Body Language: Eight basic gestures every worship leader should know

A few summers ago at a Presbyterian music and worship conference at Montreal, North Carolina, we celebrated the liturgy of Holy Week. Much about the services was new to those attending. For some the experience was far too "Catholic," or at least too "high church," though many others found the richness of text, symbol, movement, and music liberating and enlivening. Certain moments seemed to engender everyone's deep participation.

One such moment occurred when a group of young people moved into the aisles of the auditorium and used simple gestures and body movement to lead the congregation in a sung version of the Lord's Prayer. Something about their leadership—perhaps the disarming presence of these well-trained, serious children, or the prayerful quality of their gestures combined with the musical setting—allowed them to draw something deep from the whole community assembled for worship. It was a striking example of how gestures and movement can enable a congregation to worship more deeply than they had expected to.

A Word-Oriented Tradition

Faithful celebration of God's Word and sacramental grace involves many levels of symbolic language. What we say and do in the name of God comes to life in a visual arid acoustical environment. Even when we are not aware of them, gestures, ritual actions, and congregational movement play a vital part in our worship. Yet, for the most part, worship in the Reformed tradition has exhibited caution and even a strong aversion to the language of physical gesture.

There are historical, cultural, and theological reasons behind this caution. The Reformed tradition was born through a radical critique of excessive ceremony and with the need to "purify" worship from distortions resulting from accumulated ecclesiastical and cultural traditions. At least three of the impulses behind the rejection of "ritualism" have continued in the practices, if not the bone marrow, of much of middle Protestantism, and they continue to shape present attitudes toward gesture in liturgical leadership.

The first of these impulses is to contrast spirit and physicality—the "spiritual power and reality" of worship from the "outward and visible signs." Second is the tendency to draw attention to the weakness of human faith and to our sinful inclination to mistake the physical for the spiritual. The third impulse is to conceive religious identity negatively: that is, for Protestants to understand themselves as "not Roman Catholic."

These impulses are not, in themselves, problematic. Christian worship practices are always culturally embedded and embodied. Christians are, as it were, "evangelized" into a set of nonverbal dimensions of worship that we then take to be normative. So a certain tone and rhetoric alongside gestures in preaching, in singing, and in prayer often forms us more deeply than do words.

Certain styles of gathering and of behavior "in church" are so much a part of our religious identity that we rarely think about them until confronted with change. Exposure to other cultural patterns of worship brings insight and crisis.

The question of whether we should applaud something in worship is a case in point, as is the amount of expressiveness that particular denominations or even local churches permit.

Some churches—those in the Reformed tradition among them—have traditionally emphasized "texts" and verbal language. We need to come to terms with the fact that the meaning of the words we speak depends far more on the nonverbal dimensions of worship than we have imagined. Even when the Word of God is read, the congregation's level and intensity of responsive understanding depends upon the "performance" of the text (tone of voice, facial expression) and elements that surround the reading, such as song, procession, or silence. For example, the speaking of a creed is enacted by standing, the words of blessing are made palpable and visible by the gesture of raised hands or the "laying on" of hands, and the words concerning the bread and the cup are realized in giving and receiving the elements.

Eight Gestures of Christian Worship

The meaning of Christian liturgy therefore, is not simply in the texts; rather, the theology we pray is enacted by the assembly, prompted by its leaders through the interaction of words, gestures, song, and movement. When the Christian community gathers around the Scriptures, the table of the Lord, and the font of baptism, we employ human means of communication. In the sacraments, God uses human, physical signs to convey the power of grace. Both the sacraments and the Word of God "offer and set forth Christ to us..." (Calvin, Institutes, VI, 14,17).

Because Christian public worship is a shared pattern of common action—texts, symbols, ritual, and song—it requires some form of ordering. Once we move from a small circle of a few people to a room of gathering, the art of leading worship becomes more complex. But there is no single set of gestures and shared bodily responses that can serve all Christian worship traditions. Not only local traditions, but the very spaces and the occasions in which we gather will determine the kind and character of the gestures used in leading the assembly. Presiding ministers and other leaders also will bring their own personhood, including their physiology to the art of enabling a congregation to pray, to sing, and to respond.

Yet with all this variability there are still basic gestures intrinsic to the Christian meeting for worship. These are linked to the elements and the very pattern of Word and sacrament that seek to "offer Christ" and that serve to "receive Christ," The key to all such gestures is that they be clear, loving, and wise, and that they graciously serve the liturgy of Jesus Christ.

A Counter-Cultural Afterward

All of these gestures are intended to communicate the grace of God in Christ. They are meant to serve liturgy that both offers Christ to the assembly and enables the assembly to receive Christ.

In a mass-media culture, the models of leading a group tend to be either the "folksy entertainer" who controls by disavowing the authority of office and by being "casual," or the "technician of the sacred" who controls responses by electronic means. Within churches we also find the highly idiosyncratic style that calls attention to the leaders personality. Alongside these models there remains a rigid, compulsive, authoritarian style as well.

But the gestures we have sketched here present us with an alternative to these leadership styles. For the art of presiding is to serve the assembly's prayer, praise, and response to God's gracious word and deed. The basic quality of these gestures is one of hospitality invitation, vulnerability to God, and a gracious, attentive leading. To greet, to invite, to bless, and to enable Christian celebration is to make visible, audible, and kinetic the ritual care of the community gathered around Jesus Christ. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, in, with, and through the physical means that God has created and redeemed.

1 Greeting

Every Christian worship gathering is marked by a word and gesture of greeting—usually in the name of God or in the name of Jesus. The words may vary from the traditional "The Lord be with you," or "The peace of the Lord be with you," to "Welcome in the name of Jesus Christ." The key is opening the hands and arms toward the people and communicating the genuine sense of inclusion and hospitality.

The greeting sometimes also takes the form of the "exchange of the peace," in which a handshake or embrace is exchanged between leader and people, and among the worshipers. Often what the leader does becomes a visual model for what the people are invited to do; therefore it is essential that the gesture be confident and loving, honoring the presence of Christ in the midst of the assembly. The exchange of the peace is often far more powerful when done in silence.

2 Praying

Several gestures are appropriate to the different forms of prayer that occur over time in public worship. When presiding at the Lord's Table, the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving (eu-charistic prayer) is offered standing with hands open and away from the body palms uplifted. The early church called this the orans position, and it is the characteristic biblical posture for praise. Its use is also appropriate over the offering plates and over the font for baptismal litur-ies. This gesture enables the congregation to sense the God-ward direction of the praise and to participate in the resurrection posture of standing to bless God.

In some churches the minister may want to invite the people to kneel for prayer on penitential days such as Ash Wednesday or Good Friday. The most effective way of leading the congregation to kneel may be the presiding minister's own kneeling. The minister may also want to use a lowering of open hands held at a gentle angle toward the people.

3 Receiving

At various times in the worship service it is necessary to receive objects such as offering plates, communion vessels, the elements, or particular gifts. Such acts of receiving are done on behalf of the whole assembly, providing a focal point for the people's self-giving. This gesture should be direct, unostentatious, and clearly visible to the congregation whenever possible.

One of the most powerful gestures of receiving occurs when the pastor receives an infant for baptism. This act must avoid sentimentality and awkwardness. It is not a private action but a gesture that signals to the assembly the love, strength, and joy of the church's reception of those of tender age.

4 Pouring

At times, the presiding minister or anyone assisting at baptism or foot-washings will pour water from a pitcher or other vessel. This act should be visible and audible, but done with the strong dignity befitting God's gift of water for ritual and sacramental use. The one pouring needs to have the "feel" of the weight of the water vessel and a prayerful concentration on the act. This will enable the congregation to overcome their uneasiness, if any, at the sound. In the case of the Lord's Supper, it is best to pour the wine from the flagon or pitcher into the chalice(s) before the beginning of the prayer of thanksgiving at the table. Even when individual communion cups are used, the symbol of a chalice on the table and the pouring of the wine can be deeply expressive of the single cup shared with Christ in the holy meal. Likewise an assistant, even one of the members of a baptismal party, may do the pouring (before, not during, the prayer over the water).

5 Offering

Acts of offering (most typically following the money and/ or gift collection) move both horizontally and vertically. In presenting the plates to the one who is to offer them, the gesture is level, with direct eye contact. But when presenting the gifts to God, the gesture is vertical. The lifting of offerings should be done with joyful solemnity raising them for visibility and lifting the face and eyes upward. In determining the height of the gesture much depends upon the size and sight-lines of the room. Some may prefer not to lift the plates but instead to lift the hands in blessing over the offering.

The bread and the cup may also be lifted during the final doxology of the prayer of thanksgiving at the table. This enables the congregation to experience visually the symbolic doxological presentation of all gifts to the God of heaven and earth. Some may prefer to hold the cup and bread (whether on a plate or in a basket) with crossed forearms, creating a sense of strength and keeping the elevation of the elements at a modest height.

The gesture of offering to the assembly may be used with the Institutional Narrative (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) either when included in the prayer or as the words of invitation to the table. Here the presider needs to look directly at the people while graciously holding the elements toward the congregation: "Take, eat, this is my body which is given. . . . Drink from this, all of you...." This lateral gesture and direct communication from the presiding celebrant often deepens the congregation's participation.

6 Invoking

The traditional gesture associated in Christian history with invoking the Holy Spirit over the people and/or gifts (of bread and wine, water, oil, palms, and other elements) involves extending the hands together, palms down, over the things upon which the Spirit is invoked. In the case of the "laying on of hands" in a healing service, the gesture is extended to the physical touch itself. This gesture also occurs at ordinations, weddings, and funerals. The gesture is not an accompaniment to the prayer, but constitutes the praying itself.

7 Signing

While the Reformed tradition has not traditionally used the sign of the cross, many persons are finding this a powerful devotional act. The custom of tracing the sign of the cross on the forehead, the lips, or the breast is an ancient Christian expression of identity. Increasing use of this gesture is now reconnected in Protestant circles with baptism, confirmation, and reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant, as well as with prayers for healing (with oil) and with ashes on Ash Wednesday. The presider dips the thumb into the water, oil, or ashes and traces the cross lightly on the forehead.

8 Blessing

The act of raising hands in blessing is an ancient one. It is often used as the closing gesture in Protestant worship, signifying the priestly benediction of Christ. Both hands or one may be used, with the palm of the hand held toward the people. In some traditions, the sign of the cross is made toward the people at the final doxology in the triune name of God. The act of blessing may also be a gentle placing of the hand on the head, as in the case of a young child at the altar or in a reception line.

Don E. Saliers is a professor of theology and worship and director of the master of sacred music program at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.


Reformed Worship 32 © June 1994, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.