When I first came to Holy Trinity Anglican Church, it was pretty common to see people raising their hands during worship songs. And since my limited church experience had all come in fairly traditional churches, this freaked me out a little.
At the time, a church veteran explained to another Holy Trinity newbie and me that music team members really like it when they see lots of hands raised, saying this means more people are ‘really engaged in worship’.
Does that mean if you’re not raising your hands, you’re not ‘really worshiping’?
There are pockets of people in charismatic Christianity who would categorically answer yes to that question.
Oops, did I say that out loud? 😉
Anyway, back to my introduction to raise-your-hands worship: It didn’t take me long to get used to the practice, and even admire those who chose to do it. But eight years later, even though I’m one of the church’s music leaders, I’m still not sure what to make of the custom. I’m an occasional hands-raiser in the very rare event that I’m at a church service and I’m not holding a guitar, but I’m really not sure why I do it.
I decided to try it out one time at a Cursillo weekend, when I felt like I was holding something back from God – as if I felt prompted to do it, but didn’t want to raise my hands out of fear of looking silly. Half of the people in the room that day were raising their hands, I realized, so you could argue that the non-hands-raisers were the ones who looked silly. Therefore, I let go of this ridiculous pretence and raised my hands.
I was and am glad I let go of that thing I was holding back from God. But honestly, the only thing that felt different to me while my hands were up was that my shoulder got a bit sore from holding my arm up for so long. So on the next song, I decided to be more strategic. I’d let my arms rest during the verses, and raise them up during the choruses. I was demonstrably engaged in worship, and my shoulder didn’t hurt, so mission accomplished.
As I went on with this practice in the following weeks, I noticed that I felt more inclined to raise my hands when the music team was playing a song I liked – or during stanzas whose lyrics really spoke to me. And I also discovered that I’m more interested in raising my hands when the music team, sound system, acoustics, esthetics, lighting and temperature conform to my precise (and arbitrary?) standards of what a ‘good worship experience’ looks, sounds and feels like.
I tend, therefore, to have a little argument with myself fairly frequently about whether I want to raise my hands for authentic reasons or not – and this squabble undermines my ability to actually engage in worship regardless of what’s happening with my hands.
In light of all this, I usually bypass the argument and don’t even entertain the notion of raising my hands during worship music anymore. Most of the time, hands-raising is a distraction of the head that, for me, gets in the way of connecting with God with my heart.
I still do it, occasionally, though. When I do feel moved in that direction – regardless of how much of it is related to my feelings about the song, the musicians or the room – it would still feel like ‘holding back from God’ to feel prompted to raise my hands and yet to choose not to out of fear of being inauthentic.
And, to be honest, I do it for the sake of appearances sometimes. I’m a leader in my church and a fairly visible figure – since I’m usually near the front row and I’m roughly the size and shape of King Kong Bundy – so if someone for whom hands-raising would genuinely be helpful but is afraid to step out sees me doing it, they might be that much more inclined to take the plunge.
As you can see, I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’ve more or less made my peace with my approach to the topic.
And yet …
I still see lots of other people with their hands raised during worship, and looks of ecstasy, joy or maybe just connection on their faces – expressions that make me wonder if I’m missing out on something.
Do the bullies of charismatic Christianity have a point?
Maybe they do. I’ll try to shed some light…
Peace be with you.
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