeling? This is why, as Lutherans, “we should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through his external Word and sacrament” (Luther, Smalcald Articles VIII, Confession, §10).

Lutheran worship (liturgy) intentionally reflects this. In fact, it rejoices in the reality that regardless if one is a distracted mother tending to her children, a day dreaming teenager, a burdened husband, or a hard of hearing 89 year-old, God still connects to them regardless of how they are feeling! He connects to them through His Word going into their ear holes. He connects to them through His Word that opens their lips in prayer and praise. He connects to them with the body and blood of Christ on their lips and in their mouths. Forgiveness is given. Love is declared. Salvation is granted. God is present!

However, if the measure of our experience of God is based on how we feel about Him, and if the effectiveness of worship is also measured on how we feel about God during worship (or how much we feel transformed by Him in worship) we may find ourselves in a very scary place—alone with our emotions and alone with our sins. You and I both know how fickle our emotions can be. You and I both know that the wages of sin is death.

Nonetheless, somehow “feelings” have become the determining factor for the effectiveness of the worship of and the experience of God. As a result, countless varying worship styles have been developed and emerged in an attempt to better situate the “feelings” of people so that they can have a “God connection”—whatever that means. Yet, for all of that effort, what’s been discovered? Sky Jethani sums it up and even offers an intriguing remedy:

Despite all of the rhetoric since the 90s about “emerging generations” and new models of church, there is little evidence it has been implemented broadly or effective…Might it be time to consider what Paul said about ministry in 1 Corinthians 3? Some plant the seeds, others water it, but ultimately it is God who causes the growth. I don’t believe we should ignore outcomes or allow lazy, ineffectual discipleship to take root in our churches. But we must also admit that life transformation is more mysterious, more God-driven, than making widgets in a factory.

Thus, I think it’s worth repeating: “We should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through his external Word and sacrament.” When He gives His Word and His sacraments, we can’t not “experience” Him. Sure, He’s mysterious that way. But He is mysteriously and sacramentally (sacramentum in the Latin) powerful! It’s what Lutherans have confessed and practiced for centuries. Perhaps it’s a good idea for us to continue doing so.

As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully and collegially talk about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.


Rev. Woodford


9 responses to “Experiencing God in Worship…

  1. Thanks for the article Lucas – your thoughts great. I think what’s also interesting is to allow this conversation to bleed into the pastor’s role as well. How many times do we as pastors not “feel” the presence of God when we are “working?” I went through a stretch during the Advent season and Christmas Eve that I didn’t “feel” like it was Christmas and it was bothering me. But that certainly doesn’t mean that I was held back from God’s blessings. I was focused on issues in life and ministry that distracted me. Sin. But once I was able to rid my mind, temporarily of the issues, and focus on what God was doing through worship – I was able to appreciate Christmas.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Thanks Mark and Lucas for these posts. I presided over the funerals of two infants in 11 days in December. One died in a car accident. The other infant died in the womb of his mother. I can honestly say my emotions were raw and almost non existent. I could only give the Words that Christ gave to the Church in those times. I could only give them the Word of God which comes to us in the forms of the liturgy of the Church for a funeral service and the burial of the stillborn or unbaptized child in the Lutheran Service Book Agenda. I agree wholeheartedly we would be in a strange and dark place if we had to come up with words based on our feelings or emotions and still we are left with our sins. So yes as lay people as well as pastors, the liturgy helps us see Christ in spite of our emotions.

    • Brothers Ben and Mark,

      Thanks for your faithful care of souls despite the tumultuous tide of emotions that come our way. As you shepherd many in the name of the Jesus Christ, may the Good Shepherd continue to sustain each of you with His word of promise and hope!

  3. Rev Woodford,

    Thanks for a really stimulating post. It strikes a chord with me because I was definitely a youth who desired to experience God in worship. In my early years of Christianity I fell deeply into the “ditch” you describe here. Furthermore, I agree with the other comments from the pastoral perspective (which I am seeking to one day participate in) that we cannot ever base our approach to worship on emotional content or the lack thereof. Worship is faith!

    However, I’m very worried about the ditch on the other side of the road. And that means I’m left with some questions that are not addressed in your summation.

    1. Where do emotions come from? I’m thinking first article here.

    2. Are emotions a part of communication? As such, when we say that we experience God through Word and Sacraments, is not the very act of preaching an emotion-laden activity?

    3. Is it possible, regardless of worship style or substance, to gather together as an assembly in a truly objective manner? Please note that I’m not seeking to create a false dichotomy. I’m not disagreeing with your that Word and Sacrament given freely to us in the divine service to you is utterly objective! It most certainly is! My focus here is on the possibility that as emotional beings gathered together we might each interpret the activities of worship differently?

    4. You quoted from the Smalcald Articles from a section reacting against “enthusiasts.” While there is overlap theologically between the enthusiasts and the psycho-manipulation that can be present in today’s evangelical worship methods [which admittedly make there way into some LCMS congregations], there are some significant differences. My whole question is this: Is it possible for us to include emotions in the thinking that we experience God only in Word and the Sacraments?

    To ensure that you understand where I’m coming from, consider this quote from CFW Walther:

    I wish to talk the Christian doctrine into your very hearts, enabling you in your future calling to come forward as living witnesses with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. I do not want you to stand in your pulpits like lifeless statues, but to speak with confidence and with cheerful courage offer help where help is needed. (Law and Gospel, p.4)

    I’m convinced that Walther saw emotions as a part of experiencing God through Word and Sacrament. If this is true, then how would you integrate that with or contrast it with what you have put forward in your post?

    I readily admit that it is much easier to ask my questions than to answer them. Don’t feel it necessary to respond to each one, but rather I’m curious what you think about the role of emotions play in our communication of the Gospel and the impact that has upon the lives of our parishioners.

    Thank you again for your writing here! It helps me struggle, learn and grow. Blessings!

    -Mark Hunsaker

    • Awesome questions Mark! You thoughtfully address some important issues that are part and parcel with my original post. I will address them in the order you listed them.

      First, yes, emotions would be part of the goodness of God’s First Article gifts. I do not want to minimize that. God has indeed given us emotions so that we might emote. And to be sure, part of the incarnation meant Jesus emoted like all human beings. However, unlike the rest of us, Jesus’ emotions did not succumb to sinfulness. He did not smite others dead in anger, he did not abuse his powers out of sadness, he did not flee the cross out of fear, rather “Jesus was the founder and perfecter of our faith,” “who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising its shame…” (Hebrews 12:2)

      Second, yes, preaching does communicate emotion. But the challenge here is for preachers to be careful in how they convey that emotion, and whose emotion will take ultimate priority (their hearers, their own, or God’s?) By nature, people “connect” with emotional speakers. We can resonate with them, remember our own similar experience, and even find comfort in the shared emotion. We also like speakers with conviction and speakers who are passionate. They seem more authentic, more real. But when all is said and done, it’s not the preacher’s emotions that save or forgives sins, but rather the objective truth of God’s Word in Jesus Christ.

      Don;t get me wrong. I, for one, am with Walther on this. I love to proclaim the Gospel in its objective truth with bold and unbridled passion/emotion! And I believe this can certainly be done with both propositional and narrative preaching. Further, when preaching the Gospel our faces should actually convey we are speaking the Gospel, and not pulling out a sliver. People will notice the difference. But even if someone is preaching the Gospel and they are undeniably constipated, it is still the Gospel that is the power of God.

      What is more, I will readily acknowledge that the Gospel does speak to our broken emotions, it’s just not dependent on them for efficacy (as the article I noted in my post implied). Who of us does not desperately long for some hope, some comfort, some solace, and some love when tragedies strike, when loves ones dies, or when we are caught in a sin? Guilt is an emotion. Shame is an emotion. The law (God’s Word) certainly evokes these. And the Gospel (God’s Word) certainly remedies them, wherein there is great joy, hope, and consolation (also emotions). But emotion is not how God is “experienced.” The emotions are the result of having experienced God through His Word. The danger of setting our emotions as the way we experience God is that it affords the possibility of leaving God’s Word out altogether. Faith (experiencing God) does not and cannot come from our own emotion. It comes from God’s Word where it evokes various emotions according to its law/Gospel purpose. Hence Luther’s Third Article explanation, “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come (experience) to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel…”

      Third. In short, I will give a qualified yes to your third question. Being emotional human beings does mean we are prone to interpret some activities of worship differently. But this is why catechesis is so important. Jesus tells the woman at the well that God desires worshipers who will “worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:34-34). If people do not know what the truth is, (and counter to postmodernism truth is not relative), how will they be able to worship in truth? Thus worshipers need to know why we worship the way we worship and why we do the things we do. I think this is part of the “teaching them everything I have commanded you” that the resurrected Jesus asks of His disciples. Thus, when we understand this, we can objectively gather to receive the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. We can objectively gather to confess our sins and receive absolution. We can objectively gather to confess our belief in “the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” Will we come away from each service feeling the same way, every time? Not a chance. But will we come away having our sins forgiven? Yes. Will we come away having our prayers heard? Yes. Will we come away having had the opportunity to receive consolation and hope. Yes.

      Finally, fourth, see all the above. 🙂

      Again, great questions Mark!


      Rev. Woodford

      • Rev. Woodford,

        Thank you for your reply! It is a helpful clarification on the matter. And, I am right there with you emphasizing the need for catechesis. I think that is a HUGE part of this discussion that in other places is often left out.

        Your key statement for me here is this:
        “The emotions are the result of having experienced God through His Word.”

        I like this statement. There is much good here. A part of me questions it, but the deeper I go the more that I find it to be true. I find myself sort of plugging it in to my own set of experiences and interacting with it, testing it.

        The difficulty I have with it is that we have emotions before we experience God (through Word and Sacrament) and we have emotions after that experience. I still tend to think that there are emotions in the midst of that experience and that I think they are, to some extent, part of that experience.

        But I agree with you that if we reduce the experience to only the emotions (and couple that with the human tendency to replicate the experience) our approach will be to attempt to replicate the emotions without the Word of God (in spoken, written or Sacramental form). This is a huge issue impacting the church today in America.

        And so I interpret your point to be that our focus must always, always be on God’s Word and know that our emotions will be impacted by the power of the Holy Spirit as He works though these means. And, when I get to your point that way, I, well, feel really good about it. 🙂 Ha, that is to say, it lines up with what I’ve been learning in Scripture and the Confessions (and even when reading folks like Chemnitz, Walther and Pieper, which I’m doing a lot of here at CSL!).

        I have to tell you how important it is for this kind of conversation to exist. In other places when I would seek to interact with this type of discussion, my points would be ignored and I would be called names. Once I was sent an email from a “gnesioLutheran” calling me a “CoWoMoFo.” Yikes! Your efforts at truly looking at and interacting with the real issues, all the while inviting healthy conversation, allows true learning to happen.

        This is something that some of our brethren, especially some of those those who are seeking to be especially steadfast about Lutheran Doctrine, need to discover.


  4. I like to say that I do feel the presence of God in the Divine Service, as His Body is placed on my tongue and His Blood is poured down my throat.

    I know for a fact that there are times of great distress where it is about all we can do to drag ourselves to Church and it may even be impossible to listen to the sermon (as much as we would like). But even then, when we are emotionally emptied, there is great comfort in hearing absolution and receiving the Lord’s Supper… in fact… in times like that, it’s about the only thing I can cling to.

  5. How great it is to see a seminarian expressing honest questions and getting straight answers from an experienced pastor. Blessings to you and your friends at the seminary, Mark, as you explore more and more of the length, heighth, and depth of the love of God in Christ – and to you, Rev. Woodford, as you continue to foster collegial conversation on matters vital to us all!

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