Breaking From Cultural Bondage in Worship

When I was growing up I attended Baptist churches with a strong fundamentalist bent. Raising hands, clapping, kneeling, even moving to the sound of the music (i.e. dancing) was all frowned upon. There were no shouts of “glory” and “hallelujah” during the sermon. No loud and hearty “amens” during the prayer time. It was very stiff and formal. I have never broken free of that heritage even though my heart cries out for more. I was raised to worship God with my mind but not my emotions and body.

I’ve met some people who cringe at the thought of worship without clapping, raising hands and shouting for joy. Worship that isn’t full of body movement and emotion just isn’t worship to them. The idea of attending a church that elevates the mind to the exclusion of the body and emotion is absurd.

The first thing we must recognize is that mind, emotion and body movement are all appropriate in the corporate assembly of God’s people. As we gather together at the call of our God to worship him, we recognize that the Scriptures call for a wide range of responses.

It is important to engage the mind in worship. Psalm 19 reminds us: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.” God’s Word (described in Psalm 19 as his law, testimony, precepts, commandment, and rules) reaches into our lives through our minds to revive us, to make us wise, to cause our heart to rejoice and to enlighten us. As we incorporate God’s Word in our worship it is important to stay mentally engaged. Tuning out for some emotional joy ride is to leave out an important part of worship.

It is also important to engage the body in worship. Have you ever noticed the typical response when Psalm 95:6 is used as a call to worship? The pastor says, “O come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!” What does the congregation do? They stand up or sit or do anything but bow down and kneel. As a young Christian I asked a church leader about this. The answer I remember getting was, “We bow down in our hearts.” But that is not what the Psalms teach. They teach physical kneeling and bowing down.

Other Psalms mention other body movements. Psalm 47:1 “Clap your hands, all people! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!” Then there is Psalm 63:4 “So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name will I lift up my hands.” Or how about Psalm 150:4? “Praise him with tambourine and dance, praise him with strings and pipe?”

We understand the word we translate “dance” to mean spontaneous body movement that comes in the context of worship. Its kind of like tapping one’s toes to a favorite tune.

Think about emotional energy in worship and then think of the Psalms. How about Psalm 100? “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!” Or Psalm 108? “My heart is steadfast, O God! I will sing and make melody with all my being!” How about Psalm 29? “The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth and strips the forests bare, and in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!’” Maybe Psalm 33? “Shout for joy to the Lord, O you righteous!” Despite all these injunctions think of how tame and quiet we often are in our corporate worship.

When we respond to the moving of God’s Holy Spirit as we gather in his presence we engage our mind, emotions and body. In other words, we worship God with our whole being. The challenge of multi-cultural worship lies in the reality of multiple life experiences and differences in cultural values. How can people who grew up emphasizing the mind in worship feel comfortable with those who grew up emphasizing body and emotion? How can those used to body movement and emotion handle a worship service that also values the mind? These are important questions for us to think about.

Multi-cultural worship doesn’t remain multi-cultural if we force conformity upon everyone. Not everyone will shout “glory” when they are deeply touched by a part of the service. In fact, some might prefer to just nod their heads silently. Can’t we do both? Can’t the people who want to shout “glory” shout “glory”? Can’t the people who want to nod their heads in silence do so?

The beauty of multi-cultural worship is that we are all challenged to grow in our worship of God by people around us. Positive change always takes time. We will be a stronger, richer congregation if we have people from various cultural perspectives worshiping together.

My prayer is that we learn to love one another deeply in the midst of our differences. I also pray that God would give us wisdom to do all things in a manner that will build up the congregation.