The Psychology of Worship Music

hands lifted in worship

Isn’t it amazing, with the amount of time we as Christians spend in worship, and especially singing in worship, that we understand so little about it.

This thought strikes me now, just a couple nights away from the next “In the Deep” (Saturday night, at which I’ll be subbing on bass, because their usual bassist is getting married). “In the Deep” is a biweekly, interdenominational praise and worship concert. Concert after concert through the autumn and winter, crowds gather from all over the area to soak in the candlelit ambience, to fill the Newton, MA sanctuary with over an hour of passionate worship in song, and then to gather downstairs for snacks and fellowship.

[Update: The event is no longer held there.]


Worship is essentially an emotional experience

You may not realize it—and you may even recoil at the suggestion. But singing in worship—whatever your worship style—is essentially an emotional experience, because it invokes emotional responses and fulfills important emotional needs:

Dr. Lynne Ransom, Music Educator and Director of VOICES Chorale, talking about why people sing, described a choral performance that was for him a deeply emotional and spiritual experience:

When I performed Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion… I found that performing the three-hour piece was a deep and mystical experience, creating a musical mood that lasted for several days after the performances. Bach’s music and the physical, emotional and intellectual energy involved transported me to another way of being, of sound and energy-flow that is not based in language.

In the Deep logo

Worship and spiritual growth

No one would argue with me that singing in worship is linked to spirituality. But the nature of that link many of us misunderstand.

Why do tribal holy-men spend hours chanting in order to achieve a heightened plane of consciousness? Why do mountain climbers risk life and limb on an essentially pointless goal, to reach a challenging summit? Why do any of us step outside of our comfort zone and try new things or seek new challenges, when what we’re doing is working fine enough?

Psychologists Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell propose an answer in their book Human Givens: A New Approach to Emotional Health and Clear Thinking. They describe spirituality as “seeking to fulfill an inner need through finding its completion in the environment.” This is why the holy man chants. This is why the mountaineer climbs. This is why Dr. Lynne Ransom sings and why singing the Bach piece was so significant to him. And this is also why we worship.

But Griffin and Tyrrell make an important distinction, between spiritual growth and spiritual stagnation:

What a large part of this world mistakes for spirituality is nothing more than brainwashing by ideological organizations—from the extreme activities of fundamentalists like the Taliban in parts of Asia today, so reminiscent of the Christian Inquisition in medieval Europe, to the evangelical cults and happy-dappy new age religions that thrive in Western countries by gathering people together in groups to sing and emote. They sincerely believe that the feelings they generate in their practices are related to spirituality, whereas, however enjoyable they may be, they are manifestations of the “herd instinct,” which we share with rats, sheep and wildebeest. Whilst herding does indeed fulfill an inner need (safety in numbers), it is at a very primitive level. [emphasis added]

See, spirituality is not in itself just an emotional high. It means something much more. And spirituality is something unique to humans. Rats may sing to their mates, but humans can actually grow by it.

Or we can stagnate.

This is why it’s important not just to attend service and chant through the liturgy only as a religious rite. Rather, it’s important to chant through the liturgy because you really want to, because it holds meaning for you, because it focuses your mind on God and his love and his promises, because it heightens your awareness of your place in the world around you, because it helps you to mentally link your needs, goals, and desires with the means to make them a reality.

So this is why…

This is why, I hope, people attend “In the Deep”—mostly 20-somethings, probably searching for meaning, if they’re anything like I was at that age. Not just for the emotional high, but for the spiritual high as well. And it’s why, I hope, they come back over and over again.

The first time I attended “In the Deep” was last year’s season opening. Afterward, I wrote:

Just got back from the 2008-2009 premiere. It’s been a long time since I sang that loud or got so emotional over what I was singing. I hope I didn’t destroy my voice, because I’m leading songs tomorrow morning.

Afterward, I asked the gang how serious they were about filling up the whole place, because I think they could do it, and easily. They just have to let not-yet-fans know what they’ve got!

Maybe I was a little over-exuberant. But that night, I had realized something about social marketing that had completely eluded me before, that people love to share what excites them. And so I suggested that the “In the Deep” leaders go around to each person afterward, during the fellowship time, and just ask informally what was the most significant thing that happened to him that evening. Get a quote for the website. Or encourage people to comment on the website, because other people could have been here getting what you got here tonight, if only they knew it was available.

Now, whether or not “In the Deep” ever does that is irrelevant. The point of the story is what happened to me. This fundamental marketing principle had never been so real or so obvious to me before that night.

That’s my little story of spiritual growth, how God helped me understand and internalize a marketing principle.