Music, Singing and Emotions

Greg Strand – May 9, 2013 Leave a comment

In 2011 the Moore College School of Theology hosted their annual conference addressing the theme, “True Feelings: Perspectives on Emotions in Christian Life and Ministry.” The lecture series was later published in a book under the same title.

Michael Jensen, editor of the book, introduces this topic in the following manner:

There is no place, it seems, in which feelings do not run high about feelings. The whole of western civilization is still caught between adoration of the emotions as sublime and denigration of them as merely animal. Can we trust our feelings? Should we suppress them or should we indulge them? In what part of our persons do feelings occur.

Contemporary Christianity is no less vexed about emotions. The rise of the charismatic movement in the late twentieth century, with its emphasis (many would say overemphasis) on experiential Christianity, ash led to an equally strong reaction of suspicion against talk of the emotions as significant for the Christian life. Though these question have an everyday, practical importance, they also point to the profound theological questions about the nature of the triune God and the ascription of emotions to him in the Bible. Does God himself have feelings?

In this conference, various topics were addressed: cultural overview, theological anthropology, the question of divine passions, the emotional life of Jesus, the Spirit’s work in perfecting emotions, preaching the Gospels for divine effects, and the place of emotions in corporate worship including connections with singing and music.

It is the last topic that I focus on in this post. Rob Smith, from whom I posted earlier this week, lectures in Systematic Theology and Music Ministry at Sydney Missionary & Bible College in Sydney, Australia. At this conference he presented the lecture on “Music, Singing, and Emotions: Exploring the Connections,” which was then published as a chapter in the book, and subsequently was also included as an article in Themelios.

He approaches the intersection of music, singing and emotions in a threefold way.

Firstly, I wish to offer some reflections on the world that God has made, drawing on some of the less controversial findings of various musicological, psychological and neurobiological studies. Secondly, I will offer some reflections on the word that God has spoken, exploring some of the links we find between music, singing and emotions in the Old and New Testaments. Thirdly, I want to offer some reflections on the history of Christian thought, drawing on the insights of a number of theologians who have wrestled with these matters-despite coming to differing conclusions.

At the end of the article Smith draws two important conclusions, personal and corporate. I include only an excerpt under both points.

Implications for Personal Growth: In short, we should recognize the good gift that God has given us to nourish our emotional health and be open to Jeremy Begbie’s thought that music and singing may need to play a larger part in your Christian growth that you have hitherto allowed or imagined. It is one of the means that God has provided and that the Holy Spirit uses to help make us people who feel and respond in ways that please him.

Implications for Church Life: In terms of the implications for church life, it should be clear that music and singing whilst not of the esse (i.e., essence or being) of the church are vital for the beneesse (i.e., the health or well-being) of the church. So we would be foolish to neglect them-particularly when Scripture commends them so strongly. At the same time we must also be careful to protect them-for there is always the possibility of misusing music and song. As Jeremy Begbie astutely observes: ‘If the orientation is askew, or the emotion inappropriate, then manipulation, sentimentality, and emotional self-indulgence are among the ever-present dangers.’ But these dangers can be avoided and, indeed, must be avoided so that as we sing the living and life-giving word of God, music and song can fulfil their divinely appointed office of reintegrating and reorienting us both personally and corporately, binding us together in prayer and praise to God and drawing us out of ourselves and toward each other in genuine love and sympathy. . . . But if the thrust of my argument in this essay is correct, then I think we can and must say this: if it is important enough to be said, then it could (and in the right manner, time and place should) also be sung. Why? Because singing helps us to process and express not only the cognitive dimensions of truth but also the emotive dimensions as well. Such are the God-ordained connections between music, singing and the emotions.

I would strongly encourage you to read the whole thoughtful and thought-provoking essay.


Greg Strand


Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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