During the final worship session of the youth convention at Pittsburgh 2011, the band played a popular worship song—Dance Like David. The song is unique in mainstream Christian music. It uses Latin beats and is sung in both Spanish and English. It was written by a Christian band called Salvador, which, based in Austin Texas, specializes in Latin funk music.
Its musical style bears little resemblance to Mennonite hymnody. Its syncopation does not lend itself to our typically stoic church posture positioned toward the pulpit. In the same way that the medieval chants invite contemplation and the Sankey’s hymns encourage boisterous choruses of tight harmony, Latin funk demands dance.
The lyrics even say as much:
“When the Spirit of the Lord moves upon my heart, I will dance like David danced.”
That is the entirety of the song. It is not difficult. Add bongos, claves, and timbales, and the rhythm becomes infectious. That is why I found that final worship session strange. With the synergy of the music and lyrics, not to mention thousands of excited young people, no one was dancing.
Well there were actually a few dancers. They were children. Childcare was closed by the final evening so all the youth sponsors, often young married couples, had to bring their children to worship. In the aisle, there were a number of little children jumping, bouncing, spinning, twirling, and driving themselves into an emotional tizzy as they became absorbed into the music. Of course such behavior was all rather inappropriate for a worship session, so their parents tried to corral them back to their seats.
Whether the children who danced were being safe in their spinning, or whether their parents were justified in calming them down is not really the issue here. What is at issue, I must confess, was my own inability to dance. Despite the Spirit moving during the service, and having an urge to imitate its energy in dance, I did not. I denied something new by choosing to maintain the worship posture with which I am most familiar. I settled for slightly raised hands and a tapping foot.
White cradle Mennonites have been formed into people who generally sing very well and mostly never dance, especially in worship. In the same way that it would be unfair to expect traditions that have poorly developed vocal skills to find deep significance in four-part harmony, it is equally unfair to expect as kinesthetically stunted a tradition as most white Mennonite groups are to find immediate significance in dancing. But, there is a tension here. It is between history and moment, diachronic and synchronic, experienced and experiencing, the past and the now. Our history is good. It has formed and informed us, making us who we are. However, the past must be always held up against the now. The now is a liminal space suspended between what is and what could/should/will be. It is in the potential of that moment that something new can emerge. Emergence is a pneumatological act because crossing the threshold between what has been experienced into a new experience requires freedom; it is in the Spirit that we are free (Gal 3:14, 4:6-7).
I think that children are generally freer persons than are adults. They live on the cusp of the new by virtue of their limited experience of a past. Perhaps there is less to keep them bound. Regardless, Jesus was clear that their foolishness (or was it freedom?) is at the heart of the Kingdom (Matt 19:14).
I am not claiming that charismatic worship or child-like dancing is inherently better or more faithful than traditional forms of Euro-Mennonite piety. It is not a medicine for the church’s ills. What ails us is not a lack of charismatic worship. It is the inability to engage freely in the ways we feel led! To be faithful disciples of Christ, we must respond to the Spirit in as free a way as he did—to emerge in the now into the new to which history was brought us. The intuitive response of children may serve as a helpful example as to what that movement looks like. Unfortunately, our responses are more often conditioned only by history. Whatever we are used to doing, we continue to do.
Perhaps I was an insolated case. I could have been the only person in that service stubbornly rooting my feet to the place I did not want them to be, but I doubt that is the case. I have on numerous occasions heard other brothers and sisters express their desire for greater freedom to express their worship in new ways. I sense they feel the same strictures on their behavior that I do.
That situation is very dangerous. The Mennonite church espouses a congregational polity. That means that congregational representatives join to make theological decisions for the broader church instead of leaving that responsibility to a hierarchical structure such as the Catholics have in the pope. Our tradition claims that the Spirit is revealed most fully through the gathered body instead of individual leaders. We are facing, now, some quite contentious issues in the church and freedom in the Spirit will be essential if we are to emerge beyond them into a newness that looks toward the Kingdom.
If we cannot find the courage to respond as the Spirit leads in worship, have we any hope for faithfully responding in our decision-making processes? Our worship is constituent of our spiritual identity and health. If we cannot free ourselves in worship to the Spirit’s moving, we cannot expect our decisions in the delegate session that follows to be characterized by pneumatological attentiveness.
Our congregational polity then ceases to work. Our pneumatology becomes mechanistic. It empowers our theological deliberations only in theory, populating a flowchart of hermeneutic responsibilities. I fear, however, that if our worship lacks freedom then these other aspects of our church life will as well. Perhaps it is time we tried to dance.