Nothing says “Lutheran” like liturgical dance

I had the pleasure of being involved for several years with Confessional Lutheran youth gatherings. The group I was involved with is Higher Things and we had the motto that when we worship, we worship; when we work, we work; when we play, we play. Pastor William Weedon described the worship from last year:

The worship – WOW. Just WOW. Wonderful, graceful, reverent liturgists. Loemker on the organ, the special music provided by the young people, the young folk belting out the hymns, the reverence during the services, and last but not least, the clarity of Gospel proclamation. Wow, wow, wow! Dare to be Lutheran indeed!

One of the things I found interesting from my time with Higher Things was how the non-Lutheran clergy at various campuses where we held the event would respond to the worship services. One year, there was a priest who was just monitoring what we were doing and making sure that nothing was needed in the worship space. By the end of the week, every priest on campus was observing worship and commenting on how reverential it was. They’d spent years trying to incorporate liturgical dance or eastern meditation practices or the like — all in the name of attracting youth. Instead, their sanctuary was empty. But here we were, with traditional Lutheran worship, and the sound of 900 young people knowing the liturgy and belting out hymns was absolutely majestic.

I thought of that when someone pointed out what the Synodical headquarters is advertising for the National Youth Gathering in New Orleans this year:

The 2010 Gathering Dance Troupe:
Choreographed by Diane Wardenburg, the 2010 Gathering Dance Troupe will participate in the liturgical dance movement. Mrs. Wardenburg is a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Danbury, Connecticut, and is the Assistant Director of the Lathrop School of Dance in Newtown, Connecticut.

I’m sure Ms. Wardenburg does a great job and I certainly admire anyone who’s a professional dancer. I’m more of what you’d call an amateur dancer, although I love it and teach it to my daughter (who I dream will lead her own dance troupe some day!).

And I’m not even going to say that liturgical dance has no place in the church, although I believe we might call that place “the 1970s.” There are better and worse examples of liturgical dance but the problem with the whole thing is that it is almost unbelievably difficult for it to match with what Lutheran worship is about. Kim Grams, a former liturgical dancer, explained it well:

As I studied Lutheran doctrine, I learned about worship. It’s not about MY performance, but about God giving and me receiving His gifts. Looking back, I’m horribly embarrassed. Now I let my church just be church and my entertainment be entertainment. (As my husband says regarding the trend of turning church into an entertainment showcase: “I can’t find the ‘Jesus of Entertainment’ in the Bible”).

Exactly. And this points to the overall weakness of the worship at the National Youth Gathering. I went to one gathering — Denver, back in the 80s, I think. Maybe 1990. I don’t remember. Anyway, I remember a few things from the event and one of my most prominent memories is of all the youth being gathered in McNichols arena for worship while they flashed logos of all of our favorite sports teams on the big jumbotron. I cheered for my Denver Broncos and my St. Louis Cardinals and there was even a bit of a cheering war going on between some of the top cheer-getters.

And then it all stopped and someone on a donkey rode around the arena. People were confused, disappointed, etc. And then we all “got it.” We were supposed to cheer! The donkey was being ridden by a man dressed up as Jesus! Shouldn’t we cheer for fake Jesus like we cheered for the real Cardinals?

Beyond this being a horrible ploy, a silly and unserious mindtrick on the youth, and it lacked all reverence and was a horrible dose of law that was followed up on with a weak sermon that was more “collection of anecdotes” than a proper division of Law and Gospel.

It also denigrated Lutheran worship by treating the moment as entertainment that we’d be unaccustomed to back at home in our parish.

Why do these national Lutheran youth gatherings fail to promote Lutheran identity in worship? It’s just confusing and unfortunate. And it has precisely the opposite effect of the one intended. Rather than remind Lutheran youth that we have some of history’s greatest theologians and musicians working together to craft beautiful liturgies and hymns, we act like some praise band with songs that are either bland or outright false is preferable. If Synodical leadership doesn’t believe in the gifts of Lutheran worship it should be no surprise if youth return home with less regard for Lutheran worship.


Nothing says “Lutheran” like liturgical dance — 39 Comments

  1. The LCMS youth conferences are simply disappointing to me as a parent. I will never send my children to one of these conferences. This year my son is attending Higher Things in Ogen, UT.

    I am not a life-long Lutheran. I spent a good many years in Pentecostal churches. The traditional (conservative) liturgy is incomparable to the law and entertainment driven “worship” services found in the pop-church. Why on earth would a Lutheran want to exchange a service centered on Christ coming to us with the forgiveness of sins for one where women are dancing about, pop music is playing, and the messages are closer to Tony Robbins motivational speeches than to law/gospel preaching?

    I don’t get it.

  2. It’ll be very interesting to see exactly how this year’s plays out. Haven’t ever been to one. Offered the possibility of N.O. 2010 to my small group of youth a year ago. They chose the simpler, cheaper route of our district gathering (and boy, was that an experience–tremendously disturbing and disappointing). But I have one or two who will be going with a sister church’s youth. They’ve gone before and reported back to me. “We Believe” *sounds* like it’s aiming to be more “catechetical” than YG’s in the past. We’ll see….

  3. Note: “More catechetical” than past years and YG’s doesn’t take much (and yes, I do mean *Lutheran* catechesis).

  4. We had a few of these exhibitions during our outdoor, in the park, “worship” setting. One of my older friends said it felt like he was watching wickens or forrest nympths. Seriously, what does dance convey? It cannot, with clarity, present either Law or Gospel. At best it can communicate emotion and anyone who has seen a well understood play done by a great ballet troupe knows what I mean. I have been absolutely blown away by the talent of some professional dancers, but they entertain me, they do not inform me and they certainly cannot convey the Law and Gospel.

  5. I saw a liturgical dance just once, and had no idea what was going on. It was indeed a performance, and frankly I was embarrassed, but I don’t know why. I don’t know what is “liturgical” about it, either. Would somebody explain that to me? (I get the “dance” part).

    Johannes (liturgical pew-sitter)

  6. I went to that youth gathering too! But we went to Pike’s Peak that day, and so missed the donkey thing.
    As for the LCMS website, what the deuce does it mean that they will “participate in the liturgical dance movement.” Are they going to some rally in support of liturgical dance? I didn’t realize that they were making some sort of political statement.

  7. I look forward to going to the National Youth Gathering this July and seeing how everything plays out. After hearing not so pleasant reviews of past Gatherings, it will be neat to actually be down there myself and see first hand what all the fuss is about.

  8. I went to three of the gatherings (98,01,04). Two as an attendee and the last as a volunteer. Some were more enjoyable than others. But I too have seen some of the large gatherings there fall flat. From the last gathering I attended I recall two things that stuck with me.

    It had a Bible study that, just as the speaker was about to get to a pivotal point in the Scripture, was interrupted by an animated character to save us from having to lear the real point that Scripture was trying to make. On the last Bible study, the animated character had a big reveal as a real person. The general response from the 35,000 attendees was that of boredom.

    The drama for that year was a confusing story that tried to use a virtual reality world as a plot device. I don’t think many people were able to follow it, I know I wasn’t and I am a computer geek! Late in the week when the main character apparently died, obviously supposed to be a sad moment, I heard cheers from around the convention center. When the character came back to life, there was little enthusiasm.

    I also encountered entire youth groups who were less than thrilled about the large group events. Some would opt to do something else and skip the official events.

    I think there is a thirst at these gatherings for something of substance. If at all possible groups like Issues, Etc., Pirate Christian radio and confessional study groups need to make a presence at the gathering. Expect to be derided by some, but also expect youth that are hungary for the Word.

  9. Noooo… please, no liturgical dance. I really didn’t need MORE reasons to never send my child to an LCMS National Youth Gathering.

    I think the big reason I don’t care for “liturgical dance” is that it really is a performance – the congregation just sort of sits there, shifting uncomfortably in the pews. It’s the same reason I’m not a fan of “Special Music” either.

  10. @mames #4

    “One of my older friends said it felt like he was watching wickens or forrest nympths.”

    Thanks, I needed a good laugh.

  11. Nothing says “pretentious middle-class bourgeois faux bohemian” like liturgical dance.

  12. Liturgical dance and relevancies of all stripes is part of what I call the ’60s Captivity of the Church. It is all so wearisome. For instance: The year I was confirmed at a large suburban LCMS congregation near Chicago (66 confirmands in my class), the Vicar enthusiastically showed us the new youth room: all done up like Snoopy’s Doghouse. I remember distinctly that we thought it was weird and we probably said worse. The year was 1968. And that in that year: RFK and MLK Jr were assasinated; race riots; Democratic National Convention in Chicago and riots; the Viet Nam War. Yet that same Vicar taugt us that the Te Deum was one of the oldest hymns in TLH and that I thought was “cool”. There is something much more substantive that can engage us and that is the Scriptures, the Confessions, the Divine Liturgy, Catechesis etc. And while we dance, Rome burns.

  13. I find this quite curious. Liturgical dance never says “anything Biblical” in regards to any denomination. If you have the opportunity (or you can endevor to make one, nudge, wink, Mollie) ask a “liturgical dance leader” or a “principal dancer” in any “liturgical” dance team, the following items.

    -ask them to define (oxford’s, webster’s or choose a dictionary) the terms: reverence; deference; or honor. Watch very carefully what they say, in regards to ‘liturgical dance’

    Knowing we are speaking of Biblical/theological & intents/meanings, in this sense. There are quite a few for the left hand kingdom, not many for the right, they are quite easy to spot.
    I wager, as I have found, they cannot define them, let alone practice or act upon them.
    “if ya don’t know what it is, how can ya or how do ya know, to your doin’ it.”.

    Look up the definitions of reverence, deference and honor, in their application to the Trinity or theology. Find the definition which pertains to His Church and what is due our Lord. Just so you know & understand it. Self instruction is key. Even we, can learn a thing or two. Ck the plank in our eyes, before we ck anyone else.

    -now, generally, when you do the forementioned, the inevitable quoting of 2 Samuel:6, is mentioned. Now, we all know what David did. We all know what Michal said. Most miss what he actually intended & the significance, and why Michal was “corrected” for chiding David.
    David set aside his “royal garments” and became most humble before His Lord. Did he dance, yes! In a slave or servents garments. It is called humility, he was king, and what did he set aside, when what occurred, occur?
    Michal? She was not upset over his dancing, (her excuse was exposed folks) or she was upset for laying aside his Royalty and lowering himself before all assembled & his Lord? That was why Michal was in error. David humbled himself, she could not humble herself.

    Great defense for liturgical dance (or using gifts & talents intended for the world) in His Sanctuary for any reason. Reverence, deference, and honor. We also must remember the situation & reason David did such. It ain’t for “liturgical” reasons, as this seems to be excused, sorry, reasoned.

    If you cannot define, let alone understand what reverence (Luther’s use of fear) deference, and honor are, who can you hope to endevor, let alone, (for shame!!) teach others to do or allow such? This could not occur, unless permission is given from Synod, a District, or Circuit. Who is in greater error in this?
    The dancer, dance leader, or those who encouraged or said yea?!

  14. I don’t recall where I read it as I watch several lists. One responder to this announcement on another list said that he once asked one of his male teens what he was thinking of when there was liturgical dancing … the response was nowhere close to Jesus, God, or anything uplifting.

    This, to me, is a clear indication that “Liturgical Dancing” does not belong anywhere near our church sanctuaries. To actually cause our young men to sin during a “church service” is beyond belief to me.

  15. I could be wrong, but I think the LCMS Reporter STILL has yet to do a story on the fact that Higher Things is now an RSO of the LCMS.

    Here’s a question: When does President Kieschnick take a break from fundraising?

  16. Norm,
    One byproduct of “liturgical” dance. You know your stuff, you always do.
    When Christ dwelt among us, was “dance” in the outer or inner courts of the Temple? Ah…no.
    You found that down the street, at any Roman Temple, dedicated to any God, Goddess, or Ceasar. “Court dancers”. Their worship was different, and their intent was different.
    They made provisions, for what you mentioned. It is what God called an abomination, once.
    How did ancient Roman practice, not RC, but ancient Roman/Greek practice, find it’s way into the LCMS? Or any Christian denomination for that matter?

    False teaching, and value by numbers. Numbers=$$$. P.T. Barnum had a great saying why. It still works & applies today. The only problem is, when you endevor to do so, you had better keep it up, coming, and become more grandious & more entertaining.
    P.T. Barnum didn’t have Biblical Doctrine as a boundry, we did. We chose to violate it, or allow it. And now, here we are.

  17. @Jim Pierce #1

    I’m also a refuge from that type of background, and I don’t get it either.

    To the questions we can add: Why is it the baby boomer leaders in the church are trying to attract youth with such devices when it appears that many youth (teens or, like me, early/mid 20’s) appear to want our grandfather’s church?

  18. My daughter and her friend will attend Given in Tennessee and then one week later my daughter’s friend will attend the National Youth Gathering. It will be interesting to hear her compare/contrast both events.

  19. Jonathan,
    That’s easy to answer. My Mum is one of them. They did what they did, and because it didn’t work, and it bore rotten fruit, they aren’t willing to give up “the dream”. That would mean error & require humble repentance for two or three generations who grew up with this drivel.
    The ’60’s threw over all norms, both cultural & Biblical. Because they have not grown up or matured in Christ, they still believe they “know” what youth want & need.
    They didn’t need this all then, and history has proven, no youth need that now, did, or ever will. They need what Christ & the Lutheran Church have always, offered. The Sola’s, the Doctrines, and the Means of Grace.
    Walther’s sermon, “The sheep will judge the shepherd” is just as true today, as it was then. And that was written long before the “’60’s”. But, that generation, was not reigned in, reminded, properly. And given too much power to those who chose poorly. They now sit in St Louis & our Seminaries. This is what rotten fruit bears. The shame of it is, those of us who knew nothing & were not born, have to choose to stay & roll over, or leave.

  20. Norm,

    Oh, I heard the comments of some randy teenagers regarding one particuarly attractive female liturgical dancer but they had nothing to do with liturgy or worship. 🙂 I am sure she was not communicating what they thought she was but that was the message they “divined”.:)

  21. @Mark #12

    Mark is on to something in describing this as the “60s Captivity of the Church.” The generation that said, “If it feels good, do it!” is now running things–into the ground. They who once questioned and despised authority are now gleefully wielding it. One thing they’ve never learned is how to relate to my X Generation. If anything, our motto is, “Keep it real.” Nothing, NOTHING, is more pathetic in the eyes of today’s 30-yr-olds & younger than a bunch of uncool 60-yr-olds who think they’re cool. If they want to catch the Stones on their Steel Wheelchairs Tour, fine. But their inability to comprehend the reality that not everyone shares their “Far out, man!” vision will continue to inhibit them from really reaching us young fogeys. It blows them away that 900 youngsters could join in heavenly song and even want to be reverent. The boomers were taught reverence as children, and that’s exactly why they discarded it–because their teachers and pastors were over 30. They now prove themselves to be the generation that never grew up, their wrinkles and Social Security checks notwithstanding.

  22. I did liturgical dance during service once when I was younger.
    I spilled candle wax on my hand when lighting altar candles.

  23. Mbw,
    Have you watched the movie Quo Vadis? Easy, is a relative term.
    How many times have a great many issues, been pushed aside…
    for the term, “easy”?

  24. Hey. ELCA churches have been doing liturgical dance for a long time before it appeared in the LCMS. Who says it isn’t Lutheran. And we certainly must have a clear understanding of what dancing meant and how it was done in the Old Testament, right? I thought adiaphora means “idea for a”. Dancing will save the lost. I thought I read about dancing in one of those Gnostic writings besides. Worship is about self-expression and feeling good and uplifted.

  25. @ Pastor Frahm #29: That’s certainly what a vocal portion of our congregation things worship is for! There are so many converts to Lutheranism in our church who bring with them their love for”self-expression and feeling good and uplifted.” We have a new pastor and a new music director who are working at teaching what worship REALLY is for Lutherans! I am encouraged. Unfortunately, I have a granddaughter who is really into worship dance, thanks to her evangelical friends in the home-school association her family is in. Too bad her family didn’t look into LUTHERAN home-school groups. There ARE some in this area. But that’s getting off-topic. I really think education about what worship really IS is vital in my and other mixed-denominational-background congregations.

  26. Back in the “dark ages”(1970’s),when I was in the LCA our church formed a liturgical dance group. The beloved organist referred to the group of 40something yr. old ladies as the “prancing cows”. The group was quickly dissolved.

  27. OK, so I’m still a bit sleepy this morning. Would some of you liturgcailly knowledgeable contributors please tell me the ostensible purpose of liturgical dance? When you consider that in the Divine Service we receive God’s gifts, and we offer him our praise, what does this dancing do? As a former choir director, I understand that the “performance” aspect of the choir is a temptation. Many times I had to remind myself and the choir that it is not about us, but only a means to enhance worship and to glorify God. Many choirs sing from the balcony so that they are not seen. Most organists do not wish to be “on display”, either, in my experience.
    So how can something so physical, so visible, and so personal add to the service? You don’t have a liturgical dance from the balcony where nobody can see it!

    Please help me out here.

    Johannes (dance-challenged)

  28. This is a question that I Asked the Rabbi online – (just like our Ask the Pastor)

    Did the Jewish people dance as part of their worship in the Temple? Many of David’s psalms mention dance and praise.

    Psalm 150
    3Praise him with trumpet sound;
    praise him with lute and harp!
    4Praise him with tambourine and dance;
    praise him with strings and pipe!
    5Praise him with sounding(K) cymbals;
    praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
    6Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!
    Praise the LORD!

    Would dance have been done in the Courts of the Temple? And if dance was part of the ceremony – by whom would it have been done?

    Thank you for your time.

    Peace be with you.
    Marlene Schneider

    This is the Rabbi’s answer:

    Shalom Marlene,

    Temple services were solemn events, and not a time or place for dancing.

    Regards, Eliahu Levenson

    So there you go – no such thing as “liturgical dance” the whole concept is based on ‘look at me.’

  29. Marcy #33

    Thanks so much for your research! “Look at me!” is exactly what [well, one of the things!] bothers me about “liturgical dance” as well as praise bands in front of the church. Now to get the nerve to pass this along to my “worship dance”- loving granddaughter and my contemporary worship-loving DIL’s and at least one of my two sons. It’s tough being the only traditionalist in the family!

  30. Hang in there Janet! We are all behind you here at BJS. I have had to stick it out in situations where it looked like I was the only one standing up for the historic, traditional, liturgy and in the end it worked out. It may not work that way with your DIL’s but do not give up the battle. Thanks for being concerned and taking the time to comment here.


  31. I saw my first liturgical dancer when I was a member of Bethany in the seventies or early eighties; I think we were all so aghast it wasn’t tried again! That was also where I first heard about Church Growth and Lyle Schaller. Not sure how far that got after we moved, but it sounds like there had to be a “course correction” at some point. I’m glad to hear it’s a traditional liturgical Lutheran congregation now!

  32. Mollie’s reference to Higher Things is so true. My daughter will be attending her fifth Higher Things youth conference in Nashville this summer and hopefully will return as a counselor during her college years. She has particpated both as an attendee and as a musician and chorister. The mantra of “When we worship, we worship; when we work, we work; when we play, we play” is absolutely right on the mark. They worship reverently and they work and play hard. They never intertwine. It’s sometimes said that “we play at our worship; we work at our play; we worship our work”. Higher Things gets it right. When you see hundreds of teens worshipping together at a Divine Service during Higher Things, the theory that our teens need something “relevant” like dancing during worship to make the service “relevant” is blown out of the water.

    I believe Janet is right – education is key. The pastors at our parish are in the midst of a series of sermons on spiritual exercises that we as congregants can practice to mature in our faith. When I was a teenager in 1970, the release of Jesus Christ Superstar on record was a HUGE event and was trumpeted as a way for young people to connect to Christ during a turbulent time in our country. I remember fighting long and hard to have our pastors let us play it during one of our youth Walther League meetings at my home church on Long Island and then talk about it. I told this story to my current pastor, Tim Rossow, who correctly pointed out that the problem with Superstar was that there was no Ressurrection. And isn’t that the point? Is liturgical dancing at the altar going to point me the way to Christ on the cross crucified so that I can live? I don’t think so and I bet most young people would agree. Our teens can tell the difference and we usually don’t give them credit for knowing what is real and what isn’t.

  33. I was watching one of the Lutheran Satire video’s (How To” Show: How To Be An Awesome Lutheran Father (Ep. 4). At the end of video he mention Liturgical Dancers. I thought it was just a joke. Having dancers in your church worship sounds like a Charismatic Movement thing.

  34. @Jason Nota #38

    Google: Lutheran Satire Liturgical Dance

    There are several episodes. #2 sums it up as well as any… the answer to all theological objections : “My daughter is a good dancer.”


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