Though I grew up as a Christian and a dancer, my first experience with consciously worshiping through dance happened in college after I had joined a dance ministry team.
My first performance with the group was a Christmas event with a local ministry in the Chicago suburbs. Rather than dancing to a recorded track, we performed with a gospel choir and a full orchestra. For as many times as I had been on stage, I had never shared it with more than one or two musicians. Live music of this scale promised to make for an impressive production.
And it was, but not for the reasons I was expecting. Being my first event with the team, I went onto the stage focused, with a performance mindset, and as the orchestra began and the choir chimed in, I felt the worshipful atmosphere envelope me.
I say and, not but, because what I realized here was that the two actions weren't opposed. The best way for me to participate in this overwhelmingly worshipful experience was to perform. I kept in step, counting out eights in my head, and at the same time, I felt profoundly connected to the worship that was happening around me. The intentions of the dancers, the musicians, the singers, and the worshipers in the audience were all set in line, going directly up to God. I praised God from a different angle that day, and I realized God was doing a new thing in my heart.
I still chronicle that night as one of the most worshipful experiences of my life, yet even as it was happening and as I pondered it afterward, I had some doubt. Was it really my experiencing God that made this instance so powerful or was I just caught up in the music or the excitement of being on stage?
As this performance was the beginning of three years of being deeply involved with this dance group, I have mulled over these thoughts again and again. I am always faced with the question, "What is worship, then, if this isn't it?"
I have always been told that worship is not any certain special action but an attitude of the heart—a true definition, albeit nebulous. I know that with this definition, dance can easily fall within the realms of good, pure worship, but so could any number of things. When did it just become a game of naming things what they aren't, and when was it truly transforming the manner in which we do things to glorify God?
God began to reveal to me how I very easily categorized some styles of worship as good while others I instantly marked for review. The further I thought it all through, I saw that much of what I had understood of worship, I had learned from the church.
All too often, we allow our worship and our communication with God to become reliant on mental activities—listening to the words of a sermon, studying Scripture, or reading a spiritual book. In church, we are encouraged to take our worship to the next level and think on the words of a praise song as we sing them. That is a valid encouragement, but it also seems to suggest that it is the mental activity that gives worship its worth, as if the truth of the lyrics and the act of us saying them (even and especially when our minds have trouble accepting them) were not viable.
I had grown accustomed to discerning what is and is not from God by testing it with my mind—so accustomed, in fact, that when the time came when the Spirit was affirming something my mind couldn't box in, I had a small crisis. I was trusting in my own ability to reason out my faith rather than seeking the Spirit and trusting that as John 16:13 says, the Holy Spirit will "guide [us] into all truth."
The call to worship with our bodies is about more than sensations. It's an affirmation of the fact that we are embodied creatures and that not every part of our existence can be understood logically. It affirms exactly what Christ affirmed when he took on flesh: to be human is a beautiful and an important thing.
Christ coming to earth, becoming fully human while remaining fully God, and sacrificing himself for us is the center of our Christian faith. It changes everything. And when we receive Christ's redemption, the Holy Spirit dwells in us, and our bodies become a holy place. "Don't you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body" (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
If we truly believe Christ's gift on the Cross, the implication of that belief is that what we do with our bodies matters. So often, I have been taught this truth in the same context in which it's found in 1 Corinthians 6: avoid using your body to sin because the Holy Spirit dwells in you. Absolutely. But our bodies do not have only negative potential. The end of verse 20 admonishes us to honor God with our bodies. We are not called to be sin-avoiders but life-celebrators, God-honorers, and we are called to use our body to do so.
A time to be quiet and a time to speak
Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us that our lives will be made up of seasons. There will be times in our lives when a God who can only be reached through words will be inaccessible. When we are touched by tragedy that defies logic—as we are so terribly often—it's imperative that we remember our faith is beyond logic. Not illogical but beyond logic, above it.
We don't always have the capacity to form prayer into words. But we must pray, and that prayer may look like taking a walk and feeling the stability and constancy of pavement under our feet. Romans 8:26 states, "And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don't know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words."
During my last season on that dance team in college, a student, a close friend of one of the members of our team, died unexpectedly. He had collapsed while running, fallen unconscious, and a few days later, due to the trauma his body had endured from cardiac arrest, he was removed from life support. This kind of loss is inexplicable. The feeling on campus was eerie.
When the team met the next day and one of the dancers shared that he had been a close friend, we prayed in the way we knew best. We lifted our hands, we closed our eyes, and we danced our sorrow and our inability to understand. We gave our visual offering to the Lord, our groanings that could not be expressed in words.
I looked up during those minutes of prayer, and I saw that dancer who had just lost a precious friend, standing still in the middle of the room, eyes absorbing the 21 prayers being lifted up all around him, and I knew that there was no better way we could have communicated our grief. The Holy Spirit was present and moving in the dance studio that day, using our everyday muscles and limbs to bring comfort. We left encouraged, reminded that, "Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:9).
We must realize the mind is not the gateway into the soul, or at least not the only one. To experience God, we do not need our minds more or less than we need our bodies. God has given us both.