Should we be dancing in church? Well, if a 2006 study is correct, it appears when God created humans, He hard-wired each of us to dance — more on that in a moment.
I still remember a service at a church I was attending in the 70s. The Jesus people movement was in full swing and the congregation was made up of people 30 years and younger.
Back then everybody had long hair, including the girls.
One particular Sunday evening service we kicked back the chairs and began dancing before the Lord. We broke up into groups, joined hands and whirled around in circles dancing and singing.
The thing that struck me the most was the utter joy and excitement on people’s faces as they danced and worshiped the Lord.
I was attending seminary at the time, in a denomination that frowned on this type of activity. But they faithfully preached the Bible and people were saved through this ministry. I had a professor by the name of Dr. Dahns. He was a former United Church Minister and was about as straight laced as you could get. He was a tough marker, but a great Bible teacher.
While in class, I asked him what he thought about dancing in church. I confess, maybe I was baiting him to see his reaction. Blame it on my long hair. But his answer shocked me — instead of being the shocker I was the “shockee.”
He said dancing was Biblical and he considered it an expression of joy. He added it was puritanical ideals that forced it out of the church.
Praise God in the dance
Dancing is certainly Biblical and perhaps the clearest references are found in the Psalms, where we are exhorted to praise God in the dance.
“Let them praise His name with dancing;” (Psalm 149:3 NASV)
“Praise him with timbrel and dancing;” (Psalm 150:4 NASV)
In the Old Testament, dancing was an expression of joy and thanksgiving to God and was often associated with victory in battle.
We see the women meeting David’s returning army after Israel’s great victory over the Philistines (1 Samuel 18:6). This procession had musical instruments, tambourines, dancers and singers.
A similar procession welcomed the men after their victory over Ammon (Judges 11:34).
Dancing occurred after God delivered Israel from the hands of the Egyptians at the Red Sea. While the previous two references appear spontaneous, this one was certainly more structured and organized.
After their deliverance, Moses gathered the congregation to sing a new song of praise celebrating the great victory. While the men sang, Miriam — Moses’ sister — led the women in dance. Most of them had timbrels and were singing in response to the men’s words (Exodus 15: 20, 21).
It was a powerful expression of praise and thanksgiving and clearly the dance was an integral part of this worship.
There are a number of other instances when dancing was associated with worship. In Judges 21:21, 23, the women of Shiloh danced in a nearby field. This was obviously a religious expression and a regular enough occurrence that the men of Benjamin used it to find wives.
I smile when I read that because this is exactly what happened to me. I first noticed my wife at church while she was dancing before the Lord. In fact, I believe the Holy Spirit highlighted her to me.
It took a few weeks for me to get up the courage to ask her out, but it all started with a dance and 35 years later we are still performing the marriage two-step.
Now some will suggest dancing is an Old Testament expression of worship and not for today. If that’s the case what about prayer, praise and worship, teaching, singing, choirs and musical instruments — all these and many others were also Old Testament religious expressions in common use today.
Somehow these passed our “not-for-today” inspection.
With our modern connotations of dance, it’s difficult to separate dancing from its current profane cultural use. In fact, some have reacted negatively to dancing for that very reason.
But even the Old Testament had similar conflicts where dancing was sexualized and abused.
When Moses went up Mt Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments his return was delayed. Fearing he had died, the Israelis pressured Aaron to make a golden calf. The Bible records they danced naked around the idol and from all descriptions it was nothing short of a sexual orgy mixed with idol worship (Exodus 32:19, 25).
But even this act of abuse did not disqualify dancing use in worship. After smashing the rocks with the ten commandments, Moses did not trudge back up Sinai and come down with tablets now containing a eleventh commandment — “Thou shalt not dance.”
Despite the abuses, dancing continued to be a valid way to express worship to God.
Though dancing was primarily done by women, at times men also participated.
In Jeremiah 31: 10-14, God prophesying through Jeremiah speaks of a day when the Israelis who had been scattered to the nations will return. This momentous restoration will be marked by shouts of joy and dancing by both men and women. In this context the dancing was clearly an expression of joy.
“Then the virgin will rejoice in the dance, And the young men and old men together, For I will turn their mourning into joy.” Jeremiah 31:13 NASV)
We also know David danced before the Ark of the Covenant as it was brought back into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:14, 16). He danced before the Lord with all his might. This took on the form of celebration including singing and several instruments (1 Chronicles 15: 27-29).
We are hot-wired to dance
But recent studies show God may have hard wired each of us to dance in worship. Have you noticed when a catchy worship comes along your fingers start bouncing and your toes start tapping. It happens to me all the time.
In fact if researchers — Prof Robert Zatorre and graduate student Joyce Chen — at the University of McGill in Montreal, Canada are right, your mind encourages you to dance when you hear a catchy tune.
The researchers asked volunteers to listen to rhythmical music. While they were listening, they were hooked up to a high-tech magnetic resonance imaging machines (MRI) to monitor their brain activity while music was played.
The scan showed — as expected — the area of the brain which dealt with auditory flashed on, meaning their minds were processing the music. But another area also lit up and it was the area of the brain that controlled movement. This proved a bit baffling initially since the volunteers were not moving.
However, this suggested to the researchers the brain was trying to initiate movement in response to the music. This explains why when music plays many of us start tapping our fingers and moving our feet.
Yes, it appears we are hard-wired to move when music plays.
If the science is right, at creation God put in each of us the urge to dance before the Lord.
- Brain to feet: ‘Let’s dance, guys’: Paul Taylor (The Globe and Mail: October 20, 2006)