Christ or Chords? The Manipulated Emotionalism of Hillsong, Asbury, and Pentecostalized Evangelical Worship
True religion does consist in the religious affections, and music is a wonderful gift from God that helps to give expression to the affections created by the Spirit through his Word. But we must be careful to define spiritual affections biblically and put music in its proper place. Otherwise, we risk worshiping chords instead of Christ.
When Christ was asked about the great commandment in the Law, he answered without hesitation: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37). True worship of God is centered in our affections for him. As Jonathan Edwards rightly observed, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” Indeed, a purely intellectualized worship is no worship at all.
This is one reason God has commanded that his people sing in corporate worship. Singing, Paul explains, allows believers to express their hearts to God, particularly thanksgiving (Col 3:16, Eph 5:19). The inspired songs of Scripture are filled with heart expression such as lament, contrition, thanksgiving, love, and praise.
However, the role of emotion and music in worship today has departed considerably from biblical precept and example. In fact, I would suggest that the relationship of emotion and music to worship in contemporary Christianity has shifted to such a significant degree that it hardly resembles what Scripture models.
This reality is clearly evident with recent events like the faux revival at Asbury University, the global popularity of worship music of groups like Hillsong, or, frankly, the entire contemporary worship movement. It is almost impossible to engage in thoughtful, biblical conversation with contemporary Christians about worship, music, and emotion due to fundamental shifts that have come to characterize contemporary evangelicalism.
In each of these cases, intense emotional expression has come to define the essence of true relationship with God. “The students at Asbury are so passionate about God!” So we dare not question the validity of what’s happening. “I can feel God’s presence in that worship!” So why wouldn’t we promote that music? If the nature of true worship is love for God, why would we question whether these movements are biblical?
John MacArthur summarized the reason well in the recent Shepherd’s Conference Q&A session when he described what happened at Asbury as “chords over Christ.” “Shut off the music and see what happens,” he challenged.
MacArthur put his finger on the issue I have been identifying for many years: music has taken on an unprecedented and, indeed, unbiblical role in contemporary evangelical worship today, in which music is used to create what modern Christians assume to be “feelings of spirituality,” “the felt presence of God,” and “revival.” And because this function has become so intrenched in contemporary evangelicalism, to question the music, the feelings, or the experiences is to question the very work of God in many evangelicals’ minds.
No wonder I get so much hate mail.
Nothing More Than Feelings
Yet carefully defining the true nature of spiritual experience based upon the Word of God is critical. And, in particular, we need to recognize how modern notions of “emotion” are not the same thing as what the Bible calls praise, joy, or love.
The category of “emotion” is a relatively recent term, only entering common discourse about 200 years ago. Prior to that, people didn’t use the term, and consequently, they had a far more nuanced understanding of human sensibility.
Thomas Dixon traces the creation and evolution of this idea in his very helpful book, From Passions to Emotions. He demonstrates how the idea of emotion “is little more than a hundred years old. Darwin’s Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (1872) and William James’ “What is an Emotion” (1884) are the first studies of the emotions using scientific methodology.”1
The category of emotion, shaped as it was by Enlightenment rationalism and Darwinian evolution, is defined primarily by effects upon the body, what we might call “feelings.” Then, with this more recent category firmly entrenched in modern thought, Christians read biblical descriptions of worship and relationship with God and define such realities also primarily in terms of feelings. Consequently, exhilaration, euphoria, and other merely chemical affects upon the body have come to define Christian worship and spirituality for most Christians today.
However, the biblical concept of affection was something entirely different. The fruit of the Spirit, for example, are by definition affections not inherently defined by physical feelings. Since God is a Spirit and does not have a body like man, affections like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are fundamentally spiritual. Though each of these affections certainly may affect the body, they are not defined by physical feelings.
Furthermore, even the nature of how spiritual affections affect the body or what kinds of feelings may accompany them differ from the nature of physical feelings typically associated with worship in contemporary evangelicalism.
For example, Michael Brown recently tweeted the following:
Immediately you can see his assumption that the modern category of emotion is inherently an essential part of worship. And so I responded to his tweet by listing many passages that do, indeed, caution against unbridled physical feelings:
- Romans 12:3 – Think with sober judgment
- Gal 5:23 – The fruit of the Spirit is self-control.
- 1 Thess 5:6, 8 – Be sober.
- 1 Tim 2:9 – women should be self-controlled.
- 1 Tim 3:2 – An overseer is to be sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable.