How Do We Grow in Physical Expressiveness in Worship? Pt. 1

After the Together for the Gospel conference, I received a lengthy e-mail from a worship pastor in attendance who shared a current dilemma his pastoral team is facing. They have been “wrestling with how to best be obedient to Scripture in our corporate worship through song.” His church contains people who are “naturally NOT very expressive AT ALL” during that time. So he asks:

“Exactly how, and how much should we encourage our people to follow the numerous commands throughout Scripture of bodily expression (as a natural outpouring of the heart)?

First, I want to thank this pastor and his team for their humility in seeking to wrestle through this issue from a biblical perspective. His background and training have minimized physical expression, but he is realizing that although bodily expression in worship is not the MAIN issue, it can reflect an inward reality.

Responses to this question range from sober reverence – “do what you’d do in the presence of royalty” – to complete freedom – “do whatever God commands in Scripture.” I think the answer is a little more nuanced than either of these extremes suggest. For that reason, I want to take a few posts to answer this question.

Here are my recommendations for how to lead your church into biblical physical expression. (I adapted these four points from Mark Alderton, a pastor in one of the Sovereign Grace Churches in Minnesota.)

1. Teach on the appropriateness of physical expression in worshipping God.

Worship of God was never meant to be mere intellectual engagement with biblical truths. Nor is it limited to an inner emotional response. God created our bodies to glorify him (1 Cor. 6:20). We aren’t pursuing a Gnostic spirituality that downplays or negates the importance of the body in true spirituality (Rom. 12:1; Phil. 1:20). God commands us to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. That certainly includes the bodies he’s given us.

Many of the words that we translate as “worship” in both Greek and Hebrew contain the idea of bodily movement. The two most prominent words – histahawah in the Old Testament, and proskynein in the Greek – connote the idea of bending over at the waist or bowing down as an expression of homage. In addition, physical expression is both commanded and spontaneously modeled in Scripture as a way of giving God glory. (Ex. 12:27; Job 1:20; Ps. 47:1; Ps. 95:6). Those expressions include clapping, singing, bowing, kneeling, lifting hands, shouting, playing instruments, dancing, and standing in awe (Ps. 47:1; Eph. 5:19; Ps. 95:6; Ps. 134:2; Ps. 33:1; Rev. 15:2; Ps. 149:3; Ps. 22:23).

Some have pointed out that the New Testament contains few references to physical expression other than kneeling, singing, and lifting hands (although this last one isn’t emphasized too often). However, it’s not readily apparent that the bodily responses commanded in the Old Testament have been superseded or fulfilled in Christ’s high priestly work, or that we now obey them only in a “spiritualized” manner. (“I’m shouting in my heart.”) Rather, we need to seek to apply these Scriptures in a way that truly honors God and edifies the church.

More to come next week.

Read Part 2 of How Do We Grow in Physical Expressiveness in Worship?

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12 Responses to How Do We Grow in Physical Expressiveness in Worship? Pt. 1

  1. Dion Lowe May 23, 2006 at 6:19 PM #

    Thanks for starting this topic! I am waiting with bated breath, for I too lead worship in a fairly (okay, extremely) un-expressive and un-responsive church.

    God bless,

    Dion Lowe

  2. Timothy Smith May 26, 2006 at 5:23 PM #

    I’m looking forward to your comments.

    My current understanding is that not all bodily expression are equally appropriate at all times. Even though David “danced” (whirled or whatever it was) when the ark was brought into the Jerusalem there is no indication this was repeated in Temple worship.

    Psalm 150 appears to be a call to make all of life sacred – even those parts outside of the temple – and was not a call to make Temple more like the rest of life. The Psalm before it calls for worshipping with swords and on beds – pretty unlikely these were actually part of Temple worship.

    I envision these Psalms (i.e. 81,149,150) as calling us to bring Hollywood and Nashville to be more like Temple Worship rather than to make Temple worship to be more like Hollywood and Nashville.

    For example, the evidence is thin that the tambourine was ever used in Temple worship. It is not listed in any of the lists of “the instruments of David” in Chronicles-Nehemiah in the texts given to specifically record David’s instructions for Temple worship. Absence of Tambourines in Temple worship is evidence that dancing was not part of Temple worship – the link of tambourines and dancing is very strong in Scripture. The places tambourines are mentioned (Psalm 81,149, 150) seem to indicate worship outside of the Temple during times of National celebrations of festivals.

    Regardless of what we think of tambourines and dancing in the Temple, discussion about bodily movement in worship must necessarily entail a theology of church worship in this age versus what worship might be when all of creation is renewed as a cosmic Temple in the age to come.

  3. Jordan Roberts December 10, 2007 at 11:37 PM #

    I love what you said about how physical expression isn’t a main point, but it does bring about a reflection of an inward reality. I go to Manhattan Christian College and we have chapel every tuesday morning. When we look at this more closely we see that when we have a negative attitude towards physically expressing ourselves before God, we become focused on how it affects us. “Who is looking at us? Did they see me with my hands raised? Oh dear…”
    We even sing about how we will fall to our knees before God, but yet, we still stand and stare out the window.

  4. Catherine Alicia December 13, 2007 at 9:15 PM #

    I agree with a lot of things that you have had to say. You are right when you say “physical expression isn’t a main point,” but it is still a point. I am all for physical expression, but I do think that there has to be a balance with physical expression. I think that there has to be a balance of all the different aspects of expression during worship. There should be times to physically dance, but then there also should me times of silence. There should be times of singing, and times of reading. You get the point.

    There are those that do nothing but jump around a say “amen” over and over again and then there is the other side that stands there silent and still. I do not think either is wrong, and we all probably should spend some time doing both. God wants all of us and he wants our worship to be out of the overflow of our love for him. I think we need to worship God the way he has created us to worship. That is if you are an expressive person then be expressive in your worship for God. If you are a more silent person then be that. God has made us all different, so we will all worship different.

    As far as growing physical worship I think people just need to be at a place where they are comfortable, and know that physical expression is okay. That is kind of sad to write because you think that people should be comfortable physically expressing themselves to God anywhere. Maybe people just need a comfortable place to start out with…I am not sure.

  5. A. ward January 13, 2008 at 6:35 PM #

    What great thoughts!
    Like many other Americans I attend a church that is very reserved in physical expression to God. And while I do NOT downplay looking into scripture at ALL, I do think that as we do this we have to remember all of the cultural influence that were on the Jews as they worshipped in the temple. Yes, the church must remain Holy… set apart from the world, but it also must remain relevent, and able to reach people within the world. As I have studied worship, i have seen that there is no real standards or plans for style, and as far as I can see, this topic, of physical expression is merely one of style.
    I do agree with many of the comments above that there is a lot of hinderance and insecurity holding people back from dancing and celebrating to the Lord. Sometimes when i would like to lift my hands in celebration to the Lord, I am held back by fear of what others think. This is a problem! And at the other end, there is a problem in churches where there is much physical expression to God. I was in Kenya this summer in churches like this! In a discussion with one of them, I saw him admit to sometimes dancing to the Lord for the attention of others (not God). This is a problem!
    In other words, maybe our physical style is just like everything else in the Christian life… is a matter of the heart and intentions more than a matter of what is actually expressed.

  6. Benjamin January 27, 2008 at 1:05 PM #

    This is a difficult issue. Thanks for speaking about it. I used to be way more expressive physically in worshiping God as a kid and adolescent. I think this is because of the atmosphere where I worshipped. It wasn’t awkward to run around, dance, lift hands, or bow. There were people doing all these things or simply just standing in awe. Whatever joyous expression I wanted to do was not going to attract people’s attention on me because they were doing the same. Since moving away from home, I have been to corporate worship services where homage and joy are not outwardly expressed. Of course, these things are not forbidden, but to do them would make a scene and I don’t want to be the center of attention. Maybe subconsciously people think to dance and shout and lift hands is immature and by not doing those things they feel they are growing up. I don’t know. All that really matters is that God is worshipped and glorified. And if inwardly is a way you can do that, then I guess that’s fine. But there most definitely needs to be teaching on the appropriateness of physical expression in worshipping God. And I think you did that very well in this posting. People need to understand and be aware of the descriptive approaches to worshiping that are evident throughout Scripture.

  7. SGT D. Hall July 16, 2008 at 3:46 AM #

    The age old question that I fear will not be answered on this earth is how to “correctly” worship God. On one side, there is the fear of the Lord and on the other, the God who created music and worship. He is the Alpha and Omega, the same forever, so how do we distinguish between the two revelations of God to us? Through my prayer, the only suitable answer that I can sustain is to let the Holy Spirit guide me, give me answers, and as sure as He lives in me to lead me down the right roads. Theologically there is an area that God, I believe, purposefully leaves to us to decide. Not because He doesn’t care, nor because He wants us to argue or fight over it. I believe that He leaves this area to us because it tests our faith in Him. Let’s face it, God requires faith from us in every aspect of our lives, so why would this be any different? When God leaves something for us to decide, He’s allowing us to be tested to see if we will remain faithful to Him, or if we’ll make the decision of our dad and mom (Adam and Eve). Will we turn from the temptation to Glorify ourselves, and honor God? It’s a tough one, through prayer and selfless worship I know that He will guide each of us to our answer. Unfortunately, I doubt that God will reveal the answer to us on this earth, that would negate the faith He requires from us.

  8. Zac Hicks October 9, 2009 at 6:00 PM #

    Definitely appreciating this post. I’m leading worship in a church where we’ve still got a lot to learn about this subject. I recently offered a post along similar lines and it brought in a lot of interesting discussion:
    http://www.zachicks.com/blog/2009/9/11/raising-hands-in-worship-its-about-obedience-not-emotions.html

  9. linda ngcebetsha March 30, 2012 at 5:04 PM #

    I think physisical expression happens naturally because it reflects how the worshiper feels when she/he worships God. The Holy Spirit will lead the worshiper to act in many different ways. It is better to obey the spirit because you don’t know what happens in the spirit realm when you do what the Spirit leads you to do. The worshiper,s actions might be tools to unlock God’s blessing, heal the sick,etc you may never know. Physical expression comes from within.

    • Bob Kauflin March 30, 2012 at 5:15 PM #

      Linda, thanks for stopping by and commenting. The Holy Spirit will never cause a person to act in such a way that contradicts what He’s told us in his Word. What we do when we’re with other Christians should be edifying to them, that is, it should build them up. It’s possible for me to think that some physical expression is what the Spirit wants me to do. But if it is distracting or disturbing to those around me, I should think of another way to express what’s in my heart. Ultimately, no one physical expression is crucial to “unlocking God’s blessing.” The Spirit moves where and when He wills. Our job is to be faithful to magnify the works and worthiness of God in Jesus Christ.

  10. Laurie December 9, 2012 at 6:04 AM #

    If you have a person that doesn’t dance (to any music), doesn’t cheer at sporting events and hardly ever gets overly excited that person is hardly going to start clapping and swaying during worship. I think that reserved people (like myself) are tempted to become hypocrites in order to “fit in” with the “lively worshippers”. In my opinion, Noone should be encouraged to be what they are not while at the same time we should refrain from judging those who are not as we.

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