Up until last week, I’d never addressed this issue from the front of church. I’d had a few conversations with individuals over the years. But it’s not been a massive issue. I guess that those who came to CCB who felt that we weren’t exuberant enough in singing didn’t return and found a home in another church. There are more charismatic alternatives not a million miles away from us.
It pains me when people make decisions about churches based on music. But they do. That’s one of the reasons why I want our music to be top drawer; to get people to stay long enough to give people some Bible in their Christian life. But the other, more important reason isn’t pragmatic; it’s theological. We ought to praise God with enthusiasm. Just look at Psalm 150. It’s disobedient not to praise him wholeheartedly. But the issue I’m addressing here isn’t really about music. It’s about our physical response to the music, and I trust, the words that we’re singing and the God they speak of.
The reason I addressed this in church recently is that wonderfully God has brought us a number of newcomers this Autumn, some of whom would be used to a less restrained form of praise than is commonly the state of things at CCB. I want newcomers to know that they’re not being frowned upon. I don’t wnat them to think that I’d prefer it if they were more restrained. And I don’t wnat them to think that they’re being naughty when they’re not! I have no desire to encourage people in one direction or the other. I’ve not got a strong view. I don’t raise my hands. There are no good theological reasons for that. It’s got more to do with my temperament and my background. I don’t tend to do that in any contexts, not simply in church. I’m aware that some of us do and I’m aware that many of us don’t. We may have settled convictions on this. But I trust that we’ll exhibit godly tolerance towards those that make a different wisdom call on this one.
So let’s try and answer the question, ‘should I raise my hands in church?’
There’s a short answer and a longer one. The shorter one is ‘yes, maybe’. The longer answer is ‘yes, maybe; it all depends’. It all depends on the answer to the following five questions
1. Is it normal?
In other words, is it ever appropriate to be expressive and demonstrative in the context of a congregational setting? Yes. The Bible and especially the Psalms are full of occasions when worshippers use their body in different ways to express their remorse, praise, thanks, and dependence and so on. There’s clapping, singing, bowing, kneeling, lifting hands, shouting, playing instruments, dancing and standing in awe (Psalms 47:1, 47:6, 95:6, 134:2, 150:3-4). And so there seems to be scope for a wide range of physical responsiveness to God. Of course as with all descriptions, we need to ask whether they’re recorded in order to be prescriptive. I’m not at all convinced that they are. In other words, we’re not required to do these things in order to be genuine worshippers. But we are permitted to do these things if we so desire.
2. Is it cultural?
Undoubtedly. It depends on what type of church that you belong to. You’d expect there to be a difference in a church made up mainly of Afro-Caribbeans and one made up of strait-laced Englishmen and women! Each church will have a flavour. Churches are often caricatured as being at one end of the spectrum or the other. We’re told that they’re either ‘happy clappy’ or ‘the frozen chosen’. I don’t like that distinction because it seems to imply that those of us with a Reformed understanding of the Bible’s teaching and therefore a big view of God are emotionally stunted. There’s no reason why believing in God’s sovereignty should prevent you from being enthusiastic in praise. In fact, it ought to be quite the opposite. Calvinists worship a very big God. And so it ought to be the Calvinists and not the non-Calvinistic Charismatics who are the most unrestrained! I’m a Calvinist. But I’m also in possession of a limited emotional range. But it’s not down to my theology. It’s done to my cultural background; public schools and the military. I’m a ‘jigger’ and a shoulder mover, I occasionally close my eyes but that’s about it! I express my exuberance in singing volume.
3. Is it helpful?
It can be. Context is everything. It’s worth spotting whether demonstrative praise is rare or commonplace in the church or event we’re attending. If it’s rare and there’s a good reason for that then we probably ought not to be the person that seeks to buck the trend and change the culture. It’s probably worth asking around and testing the waters about whether demonstrative bodily expression would be distracting or unhelpful for others. Rosslyn used to go to a church in Southampton where the teaching was brilliant but a middle-aged lady in an electric blue cat suit would dance up and down the aisle. That wasn’t distracting. It was terrifying. For the good of the gospel and her soul, I really hope that the Lord has taken her to glory. Can I suggest that we need to be considerate to others and think about the likely impact on those around us. I see no reason why someone couldn’t raise their hands at our evening church. There will always be people here who haven’t come across that before but I’m not sure it’s going to put people off the gospel. Sure they may think it’s weird, as I used to when I first came across Christians. But it wasn’t just their hands in the air that I thought was weird. It was their worship of Jesus. But it may be that in an event geared to helping non-Christians engage with the gospel that we restrain our freedom to make them feel more at home.
4. Is it real?
It should be. And so we need to make sure that what we do with our body really expresses what’s going on in our heart. Jesus quoted these chilling words to the hypocrites of his own generation, ‘these people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ (Matthew 15:8&9 quoting Isaiah) We need to be aware that it’s possible for there to be a ‘disconnect’ between what we do and what we think and feel. If our hearts are full to bursting with exuberant praise then having both hands in the air would be an entirely consistent expression. But raising our hands simply because everyone else is and we feel under pressure, or that we’d like to portray the image of advanced spiritual development wouldn’t be. I suspect that one way to test the authenticity of our actions is to ask whether we raise our hands, or express ourselves bodily, in choruses or whether that happens in hymns as well.
5. Is it beneficial?
It could be. I think that in general bodily expressions are valuable in cementing our convictions. They’re a way that we can preach to ourselves and commit ourselves to a course of action. But I wouldn’t want to limit that to the position of our hands during a song. Singing is a bodily expression of worship, passionate singing more so. I’d much prefer us to be an impassioned gathering of wholehearted singers. The way to that, of course, is not through my, or anyone else, berating you from the front. As we grasp the majesty of god, the mercy of the Lord Jesus and the wonder of our salvation we’ll be more inclined to respond with enthusiastic expressions of praise.
Whether we raise our hands or not is not the litmus test of theological orthodoxy or charismatic credentials. It doesn’t make you a Christian or even a keen one. It just makes you one who puts their hands in the air. If you want to and you think it’s appropriate go for your life. And if you don’t, that’s fine. Just remember the words of 1 Samuel 16:7, ‘The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks upon the heart’.