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.

Manipulation and the fine art of persuasion…

Right. I’ve been meaning to put some thoughts into writing for a few weeks. Doing so now was prompted by a possibly throw away line in the Q&A at the Moore College School of Theology as collated by my friend Kutz. I wasn’t there. But this line resonates with a position I’ve been trying to articulate lately (the line is from Peter Bolt):

“Manipulation can be positive. If you’re doing it to align people to the word of God then it’s a good thing.”

Manipulation and persuasion are essentially seeking to do the same thing – move a person from point a to point b. So what’s the difference? I’ve settled on this distinction…

Persuasion is the transparent act where two parties enter a dialogue with one hoping to move the other from point a to point b.

Manipulation is less transparent and involves one party trying to shift another party from point a to point b, probably without their knowledge.

I’ve settled on this because in my experience if you catch somebody trying to shift your position when they haven’t told you that’s what they’re doing you feel annoyed and accuse them of “manipulating” you, where manipulating is a pejorative. There are heaps of ways to manipulate, and most of them fall outside the classical tools of persuasion – pathos (emotions), logos (facts and words), and ethos (how you act/live). Tools of manipulation tend to involve tugging really hard on one of those threads, where persuasion is a more subtle movement, kind of like a puppeteer with a marionette.

I reckon manipulation is fine. I know we hate it. But it’s a great art, until you get caught. Like pickpocketing, not Oliver Twist style, but like the TV guy who takes your watch while you’re talking to you and then gives it to you later. Manipulation, honest manipulation, probably involves pointing out what you’ve achieved to the person after the fact, so they recognise they’ve moved from point a to point b, but during the process your mark should be a bit like the proverbial frog in a gradually heating pot of water…

This all came up, for me, when I was told I needed to engage a little more with the emotions when I preach (because I’m a pretty rational/stoic type of thinker). So the summaries of the Moore College Lectures on Kutz’s blog have been interesting. I react against this suggestion, not because I think tugging on the emotions is “manipulation” as though that’s a bad thing, but because I think I’m more likely to get caught out if I’m doing something that isn’t within my normal character. I’m all for subtle chord changes, a little bit of emotive muzak in a movie, and all the other little “manipulative” tools – I’m also for putting a bit of emotion into a sermon, like a tear jerking illustration, I’m just against doing it in a way that means I’m likely to get caught.

Persuasion is pretty safe ground, but doing both is potentially more effective, I’m just not sure what that looks like. Most people in the pews are there hoping to be persuaded (or taught), so there’s implied consent there for being “manipulated,” providing your end point is something you’ve implicitly agreed to (essentially the ends identified by Peter Bolt in his quote). It’s a little murkier when it comes to PR and marketing, but manipulation is where the fun is. It’s making ads that are more than just a boring presentation of a product, it’s also harder to do thanks to the Gruen Transfer and market awareness about the tools advertisers employ. Anyway. Those are my thoughts. What are yours?

Question Mark: persuasion, influence and manipulation

In the comments of a previous post Mark asked: “when it comes to presenting a message, how clear are the boundaries between persuasion, influence and manipulation?” As I’m a renowned “PR Spin Twit” (according to the local paper’s nasty “Magpie” column) I feel I’m qualified to tackle that question.

The organisation I work for is a “marketing” and “economic development” body – by our very nature we engage in all three of the above. We promote North Queensland as a tourism, relocation and investment destination – that involves an element of persuasion. All marketing should – otherwise what’s the point. Obviously you have to have faith in your product or you’re getting into a pretty murky area.

Public Relations as an industry has often been dismissed with the pejorative “spin” label. Which is largely unfair. Public Relations should be about taking a product you believe in and presenting it to the public in a way that can be digested. In other words – relating it to the public.

The Queensland Government has been mocked relentlessly for employing more journalism graduates than anybody else in the state – and for having such a massive public relations machine at its disposal. I would argue that the Government has been elected to govern, and make decisions, and we’ve elected them because we believe they’re the best available people for the job – so we should want their point of view on things. Then it’s the media’s job to keep them accountable.

Election ads featuring Lawrence Springborg bumbling through a press conference show the importance of managing your media well – badly handled questions by journalists come back to bite.

If the government of the day can’t persuade us of the benefit of their new policy (eg workchoices) then we can vote them out. I’m down with the importance of persuasion when presenting a message.

Objectivity is important (for the media) – but objectivity doesn’t necessarily mean not subjective to persuasive – it means coming to the facts without prior bias.

From a “spin” perspective you hope that the media accept your angle on things as the best, most objective understanding of them. That usually comes because you or your organisation has a reputation of credibility.

When I studied a subject on persuasive writing at uni I wrote about why pineapple shouldn’t be put on pizza, and why intelligent design shouldn’t be taught in science classes (but in philosophy or religion classes). I remember the basic elements of persuasion we were taught were pathos (use of emotion), stats, and I think having a clearly defined idea of your arguments and the benefits of subscribing to your view. There were probably more. I’ll check at home. But that says more about the mechanics of persuasion than the nature of persuasion – which is simply to move people to your point of view.

If you’re not a decision maker – but you want a decision to be made – you become a lobbyist (or using our politically correct terminology “an advocate”). Here’s where influence comes into play. Again, influence comes (or should come from) from a position of believing what you do is the right thing. As we saw in our recent climate change debate there are many views on one issue, and at the risk of sounding like a relativist, all of them have elements of rightness to them. It is right to care for the environment. It’s also right to care for people. I just tend to think one is more right than the other (and that one does not equal the other) – so I’ll try to influence people that way. By what I say, what I select to use to back up my arguments and how I respond to people with contrary views.

I don’t see a lot of difference between influence and persuasion – except perhaps in the dynamic of power. I’d say that persuasion comes from those in power, and is an exercise of power in order to bring people round to a view. By contrast influence is what you try to do to change the mind of someone in power (or with the ability to act on your wishes). That’s a little simplistic because both words can be used in many contexts. However, in the context of “messaging” that would be the best point of difference between the two.

Manipulation would, if being used in the context of presenting a message, seem to be an abuse of power.

I think though there’s an element of manipulation in any spin. There are plenty of things that our organisation pursues that people disagree with (new refineries anyone?). Some of the “persuasion” we undertake through the local media probably borders on manipulation – we try to make it seem wrongheaded to protest about these things that are putting food on the table for local families. Manipulation tends to misuse pathos, employing overly emotive language, rather than the facts generally employed by “persuasion”. But facts are pretty easily manipulated too.

Anyway, that’s a long answer to a short question. If there’s anything you thought I’ve missed, or you’d like to add, go for it in the comments.