Why don’t we think about non-verbal communication when we’re singing in church?

In October last year, I stirred up a bit of a hornets nest when I wrote something that was admittedly deliberately provocative about “worship” and “music in church gatherings.”

I’ve probably nuanced what I would say about “worship” since then – I think, and this is a working definition, that “worship is the sacrificial use of the gifts God has given you to glorify him by loving and serving him, and one another, and pointing people to Jesus.” I think that best accounts for Romans 12, and Paul’s approach to ministry and spiritual gifts, particularly in Corinthians.

I’m pretty convinced by the argument that singing in our gatherings is part of “word ministry” – it is designed to both express something about our faith in Jesus, express something vertically in terms of vocalising our praise to God, and express something horizontally in terms of encouraging our brothers and sisters as we sing together, and highlighting something for the non-Christian in the midst of our gathering (ala 1 Cor 14:22-25).

Singing is communication. Singing is word ministry. And laying aside all debates about the charismatic movement and whether flaying your arms around, or at least moving, is biblically mandated (or rather, warranted, ala what Bob Kauflin dealt with when he spoke in Brisbane last year), I think we I’d at least argue we’re doing this communication part badly… or at least not communicating as fully as we could be… if we adopt the dour posture common in the reformed evangelical (Presbyterian) circles that I move in.

Here’s why.

Image Credit: The Speaker’s Practice

Most communications experts and consultants I’ve dealt with over the years – from uni lecturers during my undergrad degree, to consultants we hired in the workplace, to preaching lecturers at college – stress the importance of things other than words when we are speaking. Things we call “non verbal communication.”

The number in the pie chart above seems pretty arbitrary – I’ve heard it said that non-verbal communication can account for up to 85% of what we communicate, or how effectively we communicate it, when we speak. That’s what these guys claim.

They also claim that 90% of the emotional work is carried by non-verbals.

If this stat is true then it plays into another aspect of communication – particularly when it comes to the fine art of persuasion. And if communication is not “persuasive” in some sense, if you’re just preaching to the choir – literally – when you sing, and you’re not trying to reinforce or hammer home something using music as a teaching tool, then I’d argue that it’s not really a particularly useful form of Christian encouragement, and you’re not really treating music as word ministry.

Persuasion, since Aristotle (and later, my favourite, Cicero), has been divied up into categories of pathos (emotion), ethos (character), and logos (content) – here’s a run down from another public speaking site I found via google. And a little diagram – I’d argue from the stat above, even if its inaccurate, that pathos includes convincing non-verbals…

Image Credit: Visual Books Project

In my experience of my circles our approach to music heavily invests in the logos element of our music, treats music as a ministry that requires a certain character test for members of the band (ethos), and maintains a deep suspicion of pathos because it’s largely, especially in the absence of the other two elements, where manipulation goes down.

I’ve written something about manipulation and persuasion before. And personally I am deeply, and culturally, suspicious of any attempts to manipulate the way I think with bells and smells, ritual, minor falls and major lifts, or any little tools that bands might use – like clapping.

I’m not suggesting working our way through this chart until you find something that resonates with you.

Image Credit: TimHawkins.net (get the T-Shirt)

But I don’t think this suspicion is the answer – and I think its stymying our ability to communicate the gospel clearly in everything we do when we gather. I’m trying to figure out what being mindful of what I’m communicating non-verbally when I sing looks like.

Good persuasion, following Cicero, means starting with character, and then tying logos and pathos together under that rubric. I think Paul takes Cicero’s ball and runs with it in his letters to the Corinthians (my Corinthians essay) – arguing that the character test for Christian ministry is being sacrificially cross shaped in how they do life, and especially how they gather… and I think, if emotion is carried by non verbal communication, and assuming we’ve got issues of ethos and logos right in our singing, then we need to be thinking about how we do pathos well with our non-verbals when we use singing to communicate the gospel. In a way that is sacrificial and meets the definition of worship I floated above.

The call then, is for us to be genuinely authentic when we’re singing together, rather than faking authenticity, pretending to be bought in to the emotional stuff, because we want to communicate something. There are heaps of people, particularly in our culture, who are just like me – suspicious of overtly emotional stuff, wary of manipulation through an increasing sensitivity to the tricks of advertisers, spin doctors, and other charlatans – so we can’t do the pathos, or even the logos, right, without getting the ethos right first. But nor can we be so scared of this stuff that we avoid pathos all together – because a lack of emotional buy in amounts to an insincere and inauthentic approach to persuasion, and also fails at communicating as effectively as possible.

It’s traditional for posts about doing non-verbal stuff while you’re singing to say the Christian thing to do is to be sensitive to the people around you and not do stuff that will distract or offend them – which if worship is sacrificial service of others as well as of God – goes without saying.

The questions then are – if singing forms part of our word ministry – if it’s communication – how do we communicate our thankfulness to God using the means of communication that he has given us,* how do we best use these means to encourage each other about the power of the gospel in our lives as we sing, and how do we use them to communicate the gospel to outsiders?

Interestingly, as a bit of a throwaway, this book chapter on gestures in communication, suggests that gestures are particularly helpful for overcoming a communication divide (from p 21) – I’m not going to hang the whole thesis of this post off this, but I wonder if seeing some familiar gestures in response to music (like the stuff you might see at a concert), rather than a room of dour people, may overcome some of the gaps between the inevitable Christian jingo and vocabulary some of our songs contain, and make the experience of corporate singing a little less weird – rather than more weird, though you could equally run with this point to justify interpretive dance… this book chapter also suggests we’re generally reliably able to spot people who are performing “rehearsed” gestures, rather than spontaneous.

I don’t think the answer is looking something like this…

* I’m trying to be careful here not to suggest a non-Biblical requirement where we must make gestures as we sing – I think the expression of the vertical aspect of our singing has significance for its effectiveness horizontally as a means of encouragement and communicating the gospel.

15 thoughts on “Why don’t we think about non-verbal communication when we’re singing in church?”

  1. Hi Nathan,

    I read this earlier and liked it. I probably need to read it again, but one initial thought was that most of the “non-verbal” in communication is non-deliberate and unconscious. That is, when I am simply talking to someone I don’t necessarily deliberately add in the non-verbal communication, it’s just there. I might touch someone on the arm or some such thing, but without having actually thought about doing it. So I don’t know how that translates into congregational singing with a view to being mindful of encouraging to others.

    1. Nathan Campbell

      Hi Ali,

      I agree. Non verbal communication should be subconscious – but I suspect we actually, particularly in the Pressy circles I’m familiar with, deliberately and consciously surpress certain non-verbal things that would naturally occur in other contexts involving music.

      I think the other aspect of my thinking here is that we train people when they are deficient communicators as preachers (or in my case as a professional – performers in front of television news cameras) because they don’t do non-verbal stuff naturally, and their communication can be enhanced if they mindfully and authentically introduce gestures, facial expressions, blinking (seriously – there’s nothing freakier than people who don’t blink in front of a camera), and a bit of life into their “performance” (that’s a bad word). I think if we are actually performing an act of communication, not just indulging in a moment of personal praise, reflection and development when we sing, then it’s ok to assess what we’re doing on a basis other than “is this something I am comfortable with”… and in some sense there is a performance aspect, as there is in any attempt to persuade somebody of something.

  2. Hi Nathan,

    For some reason I didn’t get a notification of your response (my social-media life is a shambles). But yes, agreed. Though I find that interesting that you train people in non-verbal comms – because it’s almost like the absence of non-verbals was part of their non-verbal communication in the first place (if you get me).

    How to keep that “performance aspect” in the balance could be tricky here though.

    For me, I actually go to a church where people are a little freer to do as they please during singing (though if you do the Belonging course there is the instruction about not being distracting to others), and so being naturally on the more conservative end of that perhaps (I think personality traits do play into this – as an introvert I am just never going to be as expressive in public as some, in any situation, because I simply cannot ignore the fact that there are people around me), I feel quite fine doing what I do. It seems to just actually work out well in my church – there is no “pressure” either way, that I detect, which I think is how it should be.

  3. Hi Nathan,
    Great read! It would be interesting to read a study on which of our own gestures work backwards towards our affections.
    For example I’ve been thinking through how the physical action of kneeling in the quite of your room can help align your thoughts and feelings to the Holy God whom you’re coming before in reverent prayer. In this setting I’d assume there aren’t many who would be uncomfortable or argue that it’s wrong to physically kneel before my mind and heart are present?
    It makes me wonder if the term ‘fakeness’ in physical expressiveness could also justifiably be a humble gesture, that for some helps function to humble them for their hearts to catch up in the vertical aspect of singing. And as a by-product of that humility and delight in God others around us horizontally can be spurred on and encouraged as they’re reminded of the honour that our God is worthy of. Non-verbal communication in the horizontal aspect can in some ways deny the truth we are corporately singing to God and each other in the same way a preacher can deny what they are saying with tone and expressiveness.
    I wonder if there is more room for ‘non-verbals’ to support our word ministry and better centre our thoughts and affections around Christ.
    And more than that, is there a sincerity of heart that wants to lay aside the fear of man for the glory of God? Cause the thoughtfulness of ‘not distracting others’ is without a doubt genuine cause. But it is also probably a nice comfy place to protect what people think of us. These are the thoughts I’m wrestling with – I don’t know anyones heart truly but it seems like a safe generalisation.
    On another note, as you mentioned performing gestures that aren’t sincere can be counter productive as people pick up on the ‘rehearsal’ of them. But I also wonder to what extent we can actually honour God in our leadership as we sacrificially lay aside the weight of our day and lead others in rejoicing in Christ who’s met our greatest need.
    Is it wrong to ‘perform’ in leadership to communicate truth effectively? Because I know it’s an ongoing issue of my own and many to address the content of truth we are faced with when our emotions are somewhere else. All I can think of is to submit my feelings to God and ask for His peace to lead faithfully.

    Great to see more of these articles appearing.
    Would love your thoughts on ‘gestures before sincerity’! Thanks for going to the effort!


    1. Nathan Campbell

      Hi Steve,

      “It makes me wonder if the term ‘fakeness’ in physical expressiveness could also justifiably be a humble gesture”

      If I’m understanding you properly here – are you suggesting a “fake it till you make it” sort of approach? Part of me thinks that any attempt to make a change to being more physically expressive while I’m singing would involve a significant period of awkwardness where I’m not fully into the idea. I think that’s different to being overly expressive in a way that goes beyond what I’m naturally feeling.

      I think there’s a difference between people in the pews trying to change the culture, and people in the band or in leadership faking it in order to bring about that change. I’d want people to truly believe there’s value in what they’re doing – I think for me, though I’m not sold on this, that correct thinking leads to a corrected heart leads to correct actions… though there’s probably a triangle shaped diagram there… I think actions have to flow from thought (or doctrine).

      But repetition of actions is also habit forming and makes things more natural and normal. So I think you might be on to something in terms of breaking down what is essentially a cultural practice, rather than the result of any theological conviction.

      So when it comes to:

      “Is it wrong to ‘perform’ in leadership to communicate truth effectively?”

      I think authenticity is the most important part of non verbal stuff – that’s certainly what we pushed for when I was involved in broadcast/public speaking training stuff, and it was the goal in our preaching subject at college. I’d want the leaders to believe in their performance, and I’d say at that point its not “performance” or acting, but being.

      Hope that’s helpful in your thinking – thanks for the comment.

  4. Thanks for the speedy reply Nathan.
    I’ve really enjoyed being pushed to continue thinking through this more deeply.

    I agree that in leadership authenticity is key. We want to know that passages of scripture are affecting our pastors before they are bringing a message to us. And we want to know that people are authentically affected by the truth of this word ministry when they lead songs.
    Circumstantially though I confess there are moments I feel under-presser to unauthentically suppress of anxiety, feelings of depression, exhaustion to preach or lead songs.

    Rather than ‘fake it till you make it’ I’d rather describe it as a physical gesture that’s a servant to us, helping align our heart to the reality of the truth we are singing. The focus in my preferred wording I think is to take emphasis off ‘fakeness’ as it has to do with how other people might judge us externally without knowing our heart. But before God there doesn’t need to be this fear of fakeness if we know our motive of physical expressiveness is to support the truth we are meditating on and align the heart.
    I guess it would be fair to say that sometimes we even sing words before our heart has caught up. But there isn’t a stigma attached to singing (without the heart) as much as there is physical expressiveness (without the heart). I’ve never heard anyone up the front ever say ‘Don’t sing until the second Chorus’ wait until your heart is really there.
    I think because we often think of actions as the last step of an outworking of the mind and heart – it seems false to do something physical at the start.
    But if we think about it, singing words without the heart in the first song of a service could just as much be classified as habitual fakeness.

    Teaching definitely has to be made from the pulpit on this – know doubt about it. Prescribing or trying to influence culture without understanding is pointless.
    But the strong ties physical expressiveness has with a particular theology in the 70s may be part of the reason that there seems to be a knee jerk reaction to it or even a rejection of it in corporate worship.

    I also agree that the most natural flow seems to be ‘correct thinking leads to a corrected heart leads to correct actions’
    But it got me thinking when I read about this illustration of physical expressiveness in prayer ‘kneeling’ it broke that natural flow for me. I had never thought of it that way round.
    If there is a place for this privately the implication for me was that there may be a place for us to think about this for our corporate gatherings.

    I think you’re right that there is a triangle kind of outworking of head, heart & actions to some degree. It’s probably more accurate to say that this backwards working that I mentioned earlier is most likely physical actions accompanied by correct thinking at the start rather than action without the mind being present. E.g. correct thinking is that ‘I’m acknowledging the Holy God I’m coming before, His transcendent worth’ – So physically trying to align myself with that reality helps my heart to feel the reverence I ought when meditating on that truth and the words that follow are served by an action. My kneeling isn’t trying to impress God or pretend that I treat him with reverence – I’m on my knees because of truth (head) I know that this is an appropriate place to be and want to will and wait for my heart to catch up and naturally respond. And again in corporate singing – it seems natural that our affections often increase and catch up to the mind the more we meditate on the truths sung as the Holy Spirit impresses upon us the greatness of His worth through this word ministry.


  5. Helpful stuff Nathan. I agree with you.

    I don’t know how many times I’ve seen rows of Presbyterians singing from hymn books with the word “Rejoice!” written on the front, looking so “unrejoiceful” (OK, I made up a word). I am not judging the inner quality of their ‘praise’, but I think I know rejoicing when I see it. (nor am I criticizing my church – we don’t use the hymn book).

    Sometimes physical signs of the joy of the Gospel are all too absent from our church culture. Perhaps because the internal culture of our denomination has championed “reverence” and the individual aspect of corporate worship over joy and collective encouragement. However, I suppose every individual congregation has it’s own culture, for it’s own reasons. And given some of the problems that Presbyterian churches had with charismatic/pentecostal theology in the 60s and 70s, I can understand the reluctance to be expressive. Some probably see it as a slippery slope, better avoided in any way shape or form.


  6. As an addendum to Steve’s posts, your body’s state isn’t purely a result of your mind’s control.
    For a really good example of this, when you’re next feeling down, hold a pencil between your teeth, pushed back as far as you can. Hold it there for 30 seconds or so, you’ll find that even this simulacrum of a smile is enough to lift your mood.

    It works the opposite way as well. Hold the pencil with your lips at the front of your mouth, and it will cause your mood to drop, as your mouth is forced into a frown.

    It’s not 100% of course, but deciding to act a certain way as a method to move your whole person towards a goal of humility, or whatever, doesn’t (necessarily) constitute ‘faking it’. If you’re trying to make other people think of you as more holy, or humble, or what have you, that would be ‘faking it’.

    1. RodeoClown I think your example explains effectively what I’ve been exploring.
      I think there is definitely health grounds for (action without emotions). Your choice of words ‘actions’ brings more clarity than mine ‘physical expressiveness’. The word expressiveness does indicate more of a ’cause then effect’ pattern. ‘Action’ keeps the physical idea and doesn’t jar as much when we speak in terms of it being a servant to us at the start of a process, aligning our hearts around the truth of this word ministry.
      As you said if our motive is to project an image to others of being extra ‘holy’ that would have to be classified as a pride issue. But on the other end of the spectrum for example hands in pockets can just as much reflect a pride issue culturally within our churches as some people may be withholding their affections due to feeling judged by others as trying to make a show of things being more spiritual. Or it even could reflect a ‘fear of man’ issue cultural that they would look goofy and feel awkward.
      One way I think our heart is exposed in this is reflected when you invite a non-christian friend to church, were you embarrassed to sing as boldly? were you as comfortable to express you affection for God naturally?
      The reality is that the default mode of our sinful human hearts in gatherings will wrestle with being more concerned about our own glory above seeking God’s Glory – magnifying his greatness.
      ‘The LORD does not look at the things that man looks at, man looks at the outward appearance but the LORD looks at the heart’ 1 Samuel 16:7
      On the spectrum of hands in pockets to hands raised I constantly need to remind myself that both could just as easily be an impulse motive coming from ‘the fear of man’ or ‘pride’.
      I can’t help but think that the idea of ‘we don’t want to distract others’ is the short cut to overlook this whole teaching completely.
      How does my non-verbal communication magnify the greatness of God?
      How does my non-verbal communication encourage the body of Christ?
      How is my non-verbal communication perceived by non-believers present?
      We know that there are Vertical and Horizontal priorities that we need to think through in corporate gatherings culturally. We don’t want to prescribe a habitual way to respond to God, but pastorally we need to free people from the pulpit to respond to God with the deepest purest affections that he’s worth of through nurturing and redeeming a biblical perspective. A non-judgemental culture in this area needs to be developed through teaching up the front pastorally. It seems to be an effective way to communicate to the whole congregation on the matter and break misconceptions that physical expressiveness is communicating a warped theology.
      In Seattle Mars Hill music pastor Tim explains in an interview that they live amongst a stoic culture where it’s cool to display that you’re unaffected by music emotionally. The cultural norm secularly is to be unimpressed out of pride, and not display your emotion in the indie rock scene.
      But Christ transformed culture for the glory of his Father. There is a massive dilemma for Mars Hill and us – The truth of scripture in music calls for an emotional response. Hopefully the cultural style of music in our churches helps support our response to the truth of scripture!
      Churches are places of cultural development because Christ is supreme in a post-modern world and lived a counter-cultural life towards the aspects of culture that dishonoured his Father.
      As followers, we need to ask the question what can we receive, redeem and reject from culture?
      I think there is a need to redeem biblical affection in church culture to be faithful to the command ‘Love the LORD your God with all your, heart, soul, mind and strength’.
      Truth in lieu of affection doesn’t honour God. In a lot of ways it just makes us more religious, to enjoying having an extensive bookshelf but with hold the affection God is worthy of in every sphere of life.
      With scripture as our guide we need to decide whether biblical examples of Jewish physical expressiveness is ‘prescriptive’ or ‘descriptive’.
      Descriptive – meaning that’s just the jews cultural way of responding naturally that we observe but don’t necessarily need to adopt. For example Jews prayed standing with raised hands – taking this to be descriptive would be to say we aren’t commanded to do things that way.
      Prescriptive – meaning the bible commands this as a pattern that we must follow in.
      Wisdom though i think needs to look at the fact that we are all image bearers – and ask how has God wired us cross-culturally to enjoy him?
      A guy from church did a cross-cultural study of this very topic. I’ll ask him for his research! Would be interesting.
      Jesus would withdraw from a crowd and spend time with His Father in prayer on a mountain.
      A ‘descriptive’ interpretation would say Jesus is a Jew that was helpful for him culturally and we purely observe that…
      However, I think wisdom would say why did he choose to physically withdraw from others?
      I’m free to not pray on a mountain – but there is probably some wisdom in following this model to block out the chaos of life – and as a follower of Christ be inspired by the awe of creation – seeking God privately and enjoying that time of delighting in him, seeking guidance from him etc.

      Thanks brothers and sisters for thinking this through with me. Keen to keep exploring these topics as to how we can best love and serve our churches.


  7. Good food for thought. I’m not naturally an emotive person, so it’s helpful to be reminded that some emotion is good! Though, lately even I’m feeling that our congregation is a little devoid of emotion, and if I’m feeling tired and grumbly wonder why we even bother singing other than because ‘that’s what we’ve always done’.

    Thinking of ‘singing as communication’ is also helpful. Culturally, we don’t sing much anymore, and thanks much to the pop music industry, singing is now mostly about entertainment. (Historically, singing has been both about communication and entertainment.) I wonder if the reluctance to be emotive in our music also stems from our thinking that singing is entertainment and that is bad, therefore we make it as un-entertaining as possible?

  8. I was thinking about this,.. The vast majority of songs that EMU (for example) puts out seem to be primarily propositional – teaching; while I would struggle to name any that have a significant amount of adoration.. presumably there’s a background reason for this, but I wonder if it’s not somehow related to this issue.

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