Is it okay to get physically expressive during worship?
After the Together for the Gospel conference, I received a lengthy email 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 [their] 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.