Raising Hands in Worship


Look over Keith Drury’s Shoulder as he answers his mail


 Our church is mildly divided over hand-raising in worship.   On one end of our spectrum we have an eager group of new folk who came to us from the Charismatic movement who frequently raise their hands in worship.  On the other end are a group of people who refuse to  ever raise their hands and feel we are getting too emotional when the worship leaders encourage people to raise their hands.  Then there is a large middle group that occasionally raises their hands but always in a rather reserved manner.  We are working together and learning to love and live with each other, but last Sunday in our class we got into a discussion way over my head on what various hand-raising means.  Our Charismatic-leaning families were fast on the draw and explained that raising  both our hands upward with palms facing inward was the better posture.  Honestly, I’ve never even thought of the meaning of hand-raising—are they right?  Do various postures have meaning and is one better than another?

--Sunday School Teacher




Hand-raising is a cultural expression—a means of non-verbal communication that carries meaning.  What we do with our hands are often non-verbal words. Gestures with the fingers, hand or hands do mean things.   Like words, they are used as expressions in worship.  Your Charismatic friends are right—the use of the hands has meaning in worship, just like other actions or postures have meaning.

 God, of course prefers no particular language in either word or gestures, for He reads the language of our heart—to God, a word or action means exactly and only what we intend it to mean.  But other people, and ourselves, are left with the cultural “loading” of words and gestures.  A worship leader should pay attention to what these gestures mean as much as a preacher should pay attention to what various words mean “on the street” in the culture where the preacher is preaching.

I’ll outline five postures for the hands in worship today and how North American people tend to see their meaning.  While I’ll use old songs as illustrations, one could just as easily insert newer songs as examples for each:


1. RECEIVE.  (Two-handed; hands raised, palms facing inward). This is the posture your Charismatic friends probably preferred—a posture of receiving—“God, respond to me, touch me, give me, speak to me, fill me.”  It is a posture for receiving from God a touch, a work of grace, or a gift.  This posture was periodically used in camp meeting revivalism, especially during the third part of worship, the “altar service.”  A person kneeling at the altar might be encouraged to raise both hands to receive from God the work they were seeking.  But the Charismatic movement has co-opted this gesture and it has come to be the dominant mode to say, “I want to receive from You, Lord.”  It seems most appropriate when singing prayer choruses like “Fill me now” or “Purify my heart.”

2.  STAND-IN-AWE.  (Two-handed hands raised, palms facing outward).  The same as the receive posture only with palms reversed—facing outward.  It is an ancient custom still practiced in other religions and cultures.  The worshipper falls to his or her knees, raises hands with palms facing outward, then bows down forward before the god or king.   When used in praise today the falling-to-the-knees part is usually truncated (Americans bow to nobody, not even god).   The praise and worship movement has popularized stand-in-awe music and this posture has become an expression of extravagant nothing-held-back praise to God.  This posture seem most appropriate when singing songs that mentally locate God on His throne and we are facing that throne.  This would include many of the 1980’s and 90’s praise songs but also older songs like “Holy, Holy, Holy.”


3. SURRENDER. (Same as above—two handed hands raised, palms facing outward).  Though this posture is the exact posture of the stand-in-awe gesture, holiness camp meeting folk used it for a different reason.  The almost-universal expression of surrender is either a white flag or this one: hands raised with palms facing outward.  “I give up.”  Thus the holiness movement, with its emphasis on a “total consecration” and surrender, often used the double-hands-raised posture as a physical action to represent absolute surrender to God.  While this earlier use has largely been replaced by the stand-in-awe use it is still a useful symbolic gesture.  Here is a good example of how gestures shift over time to gain new meaning as old means are discarded.  Perhaps we do this to reflect our shifting theology—American Christianity focuses less today on our consecration to God and more on praise to God; less on surrendering self to God and more on receiving something for self from God.  Thus our gestures have followed our theology.  (Or, does theology follow gestures?)  The surrender posture was especially appropriate with songs like “I surrender all” or “Take my life and let it be,” but it is used more infrequently today for this meaning—the actions now mean I am standing-in-awe more often.


4. TESTIMONY. (One hand raised, palm facing outward). The culture uses this posture when we “swear in” a witness (i.e.I swear to tell the whole truth, nothing but the truth…”).  The church has used it as a testimony-witness posture.  To raise one hand during singing a song says, “I agree” or, “I testify this is true in my life.”  In a sense this quiet hand raising is a non-verbal “amen.”  Churches using this posture often have a heavy emphasis in preaching and singing on truth and God’s sustaining work in our life today.  It seems especially appropriate as a personal response during a song like, “It is well with my soul.”

5. COMMITMENT/VOLUNTEER.  (Same as above—one hand raised, palm facing outward).  The second use of the single hand posture in our culture is “I volunteer” or, “I will.”  It is a posture of commitment or volunteering.  A leader asks a group, “Who is willing?”   Raising one’s hand is the non-verbal way to say, “I will.”  It emphasizes willingness to do whatever God requires.  This one handed volunteer posture seems an appropriate way to personally accompany a song like “I’ll go where you want me to God, dear Lord.”


There are, of course many other hand gestures.  We sometimes fold our hands in prayer.  Some Christians genuflect toward the communion table/altar upon entering their pew as a matter of respect to the “body and blood of Jesus.”  Others use the sign of the cross to remind them of Christ’s death for them.  Some Christians insist on bowing their heads for prayer, or removing their hats.  A few churches still call worshippers to kneel in submission as they pray.  Then there are the many adaptations of the above list: like raising hands at half-staff or extending them at waist-level.  Some join hands across the aisles, or extend their hands toward someone we are praying for in the congregation as a visual representation of extending prayers to that person.   There are certainly others too.  But these five seem to be the core modes of hand-raising today and most of the discussion of good-better-best relates to these questions:  Is it better to hold the palms inward or outward?  Is it better to raise the hands as high as possible or does half-staff hand-raising less passionate?  Is one-handed hand-raising a sign of holding back?

          These questions seem silly to me.  To me it seems that the various postures do have meaning and thus we should be free to use them when the lyrics of the song fit.  Doesn’t that make sense?  Or am I missing something here?



 Actions and gestures do indeed mean something in worship.  And when a congregation raises their hands in worship it is a powerful means of raising participation—something we all must do.  Worship is not something we watch the worship band do on the “stage.”  Worship is the work of the people and the leaders are not performers but accompanists; God is the audience. 

So hand-raising of one kind or another is a welcome part of worship.  However if you are a worship leader consider this warning: You have no right to coerce worshippers into practicing any one gesture in worship with the implication that those who resist are uncommitted.  Rather, educate worshippers to understand the meaning of hand-gestures as outlined above.  Then they will be able to better express their hearts in worship.  And, one more thing.  It is better to do this sort of educating in a class than it would be by droning on during worship with the guitar plunking as background for your “teaching time.”  Our (protestant) worship services already have too many words.   And not enough actions.



So, what other hands posture would you add  Or what other changes would you make in this article? Send your ideas for future revisions to Keith@TuesdayColumn.com