Worship: Are Physical Expressions and Emotions Essential?

Worship: Are Physical Expressions and Emotions Essential? May 15, 2024

Crowd with hands raised in worship
There’s a spectrum of views among Christians about how physical our worship should be in Church. Unsplash

Worshiping God with your whole body, mind and spirit

Most Christians would agree that worship is an act that should engage the whole person including our emotions, and reflect a heart posture that seeks to honour God.

But how should our bodies be involved with this? One of the biggest differences between churches today is in the how congregations tend to use their bodies in worship.  In charismatic churches you will see a lot of hand raising, clapping, and sometimes even dancing.  In traditional churches the congregation will kneel to pray.  In many conservative evangelical churches historically the only bodily expression seen would be to stand to sing and sit to hear preaching.  Some Christians have taught that bodily expressions in worship are unnecessary and could even be unhelpful, by introducing too much emotion, which would distract our minds from focussing on the truths about God we should be focussing on in our worship.  But, before we get into this in too much detail, what is worship and why does it matter?

What is worship and are we missing something?

A.W. Tozer wrote remarkably provocatively about worship. He claimed:

Worship is the missing jewel in modern evangelicalism. We’re organized; we work; we have our agendas. We have almost everything, but there’s one thing that the churches, even the gospel churches, do not have: that is the ability to worship. We are not cultivating the art of worship. It’s the one shining gem that is lost to the modern church, and I believe that we ought to search for this until we find it.

I think I ought to talk a little more about what worship is and what it would be like if it were in the church. Well, it’s an attitude, a state of mind, a sustained act, subject to degrees of perfection and intensity. As soon as He sends the Spirit of His Son into our hearts we say “Abba” and we’re worshiping. That’s one thing. But it’s quite another thing to be worshipers in the full New Testament sense of the word and up to our possibilities.

God wants us to worship Him. He doesn’t need us, for He couldn’t be a self-sufficient God and need anything or anybody, but He wants us. When Adam sinned it was not he who cried, “God, where art Thou?” It was God who cried, “Adam, where art thou?”

 Tozer, A.W. and Foster, M.E. (2007) Tozer on the Holy Spirit: A 366-day devotional. Camp Hill, PA: WingSpread.

God is seeking worshippers!

Jesus told the first female evangelist  that worship is crucial and when he was sitting at a well in Samaria:

A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. (John 14:23, NIV)

Worship then, according to Jesus requires our whole beings.  Jesus  also quotes the Old Testament when he commands us:

And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.  (Mark 12:30, NLT)

Strength is clearly a physical word and reflects our bodies.  Jesus words surely teach us that loving God and hence our worship of him is not just an inner spiritual exercise but a holistic experience involving our entire being—body, soul, and spirit.

Romans 12:1 tells us to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” which most Christians today assume refers only to moral behaviour with our bodies and how we live our lives. But what if God is asking for more than that, and requires a physical act demonstrating our offering of ourselves to him?

Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His Holiness; the nourishment of mind with his truth; the purifying of imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of will to his purpose—and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin. Yes—worship in spirit and truth is the way to the solution of perplexity and to the liberation from sin.”

Source: William Temple, Readings in St. John’s Gospel (Macmillan, 1947), 68. Cf. similar passage in The Hope of a New World (1940), 30 cited in   Stott, J. (2018) The Preacher’s Notebook: The Collected Quotes, Illustrations, and Prayers of John Stott. Edited by M. Meynell. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

No wonder the psalmist writes:

You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water. (
Psalm 63:1)

So I think we can all agree that there is clearly a biblical urge for us to be genuine and earnest in our worship. Are bodily expressions part of us demonstrating this sincerity? Or are they superflous?

As a student I attended St Helen’s Bishopsgate in the evenings having attended a charismatic church in the morning.  I enjoyed the teaching but found the worship service very unfamiliar.  I somewhat precociously arranged to meet the minister, Dick Lucas for coffee midweek.  I wanted to challenge him about why, in my view, the worship  at his church was not following the biblical norms.  I told him how I appreciated how the preaching was so focussed on the Bible, and asked why we didn’t follow the psalms which speak about clapping, raising hands, shouting, and dancing to the Lord.  I eagerly awaited a theological answer. But Dick Lucas looked over the top of his glasses and said simply “Don’t you think that’s all a little bit self indulgent, Adrian?”  At the time I was convinced this was evidence of a blind spot in this great preacher of God’s Word and it made me wonder what my own blind spots are.   Perhaps one of them back then was the value of quietness and restraint at times in worship. For sure there can be a value in solemn worship which can be missing in an enthusiastic charismatic service.  We surely all have something to learn from different kinds of churches. 

The church I have recently joined  is much more conservative than what I have been used to. So it is no surprise that most people do not raise hands, clap, and certainly not dance.  But thankfully such physical expressions are not frowned upon and so a few of us will raise our hands, clap, and I have spotted some people swaying a bit.

There’s a spectrum of views among Christians about how physical our worship should be:

1. Worship must be physical

On one end of the spectrum, some argue for the freedom to express one’s love and adoration for God through all the various physical forms, This view would be supported by both biblical examples and the idea that worship should be a joyful celebration.

The Bible example urges us in many places to use our bodies in worship. this includes clapping, shouting, dancing, raising our hands, falling on our faces, and other expressions of emotion. Many Christians would argue that all these expressions are not mere outward displays but are deeply rooted in the acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty, majesty, and love.

Some say that it was the Reformers’ emphasis on the intellectual side of the gospel and stripping church services back to the basics that led to a over simplification of  our worship and hence a lack of emotion and physical expression:

The Reformers’ emphasis on the biblical word and corresponding de-emphasis on the senses resulted in the triumph of spirit over matter, and of the intellect over sight, sound, and movement. In our day, the former balance is being restored as worship forms begin again to engage the whole person.

Sloyan, Gerard S. “Symbols of God’s Presence to the Church: Verbal and Nonverbal.” Theology Today 2001, Vol. 58 (3), pp: 304–320. ISSN: 0040–5736 cited in  Sailer, W., Christman, J. C., Greulich, D. C., Scanlin, H. P., Lennox, S. J., & Guistwite, P. (2012). Religious and Theological Abstracts. Religious and Theological Abstracts.

There does seem to be a gradual change happening in many churches moving towards this position:

“Praise singing is an emotional expression of joy accompanied by physical movement. Whatever its theological deficiencies, it will exert an increasing influence on Christian worship in all denominations.”

Wohlgemuth, Paul W. “Praise Singing.” Hymn 1987, Vol. 38 (1), pp: 18–23. ISSN: 0018–8271 cited in Sailer, W., Christman, J. C., Greulich, D. C., Scanlin, H. P., Lennox, S. J., & Guistwite, P. (2012). Religious and Theological Abstracts. Religious and Theological Abstracts.

Maybe you have never experienced a powerful, enthusiastic worship session.  If so, I thought I would share this video recorded at Newday, a Christian youth conference. The song talks about physical expressions of worship but also WHY the congregation are encouraged to be excited for Jesus:

As another writer explains, charismatic worship can sometimes  be quite remarkable:

“Emotional Expression of Worship Allowed, Even Encouraged

No-one could miss the excitement of charismatic worship. A leader will positively encourage his congregation to ‘let the Lord see that you love him’ and probably a forest of hands will be raised heavenwards. Others may simply gaze upwards, eyes tight closed in concentration . . . some will step out into an aisle and dance before the Lord . . .

Most charismatics would see this as a wonderful freedom, much more to be desired than the spiritual frigidity (as they perceive it) to be found in many other traditions, where a smile might be regarded as a major and suspect event. They regard their emotional and physical expressions of worship as desirable and biblical . . .

Arm raising could be seen as a very rough parallel to the embrace of a couple or the handwaving and clapping accorded to the famous. Neither of these types of behaviour is considered inappropriate in those contexts; why should they be so with God?

As far as biblical support is concerned, charismatics wonder how others find it possible to ignore the instructions and encouragements to enter joyfully and enthusiastically into the worship of the Lord . . .

Some argue with charismatics that these exuberant expressions of worship belong only among Old Testament people. . . It seems more than a little arbitrary to preach everything else in (for example) the Psalms but omit references to the manner of worship. Those who wish to edit out these sections must surely find hermeneutical or theological justification for removing them; the onus is not on charismatics for leaving them in. Others say that extrovert behaviour was natural to Middle Eastern culture and cannot be commanded for others. In response, charismatics point out that not all cultural variations are negotiable. Our reserve may be wrong, and we need to learn how to ‘let go’ of our inhibitions before the Lord.

Brown, A. (2002). Charismatically-Orientated Worship. In D. A. Carson (Ed.), Worship: adoration and action (pp. 182–183). Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Psalm 150:1 says “Let everything that has breath Praise the Lord”  As a child I remember being taught that if you haven’t clapped, danced, sang and shouted enough that you have no breath left you haven’t worshipped vigorously enough or for long enough!

But not everyone agrees and there is an opposite end to the spectrum of views on physical expression in worship:

2. Worship should be internal only

On the other end, some call for restraint, claiming worship is all about the inner heart rather than physical expressions. This view emphasises the importance of sincerity and believes that demonstrative acts may well distract or detract from real worship. This view is supported by the following writer:

“Worshiping in the spirit has nothing to do with our physical posture. It has to do with our innermost being”

(Got Questions Ministries. (2002–2013). Got Questions? Bible Questions Answered. Logos Bible Software.)

In discussing a solemn yet very expressive time of worship recorded in Nehemiah 7, one author discusses the possible reasons why many might feel we need not follow this example.  But they also cite a danger of us deciding outward expressions might not be required at all:

The setting was solemn, but it was evidently not inhibiting. The people cried “Amen”, raised their hands in prayer and prostrated themselves in adoration. Certain modern church movements have sought to recapture something of this self-expression. For others it seems to be, well, overdoing it a bit! Of course, the preferences of ancient Israel cannot be made the measure of acceptable style in modern worship. Our spiritual forefathers were informed by their culture, as we are. For the Hebrew, emotion inevitably expressed itself in physical attitude. This was because the self was conceived as a unity to a far greater extent than in most modern western culture, where there has been, in many reaches of the Church, a reaction against externalism in religion and a concentration upon inwardness. This is well and good apart from the constant danger that, when outward expression of emotion has been abolished, the vaunted inner passion can be well gone before anyone—including the person concerned—has noticed!

McConville, J. G. (1985). Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther (p. 117). Westminster John Knox Press. (emphasis added)

I do agree that there is a risk that if we ban all physical expressions of our worship, then over time the internal heart felt nature of our worship may well also disappear.

Some instead argue that the physical worship of the Old Testament has been totally been replaced by spiritual worship in the New.

The word proskuneō, “worship,” means to encounter God and praise Him. The Jews had done this for centuries—some with reality and others just in form. Unfortunately, many Jews had become far too dependent on a physical place, the Temple, for their worship. When Jesus arrived on the scene, He proclaimed that He was the temple of God; in resurrection, He would provide the spiritual dwelling where God the Spirit and people, in spirit, could have spiritual communion (Matt. 12:6; John 2:19–22). In other words, worship would no longer be in a place but in a person—through Jesus Christ and His Spirit the worshipers could come directly to God (John 14:6; Heb. 10:19–20).

This shift in worship—from physical to spiritual—is the theme of John 4, a chapter that recounts Jesus’ visit to the Samaritans.

Carpenter, E. E., & Comfort, P. W. (2000). In Holman treasury of key Bible words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew words defined and explained (p. 426). Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Could it be that the best place to land is somewhere in-between the two extremes:

3. Everyone should be free to worship as they choose

Somewhere in the middle is a much more neutral view. This would propose that we create an environment in which physical expression is neither demanded from everyone in unison, nor banned from anyone who might want to express themselves physically.  This approach would allow every believer to worship in a way that is truly authentic to their own personal relationship with God. Whether you prefer to raise your hands, or to bow your head, the aim should always be to glorify God, drawing near to Him with a pure and sincere heart.

Whatever our view we ought to embrace diversity within the global Church. True unity is not found in uniformity of expression but in our shared desire to worship Jesus who is worthy of all praise.

One writer explores what we today should make of the profound displays of emotion seen in several scenes in the book of Ezra:

What comes through to us in this picture of celebration is the deep and profound emotion of the people expressing itself in shouts of joy and loud weeping. It was, in fact, a very noisy act of worship. ‘The people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off’ (3:13).

The place of emotion in worship has long been a controversial subject among Christians. On the one hand there have been those who have discouraged any expression of emotion in worship, believing it can be dangerous, since people can get carried away by their feelings with disastrous results .  .  .

What are we to make of it all? I believe we need to be very discerning, and not too ready to write off all forms of emotion in worship as merely hysterical, psychological, or even satanic. After all, we are not made of concrete, and God created us with emotions. Also, we must beware of being so concerned with seemliness and order in worship that it degenerates into a dead formality and cold intellectualism. Let us face it: we have good sound Bible-believing churches where the members of the congregation could not shout ‘hallelujah’ to save their lives!

In the end, it is all a matter of wisdom, and keeping a balance between the mind and the heart, for the Holy Spirit ministers to both. Something that has helped me to keep the whole question of emotion in worship in perspective is a quotation from C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters: ‘To express the spiritual through the natural is like translating from a richer language into a poorer language. We have only the emotion of laughter to express the most foul obscenities and most Godly joy; we have only the emotion of tears to express the most selfish and worldly feelings and the most Godly sorrow. Therefore, we must not be unduly surprised that spiritual rejoicings are so similar in their outward manifestations as rejoicings of the more worldly kind.’

 Williams, P. (2006). Opening up Ezra (pp. 47–49). Day One Publications.

Perhaps over time Christian churches are beginning to meet gradually in a new middle ground as this writer suggests:

Liturgical worship can be “cold and formal,” its prayers can use “archaic language” and be so repetitious as to breed “indifference,” and it can fail to “express the intimate desires and the changing aspirations” of the worshiper.

Free worship, it is said, is spontaneous and elastic, can claim roots in apostolic practice, and is not far removed from the nature and practice of private prayer. According to John Bishop, “It is capable of reaching great heights and of deeply moving the worshipper. It allows for a tenderness of heart and a nearness to God that are not possible under any set form.”

On the contrary, free worship can be practiced slovenly and in a disordered manner . . . But contemporary worship is also being drawn away from its historical extremes into greater commonality.

 Garrett, J. L., Jr. (2014). Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical (Second Edition, Vol. 2, p. 656). Wipf & Stock.

 

Certainly we need to recover something more of a truly genuine heartfelt worship that is the output of our whole selves as Grudem puts it:

God continually “seeks” (John 4:23) those who will worship him in the spiritual realm and therefore those whose spirit as well as body and mind is worshiping God. Such worship is not optional because those who worship God “must worship in spirit and truth” (v. 24). Unless our spirits are worshiping God we are not truly worshiping him.

An attitude of worship comes upon us when we begin to see God as he is and then respond to his presence.  . .  Therefore genuine worship is not something that is self-generated or that can be worked up within ourselves. It must rather be the outpouring of our hearts in response to a realization of who God is.

It is appropriate to ask whether there is much genuine, deep, heartfelt worship in our churches . . .  If genuine worship is lacking in our churches, we should ask how we can bring ourselves to experience much more of the depth and richness of worship, which is the natural response of the believing heart to a clear awareness of God’s presence and character

 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (pp. 1010–1011). Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

 

The following summary encapsulates the breadth of perspectives on physical expressions in worship, advocating for a balanced approach that prioritises the heart’s intention over the type of expression:

There are many activities we do in this life as Christians that we won’t do in heaven. However, there is one activity we will continue to do in heaven: worship. We will worship God forever. Given this, we can look at worship in this life as a kind of practice for eternity . . .

Worship involves the physical and emotional aspects of human personhood, which often finds expression though music and song. But fundamentally, worship is an acknowledgment of who God is and what He has done. Incorporating our bodily and emotional responses, worship is also an intelligent expression that involves the mind. Jesus said we should love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). This means our worship should fully engage everything within us as we dwell on the greatness of God.

 Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., Whitehead, M. M., Grigoni, M. R., & Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible. Lexham Press.

 

I will be looking in more detail at specific physical ways of worshipping God in a series of posts right here on this blog.  If you do not want to miss any of these posts, why not subscribe to the blog on email? Or follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Threads.

Over to you: What do you think? What should our worship be like?

 


This series of articles makes heavy use of Logos Bible Software. If you do not yet have this wonderful Bible Study tool or you are due an upgrade, readers of this blog get a 10% discount.


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