I've had two different conversations lately about dance in church services: is it worship or performance? It reminded me of a time when a friend told me "that's not worship" when she was upset about the song choices for our newly begun "contemporary" service. While I agree the song choices were poor (they were about 20 years out of date and definitely weren't going to attract anyone looking for something "relevant"), I don't think it is necessarily accurate to say they weren't worship. For some people, they might have been. For her, they just were not the right type of songs/music. For her, worship was only about the type of music.
It seems to be common in churches to equate worship and music. I'm going to make a guess here and propose that the reason we associate "worship" primarily with an event on Sunday morning and with singing is due to Psalm 100:2, which says "Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing". Most church services begin with music and we sing a few songs throughout the service.
What happens though, if a person doesn't really relate through music, or even relate to any of the other activities that can happen in a church service (either regularly on Sunday or on a special holiday): dance, congregational singing, praise band singing, choir singing, soloist singing, instrumental music, Cantatas, Christmas pageants, skits, videos, Christian seder meals, Living Last Supper, Tenebrae, sermon, responsive readings, prayer (add your own ideas in the comments; I am sure I have missed a lot). I went to a Pentecostal church one time where grown men were sprinting around the room. Another aspect of worship services is corporate prayer. What this usually consists of is one person praying on behalf of everyone in the room whose heads are bowed and eyes are closed. Honestly, this does not feel like prayer to me. It is not my thoughts or my words; it is the thoughts and words of the person praying. It is not my prayer.
In a church service, there really is very little an individual sitting in the congregation can do. Everything is planned out for each person: the songs sung, the prayers prayed, the sermon to be listened to. Sure, someone can raise his or her hands during a song, but I've never seen anyone start dancing. And while we have people who automatically raise their hands when the line in the song says to, I have never seen anyone fall to their knees during that line. Worship services are, like dance, choreographed. We like order and control; the freedom to react differently than expected is really not there.
Because of my love for ballet, sometimes, as we are singing, I am choreographing in my head what it might look like to dance to a song. I've danced in church once, a couple of Christmases ago, and a local dance studio has a program that they perform in area churches around Easter.
And even though we see instances of dance in the Bible, such as Miriam and the other women dancing and celebrating after the Exodus from Egypt and David dancing before the Lord when the ark of the covenant is brought back, they aren't a typical or regular part of worship services.
The situation with David is intriguing. While he is dancing "with all his might", not everyone thinks it is such a great display, namely, his wife Michal. We see in 2 Samuel 6:20 that she considers his dancing to be vulgar and shameless. Two different reactions to the exact same event.
It would seem, then, that worship has something to do with personal preference and type of participation--whether or not one is an active or passive participant. If I am participating by dancing in a ballet, it can be an act of worship. I am actively participating in it and know what I want to express. For the person watching, it may not be worship at all, because the person is passively sitting there and not directly participating--and may not even be paying attention at all. I think it is the same with praise bands, choirs, soloists, orchestras, etc. For those who play the instrument or sing the song, it can be an act of worship. But for the one watching who may not be able to participate, it may not be worship. And, often, in some churches, the music is so loud that the voices of the congregation are unheard, and it would be hard to tell if they were singing or not. And what of the person who has a voice problem and cannot sing or even speak?
I like the story behind Matt Redman's song "The Heart of Worship".
“There was a dynamic missing, so the pastor did a pretty brave thing,” he recalls. “He decided to get rid of the sound system and band for a season, and we gathered together with just our voices. His point was that we’d lost our way in worship, and the way to get back to the heart would be to strip everything away.”Reminding his church family to be producers in worship, not just consumers, the pastor, Mike Pilavachi, asked, “When you come through the doors on a Sunday, what are you bringing as your offering to God?”Matt says the question initially led to some embarrassing silence, but eventually people broke into a cappella songs and heartfelt prayers, encountering God in a fresh way.
Encountering God in a fresh way. I think this is what so many of us are after, and maybe not so much in a new way, but in a way that we can relate. We want to encounter God and know God's presence there, and in our lives, but often, it seems just beyond reach. I wonder, in all our efforts at being relevant or contemporary what we are really after is what Jesus told the woman at the well:
23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." John 4:23-24
What does this even mean?
Worship in spirit and in truth. It's really quite broad, isn't it? Jesus doesn't give us an order of worship, a time to worship, a location in which to worship. He simply says that people will worship in spirit and in truth. There is much freedom in that statement and it is not a one-size fits all prescription for how to do worship. It's a description.
And so, is dance (or anything else) worship or performance? It depends on the individual, his or her heart, and how he or she relates to God. Worshiping in spirit and in truth, I suspect, is much more broad than we can imagine, and much more deep than our hour on Sunday mornings.