The Missing Piece in Debates about Physical Expression in Worship

Zac HicksChurch & Ecclesiology2 Comments

Lunette with Orante. From early Christian fresco, second half of the third century. Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, Italy. Photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY. Yesterday in worship, I encouraged our congregation to respond to the preaching of the Word of God by engaging in a physical act on the final verse of our closing hymn, “Jesus, with Thy Church Abide.”  I reminded them that early Christian art (shown here) depicts at least some Christian worshipers praying in nearly the opposite physical manner that we do—eyes open, body standing, heads lifted, and hands raised.  (I found the above depiction on the cover of the outstanding work, Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth Century Jerusalem, by Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, and John Witvliet.) So, on the final verse, we all raised our hands together, 300-strong, and sang:

May she holy triumphs win
Overflow the hosts of sin
Gather all the nations in
We beseech Thee, hear us

Not only did it look powerful, it felt powerful.  It was as if we were all affirming the one, long prayer which was that day’s service with a rousing, full-hearted, “Amen.”  I’m sure it made some people uncomfortable.  But I bet it made some people’s hearts jolt into alignment so that our prayer was more spiritually unified.  The body has that kind of effect on the soul.

Some worship thinkers balk at this idea that we can corporately dictate people’s actions in a worship service.  It’s heavy-handed, they say.  It forces inauthenticity on people, they say.  People should be free to do as they feel led by the Spirit to do, they say.  Though it might not be uniquely so, this is a very American line of thinking.  Scratch just beneath the surface of these well-meaning defenses, and the American value of rugged individualism is exposed.

The irony here is that God has been in the business, for thousands of years, of dictating what people do and how people act in worship.  If you read the Psalms like an ancient Israelite rather than a modern Westerner, you realize quite quickly how the imperatives of worship1 would have hit the gathered body.  The commands would have been heard as a call to corporate action.  Ancient Near Easterners would have scratched their heads at a pastor who, before the Call to Worship, would say, “Welcome, everyone!  We’re glad that you’re here.  Today is about you experiencing God afresh, so feel free to worship however you feel.  If that means standing up for you, stand up.  If that means sitting down for you, sit down.  No one’s judging you.  This is between you and God.”

You see, the (big) missing piece in many of our discussions of physical expression in corporate worship is precisely the line of thinking that addresses our corporate actions as a body.  Too often, we pastors and worship leaders frame worship in a way that makes it seem like it’s supposed to be everyone’s personal, individual encounter with God.  It’s like we’re all supposed to have an ecstatic, private devotional experience…and we just happened to be all gathered in one room in the same time and place.  This is one of the reasons that I as a worship leader try to balance having my eyes closed and having them open.  Having them open, looking around at the people of God, has the effect of slapping my spirit into remembering, “Hey, buddy, this is corporate worship!”

It probably would be a healthy move for us to encourage our congregations, in small, strategic ways, to engage in a few simple corporate actions, especially the kind that get relegated to the individualized realm (like hand-raising). 

A bit of a side note: Some of my thoughtful worship blogger buddies have disparaged what they deem as the pointless “oh” sections of worship songs, like Hillsong United’s “With Everything,” or Hillsong Live’s “Praise Him” (yes, Hillsong does a lot of that), or some versions of Redman’s “10,000 Reasons.”  Interestingly, I’ve found through experiencing it in various corporate settings that everyone singing a syllable like “oh” in a high vocal range (usually they’re hovering well above middle C) gives the congregation a chance to shout for joy, as one body.  It’s one, big, corporate shout of praise…which is a very biblical notion.  It’s a smart way for a composer to “dictate” a corporate action on a body of worshipers.  I think it’s pretty remarkable.

So, the encouraging word here is to remember how “imposed” corporate action fits into the discussion of physical expression in worship, and the admonition is for pastors and worship leaders to aid the spiritual development of your people by finding strategic ways to build continue to build this into the doxological repertoire of Sunday worship.


More posts on physical expression in worship: 




1 Check out a nice summary of corporate worship actions in the Bible (not just in the Psalms) from Mike Farley’s outstanding presentation at the Bifrost Arts conference a few years ago: “Liturgical Body Building: The Formative Role of the Body in Worship.” 

2 Comments on “The Missing Piece in Debates about Physical Expression in Worship”

  1. Hi Zac! I've read a couple of your blogposts after being sent them three times **on the same day** by various friends. I'm in Sydney Australia and conducted my MPhil dissertation on Hillsong music, which was published in 2010. I'm now doing my PhD at Fuller Theological Seminary, looking at indigenous Australian (and by that I mean Aboriginal) worship, and investigating the effect on participation in Aboriginal-led Pentecostal congregations upon social engagement and also individual member wellbeing. Anyways, thought I'd say that I really appreciated this post, and your reflections upon the function of the 'woah' sections in the Australian songs. Some of the most profound solidarity was forged through drinking rituals in Australia, and there weren't many words… of course, we hope that this also extends into theological reflection in the community of God, but I think your post hit the nail on the head, so to speak.
    Tanya Riches.

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