Why worship involves our bodies

And not just our minds

I have a friend who prays quite differently than I do. I’m not talking about her words, although they too are different than my own. It’s actually her posture I have in mind. We were in a small group together, and when it came time to pray she got off the couch and found a space on the floor. There she kneeled, with her face pressed against the ground, and began to pray.

I had a tough time with the posture she took. It actually offended my senses. It seemed all too pious, and smacked of religiosity. I actually felt superior for a moment, and quite judgmental. “Clearly she doesn’t understand the Father’s heart,” I muttered in my cynicism.

When I prayed that day, I remained sitting. I sometimes closed my eyes, but sometimes kept them open. I clasped and unclasped my hands. But generally, I took a more relaxed posture. I felt the freedom to just be myself, and to approach God as I was.

Both of our bodies assumed two radically different poses, and both signified something greater than the positions alone.

I took this more casual position because I felt like I could enter into the presence of God at any time with boldness and confidence because Jesus has made a way. I wasn’t wrong. But I was arrogantly mistaken in my presumptuous attitude towards my friend. It turns out she felt her posture anchored her in a place of humility. Curling up on the floor with her face pressed against the floorboards helped her remember that she needed to reverently come into the presence of a Holy God. She was hardly wrong in her approach.

We were both highlighting different aspects of God’s character.

This got me thinking about what we do with our bodies in worship. Because what we do with our bodies matters. We do not worship God as disembodied souls, but as whole people — mind, souls, bodies combined. We need our bodies to worship God, to speak, to sing, to engage. It seems an obvious point, but I think it’s easily overlooked. We take it so much for granted I’m afraid we aren’t always intentional about how we engage our bodies in worship.

Think about some of the actions of a typical contemporary worship service. You will shuffle your feet into the sanctuary. You make notes with your vocal chords as you sing songs, using your tongue, passing air through your throat, mouth and lips. If you’re feeling particularly “led by the Spirit” you will lift your arms, raise your hands, open your chest and lift your face to God as you worship. Sometimes tears may even appear, or a smile may crack. At some point you welcome others, shaking hands, making physical contact as well as eye-contact. You will sit on your rear, and listen with your ears to announcements. Your brain engages, your emotions stir, and your intellect clues in as you hear a sermon.

What do many of these actions tell us? What meaning is found in our standing and our sitting, our singing and our listening? Can the actions of our bodies help incline us towards God?

I come from an Anglican perspective, so let me share about how my tradition involves the body. In addition to standing, sitting, listening, and singing, we throw a few other actions into the mix. We put the weight of our bodies on our knees when we confess our sins. We lower ourselves to remember, like my friend does, that we must contritely come before our Holy Father.

After hearing comforting words from Christ about our forgiveness, we stand knowing that it is God who lifts us up. When Scripture is read, as an act of reverence, and as way to focus, we keep our bodies still and engage our ears. After the Scripture reading we rise to our feet as one to say together the Apostles’ Creed, one of my favourite parts of the service. It’s like reciting a national anthem.

We even attempt to move our mouths together in unison, many bodies as one Body. And most of all, think of communion! We feel the texture of the bread in our hands, we taste it as we chew, smell the aroma of the wine as we sip, and feel its warmth down our throats and into our stomachs. Our bodies receive his body in a very tangible way.

The more I am intentional with how I involve my body in worship, the more I find my soul following suit.

When I saw my friend deliberately changing her posture to approach God, something eventually clicked for me. Sometimes we just need to get our bodies in the right place, or even the right posture. We are people not merely contained in bodies, but who experience all of life through our bodies. More often than not, I still remain sitting when I pray. But I’ve come to see that there are many postures I can take in worship. And there are many physical actions I can take in order to connect with God.

I have even found my face pressed against my dusty floor on occasion.

We should intentionally engage our bodies in worship. God wants us to use our bodies! Our senses, our bodies, and our movements help us to engage tangibly with spiritual realities. We should make sure the way we worship with our bodies is not just passive and mindless. We should strive to be active participants in God’s great story. God has given us many ways to engage him with every single fibre and molecule of our being. Worship involves our bodies. I don’t know how to worship God without my body.

I think this is why Paul says: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)

Photo (FlickrCC) by Loren Kerns

Originally published in Issue 12 of Converge Magazine.