Once when I was preaching in a church that’s more on the “decently and in order” side of Christian liturgy, my host warned me that one woman there was a lot more demonstrative than the rest of the congregation. “There are certain songs we sing that make her start crying and waving her hands,” he said. “And that’s fine. We just want to make sure that we don’t move into a kind of emotionally driven worship.”
I know what he meant. I wonder, though, whether that woman’s “emotionalism” might just be closer to biblical application than the to-do list of action items at the end of the Bible study she’d just attended.
Whether it means starting out at a new church or Bible study or signing up for a gym membership or yoga class, most people at some point sense a need to change their lives. Most of us in ministry want to see “changed lives” or “transformed” people. The question is, How do people actually change?
That question has lingered with me since I read an article by Simeon Zahl in TheMockingbird magazine on the reigning “theories of change” at work in American church life. Zahl outlines several of these theories. Most start with an assumption about where the actual problem is before offering a way to “fix” that problem.
The theory Zahl sees as most typical in evangelical congregations is a “Christian information” approach. Some would question just how widespread this model is, given the constant (and real) concerns about anti-intellectualism and the “scandal of the evangelical mind” in American Christianity.
To be sure, a Christian information theory of change could include highly cerebral, abstract lectures on theology or philosophy. But more often, this approach is highly practical. Seeing a lack of knowledge as the root problem, it seeks to argue through a particular biblical passage or worldview, followed by a time of “application” that suggests ways the listeners can put the new principles to work in their lives.
Zahl contrasts this theory with a model of “sacramental participation.” Here, the primary driver of change is not the information embedded in the sermon but the practices embedded in the Lord’s Table or in baptism. A third model involves gearing a worship atmosphere toward a highly cathartic emotional experience, by which one leaves transformed.
In contrast, Zahl argues for what he calls an “Augustinian theory of change.” This one assumes that “human beings are driven not by knowledge or will but by desire. We are creatures of the heart, creatures of love.” He further argues that the human heart is highly resistant to change, often blocking direct attempts to alter it.
To make his point, Zahl asks us to recall a time when we’ve tried to change someone’s mind about politics through rational arguments or—even worse—to talk a person out of pursuing someone he or she has fallen in love with.
Very early in my ministry, I was taken aback by a man who could recite all the relevant biblical passages about the dangers of adultery and the importance of marital fidelity but who sat in my office—with his wife and new baby—waving all of that aside as he told me he was leaving his marriage for someone else. “I’ve fallen in love,” he said, with a shrug that seemed to imply, What is there left to say?
That’s why, Zahl argues, “extracting practical advice for Christian living” won’t overcome fallen human resistance to judgment and law. It’s also why, he contends, Pentecostals—whatever shortcomings they may have—tend to be more effective at seeing lives turned around. “The intransigence of the human heart is the fundamental problem of Christian ministry,” he writes. “The Spirit of God traffics in emotion and desire.”
While I probably wouldn’t agree with all the specifics of Zahl’s Luther-like law/gospel framework, I believe he’s completely right that actual transformative change happens at a much deeper level than intellect or willpower. That’s why much of the criticism of “overly emotional” worship services can miss the point.
Some with a more cynical bent may conclude that tears flowing from people’s eyes and hands aloft in a crowd of singing worshipers are just emotional fluff—what sociologists might call “collective effervescence,” akin to singing “Sweet Caroline” at a Red Sox game or crowd surfing at a nightclub. But what if God actually designed us to connect to one another—and to the deeper places of our own hearts—that way?
Zahl’s larger argument entails the idea that spiritual practices, Bible reading, scriptural sermons, Christian service, the sacraments, and so on are indeed shaping people—including at the level of desire and emotion. But he says that “we can do all this only once our hearts have already changed enough that we desire to engage in the practice.”
“No one will develop a transformative and durable new practice of prayer unless they fundamentally want to and want to enough to carry them through life’s inevitable obstacles,” he writes. “As Jesus told us, you must change the tree first, then the right fruit will follow (Matt. 12:33–35). Focus on the heart, and the practices will follow; focus on the practices alone, and we’re back to the brick wall.”
Instead of practical tips, doctrinal axioms, or syllogisms, Zahl recommends that we embrace “technologies of the heart” that speak the “strange electric language” of the psyche. He asks us to consider how much more powerful stories and art and music are than ideas alone. The Bible is all of this and more—stories, psalms, poems, parables, arguments, reasons, and exclamations of wonder.
C. S. Lewis famously wrote that he planned Narnia to “steal past those watchful dragons” that we put around our hearts. We try to protect ourselves by numbing our hearts to the familiarity of the Christian story. And yet there are moments when our defenses drop—and we are jarred by hearing in the words of Scripture sung, recited, taught, or just read the Voice that summons, “Come, follow me.”
At the most cynical time of my life, I found myself undone just by hearing the words of “Jesus Loves Me.” This I know. And I could give a thousand reasoned arguments why the Bible tells me so—and why the Bible can be trusted to tell the truth.
But the deeper part of me had forgotten it—couldn’t really believe it to be true. When I heard it again that day, it hit with a different force. I was overwhelmed, just for a moment, with the truth of the words. “Jesus really loves me.”
Only sometimes do we truly perceive how God is reaching us at that deeper place of the heart. We can’t engineer it or manufacture it. But we also shouldn’t ignore it or squelch it.
Maybe the recovering drug addict in the pew in front of you sobs when he sings “Amazing Grace” because he knows how lost he once was. Or maybe singing “Amazing Grace” is what changed him enough to want to be found.
Maybe the Christian whose emotion embarrasses her church in worship is just seeking an emotional dopamine hit. Or maybe what she’s doing is losing all the self-censoring image maintenance that keeps her from crying out “Abba, Father!”
Maybe underneath all of that, there’s a Holy Spirit who still changes lives.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.