Singing and Dancing the Faith by Dr. Paul W. Chilcote

My family and I had the amazing opportunity to spend five years in Africa. We met countless African Christians who were filled with the joy of the Lord. Their faith was radiant. Their witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ was something that they sang and danced. In Africa we encountered a singing and dancing church, and that part of the body of Christ in the world today has much to offer us in the West.

In Zimbabwe they have a wonderful saying: "If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance." The singing and dancing of the African people is contagious. In this post-colonial era for the continent of Africa, the most important question that African Christians face is, What does it mean to be African and Christian with integrity? A part of the answer to that question is the rediscovery of the rhythms and the sounds of their native cultures. Wow! What a potent movement of the Spirit!

Let me share with you briefly my first experience of African worship and then make some observations about what this has to do with your life and mine in North American mainline Protestant traditions. I was about three hours late for my preaching appointment in a rural Kenya village called Ntakira. As I approached the central church of the circuit, I had no idea what I would encounter. I really expected an empty church, I suppose, with a disappointed community already on their way home. Nothing could have prepared me for what lay ahead.

When we turned off the dirt road into the church compound, I was awestruck by the scene before my eyes. Men, women, and children literally covered the ground. Most of them were sitting: women in one area, men in another. Youth engaged in conversation here and there, but more generally pulsated to the rhythms of music sung in quiet yet confident tones. Children ran to and fro or rested in their mothers’ laps. I think my first reaction was, how could they be so patient?

My mind swiftly flew to images of family, community, celebration, and life. As the hundreds who had gathered caught sight of the bus, the serene atmosphere immediately burst into a kind of excited frenzy. The sounds and rhythms we had heard from afar exploded as the singing turned (as I was later told) to exultant praise of God. The mass of people was now moving, dancing, expressing their faith in their own unique way as disciples of Christ in Africa. I was overwhelmed.

We shared a feast of love and then moved into an outdoor service of worship. We sang one song after another. After I shared the Word, the dancing began once again. An individual woman began the chorus, but she was quickly joined by other women, young and old, and then by the men. The circle of dancing believers expanded slowly but surely with each beat of the drum. In the end, no one was excluded. All joined in the celebration of life, one circle, one family, linked arm in arm. We sang the praises of the God who had brought us together and made us one in Christ.

What does such a singing and dancing church have to teach us? First, life in Christ is a life of joy that fills our hearts with a song to be sung! And what a wide range of joyful music we have available to us today. From Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy" to Maranatha! Praise, from Wesley’s "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing" to the Swahili chorus "Umwema" (He is good; Jesus, He is good.) We need to be open to every possible way to lift our voices and "make a joyful noise to the Lord."

Second, it is impossible for the committed disciple of Jesus Christ to "stay still." The Christian faith is a life to be danced, figuratively and literally. We need to learn from our African brothers and sisters how to hold our heads and our hearts together, and then get our "hands," our bodies into the act as well. Dancing liberates the soul. "Dancing" from the experience of worship into God’s world should be the normal rhythm of our lives.

Finally, singing and dancing are essentially communal. It is a community, a family that sings and dances. Yes, there can be solo performances, but it is only natural for our voices and our rhythms to blend together in one great sound and movement for God - the sound and rhythm of His love! Remember, if you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance. Sing and move with the Spirit of God. Churches that sing and dance together create contagious joy!

Dr. Paul W. Chilcote is Professor of Historical Theology & Wesleyan Studies at Asbury Seminary, Kentucky, Florida. His email address is: paul_chilcote@asburyseminary.edu.