Dancing for Joy

It began with a youth event at the Annual General Meeting of Manitou Conference. I had asked the young people to make a list of what they would like to see in their “ideal church” and at least three of them had included, “more dancing.” At first I was tempted to dismiss these choices – especially since one actually said, “More dance parties!” But then I got to thinking that having more dancing in the United Church might not be such a bad thing.

I remember the service that General Council Executive shared with the Ghana Calvary Methodist United Church last May, as we celebrated our new partnership with a two-and-half hour service that included dancing. Not just dancing in the pews when the rhythm of the music was irresistible, hips as well as heads in full motion; but also dancing up the aisles as the entire church, including the upfront clergy leaders, came forward to present their offerings. Despite some initial hesitation, it was clear that General Council Executive folk were eager to dance up a storm!

I remember a conversation with Adrian Jacobs, the Keeper of the Circle of the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre (the educational/training centre for those preparing for ministry with First Nations peoples), where he talked about the deep importance of the circle dance, with the slow, rhythmic beating of the drums; and how people became immersed in that moment of celebration, bringing their whole selves into the dance, which then became a moment of transformation. I remembered the Transformation Dance I had witnessed in Bella Coola, at the conclusion of a long day of ceremony when the Nuxalk people had honoured the survivors of residential schools from their villages.

Dance…we could use more of this in the United Church. King David dancing before the Lord with all his might (2 Samuel 6:14); the whirling of the Sufi mystics; the Shakers with their simple community movements (“Lord of the Dance” is one of their melodies). Maybe it’s not really dancing that I’m talking about, but rather a way of worshipping that catches up our whole being, our hearts, and our bodies as well as our minds. I feel we’re often missing something in United Church worship – a sense of such joy that we can’t stop ourselves from springing to our feet, raising our hands, letting our bodies move; caught up in praise, joy, commitment, and thanksgiving.

Earlier this month  I was an ecumenical guest at the General Conference of the Metropolitan Community Churches, a young denomination that began in 1968 as Rev. Elder Troy Perry founded a church, and then a movement, declaring that gay and lesbian people were just fine in the eyes of God, and that they should come together as Christians to worship the Lord. Well, Troy came from a very conservative Pentecostal tradition, and while he changed the theology, he included some of the Pentecostal traditions of praise – music, prayer, movement, speaking out. However, he also pushed beyond the boundaries of his own tradition, and turning to the Episcopal/Anglican Book of Common Prayer, he included several “liturgical elements” – weekly eucharist, anointing, standing for the reading of the gospel.

So, when we worshipped as a full community (an hour and a half each morning; even longer in the evening – and doesn’t that tell us something about making worship the most important part of such a meeting?), there wasn’t dancing; but there was music that pulled at your body, that invited you to move, to clap, to (almost) dance; there was powerful and thoughtful preaching; and there was always a ritual that had us getting out of our chairs, and going to the table for communion, anointing, prayer, a touch; something that invited a “whole body” response.

A few weeks ago the Comprehensive Review Task Group had its June meeting. We know we are mandated to bring forth recommendations for structural change. But we also know that the United Church is being invited by the Spirit into a deeper transformation, which is much more demanding; how does a “report” speak to our need for spiritual rejuvenation? We will continue to wrestle with this question, but right at this moment I wonder if maybe we need to follow the Lord of the Dance, and see where we will be led.


13 thoughts on “Dancing for Joy

  1. Hi Gary,
    I really like your blogs. I can really resonate with your blog about dancing. I an 50 years old. I have only recently become comfortable with more movement in worship. At a retreat I went to recently, I had what felt like a “born again” experience in which I felt I was being called to die to some of the old styles of music and be born again to more of the lively music of our times. I don’t want to completely let go of the classics. I sometimes weep when I sing them because they bring back fond memories, but it’s time to embrace something new.
    -Kent Gibbons
    Diaconal Minister
    Dalhousie-New Mills Pastoral Charge
    Miramichi Presbytery, New Brunswick

  2. YES to this . They know of what they speak. Have waited for a long time for this happen….a little awkward at first but then full fledged “dancing with the spirit”

    My first two requests….

    “People Got To Be Free”

    All the world over, so easy to see
    People everywhere just wanna be free
    Listen, please listen, that’s the way it should be
    Deep in the valley, people got to be free

    You should see what a lovely, lovely world this’d be
    Everyone learned to live together, ah-hah-unh
    Seems to me such an itty bitty thing should be
    Why can’t you and me learn to love one another?

    All the world over, so easy to see
    People everywhere just wanna be free
    I can’t understand it, so simple to me
    People everywhere just got to be free

    If there’s a man who is down and needs a helpin’ hand
    All it takes is you to understand and to pull him through, ah-hah-unh
    Seems to me we got to solve it individually, ah-hah-unh
    And I’ll do unto you what you do to me

    Shout it from the mountain on out to the sea (out to the sea)
    No two ways about it, people have to be free
    Ask me my opinion, my opinion will be
    Nat’ral situation for a man to be free
    Git right on board now

    Oh, what a feelin’s just come over me
    Love can move a mountain, make a blind man see
    Everybody sing it now come on let’s go see
    Deep in the valley now, we ought to be free

    See that train over there?
    That’s the train of freedom
    It’s about to ‘rrive any minute, now
    You know it’s been’a long, long overdue
    Look out ’cause it’s a’comin’ right on through


    Love is but a song we sing
    fears’ the way we die
    You can make the mountains ring
    or make the angels cry

    Though the bird is on the wing
    and you may not know why

    *Come on people now
    smile on your brother
    everybody get together
    and try to love one another right now

    Some may come and some may go
    He will surely pass
    When the one that left us here
    returns for us at last
    We are but a moment’s sunlight
    fading in the grass

    *Come on people now
    smile on your brother
    everybody get together
    try to love one another right now

    *Come on people now
    smile on your brother
    everybody get together
    try to love one another right now

    *Come on people now
    smile on your brother
    everybody get together
    try to love one another right now

    If you hear the song I sing
    you will understand…listen
    You hold the key to love and fear
    all in your trembling hand
    Just one key unlocks them both
    Its there at your command

    *Come on people now
    smile on your brother
    Everybody get together
    try to love one another right now

    *Come on people now
    smile on your brother
    Everybody get together
    try to love one another right now

    I said…..

    *Come on people now
    smile on your brother
    Everybody get together
    try to love one another right now
    right now
    right now

    • we sang this one in our College and Careers group in the United Church I grew up in, and that would be about 35 years ago. We loved to sing this one and many many more, you are right about how much this music brings to worship!!!

  3. I actually couldn’t agree more about the dancing. I can definitely say that worshiping with only my thoughts and my voice just feels half-hearted. At my home congregation I am one of the only youth and I feel awkward just dancing all by myself when most of the congregation can only summon up the will to clap, and sometimes not even that, and I never really feel that much coming out of a worship service. But when I am at a presbytery or conference meeting with other youth and people that are full of energy, we dance, and that’s when I can feel God.

    I strongly believe that the single most important thing our church is missing right now is energy. We have learned to think, we have learned to love, now we need to learn to dance. Everything else will follow from that.

  4. Gary, I have just finished the first of 2 weeks at Camp Quin-Mo-Lac as their Chaplain. Evening Vespers was most alive as we sang Lord of The Dance and Rockin Kum by ya AND we danced. Over 200 campers youth and young adults, with joyful smiles, celebrating the singing with dancing. I truly believe this is how Lord of the Dance was meant to be used. So much energy in our worship. Campers enthusiastic about worship and even more walking through camp on their way to somewhere else singing Rocking Kum Bay Ya along their way. In thinking about the Comprehensive Review, I was excited to enjoy these moments of campers bringing faith to life. We could be blessed by the experience of dance in worship!

  5. We dance in the aisles and laugh and sing with gusto every Sunday, not just on special occasions. Rev. Gary, please come and visit us at Cedar United Church in south Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. We are small but mighty (25 – 40). When you mention great things happening in churches all around Canada, I think you speak for our vibrant, energetic, laughter-filled, dancing, growing church. We would love to have you dance in the aisles with us!

  6. Bonjour Gary,
    Actuellement je suis membre d’une paroisse ici à Genève où nous dansons de façon spontanée lors du culte chaque semaine. Notre ancienne pasteure fut une danseuse liturgique dans son pays d’origine, le Brézil. Mais nous avions déjà cette habitude de la danse avant même son arrivée. J’espère pouvoir danser au rhythme des sons d’un renouveau au sein de l’Eglise unie dès septembre dans mon nouveau poste comme Responsable des Ministères en français.

  7. I think your comments from the Comprehensive Review as to how one legislates a spiritual renewal is an apt one, especially in a day and an age that thinks that a “quick fix” can resolve our ills.

  8. Definitely think that the comprehensive review needs to be about more than structures! At Manitoba Northwestern Ontario conference AGM you told us that “everything was on the table, except the statements of faith.” I think we need to examine everything about our church in the light of our mission as articulated in the statements of faith, and scuttle whatever does not further that mission. And, yes, we do need to dance!

    • Charles, if you click on the “+Follow” button in the bottom right hand corner of the blog and sign up, you will receive each new blog post by email.

  9. Couldn’t agree more. Even if “dancing” is only metaphorical, people need to let go of the past, move beyond stodgy old traditions, and dance their way toward change. The Church hasn’t survived 2000 years by remaining unchanging and unyielding.

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