One of the things my wife and I like to watch together is the React Channel on YouTube, run by the Fine Brothers (FBE). It features a regular cast of people of various ages who are lined up to react to various things – music, internet trends, foods, and so on. One of the classic challenges is “Try Not To Sing Along / Dance”, which includes singing, lip syncing, swaying to the music, toe-tapping, and head-bobbing. They then throw at these reactors a series of popular, famous, or otherwise catchy music to see how well they hold up. I do pretty well resisting moving when there’s a lot of contemporary hip-hop, as even the beat just doesn’t seem that catchy to me.
But left to my own devices, I love listening to music. And although I have no training (or even interest) in dancing, I do move to music quite a lot. I’m not always good at memorizing lyrics but sometimes I mutter along when I know some of the words. I bounce my kids in my arms, helping them feel and learn rhythm. I sway and pretend to dance when no one is looking. Or sometimes I pretend to conduct or to play an instrument… it depends upon the style of music and how into it I am.
But when I’m at church, I hardly move at all besides looking up, from the words on the page to the cross and/or the altar, and back. Does this mean I’m not into church music? Does this make me a hypocrite? Does “the devil get all the fun music” as some used to say?
No. As a musician and could-have-been composer, I love music very much. Both on my own and in collaboration with my wife I have arranged several pieces of music that we’ve gone on to sing in our church over the years. There are several hymns that rank on my personal best-ever list of songs of all time. So why don’t I want to dance, sway, clap my hands, or otherwise move about during the music in a worship service?
It’s not even a matter of fear of standing out – depending upon where you are, it’s the act of standing still that makes one stand out!
It’s because when I move with the music, I do so out of appreciation for the music itself. If I’m clapping along it’s because I enjoy the beat; if I’m conducting or playing an air piano it’s because I wish I was among the performers; if I’m moving it’s because I’m caught up in the fun. Church music, however, is about worshiping God. It’s one thing to enjoy the music I’m hearing and singing in church – as I said, I’ve got several favorites. But when I add the layer of motion and movement, I’m all too easily refocusing my attention from the heavenly Father, Son, and Holy Spirit over to the sounds we are producing here on earth.
I write this not to accuse those who do “dance” in church of idolatry, paying more attention to our own acts of worship than to the Lord whom we seek to worship. There are biblical examples of people dancing to/for the Lord God. Most notably there’s King David dancing for joy at the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem – his wife Michal was punished by God for scorning David’s enthusiasm. So some people are gifted the ability to worship God with bodily expression. I, however, am not one of them; my dancing is for the love of music. So I write this for two reasons:
- Consider why you do what you do in church. Some churches have a culture of hand-waving, clapping, swaying, or even dancing to worship music. This is not intrinsically bad, but it does enter the dangerous territory of blasphemy. We don’t want to fall into the hypocritcal situation of those to whom Jesus said “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mark 7:6). For if you’re singing God’s praises, yet your actions betray your heart is actually occupied with the music itself, then you’re stepping into the sin of blasphemy and violating the commandment against using God’s name in vain. Pay heed to your heart, and keep your mind attentive in worship, so you know why you are doing what you do.
- It is okay if you don’t want to dance in church. Although dancing is attested in several biblical instances, it is never mandated. It’s better to flee from temptation when one is weak. If you, like me, know that you really love music, it’s probably best for your own spiritual health that you refrain from dancing during worship lest you distract yourself away from God. It doesn’t matter what other people are doing; you must guard your own heart.
Because at the end of the day, worship is about God. Liturgy is our coming together as one Body to be before the Father, embodying the Son, empowered by the Holy Spirit. We all bring our personal identities and quirks to corporate worship, but we don’t let those individualities guide us. The aim of worship, especially in the wisdom of the ancient liturgical tradition, is to set aside our differences and raise up a single voice to heaven despite physical or temporal location. Most of us probably ought to save our dancing for events apart from worship.
Again, I write this not to be a killjoy, but in order that we would give due consideration to what we are doing, why we do it, and for Whom.