Singing "Stand Up, Stand Up, for Jesus" While Sitting Down: Disembodied Worship

I was in a seminary chapel when the great divorce between my mouth and the rest of my body hit me.

Several times a week, we’d chant a portion of Psalm 95. While standing tall and proud, we’d belt out:
“Oh, come, let us worship and bow down.
Let us kneel before the Lord, our maker.”

Our words said one thing, our bodies quite another. We weren’t bowing down, much less on our knees. We were just standing there, like a bunch of Americans singing some cool-sounding song in Swahili or Icelandic. Our knees were locked, spines straight, mouthing one thing and doing its reverse.

We’d just as well been singing, “Stand Up, Stand Up, for Jesus” while sitting down.

What we were really doing was being consistent—consistent, at least, with a trait common in Protestant churches, where worship is aimed at the neck up. Just make sure your head shows up to church. You can leave the rest of your body at home.

Worship Like a Hebrew

Perhaps we can shift the blame to the English language. We’re always looking for a scapegoat anyway, aren’t we? After all, “worship” is such an abstract word. It lacks specificity, concreteness. It’s not an embodied word.

That was not a problem for the Israelites. Their Hebrew word for worship (used, for instance, in that verse from Psalm 95), is from the root shachah. It’s usually translated as “worship” but it means to prostrate yourself, to kneel down on the ground and bend your face toward the dirt. To shachah doesn’t just entail worshiping with your body; it is to worship with your body. This doesn’t exclude the mind, of course, but it always includes the entirety of who you are.

In other words, to worship as a Hebrew is to worship from head to toe. You can’t leave your body in the parking lot and let your head roll into church alone.

Incarnation or Excarnation?

Now we’re getting at the heart of the matter. Far too many churches seem to have a head fetish. Baptize the head, stuff the head with doctrinal facts, teach the head to parrot all the orthodox answers. Christians are treated (to use the memorable phrase of James K. A. Smith) as “brains on stick.”

This is far more substantive an issue than warming the pew while singing “Stand Up, Stand Up, for Jesus.” Such disengagement between the head and the rest of the body is a symptom of a deeper, widespread problem. We might call it “the excarnation of Christianity.”

If the incarnation is the Son of God becoming human flesh, then the excarnation is the children of God shrugging that off as if it doesn’t matter, or isn’t “spiritual” enough for their religious palate. An excarnate Christianity is all about the soul or the spirit or the brain. The rest of the body is incidental, bothersome, or simply a tool or plaything. It certainly doesn’t see knees, elbows, and lungs suffused with the holiness of God.

Unwilling to take seriously the fact that God has a human body, excarnate Christianity doesn’t take seriously the sacredness of our own bodies. Thus its worship tends to be disembodied. Rituals which involve the body in kneeling, raising the hands, bowing, making the sign of the cross, walking in processions, eating and drinking, washing, and other concrete actions are not vital to worship. Just sit in the pew and listen. Close your eyes if you want to. Be a brain-on-a-stick. Go on pretending that God doesn’t have toes, a belly button, and blood, just like you.

Unwittingly, such churches are sawing off the branch they’re sitting on. The message implicitly communicated by disembodied worship is that gathering with believers is not really that important. After all, your head can worship God just as well while in bed alone on Sunday morning.

Let Your Fitbit Be Your Guide

The church’s worship should boldly and explicitly do two things: confess the incarnation and practice for the resurrection.

It should confess the incarnation. If we take the incarnation seriously, that God has a body, then our whole bodies have just as much to do with our faith as do our minds or souls. When we make the sign of the cross, or raise our hands in prayer, our fingers and hands are worshiping God. When we kneel, our knees are worshiping. When we fast or feast, our stomachs are worshiping. Our God is embodied, so our worship of that God should be embodied as well.

And it should practice for the resurrection. That is, everything we do in worship should affirm that we’ll have these bodies for eternity. In the resurrection, Christ will unearth and glorify our bodies for life in the new heavens and new earth. So on this old earth, under the old heavens, let’s practice for that day, not by just involving our heads but the entirety of who we are as flesh-and-blood believers.

If your Fitbit doesn’t buzz on your arm at least once in the service to tell you to get moving, something probably isn’t right.

Christianity is a total package. Not a spirituality of the soul, not a brain faith, but a head-to-toe religion in which we, as creatures with bodies and souls and minds, engage them all in our worship around the throne of the God who has breath in his lungs, scars on his hands, and a heart beating with blood.