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On “Faithful Feelings”

Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.





If the so-called “worship movement” has accomplished anything, it has helped to make Christian worship more emotionally expressive. Where some of the “frozen chosen” (I’m from the Reformed tradition, for the record) used to stand in icy staidness, faithful feelings are now expressed with hands upraised and hearts attendant to an intimacy with the person of Jesus Christ who becomes present to us (somehow) in worship. I’d call that a “win” in many ways. The bread and butter of contemporary songwriters (and, as some have argued, what rock-inflected musical styles do well) has been to help worshippers feel something. That’s often been achieved and expressed by inviting worshippers into the personal piety and conviction of the songwriter enshrined in the lyrics and music of the worship songs. This is also a “win” in my estimation. [Side note: this is part of why worship leaders publicly losing their faith is so scandalizing!]

But to what end are these feelings faithful, and how do we know? Only that they are true to us personally or only to our congregation? Or is there some other metric for evaluation? Some other sounding board against which are feelings can be heard and felt? 

I think we find some help when we make it clear what it is, more exactly, that our feelings are responding to. 


God’s Story

I’ve noticed something that I want to lift up and laud for other songwriters out there: songs that tell God’s story in salvation history–not just their personal history of deeply felt, and deeply faithful, feelings toward God. Even better are songs that bind up personal stories into the bigger and more communal salvation history–songs that re-express the love for a God who we only know is for us because God has always been for us. There is a particularity and a specificity to that history. We find its contours in Christian scripture. 

This has been done in every age of the church’s song and it’s happening now, too. I’m thinking of incredibly popular songs like Hillsong’s “Oceans” from a few years back as well as their more recent song “Another in the Fire.” Hillsong isn’t, of course, the only group doing this. But what’s noticeable to me about these songs is that they’ve taken the biblical story and put the singer alongside the biblical characters. It’s a classic way of reading and interpreting scripture. It’s typology for today. It’s like a contemporary, musical, Ignatian Spiritual Exercise. As such, it’s pretty, well, orthodox. 


A Common Complaint

It’s a common complaint in nearly every generation to decry the biblical (il)literacy of “people today” and express the need for deeper catechesis. Whether our generation is worse than any other generation is, well, debatable. In any case, maybe we need to double down on the power of singing to internalize scripture—and not at the expense of finding faithful feelings for God. We can tap into this power for more than the explication of dogma and doctrines and open up the scriptures as powerful stories that elicit our response; deeper than purple-prose paraphrases of prooftexted Psalms to songs that help us experience our place in the contours of God’s story of the salvation of all of creation. From Genesis to Revelation. From the first Adam to the second coming of the New Adam so that even this author (whose name happens to be Adam) can more fully sing–and feel!–the great song of God’s salvation. 

It’s not an issue of “what’s been lost” but of what we stand to gain: faithful responses to the God whose story is told in scripture and who is revealed in Jesus Christ. 


Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.


One of the hardest things for me in planning worship is constructing the overarching narrative of the service. From the very first word to the last, I want the worship services I plan to take the congregation on a journey of encounter with God and each other. I want it to seem effortless and inevitable, like each element couldn’t possibly lead into any other than the one that’s been chosen. If you’re in the work of actually planning any or all of worship, you know that achieving such an ideal can often be elusive (for encouragement, see Ginny’s blog last week about ‘Success’).


Worship As Narrative

I call worship a narrative because I think it needs to go somewhere thematically, logically, spiritually, emotionally, and even physically. It needs to have a plot, and some subplots. Key characters who are developed over time. It needs to generate conflict and resolution, tension and release; it needs to have some small climaxes and some big ones too. It needs a range of emotional engagement. Not every story is told the same way. Narrative can take on a diversity of styles, as we know about the best books in a variety of genres; scripture also shows a diversity of genres.

My commitment to narrative for worship comes from scripture. Aside from the cosmic view of the Bible as one big narrative from Genesis to Revelation, it is true in more micro-cosmic ways. In the Old Testament, God’s people are encountered by God who (via the prophets) reminds the people of God’s story about them and they respond (e.g. Joshua 24). In the Gospels, Jesus himself tells stories (parables) to teach about the kingdom of God.


Hymn Sandwiches and Thematic Planning

But not all worship services or their patterns seem to have a clear direction to them. The classic ‘hymn sandwich’ service can feel like a game of ping-pong that never has a winner. ‘Thematic’ planning, where a simple theme is chosen to orient the service (e.g.  “Grace”), can sometimes generate services that have many smaller elements that point to the central theme, but are disconnected from one another. Thematic planning can especially impact services with extended song sets, resulting in an opening time of musical worship that spins its narrative wheels. Even in congregations where the liturgy is (supposedly) ‘set,’ the sense of overarching narrative can be overlooked in the midst of the structure–a forest missed for the trees. Worship planning in these settings can often feel like a ‘fill in the blank’ exercise. In all of these examples, the question remains the same, ‘How can a worship narrative more deeply embed the congregation in the story of God?’


Here are a few simple suggestions:

  1. Think about the genre of the scripture story for the day. Ask how the music and the whole service can inhabit that storytelling mode in its structure and content.
  2. Choose a song that uses scripture paraphrase or quotation and use it in place of one of the readings for the day (rather than a reiteration of the same text). In your worship bulletins, mark those songs as scripture or scripture paraphrase.
  3. If you’re only responsible for music choices, ask the worship leader, reader, or pastor, to say a one sentence introduction to a congregational song you’ve chosen. If speaking would be too cumbersome, put a note in the back of the bulletin. If you’re doing choral music, this is a great way to key in the congregation for how to listen well to the piece as part of the service. Why did you choose it, what are its virtues at that point in the service? What does the song express that can’t be expressed with words alone?
  4. If you’re responsible for the whole service, I can’t stress enough how the use of ‘in-between-words’ can help tell the big picture story in worship. See Paul Ryan on this (of Calvin, not the WI politician!).
  5. Avoid redundancy in music! If you have a song that acts as a confession, don’t also read a confession–let the song do its part in the worship story.
  6. Assess your choral music based on function–from week to week, an anthem’s text and music might not always best serve the narrative of worship by being sung during the offering. Ask, “What is this text and music doing and where might if fit better”?


If you do some of these things to support a narrative-based approach to worship planning and leadership, it will support worshippers’ deep engagement with worship. More importantly, it will support a deepening engagement with God who shows us love through the redeeming life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ–the most important story worth telling.

How do these suggestions engage with your worship context? Share with us in the comments!