Bringing Worship Back to the Body

Conversations surrounding physical expression in worship are not a new development. In the past twenty years, American Christianity has been quick to relegate degrees of physical expression to a denominational issue, ranging from images of weepy “Charismatics” to those rigid Presbyterians, or more amusingly, the “frozen chosen.” Amidst this sort-of-kidding-sort-of-not dialogue also rests this legendary posture chart from Jon Acuff’s Stuff Christians Like, a concise work cataloguing the weird habits that have become hallmarks for the American Christian subculture. My goal here is not to shame either side, whether physically expressive or more held back, but to show all worshipers that Scripture can point us to deep, meaningful expressions of our whole selves in our journey of faith.

Beneath all the quirky humor, the conversation gets steered away from the biblical foundations of physical expression in worship, which stand in opposition to the general flow of American culture. Historically, and especially through the late 19th and 20th centuries, America has seen a swinging pendulum between spirituality and intellectualism, commonly referred to as the Great Awakenings and Enlightenments. In our present time, our staunch intellectualism compounds with fierce cultural individualism to foster a distrust for emotions and lower priority of our physical selves while we have elevated the mind to kingship. All hail the empirical.

This isn’t all a bad thing. A desire for progress and growth has led to wonderful technological advances and powerful research for the betterment of human life. The issue lies in the imbalance. We do crave and even worship certainty as a nation, so our comfort lies with that which is measurable and easily definable. A problem for our culture and certainly for our worship, however, is that so much of our being does not fit the empirical mold.

You don’t withhold trust from the force of love simply because it cannot be measured. Nor would you deny the power that food can have over your emotions. There is a reason that exercise is so emotionally healing and that solitude is so purifying. Or, the true American suffering - the way the stress that’s in your mind gives you headaches and tension in your shoulders that sometimes need professional help. The mind itself is indeed a very physical thing, with its health fully dependent on a proper balance and interaction between a number of chemicals and their neurological receptors like dopamine and serotonin. All of these truths point to a hard-set reality - that you cannot compartmentalize your humanness. Your physical body affects your thoughts and emotions, and vice versa. You are an entire being - not a collection of individual compartments. How are we so quick to recognize the mental-physical link in the rest of life, but so quick to protect a separation of the two in our worship?

Individualism and intellectualism, out of balance, wage an assault on our perception of what all can happen in our times of gathered worship. To step out of a habit of limitation and engage in a physical expression of emotional vulnerability to an enormous and transcendent God whom we cannot fully comprehend is a daunting thought, let alone to think of doing it in front of other people. Even still, the Scriptures are rife with example after example of words that are translated to “worship” but actually mean something much more specific and commonly very physical.

The two most common Greek words used for “worship” in the New Testament, proskuneo (used 60 times) and pipto (used 91 times), often used together, illustrate acts of worship by falling down or prostrating oneself. Even the Greek word eido, translated to us as “know,” is a verb primarily meaning to perceive through the physical senses. The worship of the Scriptural Church was an embodied worship.

Perhaps coming to our knees could mirror the humility that Jesus served with, or our lifted hands could be like that of a child wanting to be held by their parent, or even a symbol of victory in Christ. Think about where that gesture specifically shows up innately as an expression of victory, like when watching your favorite sports team. It doesn’t make the gesture bad - it just shows that its normal. You can use it in worship too, where maybe it holds a bit more meaning. Your body language speaks in every moment, especially in your worship.

If our over-intellectualized, disembodied worship is something we’ve inherited culturally, how do we balance out our perspectives? Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, also known as Pope Benedict XVI, writes beautifully to sum up such a balance. He says in his work, The Spirit of the Liturgy,

“the bodily gesture itself is the bearer of the spiritual meaning, which is precisely that of worship. Without the worship, the bodily gesture would be meaningless, while the spiritual act must of its very nature, because of the psychosomatic unity of man, express itself in the bodily gesture. The two aspects are united in one word, because in a very profound way they belong together. When kneeling becomes merely external, a merely physical act, it becomes meaningless. On the other hand, when someone tries to take worship back into the purely spiritual realm and refuses to give it embodied form, the act of worship evaporates, for what is purely spiritual is inappropriate to the nature of man. Worship is one of those fundamental acts that affect the whole man. That is why bending the knee before the presence of the living God is something we cannot abandon.”

I do not seek to be prescriptive. I don’t think the ideal of the worship gathering looks like all hands lifted, all the time. Ratzinger makes it clear that this would be meaningless - and he doesn’t even need to. We know it to be true. I merely seek to make the point that Scripture points us to a more complete worship than we see most of the time in our culturally dissected perspective. In sum, I mean not to shame anyone for holding back physically in worship - I mean only to encourage you to entertain the thought that your experience of worship before the living God could be much more full and meaningful than you may have known. You were created as a holistic being, and you should worship as such.

References (in addition to those linked):

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. The Spirit of the Liturgy. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2000.