Physical Expression in Worship
The first time I saw someone raise their hands in a worship setting, I was curious… but not confused. I didn’t think anyone was “asking a question”.
I had been to see Whitesnake and Great White and Motley Crüe in concert. I had seen people fully physically engaged with something that resonated with them – a sense of exhilaration, an acknowledgement of shared experience/emotion, a joyful sense of ‘letting go’ expressed in movement and cheering.
That was not odd or foreign.
I had been to (and viewed hundreds of) NFL games, the same being true about the sense of connection and celebration and common experience. Pretty common.
Yet I grew up attending a church that taught it was improper to clap (for choir performance pieces) and there was no impulse to do so during musical worship.
In the process of coming to belief in Christ, I began to see people expressing themselves physically… and this was new to me.
Not their activity, but that they seemed to be responding to not only the truth of the lyrics, but they seemed to believe God was really there with them.
Their clapping and lifting of hands and moving to the music in a religious setting, was not forced, not coerced, and definitely not mystic or trance-like. It was a genuine, joyful delight in One they could not see physically, but whom they knew was among them.
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When I gave my life to Christ…Like a prisoner rejoicing with manacles broken and undone… this adoration and affection bubbled to a point where I joined in.
Still…. I wanted to know if this was merely like experiences at concerts and sport, and moreso what the Scriptures had to say.
I was pretty shocked to learn what the Scriptures said…. not simply allowances or historical reports, but exhortations to worship physically. (See list below*)
Sometimes churches skip teaching on physical expression in Christian worship altogether – either relegating them as “primitive practices of ancient people’s” or out of a fear that these actions are somehow an indication of garbage theology. Perhaps they’re afraid of things getting “out of control,” or looking undignified, or wary that the Lord views these as offensive.
“I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands.”
In this topic, it is supremely important to note that any physical expression of worship should not be seen as an end in itself (i.e. “hands were lifted…. therefore …God is among us… it was real worship…the Spirit was moving…etc.)
The truth of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection; of His character and of His promises both fulfilled and expected to come are what we announce and rejoice in. And it must be these that are the motivation for any and all physical expression. We respond to the glory, majesty, person and works of our God – יהוה – in Christ Jesus – by His Spirit….not a song we like, a certain chord progression, a clever lyric, a specific instrument.
But the objection is raised:
Well, that’s not my tradition / background / ethnic expression / comfort.
- In Christ, you are a new creation.
We delight to know that our past is cleansed; we are no longer defined by who we were. (Gal. 6:15, 1 Cor. 6:11, 2 Cor. 5:17) Christ’s people are not defined by ethnicity, language, tribe, or people group. Yes, we still have preferences, but we never excuse ourselves from His call based on our preferences.
- These are imperatives.
Which imperative exhortations in the Bible also include “if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable?”
As an introvert, I’m not naturally “comfortable” to strike up a conversation about Jesus. Am I then excused from evangelism?
As one who wrestles with materialism I’m not necessarily always looking to give to the poor. Sadly, I’m more prone to be the priest or pharisee rather than the good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37) Can I say, “Well, I’m (insert ethnicity) and we’re distrustful and frugal”
A good friend and longtime mentor of mine leads music in an Episcopalian Church in the U.S. They have a very helpful saying:
“All may, Some should, None must”
Perhaps for some – the best thing you can do, is dive deep into the Scriptures, prayerfully ask God what His desire is based on His Word, and follow as He leads… not making excuses..and not drawing attention to yourself, but joyfully pointing to the One who has redeemed you.
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Finally, three serious questions to consider:
1. Psalm 40:3 says
“He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
and put their trust in him.”
Many will see and fear … not hear and fear… what are they observing visually?
2. If you think God is offended by genuine, full-on, Biblically exhorted outward expressions of worship… that it is unholy or improper or undignified – you need to read 2 Samuel 6 and consider these questions:
– If stabilizing the ark was deemed unholy enough to demand Uzzah’s life (v.7), then what of David’s exuberant (nearly naked) dancing (v. 14)?
– v.23 – Could it be that part of the Church’s ‘barrenness’ today is a result of arrogantly calling genuine, truth-born, expressive worship ‘suspect’ or ‘unholy’?
3. Zephaniah 3:16-17 can rightly be translated as:
On that day
they will say to Jerusalem,
“Do not fear, Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in [spin and dance over] you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing [loud, shouting songs].”
If this is how our God acts, and the example He gives…what does it mean for His dearly loved creation?
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*Scriptural Expressions of Worship
Adapted from the book. “Worship is What?”
Tom Kraueter. Emerald Books. © 1996
(listed alphabetically, references not exhaustive)
- Bowing Down (Ps, 95:6, 2 Chr. 20:18)
- Clapping. (Ps 47:1, Is. 55:12)
- Dancing (Ps. 149:3, Ps 150:4, 2 Samuel 6:14, Ece, 34.)
- Kneeling. (Psalm 95:6, Daniel 6:10)
- Leaping (Luke 6:23, Acts 3:8)
- Lifting Hands
(Neh. 8:6, Ps. 28:2, Ps 63:4, Ps 134:2, Lam 3:41, 1 Tim 2:8)
- Musical Instruments (Ps. 150:3-5, 1 Chr. 15:16)
- Offering (Ps 96:8, 1 Chr. 16:29, Micah
- Prayer (prayer is a confession that the One being prayed to has the ability and power to answer that prayer and is worthy of it)(John 17 is an excellent example of this)
- Shouting (Ps 47:1,Ps 66:1, Ps 35:27, Ps. 98:4, IS, 12:6, Is 26:19, Is 35 6, Is 54:1,Rev 5:12)
- Singing -(Ps 147:1 Psalm 96:1-13, Ps. 145: 2-5, Ps. 150:1-2,6 many other Psalms, 2 Chr 29:30b, Eph 5: 19-20, Col 3:16)
- Standing (Nehemiah 9:5, Exodus 33:10)
- Sacrifice of Time/talent, monetary& physical Ps 51:13, 96:8 I Chr 16:29, Micah 3:10, Rom 12:1 3:10, Rom, 12:1) – “sacrifice” meaning an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.… not in the ‘appeasing a god’ way
- Social Justice (Is 1:10-17, Jer, 7:1-8, Amos 5:21-24)Endnote: 1 Cor 8:9
“Throughout the Bible there are numerous examples and commands of how we are to express our worship to God. None of the examples listed below complete in and themselves, each of them for every time of worship. They are meant to be an encouragement for us to go beyond our cultural understanding of how we can worship and move into a more Biblical perspective.” (Emphasis mine)
“Worship is What?” by Tom Kraueter. Emerald Books. © 1996
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Stephanie Seefeldt Zion Episcopal Church, organist/choirmaster Freelance Worship Leader 262.354.4741