Emotion is a legitimate part of worship. To define worship as emotion is, however, idolatry. Worship has far more to do with glorifying God than with how I feel when I glorify Him. The very word—worship—means to ascribe worth. When Christians gather to worship, we gather to ascribe worth to our Triune God. Fundamentally, worship is about Him, not me; it is for Him, not for my emotional satisfaction.
Broad segments of contemporary evangelical Christianity informally define worship as that which makes me feel worshipful. Not that they would ever say so, but the cultivation of an emotional buzz has become the raison d’etre of the worship service. If singing song after song after song in a darkened room, while a band rocks out under stage lights to a belching smoke machine makes me feel worshipful, then I will define such rocking out as worship. But is it? While feeling an emotional buzz during singing may be a byproduct of genuine worship, genuine worship does not aim at producing a buzz; it aims at glorifying the Lord. It is less concerned with my buzz than with doing that which God desires. And how can I know what God desires in worship? The Bible tells me so.
The heritage and history of Protestant Christianity is one that exalts the Word of God as the sole authority for the doctrines and practices of the Church. Not church councils. Not popes. Not popular movements. The Bible. But this generation of American Protestants has a different authority. Rome exalts tradition over Scripture; atheists exalt science over Scripture; and contemporary Protestants exalt their feelings over Scripture. Confession of sin is a bummer, so we don’t do that in worship, even though such confession is commanded in Scripture and ascribes worth to Jesus Christ, who is the only Savior from such sin. Singing, however—that really makes me feel good, so let’s do more of that. Only we can’t sing anything that is old or hard to sing or intellectually challenging or that doesn’t give me an emotional buzz, because when you really get down to it, I am worshipping the buzz. And the buzz gets what the buzz wants.
When the buzz becomes the idol that a given congregation worships, then that congregation is in its death throes. It may have strong attendance; it may boast stable finances; it may even enjoy committed leadership, but it is dying nonetheless. Idolatry, in the name and guise of true worship, is still idolatry. And God never blesses idolatry. Unless repented, idolatry kills. Every time.
Maybe you attend such a church, love it, and think that I’m a big doo-doo head. But do you just feel that I’m a doo-doo head, or can you show me from the Bible why you worship the way you do, and how Jesus is glorified through a smoke machine? And that’s the point: Either the Word of God is the authority for all that we believe and do, or it is not. If it is, then we have a duty to examine it, and to craft services of worship that focus on glorifying God, even if such services might not buzz me emotionally the way I like.
When it comes down to it, worship, and every element in it—including singing—is supposed to be for God and for His pleasure. I might very well be emotionally enriched while I strive to please Him, but if I strive to be emotionally enriched—to get buzzed on worship—then I’m really just worshipping an idol. In fact, I’m worshipping me.
Jesus came to rescue me from self-worship, not for it.