I'm trying to get some background about the custom of dancing with flags during worship. I come from eastern Europe and I have seen many "trends" that came from the west (especially from charismatics). When did the churches start to dance with flags, and why?
In American Christianity, specifically black or African American churches, "praise dancing" is a cultural norm practiced all over the United States, generally in more progressive churches. It is also referred to as Liturgical Dance(a).
Generally, the practice involved playing gospel ballads or other popular black gospel music from contemporary black gospel artist. Brightly colored flags, scarves, and shawls are used and artist, usually young women, dance using ballet-like movements, in unison with the music being played as a form of worship and praise toward God.
Historically, Liturgical Dance is ancient, tracing back to even ancient Israel as noted in passages like 2 Samuel 6, albeit, this is David and many did condemn him for his expressive worship. However, in the middle ages, according to professor Paul Dilley at the University of Iowa, the Dance of the Savior, a liturgical dance, was probably used in some "churches and martyr shrines". In addtion, Dilley states that a "dance scene in a Coptic text from the Qasr el-Wizz monastery suggests that ritual dance enjoyed a place in established, orthodox Christianity..."
Regardless, it is probably not possible to establish an exact reference to the beginnings of such practices in the American church. Theologically, it is forbidden by some denominations, including some that are primarily African American, because it is consider too liberal or sensual(b).
(a) Based on my personal experience growing up and being involved in the Progressive Baptist Convention and other independent and other affiliated black churches primarily in and around the Washington DC Metropolitan Area.
(b) As an example of why this practice is not accepted, see There is Never a Good Reason For Liturgical Dance
Interestingly, 50 or more years ago many conservative and evangelical churches in the West were quite legalistic about a number of activities and behaviors they considered to be "worldly" and potentially sinful. Social dancing was one of them. Notice I say social dancing, not celebratory dancing or the kind of dancing you have observed in some churches (including charismatic churches), which is likely an expression of worship in which men and women, and boys and girls, do not even touch each other!
As many of these churches evolved, so to speak, they realized that legalism was not only unnecessarily offensive to many of the young people growing up in the church but also to the people these churches were trying to reach for Christ. Legalistic attitudes started to relax a bit. Churches started to realize that celebratory dancing as an expression of the uninhibited worship of God is not the same as social dancing. In other words, the two things (i.e., social dancing and celebratory dancing) are "apples and oranges"--two completely different things.
By the way, social dancing seems to have evolved, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Ballroom dancing seems to be having an upsurge in popularity. The senior pastor from my Christian church even takes ballroom dancing lessons with his wife! Among the young people in Generations X and Y, however, dancing varies from mosh pit gyrations to "dirty dancing," complete with grinding and what can be described as simulated sex acts! This "dancing" is definitely not in any way celebratory or worshipful. Far from it!
In many churches in the West today, and perhaps elsewhere, dancing of the kind that King David performed, as recorded in 2 Samuel, has become more common in the last decade or two:
"David, dressed in a linen priestly vest, danced with all his strength before the LORD. This is how David and the entire house of Israel brought up the LORD's chest with shouts and trumpet blasts" (vv.14-15).
As you'll recall, Michal, Saul's daughter lost respect for David after she observed his uninhibited dance before the Lord, and she reproached him for what was in her opinion undignified behavior for a king. We read in the same chapter:
"As the LORD's chest entered David's City, Saul's daughter Michal was watching from a window. She saw King David jumping and dancing before the LORD, and she lost all respect for him. The LORD's chest was brought in and put in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it. Then David offered entirely burned offerings in the LORD's presence in addition to well-being sacrifices. When David finished offering the entirely burned offerings and the well-being sacrifices, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD of heavenly forces. He distributed food among all the people of Israel—to the whole crowd, male and female—each receiving a loaf of bread, a date cake, and a raisin cake. Then all the people went back to their homes. David went home to bless his household, but Saul's daughter Michal came out to meet him. "How did Israel's king honor himself today?" she said. "By exposing himself in plain view of the female servants of his subjects like any indecent person would!" David replied to Michal, "I was celebrating before the LORD, who chose me over your father and his entire family, and who appointed me leader over the LORD's people, over Israel—and I will celebrate before the LORD again! I may humiliate myself even more, and I may be humbled in my own eyes, but I will be honored by the female servants you are talking about!" Michal, Saul's daughter, had no children to the day she died" (vv.16-23, italics are mine).
King David had no problem with his uninhibited worship of God. He likely would have danced naked before the Lord if God's Spirit had prompted him to do so!
Notice what happened to David's critic, Michal: She was unable to bear children during her lifetime. Perhaps there is a lesson in there for us. No one plays and frolics more uninhibitedly than children. Interestingly, Jesus said,
"Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3 NLT, my italics).
In light of Michal's barrenness, we do well to rethink speaking out against the demonstrative and, yes, almost childlike behavior which has at its heart a love for and enthusiasm for our great God.
In conclusion, the relatively new phenomenon you've witnessed in Christian churches is not really new at all; it is centuries old. Uninhibited worship before the Lord, whether it includes dance of all kinds, shouts, musical instruments, banners/flags, lifted hands, drums, mime(!), and so on, is certainly biblical, and if it is done in a spirit of worship and praise, and not simply for its entertainment value, Christian churches do well to encourage the younger generations in particular to be unashamed and un-self-conscious worshipers of the Lord.
This is a fascinating question that is of personal interest.
The earliest use of flags in worship that I'm aware of is in a booklet called "A Sound Of Joy" that was produced by Dave and Dale Garrett from New Zealand in 1982 I believe. Their ministry was called Scripture in Song - older people will remember it! The booklet accompanied a recording of the same name and contained dances to the songs, and some of them used flags. I have the booklet somewhere but can't find it right now. I do not know how much influence it had - I suspect not a lot. The Garretts are still around and have a website (www.davidanddalegarratt.com) so you could contact them to find out where the idea of flags came from.
Another key innovator was a guy called Andy Au who lives in England - I think he was an early adopter of flags, possibly sometime during the 1980s. He has encouraged a lot of people over the years and has travelled internationally. He can be contacted through his organisation Movement In Worship (www.miw.org.uk).
I hope this is of help.