Why I No Longer Raise My Hands During Church Worship...
Wow. What a title eh?
Seems a little controversial? A little outlandish? Are we setting up for a judgemental blog post full of shock-value content?
I just want to share with you all a journey that I have undergone over the past five years in regards to how I worship our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ because this has drastically changed my life, my Christian worldview, and even my heart, all for the better.
So let’s dive in.
Growing up, I was exposed to very different forms of worship.
There were the stiff Dutch Christian reformed church services every Sunday, ranging from contemporary music to hymns, all sung with serious or joyful fervor on behalf of the congregation. The heavy focus was placed on the words we were singing, and the hymns were specially selected to compliment the themes of the sermon.
This was the Calvinist Reformed religion of my paternal grandparents and one that I truly admired. I enjoyed singing with my friends in Sunday school, and I truly felt the weight of the words we were singing, reflecting on the awesomeness of God, his sovereignty, and the weight of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
But at home, a very different form of worship was taking root.
My mother exclusively played Christian music in our home.
We were not to listen to non-Christian music as a family, and the Christian radio station and various CD’s from Christian artists became our bread and butter. I often found myself enjoying the classical music station if I wanted a break from K-Love (a Christian radio station,) but in general, it was not something that particularly bothered me.
The influence of these Christain artists grew over the years, and I noticed our family shift from happily participating in corporate worship on Sundays to becoming increasingly critical and displeased with the hymn choices on Sunday. Suddenly, the hymns were not “spiritual” enough, and the people of our church were not passionate enough because they were stiff and kept their eyes open during the emotional choruses of the few contemporary songs we DID sing.
In short, my family’s religion became increasingly charismatic, with a heavy emphasis on becoming “on fire” for Jesus.
Being the goal-getter that I was, I found myself emulating my mother, experimenting with emotion-driven worship, raising my hands, closing my eyes, and drifting into my own feelings and passions during worship. I wanted to be like her–the woman whom I most admired. I wanted to make her proud, and I wanted to show her, and everyone else, that I truly loved Jesus.
The divide between the worship of my fellow congregants began to feel glaring. On Sundays, I would feel that my fellow Christians were too “stiff:” singing with their eyes open, daylight filling the sanctuary, with not a tear to be shed, while in contrast, my mother would be raising her hands, tears falling down her cheeks, pouring out her heart to the Lord.
It began to feel as though people who were willing to worship expressively were somehow more “advanced” Christians.
It seemed as though sanctification, the concept of becoming more like Christ throughout our Christian walk, was to be found through the outward expression of passion, specifically during worship sessions. This example guided me throughout my teen years, and I found myself falling into passionate expressive worship during mission trips, youth conferences, and Bible camps.
Singing to the Lord was so woven into our family’s personal life due to the constant background music of Christian artists that it felt that any time I was singing a Christian song, be it corporately or privately, it was an opportunity to sing passionately to the Lord, and in some ways, to be a light to others.
I had often heard the example of letting your light shine for Jesus, and it seemed that the best way to do that was to show how much you loved him during worship. Raising my hands, closing my eyes, and falling into emotional worship became a very normal part of my life.
As I grew older and life got harder, my worship became even more intense. Facing depression, parental instability, self-harm, heartbreak, health problems, and other trials, I fell deeper and deeper into my faith and emotions, crying out to the Lord in my personal time, and passionately singing to him during corporate worship as well.
Worship had somehow transformed from a time to reflect on God’s glory, to a time to cry out to him, almost the way I do in prayer. It became about me, my emotions, my heart, and my relationship with God. The people around me were background noise as I raised my hands, crying out to God, uncaring of the attention I drew or the distraction I caused. I would push through any feelings of awkwardness or embarrassment because it felt “right’ to humiliate myself for the glory of God. The more uncomfortable I felt raising my hands the better because that meant I was “sacrificing” for God. I was putting down my pride in order to glorify him.
And just like that, I went from singing “our God is an awesome God” in Sunday school with my friends, joined together in childlike reverence, picturing God as the King, to a person whose worship had become about myself. It was about MY shining light. MY example to others. MY feelings, and MY time to “connect” with God.
I remember hearing in a youth conference one time that raising your hands in worship and closing your eyes, essentially pouring out your soul in worship– that was the way to bring glory to God.
Because you were willing to look “foolish” for him.
You were willing to draw attention to yourself, to look crazy, and show your authentic emotions and brokenness to others because you “didn’t care what others thought” and you “only cared about God.” I know now that it was the whole 2000’s concept of being a “Jesus freak,” and not letting your personal pride stand in the way of giving God what he was owed– a person who was wilding out during worship, raised hands, tears streaming down their cheeks because they were so in love with God.
It got so bad at one point that I remember getting so deep into this form of “worship” that I found myself thinking that others must not love God more than themselves because they weren’t willing to look crazy for his glory. I remember feeling relieved when I found a college boyfriend who raised his hands in worship and went all out, as if it was truly a marker of a “strong” Christian. I think I believed that our relationship would be more “christlike” because we're both clearly so on “fire” for Jesus.
I cringe now, looking back at my clear personal pride and self-centeredness. It was all so foolish. So ridiculous, and honestly, such a blatant lie.
I lived out this lie, judging others, putting my security in myself as a “strong Christian,” and believing I was truly sanctified because of my willingness to put on an outward display, for many years. It got to the point that I was even LEADING worship.
But then, something changed.
I fell in love with my husband.
My husband, is the most Christlike person I have ever met, someone who I deeply admire and look to for Spiritual guidance.
And a person whom I have never seen raise his hands in worship.
This was the beginning of my mindset shift.
Because somehow, I could not reconcile the fact that he was “sold out for jesus” in all areas of his life, yet he did not fit the pattern I had come to know of how to be open and emotional during worship.
At first, I thought, “oh we just have to go to a more dynamic church, and then maybe his worship will become more expressive.” Or “maybe he’s just a little stiff, and over time he will loosen up.” But the years carried on, and his faith remained steadfast while his hands remained quietly at his side.
He never mentioned my worship style, never complimented or criticized me, and never interfered. So I continued, eyes closed, tears fresh, distracting those around me, and I thought, inspiring those in the congregation as I lead worship.
Wasn’t it a good thing though?
Attention drawn to a congregant who is so emotional for Jesus only makes God look good right?
Crying because you love God so much… isn’t that what the lady who poured perfume on Jesus' feet did? Wasn’t I being a proper Mary, not a Martha, to throw myself at the feet of Jesus every Sunday? The people who came up to me after service, to compliment my worship and to tell me that I blessed them by showcasing my faith, weren’t they being truthful? Surely I was glorifying God by helping others feel good. Right? Isn’t that what I had been taught by my mother? That those who truly love Jesus will be obvious about it in service? And didn’t I want to show how much I loved Jesus? Not hide my light, but show it to the world, right?
But the cracks in my beliefs continued to come as my marriage progressed, Scripture sticking in my mind about how we are not to pray on a street corner, showcasing our faith to others, but to instead take our devotion in private, so that our love for the Lord and passionate faith may not be used as a marker to hold ourselves as superior or better than others.
And I began to wonder if raising my hands in worship had become not about how in love with God I was, but how in love with MYSELF I had become.
I wondered if a tree falls in a forest, and no one hears it, did it truly fall? And if Caitlin worships without raising her hands, did she truly even glorify God? Can she glorify God without showing others how “on fire” she is? It was the first time I had considered such a thing, because I had viewed expressive worship as a universal good, an idealized standard that all Christians should aim toward. That as he progresses in the Christian life, even the stiffest Christian could become emotional for God.
But the questions began to haunt me, and my worldview continued to shift after I found myself “worshiping” next to a few people whom I happened to know very personally.
In a fully lit room, these people flung their hands up in expressive worship as the chorus of the song built, singing passionately and strongly as the bridge flowed, swaying to the music and singing loudly in what seemed to be emotional love for God.
But I happened to know these people very well.
And they happened to be extremely abusive people, who were living in unrepentant sin, actively abusing a person I knew.
And seeing them worship in a way that showcased their “faith” despite their hypocritical abuse broke something within me. I began to realize how much raising one’s hands in worship can be used as a blanket to cover up sinful living. It was as if raising their hands in worship “proved” that they were indeed “good” people. The actions of their lives didn’t have to answer for anything–all they had to do was raise their hands, and it signaled to the world that they loved Jesus and were superior Christians.
I think I had always assigned strong “faith” to people who willingly looked foolish in worship. I just assumed that they had their faith on the right path because they were worshiping God expressively. But this experience showed me that there was NO correlation between someone’s style of worship and how “sold out” for Jesus they truly were. These people were the biggest hypocrites I ever knew, yet they had no problem putting on a show to display their “love” for Jesus.
It disgusted me.
And I began to wonder if it disgusted God too.
The last straw in my worldview broke when my husband and I decided to leave our old church. We were visiting a church that we didn’t end up going to permanently, but the experience has stuck with me to this day.
The church was in a tiny old schoolhouse, unheated in the winter chill, everyone wearing winter parkas to keep warm. It was a small rural church, with only a few families, and there was no magnificent church building or incredible church band to be found. It was beyond modest, bordering on excessively humble, but there was something so pure about the scenario. It wasn’t flashy, it wasn’t excessive, and it was a style of worship, unlike anything I had ever experienced.
The service was completely unified and corporate.
We sang as a united group, the pastor at the front of the congregation, but facing away from us, toward the cross at the front of the church. The piano was behind us as well, so there was nothing for us to focus on other than the old cross. For a couple of songs, we all raised our hands together, as directed, and for prayer, we all knelt together on the cold wooden floor.
Everything was done in unison, no one was glorified or singled out.
We did everything together as the body of Christ, and we did everything with the goal of humbling ourselves before the cross.
Not distracting or drawing attention to the “level” of spirituality we had personally achieved, but seeking to truly meditate on our brokenness in comparison to the magnificent God of the Universe.
I had never felt so humbled in corporate worship, but also never felt so… alive.
All those times I was crying, raising my hands, or even dancing in worship to bring glory to God… the smoke machines, the dark youth conference jam sessions, and even the acapella crying around a Christian campfire… all of it paled in comparison to humbly singing a hymn on a cold floor, my voice joined together with those around me as we sang the stuffy hymns of my childhood. Of my grandparents, and of their grandparents before them.
And with my knees on the cold floor of that schoolhouse, I made a commitment.
I would never draw attention to myself in corporate worship again.
I would never attempt to bring glory to God through “inspiring others” by my personal emotions during corporate worship.
In short, I would never try to make corporate worship about myself again.
And from there, I have never looked back. I have never raised my hands in corporate worship again. Because if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, yes, it did fall. And if Caitlin worships without raising her hands, yes, she is still glorifying God.
That day stuck with me because the worship experience was about unity. It was about the bride of Christ, the Body of Christ, coming together to sing for the glory of God. It wasn’t a time to set up an internal spontaneous pecking order of most holy to least by measuring who was willing to cry the most or dance the most during worship.
I made a commitment to myself that I wanted to be able to worship God without any “additives.” Without any emotional feelings causing me to cry. Without raising my hands to feel “passionate.” Without modern music to get the emotional juices flowing, and without feeling like I had to be in a cool crowd of people. I wanted my love for the Lord to be between me and him, for he knows my heart. I did not want to offend him or sin against him any longer by using worship time to make things about myself.
I wanted to be able to worship the Lord in the stuffiest room imaginable.
I no longer wanted worship to be about me.
I didn’t want to think about how I could “inspire” others through my worship. I didn’t want to think about my personal problems during worship, and I didn’t want to think about myself at ALL during worship. A spontaneous tear is one thing, but trying to throw myself into passionate emotion just so that I can “feel something” during worship was another.
I began craving to worship God DESPITE the lack of emotional music. I wanted to be able to worship God in a room full of 85 year old stuffy seniors and a harpsichord if that’s what worship was that day. I no longer desired to “signal” outwardly how sold out for Jesus I was. I finally realized that the actions I took in my life, how I loved others and how I obeyed the Bible– that was what showed a sanctified life.
Because anyone can raise their hands for a couple songs on Sunday.
Anyone can feel emotional about a powerful song that talks about overcoming fear or hardship.
But it takes the strength of the Holy Spirit to truly LIVE a Christian life, day in and day out, fighting against sin and becoming transformed to be like Christ.
I don’t want my feelings to direct my worship because the truth is that no matter how I “feel” that day, GOD IS GOOD. If I feel crappy, God STILL deserves glorification. I no longer desire to draw any attention to myself during worship and I do not want to show myself as sold out for Jesus because the way to do that is by living a Christian life. True humility isn’t being willing to embarrass myself during worship… it’s being willing to fade into the background and go totally unnoticed during worship.
And know that this is not a condemnation for anyone who raises their hands in worship.
It is a personal conviction because as I’ve illustrated, I was unable to separate myself from the action, and it turned worship into something self-focused, rather than God-glorifying.
Because maybe you can raise your hands in worship and it’s not a self-centered practice.
But I can’t.
And that’s how some things are in this life. Some Christians cannot do things that others can because for them, it becomes sinful. And that is why there is such thing as Christian liberty, as Paul discusses in his letter regarding what Christians can and cannot eat. Some things are a stumbling block for some of us, and I have learned that outward shows during worship is a stumbling block in my faith. It fluffs up my PRIDE, and it makes me think about myself, not God.
I have found it interesting that now that I never have a “bad” session of worship.
Because things aren’t directed by how I feel, but rather by the words I am singing, I can always worship God with a full heart. Even when I’m going through a tough time in life, I can enjoy worship. I don’t sigh when a stuffy hymn is announced as the next song, and I don’t wait with bated breath for the next Bethel or Hillsong number to really get my emotional worship juices flowing. I’m not interested in a dark room in order to feel the music, and I don’t bring my personal problems into worship, focusing on how God can help me during the songs, but rather, I focus on God’s greatness.
Now, when I get the opportunity to worship with others, I join together with them, enjoying the unity of the Bride of Christ, not comparing our faiths by outward markers, or honestly even comparing our faith at all.
Because Jesus is not going to come back and bring just me to heaven. He’s not going to bring just me into the throne room of eternal life or just me to spend time with forever– no.
He will be taking up the BRIDE of Christ. The BODY of Christ! All of us Christians TOGETHER. Why should I single out myself? Why should I take an individualistic approach to my relationship with the Lord when I am to be joined in unity with others? Why distract others from the glory of God by showing what a “great” Christian I am? Why pressure others to “prove” their love for God by raising their hands when that is not even a directive in the Bible? In fact, why draw any attention to myself during worship at all?
Now, I view worship through a lens of not I, but God. How can I draw attention to myself, even with the most innocent of actions when we are to be lead toward God?
So now I sing, my hands clasped in front of me, a smile on my face in a brightly lit sanctuary, rubbing shoulders with my husband who is sternly singing along to the hymn as well, my heart full with the ponderance of God’s greatness. I reflect on my small part in this great world He’s made, singing along with the beloved Bride of Christ in the pew ahead of me, the pew behind me, and the voices going up all around the world every Sunday.
And I fully know now that the girl who raised her hands in worship, even when it began as an innocent display of my love for Jesus… that girl still loves God– and she doesn’t need to prove it to anyone.