The phrase “freedom in worship” can mean something different to each of us. Some people are afraid to express themselves to God in worship, both privately and publicly. Some denominations jokingly refer to themselves as “the frozen chosen.” Some people look down on liturgical style churches as being stuck in ritual and tradition, even if it’s meaningful to them. Others look at charismatic styles of worship and think it’s out of control and too emotional. But the idea of freedom in worship needs to allow for true freedom: to worship and spirit and in truth, in whatever style you feel comfortable.
My college President, Dr. Mark Rutland told this story in a chapel service. He was a guest speaker at a charismatic church, and at this church the pastors all sat on the stage for everyone to look at them. During the greeting time, a woman approached Dr. Rutland and said “you aren’t dancing.” He was confused and taken aback. She continued to tell him that in this church, they dance. And if he’s not dancing then it shows them he’s not “one of them.” (cue the song “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats: “’Cause your friends don’t dance and if they don’t dance, well they’re no friends of mine.”)
Dr. Rutland then told the woman, “well even if I wanted to dance, now I can’t.” She didn’t understand, so he continued. “Now if I dance it will be to please you, and not God.”
A lot of times, people’s idea of “free to worship” means do exactly what we do or else you’re not really worshipping.
I’ve heard many charismatic worship leaders encourage the crowd to be free by lifting their hands, jumping up and down, dancing or shouting. I’ve also seen more subdued churches where that kind of worship style is frowned upon. They will joke about “we’re not that kind of church.” They may even specifically state that in this church, we clap or raise our hands if we feel like it, but “we don’t get crazy.” We have little subtle ways to criticize other styles of worship that we don’t prefer.
Churches need to be a place of freedom to worship in spirit and truth, being genuine to our personality, mood or an encounter we might be having with God. That could mean any variety of worship styles, even all within the same service: sitting quietly, kneeling, journaling, dancing, clapping, jumping up and down, looking at visual reminders like icons, statues or paintings. You might walk into a service desperate for God and going through a rough time and just want to sit or kneel with your eyes closed and let God’s presence wash over you. Other times, you might be excited and full of joy and want to jump up and down and shout to God.
In genuine Christian community, we should be free to express ourselves in worship to God no matter what the style. And shame on leaders who make people feel embarrassed to worship God the way they feel comfortable. Of course, there needs to be order and it shouldn’t be a distraction. You may want to find a place to sit that doesn’t distract or interfere with others around you. Anyone who’s ever attended a charismatic church knows to avoid the people who swing their arms like they’re in the mosh pit, or to place the flag wavers in the corner or the back to not be distracting.
But ultimately, we should not be hindered in our worship; we should be truly free. Are we trying to please man? Or God?