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Some Thoughts on Physical Expression in Corporate Worship

I recently received an email asking for my opinion on whether worship should be only reverent, or whether celebration and joy—especially expressed through physical expression and even dance—were appropriate for corporate worship. Here is my response:

A couple thoughts. One, I would actually agree that joy and even celebration should be part of corporate worship (although not all of corporate worship), but with the caveat that there are different kinds of joy and celebration, some of which are reverent and some of which are not. In other words, I would not characterize reverence and celebration as opposites, but rather reverence to be a modifying characteristic of the kind of celebration that is appropriate for corporate worship (among other appropriate and necessary reverent expressions such as praise, contrition, grief, lament, consecration, and thanksgiving).

As to how that is expressed: First, I would say that physical expressions are not in themselves wrong. On the other hand, I would stress that physical expression is never the essence of joy (or any other affection), and physical expression should never be the focus, goal, or aim of anything we do in corporate worship. In other words, while I wouldn’t necessary discourage physical expression, I would not “lead” people to express themselves physically. I think personality plays a roll in this, and I’m afraid a lot of naturally physical extroverts legalistically demand physical exuberance for those for whom it is not natural.

Third, I would suggest biblically that “unrestrained expression,” a common axiomatic good in today’s contemporary worship, actually runs contrary to the notion of Christian maturity. I question where in the New Testament especially exuberance, unrestrained emotion, or even physical expression is found or encouraged. Rather, marks of spiritual maturity include self-control, self-restraint, gravity, etc. In other words, I believe it is usually spiritually immaturity that results in unrestrained expression, which is actually the opposite of how it is typically expressed in contemporary worship discussions.

Jonathan Edwards’s take on what was going on during the Great Awakening is actually very helpful here. There was, of course, a lot of physical exuberance happening during that time. Edwards’s response was (a) not to necessarily condemn it, (b) stress that physical expression is a “sign of nothing,” (c) remove people from the congregation who had outbursts, lest others in the congregation think the physical response necessary and/or get caught up in it, (d) Edwards noted that it was usually the “simple of mind” who had such outbursts, and (e) long after the Awakening died away, Edwards notice that those who actually persevered were usually (though not always) those who were quietly moved by the Spirit, not exuberantly so.

The problem is that physical expression has today become almost an unproven and necessary good, but this is more a result of the influence of Pentecostal theology on broader Evangelicalism than anything else. I would highly recommend a recent book by Lim and Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship. It is an excellent, objective look at where contemporary worship came from, and they show how much of what drives the dominant theology of worship today comes directly from Pentecostal influence, including emphasis on physical expressiveness.

Fourth, I think there definitely is a OT/NT shift to take into account as well, best expressed in Hebrews 12:18ff. There the author is explicitly contrasting OT worship, with its essentially physical characteristics, with NT worship, in which we are spiritually (though not yet physically) joining with the worship of Heaven. I think this is why the author stresses the need to “draw near” in faith (10:22), since faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” or felt. Since our NT worship through Christ is actually participation spiritually with the worship of Heaven, we should not expect to see or feel that. In other words, I really believe that this emphasis on the need for physical experience in worship today is actually a lack of faith; it is law, not grace.

Fifth, regarding a commonly discussed physical expression, the raising of hands, I think this article in the journal I edit could be helpful. The author persuasively argues that in Scripture, lifting hands isn’t typically associated with exuberance, joy, or celebration, as it is mostly today, but rather with lament and contrition. So if someone is going to insist on lifting hands because of biblical precedent, then it should be in the context of lament, not joy, and certainly not just when the music happens to soar. Further, something a friend said to me years ago has always stuck with me: If we are going to lift hands in corporate worship then it should be done corporately, not just when an individual’s feelings start to tingle. I would have no problem with a church that decided to corporately lift hands during prayers of supplication, for example.

Finally, with regard to dance, John Makujina has a helpful Appendix in the back of Measuring the Music that deals with the issue. I agree with him that David’s dance before the Ark was (a) a kind of folk dance and (b) not corporate worship but rather more of a socio-political thing (which, of course, for Israel was intertwined with their religion).

Some point to Psalm 150 as proof that dance should be a part of corporate worship since the psalm begins with a reference to “in the sanctuary.” However, I do not believe this is an accurate reading of the psalm. The point there is not that everything in the psalm is happening “in the sanctuary.” Rather, the psalmist is giving a list of contexts in which we are to praise the Lord. Praise him (1) in his sanctuary, (2) in his mighty heavens, (3) for his might deeds . . . etc. And one of the contexts in which we should also praise the Lord is when we participate in social folk dance. This reading is crystal clear when you compare with the previous psalm, where the psalmist does exactly the same thing. There, among his list (including dancing) is also praising the Lord “on their beds” (v. 5) and with “two-edged swords in their hands” (v. 6). Even though this psalm, like 150, begins with “in the assembly of the godly,” surely no one would argue that liturgical beds or liturgical sword fights should be part of corporate worship. That’s not the point. The psalmist is just saying, Praise the Lord everywhere, whether you are in the assembly, dancing, lying on your bed, or in battle.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.