Raising Hands in Church a Distraction? One Pastor’s Perspective

My post Why I Don’t Raise My Hands in Your Church may have had some readers doubting that any Christians could possibly have a problem with a practice that has become standard worship procedure in worship — raising hands.

Let me stress, I don’t have a problem — provided our focus is on worshipping God sincerely in Spirit and truth and not on conforming to external pressures.

I thought one pastor’s perspective on this issue was worth discussing as it represents a significant corner of conservative Evangelical thinking on the subject.  He didn’t request anonymity when giving permission to share these thoughts, but I’ve chosen to keep it anonymous in order to keep the focus on the topic. So here is his perspective  as shared with his congregation:

Why We Don’t Raise Our Hands in Our Church

  1. It is not necessarily a bad practice.  I mean, after all, it is mentioned in the Bible so you wouldn’t think it could be a sin to raise your hands when praising God.  The only problem may be if somehow the raising of hands done today is done with a wrong motive or as a result of inappropriate motivation.  I have seen people in our church raise their hands at times and have never reprimanded them or lectured them on any perceived “evils of hand raising.”
  2. It’s contemporary reintroduction.  This is kind of interesting.  You won’t find too much about people raising their hands in the past 20 centuries.  As far as I know, John Calvin, Martin Luther, or any of the reformers never practiced hand raising.  The Puritans or Anabaptists, Baptists or any of the early mainline denominations didn’t practice this ancient tradition.  The only New Testament reference (that I can remember) about raising hands isn’t in worship but in prayer (1 Tim. 2:8) and it is for men only!  The emphasis in this text is more on their holiness than their posture.  So, a key question to ask is: If Jesus and the apostles do not mention it and we can’t find anything in recent history about it, then how did it suddenly become an issue?  The main reason, as I see it, is that the charismatic movement with its revamped culture has reintroduced it.  Of course they can claim it is because the Bible teaches it, but is it possible they started the practice … and then decided to find support for it from Scripture later?
  3. It may be more of a cultural practice than a command.  Apparently, in David’s era they lifted their hands in worship, but in later times (NT era) they didn’t.  When in Rome . . . (or in Jerusalem during ancient times).
  4. It seems to be properly categorized as a posture.  I would agree with the statement that it is a posture.  It should also be noted that it is not the only posture for worship.  A parallel may help to see this matter.  The command for prayer is given frequently in the Bible.  The exact posture for prayer may vary.  Kneeling is one such posture, laying prostrate is another.  But to say someone is wrong to pray without kneeling or prostrating themselves is wrong.  You may pray without ever kneeling and not sin.  I suspect the lifting of hands has a symbolic meaning of humility and begging, although that symbolism is not clarified in Scripture (to my knowledge).  But the key is in the heart.  One may lift their hands without having the least bit humility.  Furthermore, one may sing or pray without kneeling or raising their hands and yet have the most humble and begging heart possible.  God looks at our hearts more than our posture.
  5. It tends to be more of a distraction than a positive contribution to corporate worship.  Especially in our church where lifting the hands is not a common practice, it tends to be more of a distraction, a drawing attention to the worshipper more than to God.  They may certainly be sincere and well meaning, but if it is not a normal practice in that worship setting, it is better not to practice it then.  It is my observation that some people actually do it more for show than for genuine worship.  I know that sounds SO JUDGMENTAL!  But if you took a poll to find out how many of those people do the same at home in their private worship, I am confident the numbers would be significantly decreased.  If someone only raises their hands in worship when other people are around then who are they doing it for?  On the other side of the issue, I routinely kneel in my private prayer time at home but rarely kneel in a public worship service.  Why?  Because I do not want that particular posture to become a distraction in the public worship service.

 What do you think? Is this an area of Christian liberty in which we should carefully consider brothers and sisters around us? Is hand raising a biblical practice that should be a part of our worship repertoire today or is it a distraction to be shut down? Leave comment below with your thoughts.

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About Bill Blankschaen

Bill Blankschaen is a writer, author, and communicator who empowers people to live a story worth telling. As the founder of FaithWalkers, he equips Christians to think, live, and lead with abundant faith.

His next book entitled Live a Story Worth Telling: A FaithWalker's Guide is scheduled for release in May 2015 from Abingdon Press. His writing has been featured with Michael Hyatt, Ron Edmondson, Skip Prichard, Jeff Goins, Blueprint for Life, Catalyst Leaders, Faith Village, and many others who shall remain nameless.

Bill is a blessed husband and the father of six children with an extensive background in education and organizational leadership. He serves as VP of Content & Operations for Polymath Innovations in partnership with Patheos Labs. He is the Junior Scholar of Cultural Theology and Director of Development for the Center for Cultural Leadership. He works with a variety of ministries including Equip Leadership (founded by John C. Maxwell) when he's not visiting his second home -- Walt Disney World.

  • Jordan Coiro

    Some great thoughts. I Corinthians 8 talks about how Christians should sacrifice their liberty for the good of their brothers and sisters in Christ. Definitely something to think about

    • http://www.BillintheBlank.com/ Bill Blankschaen

      Hye Jordan! I’ve seen liberty used so often to excuse offensive behavior,,,,

      • steve

        wow, bill, really, linking hand raising with offensive behavior

        • http://www.BillintheBlank.com/ Bill Blankschaen

          Not my intent in that comment, but any good thing could be offensive to another… even commenting on blogs.

  • Lisa Hayden Crowder

    1. If someone is distracted because another person in church lifts their hands, then the fault is on the one who is so easily distracted. We cannot condemn another heart. If the hand-raising is insincere, that is before the Lord. For many, raising hands is an act of humility before our awesome Lord, an offering from our hearts.
    2. Historically, the church has had its challenges. Hand raising feels like being prostrate before the Lord when the only space you have to occupy is a vertical 2×2 in a modern crowded sanctuary.
    3. It may be cultural, but it is Biblical and the need for an expression of humility and adoration is appropriate in this setting.
    4. One may pray, sing, kneel, or bow without sincerity. Do we even question? We cannot see a man’s heart. The very act of lifting hands is a posture of submission as are those acts, because we ourselves see it as such. Another may or not, but for us it is true. However, I do not think it is appropriate to command people to lift their hands up in worship from the pulpit. It is a very personal matter of the heart.
    5. Yes. This is judgmental. Why do we go to church, to be like everyone else or earnestly and humbly seek the Lord together? At home, I may worship on my knees, or face down on the floor. At church, see item 2. Perhaps you should do this poll. You may be surprised. Are we David, putting aside kingly robes, hearts dancing before the Lord? Or Michal, questioning the appropriateness of such an act only to be cursed? May we have grace for one another and not fetter a sweet offering. There is appropriate timing, but we cannot know what the Lord is doing in a heart and when. Consider it a blessing if someone lifts their hands in your church. It should mean they are touched by the Holy Spirit, whether it fits your timing or not. I grew up in a proud church where hand-raising was not done. Once a visitor did. Everyone turned around and looked with their disapproving glances. She didn’t notice. Her eyes were closed, face radiant, fixed on heaven. Something about the scene reminded me of Stephen. I finally visited a church where raising hands was welcome and there I found God’s love flowing abundantly through dear servants. I can’t explain the shackles that fell off of my heart when, after months, I humbly lifted my own hands before the Lord in worship with them. My heart danced before our Holy God. May the love and grace of the Heavenly Father, be with you as you teach. May we all put aside our pettiness and humbly demonstrate our love of the Father, with love for one another.

    • bluebayou3

      Amen, Lisa. I also think of lifting hands as the act of a child asking his/her Daddy to pick him or her up. It’s an act of deep devotion, if done from the heart.

    • Beth Petersen

      I enjoyed your comments Lisa, and thank you Bill for the interesting topic of discussion. While some may be insincere in their outward display of devotion, others may feel moved by the spirit to express their devotion and/or submission by raising their hands. Outward gestures in many acts of worship are a way of conforming the body to the will of the spirit. By purposely placing one’s body in a certain pose, one simultaneously places the intellect and will at the service of the object of affection and praise. Even if someone is not sincere in this pose, it would be difficult to take the pose of hand raising and, say, think about your laundry list. Some people may need this “crutch” (for them) if you will, to concentrate on the Lord. At my church, we never practiced hand raising. At another church others were doing it, so I thought I would try it. I was surprised at how much it made me feel connected to God, and separated from those around me. In my mind it was a way of crouding out those around me and just focusing on God. I think it would be a shame to tell someone they shouldn’t express their love for God in this manner during assembly simply because someone might be distracted. If they are distracted….maybe they should lift their arms and try to focus on the Lord…which is where their attention should be. Either way, I don’t feel it is the place of the pastor to “regulate” the manner in which a congregation should worship God. Each individual should concentrate not on whether some one they are standing next of is offended…but do what they feel is most pleasing to God. You cannot dictate someone’s conscience….and if you try to. You’re trying to take away their free will. Don’t try to force (or regulate) a posture on someone while they are worshipping. That is ridiculous…. You may wind up stifling their spirit. Seeing someone raise their hands (even if they are distracted) never stifled their own acts of worship.

  • bluebayou3

    The Scripture says that the Father seeks those who worship Him in spirit and in truth. Whether you sing, clap, kneel, stand, bow your head, take Holy Communion, walk in a processional, participate in liturgical recitations, take part in liturgical dance, or lie prostrate on the floor…it is all well and good if done from a heart of holy fear and reverence before the Lord, and a sense of joy in His salvation. No human being has the right to judge my way of worship, or to say what my motivations are. It is God’s place to say, for He alone knows our hearts.

  • Jennifer Lynn

    I lift my arm in my car to my Christian music, but rarely do so in church because I feel self conscious. Where does that put me?

    • http://www.BillintheBlank.com/ Bill Blankschaen

      Hmmm. I would suggest — suggest, mind you — that if we are doing or not doing anything for fear of what people will think, then we might want to think about what we’re thinking.

      If that makes any sense….

  • Rob Guyor

    When I was watching the MSU/UM game yesterday, I spontaneously jumped out of my easy chair and raised my hands many times. Couldn’t help myself. I was engaged.

    When I worship God in private, perhaps in silence or with worship music, I also raise my hands and some times jump up and dance around a bit. For all of my life, when I pray and worship, I often rock back and forth (similar, perhaps, to the prayer of the Jews at the wall.) And sometimes I catch myself doing this in corporate worship. (And most friends few me as fairly cerebral… maybe a little too much in the head at times.)

    My point… when a person is engaged in something meaningful and is focused on what he’s experiencing, the body is naturally engaged.

    Sure, there are plenty of conservative, white evangelicals that are uncomfortable with these types of expressions in worship. But why? Because they’ve been conditioned this way.

    I was raised in the conservative, Evangelical sub-culture. And when I first began to worship at a church where these types of things are often seen and considered normal, it was a little weird for me… a little uncomfortable…. even though I naturally move toward these postures in private worship. Then a friend graciously suggested that I simply try to focus more on God and not on the others around me…. and reminded me that I truly couldn’t know what was in the heart of anyone around me (those simply standing eyes open, not singing… or the movers & shakers.)

    After a few months, any personal discomfort dissipated. After a year, to object to raising hands, rocking, etc., would have seemed silly. After 15 years, I know nothing else. (And now, as I did this past Sunday, when I visit a very conservative, Evangelical church and people are not engaging in the ways I’m used to seeing, I feel a bit uncomfortable and I have to remind myself not judge others.)

    I know many who were new to the faith who found prayer uncomfortable. The idea of praying out loud with a few friends was very awkward. Of course, after a few experiences, perhaps after a few months, nothing seemed more natural for Jesus people to do. Actually, the same goes for those who are uncomfortable watching others pray for the sick or engage in meaningful prayer/ministry time around specific issues.

    If our northern European Christian ancestry makes us a little up tight, then that’s o.k., but this is truly our issue, not everyone’s. What’s the old conservative adage?… “don’t preach your experience, preach the Word of God.” Well, this certainly works both ways… “Don’t preach your lack of experience, preach the Word of God.” And if the Word of God is fairly silent about what to do with one’s body in worship (and a myriad of other worship “details,”) then perhaps there’s a reason for this.

    One final point… I have spoken with a number of non-Christian friends who are also non-churched. And they admit that whole worship experience can be a bit weird for them. But they are quick to explain that they believe it should be. They expect to encounter something outside of their normal experience.

    One particular friend said she expects, or at least kind of hopes, to experience something transcendent… something out of the ordinary. To somehow see God “show up” in some tangible ways. This same friend expressed disappointment after visiting a large Evangelical church because it was too “normal,”… to “sedate.” She felt like she had just entered “a very large Starbucks full of khaki wearing Christians who came to listen to some mellow music and a 4 point self-help talk.”

    Food for thought, perhaps.

    • http://www.BillintheBlank.com/ Bill Blankschaen

      Great thoughts, Rob! Thanks for sharing.

      Your football analogy just gave me an idea: pizza delivery in worship? Dare we go there? :)

      • Rob Guyor

        Pizza may be too messy… but I can imagine a vendor hawkin’ hot dogs up and down the aisles!

        Actually, I’ve been to a couple of church’s with beautiful and inviting outdoor decks. A great place to gather for a drink or a bite with friends after worship.

        Rob

        • http://www.BillintheBlank.com/ Bill Blankschaen

          :)

  • jozie

    In my walk with Jesus, I’ve noticed how sensitive and in tune to his spirit I’ve become. This didn’t happen over night. I’ve studied much about all different things/topics (I especially was drawn to your “seeker sensitive” article in which I was so blessed to have read as I am in full agreement of your theory) like roots of the early church in relation to which church do I feel is the best at placing God at the center (this has caused much confusion in my experience and I strongly feel something is off axis here, especially for the new Christian) also, music, stage preachers (as I like to refer to them), lighting and sound etc…all have led me to withdraw from moving me more towards a better understanding of it’s about A Holy God and one who Loves us so much and nothing else. If it is not God-Centered and God-Purposed it’s simply Man-Made. Being in tune with the Holy Spirit and worshiping a holy God is KEY, not the man on the stage or the many components surrounding us, whatever they may be (I’ve witnessed and sensed many using things for their ego pride image or self-glorification, it’s easy to get tangled up in yourself and you don’t even realize your doing it until the Holy Spirit adjusts your tuner/dial for lack of a better phrase. We don’t show up on the Lord’s Day for show – I remember attending a “Spirit-filled church where every Sunday this women had a love affair with her tamborine and dance, Eventually, I realized i was not where God wanted me …May the one true Holy God of Israel gently guide your hand and walk with you in spirit and truth…


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