“Why do some people raise their hands in Church?” This is a question or subject that comes up occasionally in general conversation and even from within my own family. For many, this ‘hand raising’ is rather odd if they attend conservative denominational church services. Although more common today than the middle of the last century during my youth, it still draws questionable attention from older members of orthodox Churches. We will get to the reason for raising hands in a moment, but let’s first recognize the culture and influences that have led to a more physically active type of worship.
Along with my parents, I attended a stoic Presbyterian church in New Orleans. I was baptized there, attended Sunday school and other services there, and was married there. Prim and proper is a polite description of life at that church, but boring was my actual experience. Even most of the hymns we sang lacked much emotion and somehow seemed passive to me. Today, we sometimes laugh at people (usually men) who doze off during a church service like that — well, I was one that actually did. Really — and more than once!
Older protestant denominations and the Catholics were the mainstay Christian churches of my youth. In New Orleans, Catholics dominated and there was at least one Catholic church within walking distance of every home in the city. Slightly contrasted with our established moderate Christian churches was a couple that represented the Holiness movement of the Methodist denomination.1
Though similar in some ways to Evangelicals, the Church of God, and a few other lessor known denominations of today, their defining characteristic was the idea that holiness is attainable this side of heaven and that believers are given the means to achieve it through a ‘second blessing’2 along with the baptism of the Holy Spirit.3
Some more controversial branches of the Holiness movement are described as Holy Rollers. These churchgoers in the Holiness movement, which developed during the 19th century, were Protestant Christians who were described by their dancing, shaking, and boisterous activities. They perceived themselves as under the influence of the Holy Spirit.4 In my teens, I heard about these strange churches that contained energetic members, but the common thought by conservative groups was that such activities were questionable as to their origin.
Then there were the Pentecostals who emerged in the early 20th century from the even more radical adherents of the Holiness movement. This term is derived from Pentecost, the Greek name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks. For Christians, this event commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus Christ, as described in the Acts of the Apostles. This group had an imminent expectation of the second return of Christ, as well as a belief in the baptism in the Holy Spirit that enables a Christian to live a spirit-filled and empowered life. Many, but not all, use the spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues and divine healing.
Then, about 1960, a new undercurrent of Christian worship was born — the Charismatic movement. This occurred when historically mainstream Christian congregations (including Catholic) began adopting beliefs and practices similar to Pentecostalism, including the use of spiritual gifts as mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10.
And some black churches, of varying denominations, in the South also had a more exerting demeanor where congregation members would respond verbally in agreement to a minister’s preaching. It seemed a lot more meaningful when someone would shout, “You got that right, Rev.” instead of just whispering “Amen.”
These congregations appeared to be more ‘tuned in’ or responsive to the message. It was the same for the music used during the service, the songs were more lively and personal and the choir would almost dance. The Gospel message seemed to resonate emotionally and touched everyone, it was like a community of souls briefly linked together and sharing a common message and emotional state. There was an eagerness in their spirit and it was addictive.
Along the way, from then until now, there was much crossover; people picking and choosing, exercising their freewill, as they journeyed through Church life. So, today, the Christian worshiping experience is quite different from that of just seventy-five or a hundred years ago.
And as the tools for spiritual and physical research increased, and the accuracy of theological concepts became more focused, there was also a variation in approach to worship. But besides trying to refine and adhere to scriptural accuracy, there has been the problem of discerning the proper balance of worship, praise, and respect for our Lord.
We should not use God as an excuse to have a good time, but we should have a good time in expressing our praise, worship, and respect to him. Does that make sense? Like in the Black churches for example, in those I visited I could praise our Lord and Savior verbally, I could vocalize my love for him and freely express appreciation for his love and the comfort surrounding me. I was among others that felt the same emotions I did. It was an honest response, not a pretentious one.
What is it with all the hand raising?
And now let’s examine this raising of hands in church. Many churches consider raising hands as a controversial topic, finding it distracting or irreverent. But the diverse amount of worship cultures, mentioned above, has brought forward a more public display of our emotions in respect to religion. Generally, when you see hand raising, it is during prayer or music.
There are some expressions during prayer, but the most extended arms and waving hands usually accompany Contemporary Christian Music, Gospel or Southern Gospel Music, or Negro Spirituals.6 Whereas most of the organizations “coming out against it are ones that play mainly [older] hymns in their services and believe only hymns should be played in church.”7 Those denominations that play both the antique hymns as well as more modern music, find it is only the contemporary tunes that entice people to ‘move with the beat’ and extend their arms.
But many modern churches — made of mixtures from the Church cultures mentioned above — do play mostly up-to-date Christian music. Much of it is written based upon personal experiences, contrasting good and evil, and having Jesus as their savior from the darkness of this degenerate and dying world. The songs reflect the morality, ethics, promises, hopes, and appreciation of God, as taught from the Bible. It is from these groups that you will find hand raising as a normal practice.
The extension of arms and hands is not the worship itself, it is the outward expression of the joy we feel within ourselves as a result of our worship. And this expression is not only reserved for God, but is a conditioned response used for other happy occasions as well.
I remember, as a college student, working on a math or physics problem, maybe for an hour or more, then finally solving it. I would sometimes throw up my arms with outstretched fingers on my hands in elation. Today, I’ll have the same reaction when, finally, finding a solution or remedy for some computer problem that is holding up my work progress.
An interesting article found in Psychology Today indicates some discoveries of nonverbal behavior, which help our understanding of human nature. When we are strong, confident, and filled with elation, the spaces between our fingers grow, whereas if we are lacking confidence or feel depressed, that space disappears. Sometimes, if under stress, we even tuck our thumbs under our fingers.8
I am not a sports fan, but I see the same reaction from people watching a football or another sports game in a stadium or on television, and their team scores. Or when they see their children accomplish a difficult task on the playground or stage. These examples are not, of course, religious experiences, but joyful ones just the same. But that is one way some people express joy, so why not in church, too?
If you are proud of your accomplishment, or proud of your relationship with Jesus or of the Gospel, why not publically express it? Don’t be ashamed of it. That is why many people want to share their relationship with God — they are not ashamed. They want everyone to know the joy they can have for themselves. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16a, ESV).9 For a recent post about not being ashamed of the Gospel, read the study titled “I am Not Ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ — Are You?” listed at the end of this article in the References & Notes.10
If you do not stretch your arms and raise your hands in your congregation, but would like to experience it, try visiting a church where this is practiced. Don’t worry. You won’t be expected to participate in the act; not everyone there will be doing it, either. You may be self-conscious, but it will be an adventure and well worth viewing first hand as you see people feeling and expressing their joy. Just do what is comfortable for you. Raising your hands because of peer pressure or to “fit in” with the church culture isn’t a real religious experience. But you can’t experience it if you hold back because of fear, either.
Some find the practice weird, but I don’t. Even if I don’t participate, I believe it is a proper reaction to feeling the spirit of Christ within our life. One author wrote that he thought that hand raising was weird and when trying it the first time it was awkward and uncomfortable. He said that now, when visiting churches that don’t practice this activity, he must struggle not to raise his hands.11
Different Kinds of Hand Raising
I wrote this article because my daughter, and others, have asked me why some people raised their hands in church and I couldn’t answer it properly. I know there are many reasons, but no short answers. One author wrote, “In some churches various gestures carry specific meanings. For example, two hands raised with palms turned inward is a posture of surrender, whereas two hands raised with palms turned outward is a posture of receiving (as in receiving God’s blessing). Because hand-raising can have different meanings depending on who does it and how they do it, I guess there will be different ways of justifying the act.”12
There are occasionally reasons for arm extension in other older churches. For instance, sometimes in the Catholic Church, the Priest will raise his hands, and direct or allow the congregation to follow suit (example: palms up during the Lord’s prayer). But for many modern Christians, it is a personal desire, not protocol, to raise their hands. They wish to display that impromptu feeling of God’s spirit within them. They are excited and proud of it.
But, are we talking about raising hands in prayer, or during music, or both? Is it just the raising of them, or does that include clapping? What about waving them about? Are you doing it to praise God or as a sign of surrender or one of thanks? See. It is complicated. In fact, there can, sometimes, be as many different reasons for doing so, as there are people doing it. Basically, there is no single reason or meaning for those that raise their hands. It is personal and depends upon their own spiritual relationship with God.
I believe the proper approach is to go with the flow. Let the spirit help you blend-in to the group spirit of the assembly. You want to help boost the group emotions, not contradict them or infringe upon the moods of everyone else. These are your brothers and sisters in Christ, treat them properly and with respect.
There is no fault in not wanting to raise your hands, but there is no fault in doing so, either. Let us be understanding of others in the different ways of worship and praise. “Be tolerant with each other,” (Colossians 3:13, CEB).
Even though there is some unity in this activity, there is fun, too. If you are feeling good, you may even find humor in this ‘raising of hands’ thing. One writer gave descriptive names to the different ‘styles’ of hand raising. The ‘single hand salute’ for the person who puts one hand on the back of the pew in front and raises the other into the air. And there is the ‘tickler’, which describes the person sticking their hands straight out to the side and accidentally brushing them on the shoulder of someone next to them.13
This is not making fun of those people, but of ourselves, so let’s not get all bent out of shape. We can all find humor in the things we do differently. A popular comedian, Tim Hawkins, has a great comedy set about this activity when he is invited to church groups and conventions. He explains all the different types of hand raising worshipers. So, instead of an article-related song as usual, I’ve included a short clip of one of his performances to accompany this study. See the video link at the end of this article in References & Notes.14
There is a lot of history behind raising hands in worship.
There are many examples of hand raising for praise and for prayer in the Old Testament and the following are just a few examples. “And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands.” (Nehemiah 8:6). “Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy when I cry to you for help, when I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.” (Psalm 28:2). “Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel and spread out his hands.” (2 Chronicles 6:12).
Among the Psalms are probably the most references to the raising of hands. And to add to this, Psalm 47:1 suggests that clapping and singing are also permissible. “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!”
Raising a hand was one way Abram took a solemn oath. “Abram replied to the king of Sodom, ‘I raise my hand to the LORD, the Most High God, Creator of heaven and earth, and vow that I will take nothing belonging to you.’” (Genesis 14:22-23a, NET). (Also see: Deuteronomy 32:40-41 and Daniel 12:7.) This type of oath is still used in most every court room in the United States and many other countries, where the right hand is raised as a promise to tell the truth. In Isaiah, God himself takes an oath this same way. “The LORD swears an oath by his right hand, by his strong arm.” (Isaiah 62.8a, NET).15
Raising of hands was sometimes part of the Jewish rituals. The act of raising the hands was a custom of ancient Israel, since “posture and gestures can intensify prayer and praise if the action is natural and the intent sincere.”16 Then, too, rules were maintained by the Jewish priests when pronouncing the blessing. “The blessing was given with uplifted hands. In the Temple service the priests raised their hands above their heads, while in other places they lifted them only to their shoulders.”17
There are examples in the New Testament, also. In Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy, he writes, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands,” (1 Timothy 2:8a). In the last book of the Bible it states, ”And the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven and swore by him who lives forever and ever,” (Revelation 10:5-6) . Even Jesus raised his hands, “And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them.”) (Luke 24:50).
Our early Church Fathers wrote of doing so themselves. “Let us then draw near to Him with holiness of spirit, lifting up pure and undefiled hands unto Him” (Clement of Rome). “We also raise the head and lift the hands to heaven” (Clement of Alexandria). “We lift our eyes to [heaven], with hands outstretched” (Tertullian).18
We once used our hands to fight for our lives or fight the land to produce food for our family. Having progressed since then (for the most part), we now find time to use our hands for more pleasurable things: to prepare a meal for friends, to arrange a bouquet of flowers on a table, to paint what inspires us on canvas, or perform a beautiful piece of music on an instrument that was once created by another’s hands.
And with our hands we tenderly reach out and touch the things we love — a flower, a pet, another person. A child reaches out to touch a parent; the child is yielding to the parent for comfort and safety; they are surrendering themselves into the parent’s care. Is that any different from an adult using this communicative gesture to feel close to God for the same reasons?
An interesting side note is that the Hebrew word for praise (tôwdâh) is derived from the root word meaning ‘an extension of the hand’.19 So, now I believe we have scripturally documented that hand raising is an acceptable form of worship in the Church today. Reach out, if the spirit moves you to do so. Reach out to surrender your life to Jesus or to swear a silent oath to him, or for praise, appreciation, worship, prayer, music, hope, blessing, or any Christian reason. There is no need to only sit unresponsive in church, when you can participate and join with others that are spiritually like-minded.
Copyright © 2020, Dr. Ray Hermann
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References & Notes
- “Holiness movement”, (Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundation Inc., 6 April 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holiness_movement
- second blessing: According to some Christian traditions, a second work of grace is a transforming interaction with God which may occur in the life of an individual Christian. The defining characteristics of this event are that it is separate from and subsequent to salvation (the first work of grace), and that it brings about significant changes in the life of the believer.
“Second work of grace”, (Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundation Inc., 18 December 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_work_of_grace
- Schumacher, Traci, “5 Beliefs That Set Holiness Movement Apart From Other Christians”, (Newsmax, 2 April 2015), https://www.newsmax.com/FastFeatures/holiness-movement-christians-beliefs/2015/04/02/id/636065/
- “Holy Roller”, (Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundation Inc., 13 March 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Roller
- “Pentecostalism”, (Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundation Inc., 15 April 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentecostalism
- “Negro Spirituals”, (Spiritual Workshop, Paris, retrieved 26 April 2020), https://www.negrospirituals.com/index.html
- Shirley, Steve, “Why do some Christians raise their hands in worship?” (Jesus Alive, retrieved 17 April 2020), http://www.jesusalive.cc/ques187.htm
- Navarro, Joe, “Body Language of the Hands”, (Psychology Today, 20 January 2010), https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/spycatcher/201001/body-language-the-hands
- Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. The text has been used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Hermann, Ray, “I am Not Ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ — Are You?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 12 October 2019), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/i-am-not-ashamed-of-the-gospel-of-jesus-christ-are-you/
- McCracken, Brett, “I Used to Think People Who Raised Hands in Worship Were Weird”, (Brett McCracken Blog, 20 May 2017), https://www.brettmccracken.com/blog
- Challies, Tim, “Raising Holy Hands”, (Challies Blog, 21 June 2004), https://www.challies.com/general-news/raising-holy-hands/
- Acuff, Jon, “Hand Raising Worship – The 10 Styles”, (Stuff Christians Like, 14 July 2008), https://stuffchristianslike.net/2008/07/14/345-hand-raising-worship-the-10-styles/
- “Hand Raising”, (comedy); Author & Comedian: Tim Hawkins; Album (DVD): Push Pull Point Pow; Studio: Crown, 13 August 2013; (copyright Tim Hawkins, uploaded 19 November 2012) – VIDEO: https://youtu.be/TK2_ezOBa2A
- Freeman, James M. and Chadwick, Harold J., Manners & Customs of the Bible, (North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1998), p. 22.
- Ross, Allen P., “Psalms,” in CSB Apologetics Study Bible, (Ed.) Ted Cabal, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), p. 683.
- Singer, Isidore, (Ed.), “In Temple and Synagogue” in The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, (New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls, 1901–1906), vol. 3, p. 244.
- Bercot, David W. (Ed.), “Prayer,” A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), pp. 532–533.
- Strong’s Hebrew #8426: תּוֹדָה (tôwdâh); from #3034; prop. an extension of the hand, i.e. (usually) adoration; spec. a choir of worshippers:— confession, (sacrifice of) praise, thanks (-giving, offering).
Strong, James, The New Strong’s Dictionary of Hebrew and Greek Words, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996).