One of the curious results of the COVID-19 lockdown back in 2020 was the opportunity to experiment with what I might call “soul only” worship. This approach prioritizes the invisible activities of the heart and mind over and against the visible activities of the body. According to this mindset, the “real” action of worship takes place in our immaterial spirits, not in these very earthy frames.
But that’s not how God has designed us as human beings, nor how the Spirit of God has wired us to experience corporate worship. It’s the Spirit’s pleasure, I contend, to work not just in our heads and hearts but in and through our physical bodies to form us wholly into Christ’s body.
And because the Spirit is the author of all things natural, not just supernatural, the sciences offer invaluable insights regarding the unique power of communal song to corporeally unite Christians in “Spirited” ways. In our relationally fraught and estranged times, this is good news for the church, I believe.
Here, I’d like to draw attention to two phenomena: entrainment and interactional synchrony.
What is entrainment? As Jeremy Begbie defines it, entrainment is “the synchronization of one rhythmic process with another.” In other words, it describes the way the body gradually syncs with another body or with an external rhythm, often unconsciously.
Entrainment happens all the time in corporate worship, it turns out. A particularly catchy hymn, for instance, may cause a person’s feet to start tapping unconsciously. A rousing rendition of a hip-hop worship song may find a group of people bobbing their heads in a synced way. Or, as the case may be at a Hillsong worship concert, a massive audience might find itself clapping at the exact same tempo without consciously intending it.
These phenomena are examples of mutual entrainment.
“In this scenario,” says ethnomusicologist Nathan Myrick, “people entrain to one another, with music acting as coupling factor: independent rhythmic processes create shared experiences of sensory data. Our brains and bodies become coupled to others. We do not have the same thoughts or feelings, but have our thoughts and feelings together, at the same time, with those around us.”
The idea of interactional synchrony is similar to entrainment, but it draws specific attention to what occurs when people mirror each other through bodily (and vocal) movements.
For example, when a mother smiles, her baby smiles; when she frowns, her baby frowns; when her voice softens, her baby becomes still; and so on.
The same is true in music.
“When two people are making music together, and really listening to what each is doing, they are sharing in the same pattern of neural activity,” writes cognitive scientist William Benzon in his book Beethoven’s Anvil.
“If the whole village is listening and dancing, then the whole village is enacting a single pattern of musical activity, even though they are physically distinct individuals with distinct nervous systems. What makes this sonic communion possible is that all these physically distinct nervous systems are cut from the same mold, and all are attuned to the same patterns of sound.”
Scientists have shown how certain practices of music—such as a congregation singing the doxology at full volume—evoke “neural activation that is shared among listeners in key emotion areas such as the amygdala, insula and caudate nucleus.”
These experiences create a surge of endorphins and a release of oxytocin, resulting in a heightened sense of “fellow feeling,” a deepening of “social bonds,” a loss of self-protective “boundaries,” and an increased sense of “feeling felt by another”—which is to say, an increased sense of empathy.
In terms of the scientific theory of “Hebb’s axiom,” neurons that fire together wire together, and a people who sing together experience a wiring together of their neural networks. They become tethered to one another in neurological and physiological ways, not just in affective or relational ways.
These experiences are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve over Zoom, partly because of the half-second delay that usually marks such exchanges and because, rather than being directly accessible to one another, our bodies are being mediated by a digital artifact (a phone or a computer).
My main theological point here is this: Over against the idea that the Spirit works in exclusively invisible and immaterial ways in the singing ministry of the church, I contend that the Spirit produces the “one-body” life of the church, not despite or beyond our bodies, but rather in and through our physical selves. The Spirit takes our corporate song and binds us corporeally in ways that are irreducible and deeply transformative.
But is this always true, without qualification? And is this the only way the Spirit forms us wholly?
For instance, what about Christians in contexts of duress and persecution who cannot easily gather in person? What about the sick and the homebound? What about the disabled, the immunocompromised, and the elderly in nursing homes?
In all such contexts, the opportunity of Zoom or live-streamed worship is an extraordinary gift and one that people in previous generations didn’t enjoy. So we should thank God for all manner of digital media and trust that he delights in technologies that form Christ’s body at worship.
But what about the possibility of manipulation, or the experience of negative peer pressure that so many Christians have experienced in their churches, whether Pentecostal or Presbyterian, Anglican or otherwise?
These dangers are very real, and we need to be vigilant against them. But perhaps we might also see the experience of fully embodied corporate song as a kind of positive peer pressure. Perhaps we might view it as an occasion for physically infectious worship, in the same way that a sporting event can be a socially infectious experience.
And what about the heart and mind? Don’t they matter in our experience of communal song?
Very much so. A deep sense of kinship as Christ’s body doesn’t happen mindlessly. It happens when we are keenly attuned to each other from the heart. It happens when we seek to love God with all our minds. When both our hearts and minds are fully engaged, our bodily activities of worship have a greater chance to sanctify us.
What, then, is the good news of entrainment and interactional synchrony to the body of Christ, which today is significantly strained and fractured?
On the one hand, the experience of entrainment reminds us that our bodies can form Christlikeness in us in uniquely physical ways. They have the capacity to disrupt and derail negative inertias that get stuck in our hearts and minds—fears, insecurities, biases, and prejudices that cause us to pull away from one another.
Allowing our bodies to become rhythmically coordinated to each other, then, can become an occasion for the Spirit of God to co-ordinate people who may find themselves profoundly out of sync with one another, whether theologically, politically, or otherwise.
On the other hand, inasmuch as the experience of interactional synchrony heightens our ability to be emotionally and relationally attuned to one another, it serves the purposes of forging bonds across all kinds of cultural divides: familial, ethnic, liturgical, and so on.
To me, this seems like an incalculable gift to the church at worship. It’s a gift that many cherish even more on this side of the global pandemic.
With rare exceptions, most of us in 2020 neither sat nor stood nor knelt in a physical space of worship. We exchanged no friendly handshakes. We received no heartfelt hugs. And for the most part, we didn’t sing together in the same room.
Instead, our bodily experiences of worship were marked by separation, depletion, and digitally mediated encounters. For many, the result was not only deteriorated mental and physical health but also spiritual anemia and relational estrangement.
While church leaders should be commended for going to great lengths to learn new forms of technology for remote church services, the experience of exclusively digital worship could not satisfy our God-given need to sing together in a common physical space.
When done well, this kind of singing is capable of drawing the ill-tempered, bigoted, self-absorbed, and broken members of Christ’s global body into a harmonious whole that astonishes afresh both the doubter and the believer.
It’s in that sense that I might call embodied singing a kind of “Spirited magic.” At its best, such an experience seems almost too good to be true. And yet, by God’s grace, it is true.
W. David O. Taylor is associate professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of the forthcoming book, A Body of Praise: Understanding the Role of Our Physical Bodies in Worship (Baker Academic, 2023).
This piece was adapted in part from A Body of Praise by David Taylor. Published with permission from Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group.