What is spiritual formation?
In the autumn of 2018 Waverley Abbey College (WAC) launched its Spiritual Formation programme, which offers a range of courses from one term continuing professional development to a three-year part time MA. Subjects covered include the Waverley integrative framework (WIF), ethics, a history of approaches to spiritual formation, mentoring and coaching, spiritual direction, pastoral care and chaplaincy. On this course spiritual formation is understood as the process whereby human beings are gradually formed into an image of Jesus. The course sets out to both facilitate this process in the lives of the students and to provide tools and resources to enable students to help others in their spiritual formation. I am the programme leader for this course. Alongside my leadership of the course I have been completing doctoral research that I commenced before I took up my role at the college. This article draws on an aspect of my doctoral research and some research by one of the current Spiritual Formation MA students.
From October 1987 until January 2015 I was a pastor at Greenford Baptist Church (GBC) in West London. During this time the church transitioned from being a White British congregation, to one with people from approximately 45 nationalities regularly attending. During worship different languages were used with songs, dance and prayer in styles that were used by congregants ‘back home’. By 2015 every aspect of congregational life reflected the cultures from the different ethnicities that made up the congregation. My research investigated how this transition occurred. One of the key findings was that people from overseas experienced GBC as a community of faith that was welcoming, safe and fully accepting of them (Wise, 2021).
This article focuses on one aspect of worship within GBC that, according to many of the research participants, was very significant in their feeling welcome and fully accepted at GBC. I will argue in this article that this aspect, dance, was also significant in the spiritual formation of members of the congregation at GBC.
Dance at Greenford Baptist Church
Over many years dancing as a part of worship at GBC had gradually evolved with the encouragement of the leadership. By January 2015, dancing during the Sunday meetings was a normal component of the worship. When songs were used that had a Caribbean or African rhythm, members of the congregation would dance in their places. Often people would also use the space in front of the platform or behind the congregation to dance. It was common for the offering to be accompanied by the entire congregation dancing down the aisle in turn to place their gifts in the offering plate or to touch the plate in recognition that all they had was given to God. Even though most church members made their financial contribution to the life of the church through bank standing orders rather than giving cash on a Sunday, the meeting leader usually encouraged everyone to dance to the front and touch the offering plate. Members of the congregation, especially those who had grown up in West Africa, saw this as an important part of their worship, presenting themselves and their gifts before God. The style of dancing was exuberant, drawing particularly on movements usual in West Africa and the Caribbean.
Khalia Williams, the assistant dean of worship and music, assistant professor of worship, and co-director of the Baptist Studies Program, Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, USA, notes from her research among African American women and her personal experience how dance as a part of worship allows ‘the entirety of my being’ to be fully engaged (2020:3). Additionally, she observes that, ‘By its very nature, embodied worship opens the door for inclusion and recognition of marginalized bodies’ (2020:5). By ‘marginalised bodies’ Williams was referring to African American bodies in her context. Both engagement and inclusion appeared in comments from the research participants. Dance at GBC, as will be shown below, had the role of enabling people to feel that they were totally engaged in worship with every part of their being. However, as also will be shown, being allowed to dance was additionally an aspect of being included and accepted as a full member of the worshipping congregation.
Bernard Appiah has researched the way that traditional Ghanaian culture is integrated into UK Ghanaian churches. He observes that ‘music and dance permeate every aspect of life of the Ghanaian, and neo-Pentecostal churches have fully taken advantage of this phenomenon’ (2014: 214). For most GBC members who had grown up outside of Europe, dancing at home as well as in church is a normal part of expressing their devotion to God. For example Lavanya, one of the research participants, commented, ‘Even at home when I get up in the morning… I put on my Indian worship. Sometimes I love my worship. I’m dancing with it and I enjoy it, all the worship that God gives us.’ So, enabling dance to be a part of congregational worship was seen as important for many of those who attended GBC.
Another research participant, Alvita, noted that ‘in Jamaica you are accustomed to lots of the tambourine, lots of drumming, lots of clapping… I’m accustomed to seeing people running around in the Spirit and things like that, shouting Hallelujah.’ Alvita is a worship leader at GBC; when she leads, she uses Caribbean rhythms such as calypso and reggae. She commented that when she is at the front she sees ‘people dancing, people raising their hands. It’s just the whole-body movement that you don’t get if they are maybe just doing a normal English song.’ From her perspective when people are physically moving they are more engaged with God than when they are static. She talked about a specific incident she remembered:
A couple of months ago, when I just changed the rhythm to It is well with my soul, and there was one particular Jamaican lady, she would just come to church and she’d be sitting there and just talk to who she wanted to talk to and that’s it. That Sunday was the very first time I’d heard her. She jumped up, she uttered out and that’s because that connected with her. So, for me that meant she was really engaged in the worship… There was another African lady, and she just ran straight up to the front and she’s not somebody who would normally be doing that, but there was something that connected with them. So, the movement that you are seeing there would say people are actually engaging with what is going on.
Research participant Oluwasesan in his interview said:
I think a lot of Yorubas, Nigerians and maybe Africans generally like to express themselves and when we really express ourselves, we do it by dancing. We see a lot of that in the church and I think it is the same for the people from the Caribbean as well. There is a lot of movement, a lot of joy. I see that in the church and that is one of the reasons I’ve stayed for so many years now.
For Lavanya, Alvita and Oluwasesan, coming to GBC from three different continents, dance was a normal part of their worship of God. Being able to dance as a part of their congregational experience was therefore welcome and helpful.
However, it seemed that there was a further spiritual significance to dance for the participants. I asked several of the research participants in interviews about the significance of dance in their relationship to God. Here are three responses that are representative of those I received.
It’s expressing yourself to God. It is like when David danced and I like dancing. That’s me expressing my joy to the Lord for everything that He has actually done for me. I can praise Him in a different way, not only by singing but also with my dancing.
The Bible says ‘He delights in the praises of His people’ and when you praise in my culture and you praise a king, you sing and bestow accolades. You praise and worship that king. Kings don’t dance, they sit down and their congregation will dance in honour and in worship. Now, we are talking of the King of all Kings. We are talking of the Ruler of the Universe, the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Everything I have in my life I will use to worship: my voice, my body, my song, my money, my family. I danced today alone in my room in my bedroom with YouTube music and it was just like I had the whole of the church in that room with me. I knew the hosts of heaven were there. So, for me, dance is integral. I can’t keep still when I hear Christian music.
It shows that you are happy. It shows you are delighted, you are comfortable, so you are able to move your body freely because if you are not, if you are in a strange place and you feel frightened, you’re not going to move your body… they feel connected. So, they express their worship through their movement, not only of their mouth, but all their body.
For Oluwasesan, Ronke and Tabia dance is an integral part of their worship of God. It was a normal part of congregational worship in their home country. Dance expresses part of their adoration that for them cannot be communicated without bodily movement. Dance allows cultural expression but, more significantly, the congregational embracing of dance communicates deep acceptance of people from those cultures. This finding connects with Williams above concerning inclusion. Being allowed to express worship via the medium of dance meant that people felt significant, recognised and included. In her interview Tambara commented that when the first language of people in the congregation was being used, people ‘feel like they are human beings not just second-hand citizens’. Dance as a bodily language seems, from this perspective, to function in the same way as first language.
Spiritual formation, embodiment and dance
During induction at WAC, as a student enters the spiritual formation programme, we use a prostration exercise in our devotions to highlight the importance of embodiment. The practice was used at GBC and the quotes below are taken from an article written by Andrew Robertson (who was a staff member at GBC) for the Baptists Together magazine published in 2017. The exercise is drawn from Indian Christian practice. Participants begin lying face down on the floor. Romans 12:1 is read ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.’ Slowly and gradually parts of the body are presented to God. The forehead is offered representing ‘thoughts and meditations; let the focus of these things be you Lord’. The eyes are offered, ‘the windows of my soul; let them be filled with your light as they look out into the world’. The tongue and lips are offered, ‘expressing worship in words and tune; calling on you through your names… let my lips always express thanks and reverence’. The chest is offered, ‘the seat of life; let my life be rooted in God… the source from which I live’. The hands are offered, ‘expressing the offering of my actions, my deeds, my work to you God, for your pleasure and for your use’. As the student kneels the knees are offered expressing ‘reverence to you and my dependence on you. I ask you, my rich King, to be there to meet all of my needs’. Finally as the student stands the student expresses ‘my pilgrimage, I acknowledge that I am on a journey with you and for you, and I reflect that you are the goal and the destination’.
In the spiritual direction module of the spiritual formation programme there is a further emphasis on embodiment. Students are routinely encouraged to be aware of their bodies as they re-enter the lecture room. There are various exercises where students are asked to consider what they are feeling in different parts of their bodies in response to what they are thinking/considering. There are exercises too where students move physically in harmony with their current spiritual experiences. In some of the devotional sessions students are encouraged to move parts of their bodies in response to readings from the Bible.
Angela Wolswinkel, one of the current Spiritual Formation MA students, is currently researching the role of dance in spiritual formation in the context of women who have been trafficked and sexually exploited. I recently asked her what led her to research the role of dance in spiritual formation. She responded:
Initially it was because I’m a dancer and I also enjoy other forms of creative and expressive arts. I feel that the arts are underused in the Western Church, so I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged by the fact that art was appreciated and included in most of our course modules. Faith expression and learning in the Western Church is heavily directed to mental and verbal, even though God created us as embodied beings. In fact, only 30% of the population are auditory learners. Having chosen the subject, I experienced the power of movement to connect with God and grow in faith when I participated in movement classes to the words of the Psalms during treatment for cancer.
I then asked what her initial observations/theories were about the way that dance can help women who have been trafficked in their spiritual reformation. Her response was:
Women who have survived commercial sexual exploitation… have experienced objectification, have nearly always been abused, and their dignity and identity have been destroyed. Their experiences are locked in their bodies, ‘the body keeps the score’ (Van de Kolk, 2015) and verbal expression might not be appropriate or possible. Dance offers a way to unlock the experiences and express them, to regain control over their bodies. My hypothesis is that doing this under the guidance of Christian practitioners will ultimately re-establish their sense of self-worth, security and significance, i.e. their spiritual core.
Human beings are embodied. Ashley’s development of the five areas of function (spirit, rational, volitional, emotional and physical) in the Waverley integrative framework draws attention to the ‘interrelatedness’ of the various ‘areas of functioning’’ (2015:153). My research has shown that, for some people resident in the UK who were born elsewhere, dance forms an integral part of the way they engage with God. Dance is an aspect of the way that they are spiritually formed. Wolswinkel’s research is investigating the way that dance might, for people who are victims of sexual exploitation, ‘re-establish their sense of self-worth, security and significance, i.e. their spiritual core’. It seems that perhaps for some of us dance is an aspect of being formed into the image of Christ.
Holy Bible, New International Version.
Appiah, B.O. (2014) Negotiating the Integration Strategies and the Transnational Statuses of Ghanaian-Led Pentecostal Churches in Britain. PhD Thesis. University of Birmingham. Available at https://etheses.bham.ac.uk//id/eprint/5905/ [Accessed: 1 December 2020].
Ashley, O. (2015) The Bible, Wisdom and Human Nature: Developing the Waverley Model of Counselling, Farnham: CWR.
Robertson, A. ‘Becoming Pentecost People’, Baptists Together magazine, Summer 2017, pp. 40-41. Available at: https://www.baptist.org.uk/Articles/495743/Baptists_Together_magazine.aspx [Accessed: 16 March 2022].
Van der Kolk, B. (2015) The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, London: Penguin Random House.
Williams, K.J. (2020) ‘Love your flesh: The Power and Protest of Embodied Worship’, Liturgy, 35:1 pp. 3-9. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/0458063X.2020.1701889?needAccess=true [Accessed: 14 April 2020].
Wise, D. (2021) ‘Developing a genuinely multi-ethnic local church congregation: an auto-ethnographic investigation into Greenford Baptist Church 1987-2014’. DTh Thesis, University of Roehampton. [Online] Available at: https://waverley.soutron.net/Portal/Default/en-GB/RecordView/Index/7263.
About the author
Rev Dr David Wise BA (hons), MA, DTh
David is the programme lead for Spiritual Formation at Waverley Abbey College. He is an accredited Baptist minister on secondment to the college having worked as a part time tutor on MA programmes since 2011. He is a senior practitioner accredited by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council with his own private mentoring practice.
Copyright 2022 David Wise
 All research participants have been given pseudonyms that reflect their ethnicity and gender.