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A Question For Christians

I just finished watching Jesus Camp. Fascinating movie, not the least because it uses a strategy that I am ever more convinced is the best way to construct a human-subject documentary, that of not having any external narration. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the directors, construct the film so as to let their subjects tell the story, inserting only a few pertinent facts as text overlays on the screen. That's a difficult trick to pull off well, and they did it nicely.

However, it did leave me with one question that maybe some of the Christians out there in cyberspace could answer: During the church services and prayer meetings, most of the congregants stuck their hands up in the air when the praying got really intense. I've seen this once or twice in real life, and it's always struck me as a curious gesture. Can anyone tell me a little bit about this particular prayer posture? What does it mean, how did it get started, who uses it? Clearly, it signals a moment of intense emotion in a prayer service, but I'm kind of curious about how it became part of prayer in the first place, and what the meaning behind it is.


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Jul. 8th, 2007 02:24 am (UTC)
I've asked that question to friends who worshipped in churches where that gesture is done. I don't know if any of them are correct or not, but here are some of the answers I've been given:

- It is gesturing toward God. You are pointing to the one you're talking about.

- It may have started in tent revivals, where you had a lot of people without much musical training singing in areas without modern amplification or even good acoustics. Clapping over your head would give these crowds of people a visual to keep them on the same beat.

- In a lot of these denominations, worship was less liturgical, and often with the pastor doing much less of the worship leading. Raising your hand could have originally been a way to signal "I am about to prophesy/pray/whatever", to give a bit more order to things.

Like I said, I have no clue which of these are correct, if any of them are. When I have been in such churches I have always gotten the feeling that the gesture meant the worshipper was so ecstatic they had to move somehow to let the energy out--it seemed to symbolize being out-of-control with joy. But again, that's just my impression; I don't know if that's correct or not.
Jul. 8th, 2007 03:57 am (UTC)
Hmmm. Intriguing. I may look up the thing with the tent revivals and see if I can find any accounts of the gesture appearing there. All of those do sound like pretty logical explanations, though. Thanks!
(no subject) - telperion1 - Jul. 8th, 2007 03:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jul. 8th, 2007 01:39 pm (UTC)
It does seem like a very American thing to do. I always associate it with the more charismatic sects of Christianity, and I've never encountered those in Europe.
(no subject) - sealover_astara - Jul. 8th, 2007 02:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jul. 8th, 2007 10:23 am (UTC)
I always thought it was just the intensity of prayer - you're focusing everything towards God. But like stephantasy, I've really only seen it in films. It's probably one of those things that are just slightly different depending on where you go to church services. For example, I've gone to Mass in England a few times and a lot of them drop suddenly to their knees to receive communion, which you'd never see here.
Jul. 8th, 2007 01:41 pm (UTC)
I saw it in real life at a wedding once (it was a very strange wedding, all things considered), and once or twice at singings. The first time I saw it, at the wedding, I thought everyone was doing The Wave, but they didn't.

I thought Catholics received communion on their knees, but maybe that's also just the movies.
(no subject) - meckinock - Jul. 8th, 2007 01:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jul. 8th, 2007 12:35 pm (UTC)
I think this practice is limited to a fairly narrow range of denominations. I've never seen it actually done in real life.
Jul. 8th, 2007 01:42 pm (UTC)
I saw it at a wedding once, and there have been a couple of times at singings that someone might put up a hand, but that's about it for me.
Jul. 8th, 2007 01:25 pm (UTC)
I think that practice is generally only seen in evangelical or fundamentalist churches. I went to church with an aunt of mine once (pentacostal) and they did it. They were sending their prayers to God. I don't know where it got started, but I can see it being revival tents where people might be told to raise their hands to praise God.
Jul. 8th, 2007 01:43 pm (UTC)
The idea of sending prayers to God makes sense to me. Thanks!
Jul. 8th, 2007 09:05 pm (UTC)
I see you have lots of answers, but I'll toss in my two cents, if you want them.

There is scriptural support for lifting the hands ( 1 Tim 2:8 I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.). I've seen this done in evangelical churches in particular. The gentile churches that follow Paul (the apostle to the Gentiles) have little formal worship doctrine to follow.

I have seen televised pictures of the wilder stuff, but never in person. Those are usually charismatic churches. Many would argue that there is not scriptural support for such things today, and that the scriptures that do exist are being taken out of proper context.

What is popular in the Messianic movement among Jews is a return to Davidic Worship. I have attended Saturday Sabbath worship at the Messianic Jewish congregation here - it is an interesting blend of Old and New Testament practices, patterned after what the Talmidim of Jesus and the early Jewish assemblies did. I don't know for sure if the charismatic movement took their cues from these things or not, but they don't look anything alike in practice.

The scriptures for this form of Jewish worship come from 2 Samuel, 2 Chronicles (I know the Jewish scriptures don't break apart Judges/Chronicles, Samuel etc, but our bibles do) and Psalms. I did a quick search and this describes it:


I think you would love this stuff, FP, if you were to see it in person. The dancing is just gorgeous, the tamborines and shofars, the banners, all of it. I was very very moved by all the worship aspects, from the prayers and the Shema in Hebrew to the music and dancing. I don't know if Orthodox/Reformed/Conservative do anything similar anymore, but if you ever wanted to see it, I could track down a video I saw on the Internet from Jerusalem.
Jul. 8th, 2007 11:32 pm (UTC)
Ooo, that video could be fascinating! I would love to see how real live congregations integrate the Biblical instrumentarium into contemporary worship. There's been some excellent scholarship in Biblical organology over the years, some of which I reviewed for a project last year. There's so much that we know, and so much that we don't know.

During my reseasrch, I came across a website run by a group based in Jerusalem that was involved in reconstructing Temple artifacts, using the directions in Exodus, and getting them ready for the time when the Temple would be rebuilt. I think they also had a kinnor, which must have been how I found them, because I was searching for references to that instrument, but not even they had been able to figure out what an ugav was. The best archaeological/musicological guess, by Joachim Braun, the Big Man Of Biblical Organology is "whatever an ugav is, it's not a kinnor."

The website you listed seems to belong to a Christian organization. Do they have ties with the Messianic movement, or is this something that both groups practice independently of each other?

I don't know if Orthodox/Reformed/Conservative do anything similar anymore

I can speak mostly for Reform practice. At the synagogues I've attended, there hasn't been a whole lot of really energetic dancing -- although part of that may be because I usually go to Friday night services, and people are tired! There's standing and sitting, and one is free to daven or not as one chooses. Usually, there is a procession of the Torah around the sanctuary, with singing. In modern Reform practice, instruments are optional, and usually depend on the particular congregation's taste.

I did go to one synagogue where there would be a children's service once a month where the women and children present would get up and dance as everyone sang a song about Miriam. Dancing with a partner who is under three feet tall and hasn't quite mastered walking is a trip. Literally. And then, of course on Simchat Torah, we dance with the Torah, and sing and wave noisemakers and all that. That's fun.
Jul. 9th, 2007 06:13 pm (UTC)
I've attended services in both Europe and the US, so, latching on to what Juno said up above (and admitting that I skimmed the other replies, bad me!)...

I once asked my best friend (who's a PK - Preacher's Kid) about this custom, as the first time I saw it, I had a very distinct "double-u-tee-eff, mate?" reaction. And this is what she said:

"It's just one element of worship, if people are really drawn into it, they express their need to be closer by raising arms, shouting or even laying down. The reason for that is that your emotions get to overwhelming and strong that just words or a simple murmured 'amen', doesn't cover it."

As for where you'd see it... Juno said it right: church services, by and large, tend to be more "sedate" in Europe. I know that in the Netherlands, you basically have three "types" of Christian churches (with the occasional "odd duck" here and there): Presbyterian, Pentecostal and Roman-Catholic. Other denominations fall in the "few and far between" category. In terms of expressive worship (which includes vivacious gospel singing as well as the shouting, hand raising, etc) are, at best, found in the "few and far between" category, as the other three tend to be just as stark and sedate. The difference between RC, Pres and PC is that the RC people tend to have rites and some decoration, whereas the others are... not like that.

Where it originates? I would venture a guess and say that it can be traced back to the Restoration Era (1870s) when there was a massive influx of non-white Christians, starting their own churches. What they brought with them was their own songs, hymns and traditions... and it probably blew over from there?
Jul. 9th, 2007 09:28 pm (UTC)
So the Pentecostal churches in Europe don't go for the more dramatic worship gestures that they use in America. Interesting.

Good point about the 1870s influx of non-white Christians. Over here, that would coincide with Reconstruction, when a lot of the black churches began to form. I'll bet that the gesture in America was one that white churches picked up from black churches.
Jul. 11th, 2007 03:31 pm (UTC)
As Karen says above, it seems kind of hysterical, self gratifying behaviour, and thus deprived of logic and reason, and thus it scares me that people alow themselves to be lead into such behaviours on a weekly basis...

Besides, I was raised in the "You will know them by their doings," mantra, so i feel rather ubimpressed by external shows...of whatever the emotion
Jul. 12th, 2007 03:46 am (UTC)
For me, the scary part wasn't so much the wild prayer as the glimpses of the education these kids are getting. Most of them appear to be homeschooled, with a very strong religious and anti-intellectual bent. It's the sort of thing that's going to cripple them for life . . . or put them on local school boards.
(no subject) - perelleth - Jul. 12th, 2007 09:07 am (UTC) - Expand
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Jul. 14th, 2007 09:26 pm (UTC)
You have asked an irresistable question.
What nilmandra007 has said gives insight into what I have to share.

The gesture was the normal gesture of prayer in the earliest christian church. You can find frescoes and mosaics in the catacombs in Rome.

It is one of the things that fundamentalists really are reviving in this act, rather than making it up as they go along.

And pardon me for chiming in. :-)
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