How do we engage our whole selves in worship?

Martin Billmeier, pastor of St. Lucas Lutheran Church, Toledo, Ohio, reflected on this question in a meditation last Lent, asserting he was in favor of worship that engages all the senses. Whether it’s sharing the peace, tasting the bread and wine or using scented oils for anointing, he said such practices “are all ways to submit one’s whole self—body, mind and soul—to Jesus.”

But for some readers of Living Lutheran, this is all a bit uncomfortable. Magazine staff learned this when readers were asked to share reflections on spiritual practices that engage the body in worship. Some expressed their strong dislike of movement in worship, specifically liturgical dance. Others shared their delight in such practices. Responses also uncovered tension among those in favor of more “traditional” liturgy.

What might Lutherans gain from tuning into our senses and engaging our bodies in worship? The following testimonies offer a few ideas, just in time for Lent.

Movement that aids memory

Ever since she was young, Jen Rome has thought about where the body belongs in worship. More than six years ago, the pastor and mother of a child with autism started wondering, “How do we make it possible for [my daughter] to belong [in church]? What does her body show us?”

Those questions led Rome to develop a ministry that reshaped programming for children and families at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, Eagan, Minn.

For six years, Mount Calvary has offered “Worship Young,” a cross-generational monthly service that includes movement breaks, physical exploration of the Bible and songs, and movements to accompany liturgical gestures.

While it has been well-received by the congregation, the service is not without critics. For some parents it’s loud and lacks time for quiet reflection, prayer or introspection. Others have embraced the way the service helps participants “engage more fully” in the act of worship.

Deeper engagement among children and parents is at the heart of Rome’s efforts: “It’s not naughty to need to move during worship. That’s a need children are expressing that we adults have learned to suppress. Instead of shaming children for moving their bodies, we can take a cue from them that we all need to do that too.”

Recently Mount Calvary introduced a worship opportunity that addresses this need to move. Each Sunday before the sermon begins, children and youth are invited to attend Moving Story, an interactive session to teach the Gospel of the day through yoga poses. The volunteer-led initiative was created in consultation with yoga instructor Katie Thune.

Moving Story begins with deep breathing while a volunteer reads the Gospel lesson. The lesson is then read again while children and youth do yoga poses that connect with the story. The session ends with quiet relaxation: participants receive a cotton ball with scented oils and are guided through meditative breathing.

The goal is to aid retention. “My hope is that the story gets into their bodies,” Rome said.

Rome is using what yoga and preschool teachers know about brains and bodies to help children and families experience worship differently. But her support of movement in worship goes deeper—it’s also grounded in her theological understanding of the incarnation. “What did God choose to become first? A child. God decided to plan a playdate with us,” she said. “The body and suffering is so important, too, but we should all be able to make room for the joy of the body that God chose in the incarnation.”

Making space for stillness

Carol Tyler’s first experience with quiet meditation was at Peace Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Va., during Lent. The now-retired teacher said she found she “was so smitten with the chance to turn off and yet at the same time turn on to hearing spiritual thoughts.” Living in the hustle and bustle of the Washington, D.C., area was stressful, and the gift of silence her pastor offered that Saturday morning years ago left an impression on her. “That was my indoctrination to quiet,” she said of the worship experience.

Later, she and her husband attended an organized day of silence at the Washington National Cathedral. “That really hooked us,” she said. “In that setting, communion becomes very intimate. It has a warmth that perhaps the disciples felt.”

After moving to the Midwest, Tyler found herself seeking space for stillness but not finding it. That’s when the member of First Lutheran Church, Decatur, Ill., dreamed up “Lenten Quiet.” The opportunity, which took place the first Saturday after Ash Wednesday, mirrored her previous experiences: participants enjoyed meditative, restorative quiet time on church grounds followed by communion and departure in silence.

In its first year, Lenten Quiet drew 12 from First and its neighboring ELCA congregation, Holy Cross Lutheran. Participants were free to move around the sanctuary as they pleased during a three-hour quiet period.

Tyler said the event was well-received, noting one member’s surprising story. “I’ve had no time for myself in months,” Sydney McCord had told Tyler.

The 80-year-old, longtime member of First spent much of her time caring for her ailing husband. “I have a hobby of clipping things out of a newspaper for scrapbooks. I brought them with me. I sat and I did that. [That time] was such a gift,” McCord said told Tyler.

Tyler said that certainly wasn’t the response she’d expected to hear. Nevertheless, she was pleased that McCord had found her time to be nourishing and “faith-building.”

They deliver the message through dance

The inaugural performance of Messenger’s Dance Ministry at Abiding Peace Lutheran Church, Budd Lake, N.J., took place on Good Friday. The new director, Mary Kaskakove, and two others portrayed the three Marys at the foot of the cross through dance. The experience, Kaskakove said, was quite moving and enjoyed by “99 percent of the congregation.”

Kaskakove wasn’t initially warm to the idea of dance in worship. But at the urging of her pastor, the former classical ballet dancer attended a sacred dance workshop that changed her mind. “I went to the workshop and I was blown away, just transported by what I saw people do, people who sincerely wanted to worship God through movement,” she said.

Now with five members of varied ages, Messenger’s Dance Ministry has been offering worship assistance at Abiding Peace since that Good Friday in 1993.

The designation that dancers are worship assistants is key, Kaskakove said: “[We have] a clear understanding that we are worship assistants, not entertainers, and that every movement must be Spirit-led and Spirit-fed. To that end, we study texts, lyrics and traditions that are meaningful to the worship service and seek to make every motion relevant.”

They dance six times a year, often for special services including Advent, Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Pentecost Day, usually during a choir anthem or the offertory so “it doesn’t impose anything on the service,” she said.

Kaskakove knows not everyone likes liturgical dance, but she urges skeptics to keep an open mind. “[You] realize that some people are never going to like it and you just have to respect that, just like contemporary music,” she said. “But I would say to them, give it more than one chance, try to be open to good feelings and let your spirit open up enough and talk to the dancers after the service. Get a little info about what it means to them and what they were trying to convey.”

When done well, Kaskakove said liturgical dance helps dancers and congregants make deeper emotional connections to the Bible stories: “At the simplest and deepest level we have added another way for [our] congregation to experience the good news. Movement is the oldest form of communication, a form that God gives us even in the womb.”


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Erin Strybis
Erin Strybis is a freelance writer based in Chicago and author of The Beauty of Motherhood: Grace-Filled Devotions for the Early Years (Morehouse Publishing, March 2023). Find more of her stories at her website and on Instagram.

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