Why Posture Matters in Worship

Growing up, I was Michael Jordan’s biggest fan. I regularly wrote him to ask for his autograph and invite him to my birthday parties. I was convinced I would one day be great like him, so finally after much pleading, my parents sent me to basketball camp when I was a pre-teen.

I hated it. It was nothing but drills on proper free throw techniques. Coach would shout, “Bend your knees. Follow through. MILLER! BEND YOUR KNEES! FOLLOW THROUGH!” I was not a natural-born athlete, and it felt awkward. Eventually I realized that I would never be the next Air Jordan, but I did get to a point that shooting with the proper posture didn’t feel so uncomfortably awkward—it felt natural.

Posture matters.

When a young man meets a young woman that he wants to impress, he stands up straight, shoulders back, gut sucked in. He maintains eye contact and a smile. When he wants to propose, he gets down on one knee. When he has messed up royally and needs to apologize, it’s two knees. If someone points a gun at you, your hands rise in surrender. If your children want you to hold them or lavish affection on them, they raise their arms. At sporting events, when your team scores, you jump in the air, pump your fists, and shout as loudly as you can. When the ref makes a bad call, you throw your hands up in frustration and boo vigorously. Your heart is caught up in the experience of the moment, which causes your body to respond outwardly.

We were created as holistic beings with intellects, emotions, and bodies all working in concert with one another to express ourselves. Depending on the study, we learn that anywhere from 70 percent to 95 percent of communication is non-verbal. We say a lot about what we think and feel without uttering a single word.

Outward Expression, Inward Reality

Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2:8, “I desire then that in every place [people] should pray, lifting holy hands.” He is referring back to many passages in the Old Testament where people were encouraged to pray and worship using specific postures—in this instance, the raising of hands.

King David, the innovator of music in corporate worship, wrote hundreds of songs for the purpose of engaging the mind, heart, and body in worship. He understood that posture outwardly expresses an inward reality. Our body naturally acts the way our hearts feel. So we see encouragements throughout Scripture to bow humbly, raise hands joyfully, shout and sing loudly, clap hands, and even dance before the Lord. This must have felt awkward to the people of the day, who had never before seen anything like this.

Similarly, we have been shaped by our experiences and may be tempted to forego these postures to avoid feeling awkward or uncomfortable, saying, “That’s for other people. I was raised (whatever denomination), and we never did that.” In doing so, we do not realize how our posture is shaped by our heart. Outward expressiveness in corporate worship is not the only indicator of our delight in the Lord, but it can be a telling one.

God Wants All of Us

Still, worship posture does not mean the same thing in every context and congregation. In more traditional Western congregations, expressive worship of God may look like smiling as we loudly and fervently sing rich doctrinal truths and our hearts delight in him. In more contemporary contexts, we might raise our hands as we grow more fully consumed with adoration of God. We might bow before God as we become more fully immersed in a deep sense of humble, reverential awe.

Yet no matter the context, as we experience the inward heart reality of worshiping God with all we are, our bodies reveal our heart’s condition. That is why God wants more than for us to go through the outward motions without actually worshiping. The fruit of our outward expressiveness reveals the root of our hearts.

Certainly there are moments when we should stand still in silence before the Lord—that in itself is a posture of worship. However, if we consistently find ourselves in corporate worship with our arms folded, mouthing the words with a blank, glazed over or bored look on our face, this posture indicates we may not be experiencing an inward heart of adoration, wonder, and awe that is characteristic of true, spiritual worship. But rather than forcing our hands in the air, we should ask God to draw us nearer to him and seek how he desires to be worshiped. We should plead with him to captivate our hearts and reveal any sin that might be keeping us from seeing and savoring him with all we are.

God wants our hearts, not just our fake smiles, arms raised or our knees bent. He wants more than just our shouts or our songs. He wants more than just our theological intellects. He wants all of us.

  • Mark

    I feel really uncomfortable about this article. I think it becomes supremely damaging and dangerous to create a culture of expectation within a church whereby those who do not adopt what you might consider “expressive” or “appropriate” outward signs of worship (p.s. can we please move beyond the restrictive definition of “worship” as JUST congregational singing?) are somehow viewed as less spiritual than others. I’m sure this wasn’t what you were arguing for, but it’s been my observation (and experience) that when one particular “posture” is made normative or expected within a church (for example, the raising of one arm) then anyone who doesn’t conform to that particular gesture if viewed with suspicion.
    Wouldn’t it be better to teach a church that God desires a whole life orientation of worship (Romans 12:1), and whatever expression that takes for each individual within the context of congregational singing is perfectly fine? I can’t help but think that we need to heed 1 Samuel 16:7 at this point – “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

    • Jonathan

      Mark, I don’t think that Stephen would advocate any of the unhelpful things you mention in your post.

      Ultimately, we must be guided by the Bible, which as the article said, presents a holistic view of people, without the mind/body/soul fragmentation that results from Greek influence.

      Worship is both 24/7 (as you say), but it is also a specific event when a part of the church gathers together. The most common Hebrew word for worship implies bowing. And in both Hebrew and Aramaic, words like joy and rejoice are virtually synonymous with dancing and movement.

      I see all this as resulting from how God has made us, not just something from the culture of a previous age. The idea that concepts like joy are states of mind which have nothing to do with the body is totally against the Biblical worldview. So I think that adopting a philosophy that rejects physical expression is going against God.

      On a personal note, some of the most special times of worship I have experienced have been when I’ve joined in the congregational dancing at messianc jewish meetings. I think that’s a good model to follow.

      • Mark

        My point is, who’s to say what constitutes an appropriate “posture”? I think we need to be very wary of mandating physical expressiveness in “worship”, even if you’re not mandating what particular form of expressiveness but rather just the mere necessity of some outward expression. Rather we should teach our churches and emphasise the necessity for GENUINE expression in whatever form is culturally and personally appropriate. For some that might mean standing still, with hands in pockets, meditating on the truths that they are singing. For others it might mean jumping for joy with arms raised in the air. What matters is not whether we can outwardly observe their “worship”, but whether there is REAL worship going on.

        I think what it comes down to is the difference between descriptive and prescriptive “worship” practices. I would lean towards the end of the spectrum that would argue for the descriptive nature of physical expressions of worship in the Bible (dancing, raising hands etc.) rather than being prescriptive . That way we can allow for many valid cultural expressions of true “worship”, without the potential danger of mandating a particular outward form of “worship” as the litmus test for genuine engagement with God.

        • Jonathan

          Mark, a couple of questions just to make you think: Is it not the case that singing is all but mandated in our churches? Likewise, do you see the Biblical examples of singing as being descriptive or prescriptive?

          I have a theory that the Bible mentions both singing and physical expression (particularly dancing) in the context of worship because they are human universals that will be present until this earth passes away.

          Given the current culture in evangelicalism, I agree that we shouldn’t require anyone to do anything, nor should we evaluate anyone by the outward things. However, we should provide Biblical teaching and gentle encouragement, and hopefully things will begin to change.

          • mel

            The first thought that went through my head when reading this was how we all get angry at our children, especially preteen, that slouch and give attitude about having to stand one more time for a song. Because it speaks to the fear in our heart that they really feel like that about God.
            Second thought I had was when I’m just off emotionally or even physically with a cold or something. But I’m there anyway hoping that no one is looking at me because I can’t fake that I feel differently and I don’t think God would want me to fake anything.
            I have to remember that when I’m looking around the room. Our eyes should only be on God and our own hearts. I think when we look at others, including the worship leader, and critique is from spiritual immaturity.
            There is a bible study that I attend where the hymns are sung to a piano and I’m surrounded by elderly sopranos. I am neither a soprano nor can I carry a tune. So I sing in my head hoping that no one misunderstands why I am not singing.

            The last thought I had was a fear of what legalist would do with this blog to hit other people over the head.

            • LAC

              Mel, It makes me sad that you don’t sing in your Bible Study. Forgive me if I misunderstood your point but from the way I read it, the reasons you give are exactly what we are trying to change in our church. For so long the church was filled with older folks, well educated, and you only did music or sang, even in the pews, if you could read music, were musically trained, etc. The Lord wants to hear a joyful noise- he doesn’t care if you miss some notes or sing an octave below everyone else. Thankfully this attitude is changing in our church- that only the “educated” do, in this case sing congregational hymns. Although I have a music background and anything out of tune wouldn’t fly in my day job, I am thankful each week when our small group sings and half of them can’t carry a tune. We’d never win a choral contest, but I like to think that with the joy in our hearts as we praise Him in song, God has a smile on His face.

        • LG

          Who’s to say what postures are appropriate? Well, God, for a start. Just off the top of my head: kneeling, standing, falling down, and raising hands are all commanded in the Psalms.

          That’s not to say that they’re commanded to do on the spur of the moment or whenever you feel like it. They’re commanded, and we’re supposed to do them. I think even traditional liturgical churches can incorporate all of those actions — one church in my area incorporates kneeling, standing, raising hands, and shouting into their liturgy every Sunday.

    • Kim

      Well said Mark!

  • Dave

    King David, the innovator of music in corporate worship, wrote hundreds of songs for the purpose of engaging the mind, heart, and body in worship. He understood that posture outwardly expresses an inward reality. Our body naturally acts the way our hearts feel. So we see encouragements throughout Scripture to bow humbly, raise hands joyfully, shout and sing loudly, clap hands, and even dance before the Lord. This must have felt awkward to the people of the day, who had never before seen anything like this.

    The article makes a fairly reasonable case for posture as a part of worship, but it’s idea that David was an innovator introducing posture to worship seems to be it’s downfall.

    What makes you confident that people had never seen anything like this before? Why would the ten commandments explicitly forbid people from bowing down to other gods if this wasn’t something they might do? … and David is hardly the first reference to bowing in the bible. Even Saul speaks of bowing before the Lord (1 Sam 15)

    And it’s not just bowing: Israel laid hands on Ephraim (Genesis 48:14 ), Moses stretched out hands towards God (Exodus 9, Exodus 17), Aaron laid hands on sacrifices (Exodus 29) and so did the elders of the congregation (Leviticus 4). “Wave offerings” were commanded (Leviticus 7/8). Moses raised hands to bless the people (Leviticus 9). …

    • Jonathan

      Dave, that’s a good point – King David was by no means the first – but does it invalidate the article’s message? I don’t think so.

  • Bill Lavinder

    Worship is definitely something that may not always be observed by a certain practice.The challenge is as always not honor the Lord with our lips ,,standing ..dancing..lifting hands and so forth and our hearts be far from Him.Hearts can be far from in the midst of all kinds of worship. As incredible as Communion is and what it represents, we all know it can become a ritual and our hearts can be far from Him. I have to agree with this writing. It is a challenge for my heart.

  • http://Www.corinthtoday.org Paul Cummings

    Thanks Stephen.
    As far as some of the pushbacks that come with teaching like this I would simply point to several sources from scripture. Throughout Psalms when “Praise the Lord” appears its in the imperative form meaning its a command. So as you come to other verbiage In our texts you come across- “yada” (to worship the Lord with lifted hands),” shabach” (to shout to the Lord), “Gil” (to dance for the Lord) And from the Septuagint “proskyneo” (prostrate reverence) not to mention the continual commands to Sing, clap and recognize… So the Biblical evidence is there that it’s not only expected but commanded.
    I think most people should look honestly at how they respond to any and all life situations and be honest about how they respond to the One who gave His Son for us. Moms have more exuberance over discovering double coupons for the groceries, dads stand up and dance, shout and jump for a sports team they have no personal connections to. And then both show up to church and sit like bumps on a log.
    Reverence and Awe? Absolutely…be still, quiet and kneel as well…but the point is engaging the Lord in praise and worship with your whole being… Not mouth alone or mind alone or even body alone.

  • http://www.sometimesalight.com Hannah

    Really appreciate the content and direction of this piece–I grew up in a tradition that was fairly reserved and even “Amens” were rare. Having said that, I have one question:

    What role does individual personality play in worship and expressiveness? Some people simply are quiet, introverted people–displaying any kind of love or joy happens in a much more subtle way for them than for the extroverts among us. My father is one such man–he feels deeply and loves deeply, but is perhaps one of the quietest, humblest men you will ever meet. Yet, when he does choose to speak, to express himself in his quiet, careful way, we all shut our mouths and listen.

  • Kevin Allard

    This article is a helpful reminder that God is interested in our bodies as well as our hearts. Whilst it is true that God looks on the heart, it is also true that what we do with our bodies normally reveals what is going on in our hearts. However, with corporate prayer and singing there is an added dimension to take into account – what does everyone else think? In any group events, we naturally take our cue from what other people are doing. We assume that if no-one is lifting their hands during the singing, there is an unwritten rule that hand-lifting is not a permitted way to express worship to God in that congregation. On the other hand, if we see people dancing in a congregation, we naturally assume that dancing is a permitted way of worshiping God in that congregation and may join in. Because unwritten rules exist (or are assumed to exist) in every group context, it is the job of the person leading the group to clarify what the rules of that group are. I expect that there are many churches in the UK where the majority of people in the congregation want to raise their hands during songs but don’t do so because no-one ever has. In these situations, it is for the elders to tell the congregation that there is no unwritten rule against raising hands and to clarify what is and what is not acceptable. Some elders may say anything goes depending on how the individual feels. Other elders, or the same elders but leading a different congregation may ask people not do certain things because they know that those things would make some people in the congregation feel uncomfortable. Personally , I often want to kneel when I am singing or praying in a church meeting. Sometimes I do that but most of the time I don’t. The person leading the service will often say “let’s sit to pray” and so I assume from that that I am not supposed to kneel. However, I expect that they may be quite happy for me to do so.

  • Tim

    I really appreciate this, Stephen. I do have one question, however. While I agree with you that our outward expression serves as a reflection of the state of our hearts, can the process work the other way as well?

    If we are holistic beings, it seems as though not only does the state of our hearts express itself outwardly, but what we do with our bodies also affects our hearts (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:13-15). Writers like James K. A. Smith and John Coe have recently written a good bit about the ways in which our physical practices help train our hearts to worship God. Although it’s certainly true that we can honor God outwardly while our hearts are far from Him (just as we can, in theory, worship Him in our hearts without physical expression), it seems that the overall pattern is that what’s in our heart manifests outwardly (Luke 6:45),AND also that what we do outwardly affects us inwardly.

    I’ve personally found that there have been a number of times in my own life where I’m just not “there” in my heart in regard to worship. Yet God’s word commands me to worship, the very thing my heart doesn’t feel like doing. In those moments, it seems we can either wait till our hearts are feeling sufficiently worshipful to manifest outwardly (which we should pray earnestly for!), or we can go ahead in faith and offer worship to God with our bodies, in hopes that our hearts will follow in time.

    • Jonathan

      Tim, yes and amen! To me, this is exactly what having an integrated Biblical view of people means. There’s a two-way interaction between the physical and the spiritual. I guess it’s like the idea of kneeling to pray – whatever we may think of this as practiced today, I’m sure the original intent was sincere, namely to teach and model humility before God.

      I love Habakkuk 3:17-18 – though all around is desolate, still the prophet chooses to rejoice in the God of His salvation. And, quite apart from the link between rejoicing and expressive movement, Hab 3:19 further suggests a physical connection.

  • Chris

    All of these comments are great and thought provoking, but some of the critiques tucked inside of them seem off handed to me. But please don’t take that as an attacking comment.

    I believe the crux of the article is that (in a specific context) corporate worship through singing requires the full posture of our heart and soul. Jesus Christ said in John 4, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.”

    During corporate worship there is nothing wrong with the outward expressions of dancing, clapping, hand raising, standing still, closing eyes, kneeling down, sitting, etc. But all of our outward reactions are supposed to reflect the outpouring of our heart and soul toward Christ. When we worship the Most High God our expressions will vary, and that’s a good thing. Our outward expressions, emotions, and posture should not be dictated by culture or human tradition or following what “feels right” Instead they should convey the attitude of our heart and soul by worshiping God in spirit and in truth.

    I think the challenge any Christian can take away from this article would be asking oneself, “Do I always stand still and motionless out of habit?” or “Do I always dance and raise hands out of habit?” etc.

    Whatever we do in worship shouldn’t come from some sense of habit or vain repetition. It must come from exalting Jesus Christ as Most High and Worthy, and when we do that, our emotions and outward expressions will run the whole spectrum of human posturing.

  • CJ

    Thank you Stephen. A useful and humble call to examine the extent to which our responses in worship align with the Word or are dictated by an arbitrary behavioral norm. Us New England yankees tend to be pretty subdued in our physical expressions during worship. In the last couple of years, I have come to see that we repress ourselves in a way completely incompatible with the unspeakable joy in the true gospel of Jesus.

  • http://www.sounddoxology.blogspot.com Rich Tuttle

    in an effort to push the conversation on, I wonder what impact the edification of the saints as well as Paul’s instructions for orderly worship have on this topic.

    I agree wholeheartedly that our physical response ought to be the result of the soul being exposed to the presence of God in worship. But I think our encouragement to ‘act upon’ should be done wisely and with specific care. I can imagine someone ‘practicing’ their outward expression in the midst of a congregation who’d look upon that person as being genuinely disruptive. I don’t think we can be quick to say a congregation is legalistic if they are striving to be united in their praise in a particular outward expression. (David danced before the Lord and his wife hated him in her heart…I’m not talking about that)

    All I’m saying is that other aspects such as edifying the body and orderliness of worship ought to come into play here, and that means for some congregations real care needs to be taken.

  • Nick

    I think you hit the nail on the head. People are scared to be volnerable. God requires us to worship because He deserves it because He is God (1chon 16:29). When we meet God we need to show up differently. I see so many times when people come to church and just expect God to do everything for them. So if they didn’t connect during worship or didn’t get much out of the sermon it’s God’s fault for not presenting himself well enough. When you meet God present yourself differently because it is a sacred moment. That means being volnerable before God and your peers. A worship service is a sacred time. Give God 100%! No matter what is going on in your life because it’s not about how we feel. It’s about glorifying God for the sole reason that he is God. Step outside your comfort zone and worship God freely. If that means raising your hands and shouting then go for it! If that means being silent and on your knees then go for it! Don’t let what is socially acceptable or not acceptable hider your relationship with our heavenly father.

  • Chris Frick

    This article applies just as much to the home and daily life as it does to corporate worship. Are we raising our hands when no one is around?

    • Worship Dancer

      i am and do every day.

    • LG

      Does it? In my understanding, the commands about worship actions and postures in the Scriptures are addressed to the assembly.

  • Worship Dancer

    i am anointed to worship dance. but trust me i don’t just start when i get to church. it starts in the secret place – just me and God. when i dance i am in the Spirit. i was once asked if i was going to “make a spectacle of myself”. i can only guess he meant would i just give myself over to purely praising and worshiping the Lord without care of who was watching. i had a choice i could take offense at his choice of words or turn it back on him. i chose the latter and said “if David could make a spectacle of himself praising and worshiping the Almighty God then i certainly would too.” believe me, THAT day MANY were delivered of their inhibitions on how to worship. if you wait till you get to church to start worshiping and praising the Lord, you are too late.

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  • Benjamin Ledford

    Good post. C.S. Lewis makes similar points about our posture during prayer in “The Screwtape Letters.” The resistance that many of us have to letting our worship affect our posture reveals that it really is important. If posture makes no difference and isn’t indicative of the condition of my heart, why am I so unwilling to change it?

  • http://www.theverticall.blogspot.com Blaine

    Good words, Stephen – I’ll be reposting this on our church website.

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  • http://thesesamehands.wordpress.com Alex Macdonald

    Great post. I think it’s easy for conservative churches (particularly in Sydney, where I live), to get concerned about faith and worhip being purely emotional – viz ungrounded – phenomena. The result is that it is easy to shy away from strong emotional response in corporate worship. I found this post here also helpful; http://thehymnalblog.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/making-church-boring-is-emotional.html.

  • Peter

    Thanks for the article – I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments. Jesus wrote to the church in Laodicea and called it luke-warm. If we approach corporate worship “with our arms folded, mouthing the words with a blank, glazed over or bored look on our face” then we (me included) need to take a good hard look at ourselves and what is happening in our own heart and personal devotional life with Jesus. It is just not good enough to say that “we all have our own way of doing it” – God says “kneeling, standing, falling down, raising hands, being silent are all okay” but I doubt “disengaged, critical, self absorbed” are okay.
    Corporate worship is a great way for us to encourage each other to “never be lacking in zeal, keep our spiritual fervour, serving the Lord.”

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