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Dancing in Church

Around the year 1900, Plymouth Brethren missionary Dan Crawford asked a Congolese woman why she got up and started dancing in church,  "Oh! it is only the praise getting out at the toes."

Dancing is a form of art that you do.  And I mean that in an absolute sense.  You dance.  You become the art.  It is not something you do to someone or something else.  People can play a piano, beat a drum, paint a canvas, lead a choir, carve a statue, or write a praise song.  But, for people to dance you do not have to have a piano or a drum or a canvas or pen and paper.  You just need willing and able to move your own body.


Dancing is certainly mentioned in the Old Testament.  In fact, it's most common context in the Old Testament is within worship and celebration.  It would misread the canon, however, to then conclude that most dancing in ancient Israel was religious.  The Old Testament only rarely mentions weddings, births, and funerals; although it's obvious they were ubiquitous in day to day life.  It would be a clearer picture to see that dancing was a widespread part of celebration in a nation where many of the celebrations recorded in scripture revolved around Yahweh.  In fact, one of the two times dancing is mentioned the New Testament is related to the beheading of John the Baptist (the other is at the return of the prodigal son).*  But, this hardly supports the idea dancing had somehow been rejected by Jews as evil and was reserved only for drunken banquets of corrupt rulers.

The origins of dancing, like a number of other practices, can be easily seen in the actions of young children everywhere.  When they are excited, they literally dance around.   As is also true of most ancient dancing, children might not be strictly following any rhythm or melody.  They are just, well, moving a lot.  They have to.  They can't hold it in.  Like the African woman said to the British missionary, the excitement is running through them and has to get out at the toes.  Even the quintessential Englishman, C.S. Lewis, wrote, "The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance."

"The universe spinning and singing; It's all for You
The children dancing, dancing, dancing; It's all for You, it's all for You"
(Chris Tomlin, "Not For Us")

To insist that dancing in our society is widely used in highly sexualized contexts with lyrics laden with references to violence, drugs, and sexual immorality is true, but hardly relevant.  Music, itself, has been largely hijacked to feed a godless industry and serve the desires of an immoral society.  So has public speaking, humor, and the visual arts. But, few insist the answer to this requires we now worship without music, public speaking, humor, or art.  We have no mode of praise that is not connected to our humanness.  Even in the Eucharist, the mountaintop of Christian worship, we are merely doing what everybody does: eating and drinking.  All worship uses forms and practices that could serve either Yahweh or Ba'al.

I'm always discouraged to see people gifted by God with great artistic ability that the church refuses to bring into worship.  If you are a vocalist, or can play (at last certain) musical instruments, you might be offered numerous opportunities to use those gifts as acts of worship.  If you are a writer, a painter, a poet, or a dancer, we'd love to have you in church; but take your art somewhere else.  But, and here's where we really get you, we still expect all your stories, paintings, poems, and dances will be distinctly and intentionally Christian.  In family therapy this is called a double-bind.  Two contradictory demands: use your art for God but don't think you can bring it into worship.  Murray Bowen demonstrated that double-binds contribute to schizophrenia.  That is no less true spiritually.

We need to see and listen to the whole church and learn.  There do not have a corner on everything people need to know about worship.  We need to listen to the churches of the East and learn the power of mystery in worship.  We need to listen to the church of Rome and learn the power of saying just the right words in worship.  We need to listen to the church of South America and learn that worship is a fiesta and, while you might rehearse a performance, you never rehearse and perform a fiesta. We need to listen to the church of the Reformation and learn the power of the Word of God in worship.  But, we also need to listen to the church of Africa, and start letting the worship get all the down to our toes…and then start leaking out all over the place.

So, you wanna have a go at dancing?

"Blessed is the one who sings and those who dance to the prophecies of this book, for the time is near." (Dr. Bob Lowry, former New Testament professor at Lincoln Christian Seminary, paraphrasing Revelation 1:3)




*my thanks to Jim McMillan.  The original post only noted the dancing at Herod's palace.  He reminded me of the allusion to dancing in the celebration of the prodigal's return in Luke 15.  A good reminder it's always wise to make a quick check in Logos before posting.



3 comments:

James L. McMillan said...

Tom,

Great thoughts, as we have come to expect from you. There is one other NT reference to dancing: the older brother, upon returning from the field, hears music and dancing coming from the house. (Luke 15:25)

Jim McMillan

Dan Rees said...

Even though the text does not refer to it with the word "dancing" I would certainly describe part of what is happening in Acts 3:8 as dancing with joy. That thought came to me several years ago when I heard one of our a-cappella brothers complain that if musical instruments were allowed in worship due to OT precedence, the next step would be to allow dancing as well!! But actually, we do also have this NT precedent, with no condemnation from Peter and John.

Dancer! said...

This is a excellent piece, and you show great understanding of dance.

I'd like to add to Dan Rees's comment about the new testament. We often draw too much of a divide between the old and new. The new testament is set in the same context as the old (hebrew people, land of Israel), but we forget that, for example, the old testament view of dance also carries through. In both hebrew and aramaic, rejoicing and dancing are synonymous. This is lost to modern westerners like us. And the first disciples were all jewish and continued to celebrate jewish festivals, which included dancing.