Christina MacDowell’s three daughters look forward to going to church on Sunday. It’s fun.
“It’s wonderful,” MacDowell said. “They are part of a dance company. No experience is needed. It’s an outlet for them to express spiritual joy without competition and feeling they have to be perfect.”
The worship dance program started in 2004 for children 3 years old through fifth grade.
“It has a different incarnation every year,” Director of Children’s Ministry Angie Cosper said. “Some girls are very accomplished; some have never danced. Every once in a while, we have boys.”
On Sunday mornings, volunteers and some of the older girls teach the class, which ranges from 10 to 30 dancers. They rehearse before full-length mirrors and ballet barres in classrooms renovated by a Jacksonville Christian dance studio, Dance for Joy, which also uses the space.
“Our dancers have a professional place to practice. And the children who come for Dance for Joy are coming onto a church campus where we can minister to them and their families,” Cosper said.
The philosophy at Dance for Joy is simple.
On its website, it says:
“We dance because we find joy in it. We dance to bring joy to others.
“We train our bodies to dance correctly, so we don't stay stagnant as dancers but continue to grow and develop our minds and bodies.
“We believe God designed each dancer with special gifts and abilities, and He also finds joy in our dancing.”
That’s the same attitude instructors at Southside bring to their dance ministry.
Though for some dancers, the experience of dancing in front of an audience of adults may feel at first like a school recital, Cosper said they emphasize that the dancers are worshipping not performing.
“We help them understand that they are helping lead worship and that the dance is a way to express the love of God, a way to worship God,” Cosper said. “We want them to see that their whole life can be an offering to God. We want to create that mindset.”
The program also is a leadership development opportunity for the older girls in fourth and fifth grades, who teach the younger ones and dance alongside them.
The children dance about once a month from fall through spring in Sunday and Wednesday services, with special programs for Christmas and Easter. They are accompanied by a live eight-piece praise band.
“It’s been fun having the children participating in corporate worship,” Contemporary Worship Leader Ian Stake said. “Their uninhibited expression is good for all of us. Their physical expression helps all of us absorb what the words mean. They are helping people grow in faith.”
Stake said he also likes to see the children grow in their understanding of the lyrics of songs, which are often based on scripture. “They are really thinking about the lyrics and trying to find ways to express them in movement,” he said.
MacDowell, who teaches school, said she thinks expressing ideas through movement gives them a completely different understanding than they would get from reading them in a book.
“And, I think they feel more part of the church,” MacDowell said. “It gives them ownership, responsibility and connection to the church. They look forward to going to church on Sundays and Wednesdays.”
And the congregation looks forward to it, too.
“When they are leading us, God uses them in unexpected ways when people have their guard down,” Stake said.
“It may start out as ‘isn’t that cute,’ but then something happens and they say, ‘Wow, God was speaking directly to me using these kids as instruments of revelation,” Stake said, “They are leaders and helping us draw closer to what God is saying to us.”
—Lilla Ross is a freelance writer in Jacksonville