Nonverbal Worship Practices that Bridge Differences
Rhythm, liturgical movement and visual art draw on gifts already present in how God made us and what the universal church has already created.
Kai Ton Chau talks often with worship leaders at Chinese American churches about strengths and weaknesses in their congregations. One recent discussion yielded an insight that may apply to any congregation with a generational or cultural gap.
“We came to a consensus that Chinese people emphasize intellectual matters. As a result, our worship services put a lot of weight on verbal communication—scripture reading, songs, sermon, benediction and so on,” says Chau, a visiting scholar at Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Language complicates unity in Chinese American churches. There’s a generational gap in that most Chinese born in the U.S. prefer English as their primary language. There’s a cultural gap because, even though spoken Mandarin Chinese is similar to Cantonese Chinese, they use different written characters. So, churches often need interpretation or translation in worship services that include Mandarin speakers from Mainland China and Taiwan, and Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong.
“I don’t have success stories to share yet, but we’re talking about how to reduce our reliance on language in worship,” Chau says. He and his peers believe that doing so may open opportunities for young people to serve in worship and may strengthen intergenerational bonds.
They want to learn more about and experiment with nonverbal worship practices that are already helping other congregations. These include using rhythm and instrumental music, liturgical movement and visual art.
Drumming and instrumental music
Rhythm and instrumental music often touch people in ways that bypass words. This makes perfect sense to Edward Gonzalez-Gertz, who pastors Life of Hope Presbyterian Church in Marietta, Georgia. “God has spun a world with rhythms. Rhythm is part of every human experience and culture. There are rhythms in the cosmos, our own heartbeats, faith and worship,” he says.
Light of Hope got a CICW Vital Worship Grant to explore global drumming so that the congregation would be more welcoming of the many nations represented in their neighborhood. Gonzalez-Gertz says the congregation became more comfortable with the idea after realizing that ancient Hebrews used drums in worship. “In worship we are in communion with saints from all ages, cultures and locations. Drumming has brought all segments of our congregation together. It’s a way to proclaim God’s grace in Jesus Christ to the whole being—spirit, soul and body—to the glory of God,” he says.
Light of Hope hosted weekend workshops on drumming in specific traditions, such as Native American, African, Latin American, Irish and Asian. Participants shared an ethnic meal together and, in Sunday worship, demonstrated what they’d learned.
The congregation now uses rhythm instruments for processions, to accompany music or scripture and to mark transitions. “Sometimes, for our prayer of confession, we pause to stop and reflect on our sins and brokenness for three slow drumbeats. On the fourth beat, we resume the prayer, ‘Forgive us, Lord.’ Our confession is now so much more meaningful,” he says.
Light of Hope stores its drums, bells, gourds, sticks and other rhythm instruments in pews or on the chancel steps. The average 80 people who come to worship use almost every instrument in each service. Whenever they sing Matt Redman’s “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)”, some worshipers form a drum circle and others march with bells in their rows.
Kai Ton Chau notes that many young Chinese Americans take lessons for years in playing the violin, piano and other instruments. “Most are not serving in worship ministry. We can use their talents to play instrumental music that doesn’t involve written or spoken language,” he says.
The church universal offers a storehouse of nonverbal actions, especially for churches that frequently celebrate communion or observe the liturgical seasons of the Christian year.
“Chinese Americans mostly sit through the services. Occasionally we stand for a hymn or benediction or move out of our seats for the offering or communion. Making body movements a part of our liturgical practices would let us rely less on language. We could consider liturgical dance or interpreting scripture through movement. Someone suggested that the pastor might say, ‘As we pass along the plate and cup, let us realize that we share one bread and one cup. Let us concentrate on the passing and the sharing,’” Chau says.
Liturgical movement can make visitors feel welcome, according to Maria Eugenia Cornou. She visits lots of churches as the CICW resource development specialist for international programming and Spanish language resources. “We visited a church where worship includes a time of response that requires movement. That day we all had to go to a window and light a candle. It was so nice because it not only symbolized the presence of the Holy Spirit but also was something that everyone could understand and experience together,” Cornou says.
St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church is a historically black congregation in Oxford, North Carolina, that has become half Latino since 2009. “Partaking in Holy Communion together has created a strong sense of unity among English speakers and Spanish speakers. And we sometimes take so much time passing the peace that the vicar has to motion the oblation bearers to come forward to present the holy sacraments to the table,” says lifelong member Vickie Hammie.
Light of Hope created a station-based, self-guided Museum of The Passion for Good Friday. People walked through dark rooms wafting with fog and incense. Drums sounded a slow boom-boom, like nails hammering flesh to a cross. At one table, they had to roll dice to figure out whose garments would be taken away. At another station they could write a sin and nail it to the cross. The last station featured 75 slides of passion art from many countries. “Some people cried. It was a very emotive experience,” Gonzalez-Gertz says.
Tabernacle Baptist Church was a grand old church in decline in Richmond, Virginia. When they prayed for renewal, God sent refugees who’d grown up Baptist in Burma but didn’t speak English. Pastor Sterling Severns decided that creativity could be their common language.
Tabernacle people pore through scripture to choose a theme for each liturgical season. Burmese women once sewed a colorful tablecloth with knots like flames for Pentecost. Another Pentecost project was to print photos of church members on paper, cut the paper into dove shapes and ask worshipers to write a prayer for the person pictured. A welder made three metal rings, hung them from the ceiling and tied fishing line to the rings. People tied the “prayer doves” to the rings so they floated above people’s heads.
Your church can more fully use all God has given you by using your physical space for liturgical communication. “Many Chinese evangelical churches do not use banners and visual art. The worship space is very bare. We tend to pay attention to functionality of the space rather than liturgical or worship implications. Many of our PowerPoint slides are text based as well. I believe it warrants an intentional study to introduce visual art as part of our worship engagement,” Chau says.
Tabernacle Baptist has found that visually using the worship space ends up involving people from more ages and Christian traditions. “We understand worship as something we all do together, starting from the youngest among us all the way to the oldest among us. That inevitably means that there’s something for everyone—and that people inevitably have favorite seasons and the opposite of favorite seasons, depending on how creative you are with any given season,” Severns says in a video presentation for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Virginia.
Tabernacle values visuals more for communication than aesthetics. One Lent, children handed out creations they’d made from plastic flowers, paper and paint sticks. Worshipers “planted” them into pew hymnal racks. The action taught everyone to prepare for new life and also showed that children can lead in worship.
First Baptist Church of Prineville, Oregon received a CICW Vital Worship Grant to engage five generations in multisensory worship. Grant project leader Paul Gratton says that the congregation has historically valued tradition more than experimentation. So they began simply by using shimmery cloth to create streams on “flowing” the cross into a “river of prayer” on the front stage. They also put blue paper in pews and invited worshipers to write prayers to drop in the river as they came forward to communion.
“The ‘river of prayer’ helped the congregation to think differently about prayer and provided a way to respond physically and symbolically to the preaching of the word,” Gratton wrote in an article posted on worshipleader.com.
Visuals are especially powerful when they change each week. A Tabernacle member who’s a building contractor brought in 200 cinder blocks and 200 tea lights for Pentecost. Each week members moved the blocks into different shapes and lit the candles. The moving installation reminded people that the Holy Spirit is always shifting, changing and building the church.re there as we were called to become part of the flock of The Good Shepherd. We were there blind and deaf as the town people of Bethlehem, were God was active and no one noticed. Have you noticed God this season? Because ultimately, God was there too, you and I, all together, in unity of Joy, in expectation of Hope, longing for true Peace, and welcoming God's unconditional Love in the gift of a baby, the Light of the World. NOTICE: Around the manger we have added our family pictures, because we were there. Add your family picture to this timeline if you think you were there!
Light of Hope changes the communion table every month with tablecloths, candles and foods from different countries. One Advent, Gonzalez-Gertz preached about how the first people to learn of Jesus’ birth were shepherds, people rejected by society. He explained that Baby Jesus was part of a refugee family on the run. The pastor invited worshipers to see themselves as broken people with good news of great joy for all people.
“We opened the communion table for people to bring in mangers and family photos to signify that we were there when Jesus was born. Every week we’d add to the table. There was so much response that we had to add another table,” he says.
- Christian Year showcase
- 25-minute video: Sterling Severns on creativity in worship
- Four Essentials for Multicultural Worship
Learn about Light of Hope Presbyterian’s worship grant. They asked cultural drumming presenters to use songs from the hymnals that Light of Hope uses in worship: Celebration Hymnal, Glory to God and Lift Up Your Hearts. Religion scholar Brent S. Plate explains that drumming is part of every culture.
Get multisensory worship ideas from the Worship Lab developed by First Baptist Church in Prineville, Oregon, with its Vital Worship Grant from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Project leader Paul Gratton shared successes and failures in his worshipleader.com story.
Leaders at Light of Hope and Tabernacle Baptist recommend Reformed Worship magazine as a great source of visual worship ideas.
START A DISCUSSION
Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, education, worship arts or music meeting. These questions will help people start talking about nonverbal ways to worship together:
- Share a story of a worship experience that touched you or changed you without words.
- Tabernacle Baptist has used duct tape, cinder blocks, soiled cloth and artificial flowers in visual installations—because it values communication more than aesthetics and because it doesn’t have a big budget for art. How well would this perspective work in your congregation?
- Have you ever considered inviting someone to worship but then decided not to, because you didn’t think they’d understand or emotionally connect with worship at your church?