Physical Expressiveness in Worship, Pt. 5

In response to the series I did on physical expressiveness in corporate worship, I received a follow-up question from the gentleman who originally asked the question. It was pretty extensive, but this was his closing query:

Bottom, Bottom, Lowest of Bottom Lines: Am I exegetically, theologically, homiletically accurate when I say, “God COMMANDS us to CLAP our hands!”? Or should it be softened to “God ENCOURAGES us to express our love and worship to Him using our bodies?” And then let people do what they’re comfortable with.

Great question. And I want to commend him for seeking to pinpoint as clearly as possible what God tells us in His Word and what He doesn’t tell us.

In a set of unpublished notes from a course he has taught, Iain Duguid suggests that three possibilities exist when we are dealing with commands for corporate worship from the Old Testament.

  1. It’s a command that points forward to fulfillment in Jesus, so it no longer applies. Animal sacrifices would be the most obvious example.
  2. It’s a command that applies enduringly and universally to all of God’s people and should be obeyed. For instance we are never to worship idols nor worship God in a merely external manner.
  3. It’s a command that reflects cultural and local practices given to ethnic Israel, which do not govern us directly but merely in “their general equity.”

It would be a stretch to say that lifting hands, shouting, or dancing, for instance, has been fulfilled in Jesus. But does that mean they are commands that are always to be obeyed when we gather to exalt God? That would be a hard case to make as well. I know I used to think that if I wasn’t jumping up and down at some point my worship of God was insincere or somehow inadequate. But, if that’s true, does that mean senior saints, those who are paralyzed, and uncoordinated people are in sin? No.

So that leaves us with the third category – culturally related commands that need to be applied in our specific context. However, I think we can do better than simply tell people, “Interpret these Scriptural commands for physical expressiveness in way you feel comfortable with.” That doesn’t address those who don’t show physical expression in worship due to laziness, selfishness, fear of man, or other idolatries. It also doesn’t acknowledge that many different “cultures” may exist in our culture, and that the church in many ways is called to be counter-cultural.

This is an example of the danger of looking for specific rules and commands to follow in gathered worship to make sure we’re doing everything “right.” We too easily justify ourselves before God by what we do or don’t do, and end up missing the weightier issue of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Rather than arguing whether a specific command applies to us at this specific moment, it’s better to ask, “Do our minds, hearts, and bodies reflect the overall biblical case for how we are to respond to God?”

Clearly, in both Old and New Testaments, God expects our bodies to reflect our heart’s desire to exalt his name and glory when we meet together. He gives us various ways that please him, one of the most prominent being singing. However shouting, dancing, lifting hands, bowing, kneeling are also physical expressions that can honor God when done from the heart in faith.

So, to someone who insisted that God doesn’t “command” us to clap our hands so therefore we don’t have to do it, I would ask the following questions:

  1. Assuming that God want us to exalt Him with our bodies, what physical expressions of praise in Scripture do you think ARE appropriate in corporate worship? How do you distinguish between what’s appropriate and what’s not?
  2. Do you think that all forms of physical expressiveness are natural, or that they can be learned?
  3. Is there a possibility that your resistance to physical expression is more rooted in laziness, lack of understanding, or a craving for people’s respect? How do you know?
  4. Is singing appropriate for worshipping God? If so, why not shouting? (Ps. 71:23; 81:1)
  5. Are there any physical expressions of worship modeled or commanded in the Bible that you’ve never engaged in? If so, why not?

I’m sure there are other questions that could be asked. Maybe you can suggest some. But I think these questions would be enough to get a meaningful conversation going, resulting in the individual examining his or heart more thoroughly to see where they might seek to exalt our Savior more sincerely, wholeheartedly, and passionately – which should be the main focus from start to finish.

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10 Responses to Physical Expressiveness in Worship, Pt. 5

  1. dan mcgowan July 1, 2006 at 9:57 AM #

    Hi Bob,

    This topic…tends to be much more of a stumbling block and a release of worship for many believers… in fact, I just wrote about this the other day over at my blog – an entry called, “HOW Do We Worship.”

    I like the way you attempted to bring order and wisdom and balance to the question raised – however – I don’t fully agree with where you went with it. I happen to be someone who DOES believe God DESIRES us to worship Him AS HE HAS SHOWN US in scripture – and that, as your questioner suggested – it is not ENCOURAGEMENT – it is a COMMAND.

    I don’t really go down the road of “well, gee, what about our older saints?” Here’s why. The physical expressions, while expected of us (and I believe they are) – are simply EXTENSIONS of a HEART issue. This is why we always fall back on “only God knows the heart.” Cuz, well, he does! He knows if my HEART is “lifting hands” or “clapping hands” or “falling prostrate before Him.” The issue comes with those of us who are CAPABLE of expressing ourselves physically to the Lord in our worship – but CHOOSE NOT TO. That if FAR different from someone who is bound in a wheelchair and who is so deeply moved in their worship of God that – inside – they are dancing up a storm FOR the Lord in their worship – we just don’t SEE it on the outside.

    So – – – First, our HEART worship must follow what scripture reveals for us in terms of HOW we are to worship the Lord. Second, I believe, IF WE ARE ABLE, then we match the physical with the heart and worship the Lord with every means listed for us in scripture. And to choose NOT to do this – well, for me, it borders on disobedience…

  2. Ken July 1, 2006 at 11:56 PM #

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for a great series. I have written a summary and posted a few thoughts on my blog. There are numerous times when I have discussed with our worship leaders the issue of how to help people grow in their physical expression in worship. Thanks for sharing your ideas with us.

  3. Heidi July 2, 2006 at 8:17 AM #

    I agree with the comment about the action being merely an outward display of what’s going on inside the heart. I remember as a child the first time I felt led to raise my hands in worship. At my church only very few dared to half-raise a hand, and the closest thing to dancing may have been one or two people slowly swaying. I was kinda scared (I think I was about 7) but I did raise my hands…higher and higher! Soon I would slip to the back of the church where I wouldn’t be a distraction and even dance in praise.

    However, sometimes I find it much more meaningful to not do anything, in fact to even stop singing completely! If you can worship God in song, can you not also worship God in silence as well?

    Basically I view the worship time in church as a mere launching pad into doing whatever consitutes “worshipping God” to me. Good post.

  4. Thabiti July 4, 2006 at 8:14 PM #

    Bob,

    Thank you so much for serving the Body with this blog! I am a NOVICE when it comes to thinking through these issues. I’ve much to learn– and much to catch up on with my reading on this subject!

    Couple questions:

    1. When does MY heart’s response become “each man doing what is right in his own eyes?” Is there a danger of a wrong kind of individualism here?

    2. Related to the first question, to what extent is the fact that we’re in a corporate gathering to govern the expressions of my heart? How does this issue interact with Paul’s instruction that things done in the corporate gathering should be decent and in order?

    3. Okay… and my nightmare question… any thoughts about how I lead and govern corporate worship in such a way that permits #1 above and applies answers from #2 above (assuming there’s some tension between the answers there)? I mean… what are some wise and practical things to remember when you have to ask that sister/brother to modify their physical expressiveness in the public gathering?

    I praise God for your rich wisdom and passion for the Savior, and thank you for sharing both with us!

    Thabiti

  5. Bob Kauflin July 31, 2006 at 5:12 PM #

    Thabiti,

    I’m going to try to respond to your comments here. Sorry it’s taken me so long!

    1. When does MY heart’s response become “each man doing what is right in his own eyes?” Is there a danger of a wrong kind of individualism here?

    Great question. Physical expressiveness is about what truly glorifies God not simply what I think is right. So, when I’m in the midst of a congregation, one of the ways I worship God is by seeking to edify those around me. Typically, natural, wholehearted expressiveness that is in line with what is being sung or said will have a positive impact on those around me. However, if I find myself in a very quiet congregation (for whatever reasons), I’ll adjust my “volume,” though not my sincerity, so that I won’t be a hindrance to them. I want them to notice my Savior, not me.

    2. Related to the first question, to what extent is the fact that we’re in a corporate gathering to govern the expressions of my heart? How does this issue interact with Paul’s instruction that things done in the corporate gathering should be decent and in order?

    I think I addressed this in my first response. If not, let me know. We have to recognize that “decent and in order” is certainly open to interpretation. I don’t think it automatically means “formal,” nor do I think it means, “whatever isn’t chaotic.” It implies that actions are acceptable, understood, and in line with what is taking place. My question revolves around how much of what we consider to be “decent and in order” is learned? From what I’ve observed, a large part of it. So, I think we’re wise to take our cues from Scripture, and seek to apply the physical expressions God gives us there in a way that is “decent and in order.”

    3. Okay… and my nightmare question… any thoughts about how I lead and govern corporate worship in such a way that permits #1 above and applies answers from #2 above (assuming there’s some tension between the answers there)? I mean… what are some wise and practical things to remember when you have to ask that sister/brother to modify their physical expressiveness in the public gathering?

    Ah yes. We actually have to lead people in this. If you haven’t already done it, I’d read my first four posts on physical expressiveness. I believe I answered that question in my 4th post. If you have more questions, let me know!

  6. Ailin Loh December 24, 2008 at 2:32 AM #

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for bringing up this topic. It has so much to do with my personal life & ministry.

    Even though I’m serving in East Asia… for a decade-long season, I was involved in creative tambourine & dance ministry (currently known as http://www.shachah.org). In that period, I taught classes, choreographed tambourine/dance patterns, help write/ illustrate teaching books, designed dance-worship tools (like flags, timbrels, costumes etc)…

    In the current organisation I’m in, the worship is evangelical in style (i.e. more formal & sedate). Yet, there are various folks, especially the young ones, and local, mainland believer who have taken up this form of expressive worship. For example, my son and 6 other kids will be doing a tamborine & dance choreography, while the locals will also do a flag or dance performance at a chinese Christmas celebration in a stadium tonight!!

    In all these years, I can see that there always has been, and will continue to be a delicious tension between formal & spontaneous expressions of worship, depending on how God leads the various fellowships…

    Personally, I experienced physical liberation, which in turn, released my inner, emotional expressions to come in line with spiritual aspirations to worship.

    In fact, I literally felt my body “break up within, as if thawing” (like from deep freeze) when I first learnt to dance to a christian song…

    It’s true the Scriptures doesn’t record much on specific liturgical expressions… i believe, it’s because most of the readers are Jews and thoroughly acquainted with the temple/worship customs already.

    However, from what I’ve read or learnt, even rabbis dance during weddings. I wouldn’t be surprised that Miriam and friends would already started “practising” celebration dances in the 3 or so months when God was plaguing the Egyptians, leading to the liberation of the Hebrews. To the Jews, every part of their life and community is “religious”, not just during temple rituals. So I believe, to them, community celebrations, victory dances and such like, are not less “spiritual” than temple services.

    On a more personal note, many times I felt my pride brought low, when I chose to obey God’s leading to move out in public expressions of worship, whether using flags, tambourines, dances, or even simple sign movements. It quickly brings me past fears of men & their opinions, and I could sense God’s pleasure upon me.

    • Bob Kauflin December 27, 2008 at 8:54 AM #

      Ailin, what country are you from? Just curious.

  7. Rebecca March 4, 2011 at 10:28 PM #

    Three years later, I know. But I wanted to add something that doesn’t seem to get acknowledged.

    When I hear worship leaders looking for physical expressiveness, they’re almost always looking for movement. But standing *is* physical expression. Being still *is* physical expression. When I am most engaged in worship, I am moving the least.

    If I walked into a kindergarten classroom and saw the kids standing, jumping, dancing, and moving around, I wouldn’t necessarily conclude that they were busily engaged in learning. I might conclude they were totally distracted. My picture of kids engaged in learning, little bodies at tables and desks using the tools of education, determines how I interpret the movement.

    Likewise, when we talk about congregational singing, we tend to think the default must be dancing, clapping, shouting, and a whole host of things that aren’t actually singing. But because we *ask* people to stand, we assign no value to it. We never see the physical response of standing and being still because we’re not looking for it. That doesn’t change the fact that standing and being still and attentive while singing is a valid physical expression.

  8. Evie December 1, 2013 at 12:23 AM #

    I love this series! Thanks for posting.

    I do agree with some of the comments here that we sometimes forget that standing in silence, reverence, and/or awe is a Scriptural “prayer posture.” When we recognize its place in the whole gamut of worship “postures” and expressions, we aren’t one-sided–and I believe we can have a balanced approach!

  9. Miryam August 2, 2016 at 8:52 PM #

    Thank you so much for addressing this question! I’ve been thinking about the swaying movement many Christians do while praying or singing and have wondered purely scientifically where that universal movement comes from, but you’ve answered even better than I’ve wondered! Thanks again!

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