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Should Expressive Worship Be Physical?


Worship: “Come on, put your hands in the air! Clap along, now.” The words echo through both arenas and sanctuaries; they are spoken by pop stars and pastors in concerts and worship services. It’s understandable that people sometimes wonder if expressive worship leaders are simply imitating entertainment culture in asking people to respond.

Worship leaders are quick to point to the Psalms’ frequent admonitions to physically express praise to YHWH. But those less inclined to physical expression wonder why they can’t simply ‘worship God in their heart.’ After all, are these passages prescriptive—telling us how worship ought to be—or are they merely descriptive—telling us how worship in ancient Israel was? A friend of mine, Richie Fike, raised the question on Facebook recently, querying if people thought the Psalms contained permission, suggestions or commands to clap, dance, shout and more. The responses were varied, but as we continued the conversation offline via text, it got me thinking about the physicality of expressive worship.

Should Expressive Worship be Physical?

Let’s take a look at expressive worship through three lenses.

First, the hermeneutical.

The Hebrew Scriptures were broken up into three categories: the Teaching (Torah), the Prophets and the Writings. The Psalm are not part of the Torah; they are not law or instruction. They fit within the Writings, along with many other books of poetry, wisdom and allegory. The injunctions in the Psalms to sing, shout, clap, lift up our hands and more are first culturally contextualized ways of the people of God interacting with their covenant God.

But all this is not to say the Psalms cannot teach us. It is, after all, Scripture. It’s included in the Bible for a reason.

So, we turn to the theological.

What do these passages say to us about God about what it means to be His people? Eugene Peterson makes a compelling case that the five books of the Psalms were designed to correspond to the five books of the Torah. If the Torah is God’s revelation, God speaking to us, then the Psalms are how we answer God. (Peterson writes on this in his excellent short book on the Psalms, Answering God.) Moreover, the Psalms show us how to admonish one another in worship. We call one another to worship; we join with a great company of worshippers; we are never alone in worship and prayer. Finally, the Psalms give us language for prayer and worship. They open up a whole vocabulary for the soul and all of its emotions. Much has been said on this throughout the centuries, but the focus has been nearly always on the words. What if the Psalms do not simply give us language but also give us actions, things to do, ways to embody our worship, prayer and praise?

We are integrated beings. I am not a spirit who has a soul, and who lives in a body (despite the evangelical catechetical chant I grew up rehearsing in church). I am a unified being. Three in one, or something very like it. When two persons interact, they do so on physical, mental and emotional levels simultaneously. Furthermore, one could make a case that as intimacy deepens, so does each dimension—body, soul and spirit. For example, the New Testament teaches us that becoming one flesh with another is to become one spirit with them. Sexual intimacy is not simply something that happens in hearts; the mingling of souls comes with the intertwining of bodies.