Accessible Worship - Communication

Accessible Worship
Words Matter - Communication

“I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do this all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings”  1 Corinthians 9:22-23

As I’ve had a chance to tour around the country and talk about and help lead worship in a number of different worship service settings and buildings, I have to say that the topic of communication is one of the most important ideas of “Accessible Worship”.  At the end of the day, what we are talking about is making the peace and joy of the Gospel message, accessible to all people without changing or watering down the biblical message that sinners need a Savior and Jesus is the only one that can bring us to life.  Communicating this message is of vital importance and for WELS Lutherans from traditional to blended, from contemporary to modern worship settings, communication is ultimately the driving force and heartbeat behind these different worship styles, settings and environments. 

As an artist leading from the stage, as a meteorologist on radio and a bit of TV and as a public speaker/coach and communicator, I have learned a lot about communication with some excellent advice and education over the years.  One source is from Tom Jackson who is probably one of the world’s best performance coaches working with artists from every genre and who also happens to be a Christian.  As I’ve read and heard others speak on the topic, the percentages may change a little bit, but the idea is the same.  Communication is, at its simplest level, the idea that I would be able to transfer a thought or understanding to you and that you would receive it exactly the way I’m thinking it.  In other words you will fully understand what I am telling you without confusion or indifference.  There are then three key pieces that make communication a reality: content, vocal inflection and what people see.  A poor understanding of the way these three play together will lead us to confusion and miscommunication.  To understand what true communication is, gives us the best chance to have a chance at connecting with people in a way that communicates clearly.

While the percentages vary a little bit, most professionals that I have heard speak or write on this topic all agree that communication carries the three parts with these basic percentages.  Communication is made up of


15% = Content    -    30% = Vocal Inflection (how words are said)   -    55% = What People See


For all of us who lead with our words, this is a bit of a frustration when you see the percentages.  Especially as Christians, we would say that the words are THE most important piece in the whole of it (and we would be correct).  But remember we’re not talking only about the quality of words, we’re talking about the transfer of information and the meaning of those words from myself to someone else by means of “communication”.  In order for that to be done effectively, these three elements are always present.  If you remove one or two, you come away with problems.  Let me demonstrate.

“I’M SORRY”: When my daughter was younger, she did not like to be wrong (who does).  If we caught her in something that required discipline and apology, we would explain it to her and then tell her she needed to say she was sorry.  Eventually she would finally whip up the courage to do it and out would come a yell of “I’M SORRY” accompanied with a scowl and a foot stamp and then a pout.  If you have kids, or maybe you can remember doing this yourself, but you know the scene.  Let’s review what was communicated.  CONTENT:  She got the content right, the words “I’m sorry” were spoken, which is what we need to do when we are wrong.  Check!  VOCAL INFLECTION:  Well, if we were to take words and actions in the kindest possible way, the best construction we could put on it was that she was passionate.  WHAT PEOPLE SEE:  From the scowl to the violent footstomp, it is pretty clear that the purpose of the content is not being backed up by what we’re seeing.  While the correct words were spoken, what was communicated is actually just the opposite of the content.

“YOU’VE GOT MAIL”: Email is another great example of this.  Most of us who are a little older know that if you are going to reply to an email that is emotionally charged, it is best not to send that reply in the heat of the moment.  If you are younger, here is a huge tip:  Email is always taken in the worst possible way.  You can count on it.  Even a simple “How are you doing man” can have a reply of “fine” and you’ll be wondering what’s wrong with them.  In email, we basically have 15% of communication happening.  Emoticons (the smiley faces) came about to try and take the edge off of the words by letting people know a little more about the emotion behind the words.  “Fine J” looks a whole lot nicer doesn’t it?  We get into trouble with email because it is often missing voice inflection and it’s missing the visuals that help to inform the other person what is truly being communicated.  This is why email and texts tend to communicate less efficiently.

“WORSHIP EXAMPLE 1”: We need to apply this concept to worship as well, because it is a key component of understanding why some people connect or don’t connect with a church or a Pastor or a group of people.  For some people, a traditional church communicates beauty.  It communicates the grace of God and the Gospel message ornately addressed in stained glass windows, paintings, baptismal fonts, altars, pulpits, communion elements, pews, hymnals.  A Pastor that stands in one place for his sermon, speaks in clear deliberate tones and wears a white or black gown with vestments for the church year.  The law and Gospel is preached, people hear and appreciate it because the whole of worship is communicated well.  For other people everything they see communicates the wrongs and arrogances of the church.  They don’t see the beauty and story because of the Pastor who overzealously communicated the law, the see the headlines of the priest who raped a boy, the congregation of people who hate gays and a place for only people who have their lives together.  They wonder why the person up front is wearing a dress, can’t understand the writing style of the songbook and sit uncomfortably in their ripped jeans while they witness “closed” communion.  What they see and hear is not received the way that the church hopes they will receive it and those people leave feeling they have not worshiped.

“WORSHIP EXAMPLE 2”: Let’s go the other direction toward the modern setting.  Some people will see a comfortable place with a bright and friendly entry way and people who are friendly.  They hear a music style that is not too dissimilar to what they listen to in their private lives.  The speaker isn’t preaching at them, but talking in more of a conversational tone, screens clarify and help tell the story.  The refrain based songs are easy to connect to the bible teaching of the day and the darkness of the room makes them feel more comfortable, especially if you’re a guy.   The law and Gospel is preached, people hear and connect the message to their lives because it is communicated well.   For others, the blaring music and style of dress is exceptionally irreverent.  The casual atmosphere and lack of symbolism communicates that this place is lax on biblical teaching.  The lack of formal liturgy and historic content to worship feels more like a concert than a worship service and the “Pastor” won’t sit still.  In a similar way to the first example, those people walk away feeling they have not worshiped.

Communication is important and it is more than the words that we speak and sing.  So often the content is interpreted through how those words are delivered and in this manner, people are very different.  Remember that basic definition of worship as a “conversation”.  God coming to us and his people respond.    What happens if the content of the law and Gospel is correct, but it is not communicated well to someone?   Can that person truly worship if he hasn’t heard correctly the law and Gospel message?  Can she respond by loving the Lord with all her heart, soul, mind and strength?  What happens when we communicate the law/Gospel message well, but the response and words we give them to communicate back to God do not allow them to speak the content in a language that comes from the heart?  Perhaps this is part of the reason why Jesus says to the woman at the well, that it’s not about a building and location.  Temple worship starts in the heart, because that is the temple of the Holy Spirit.  We want to communicate this great message to the people God has put in front of us and to communicate it in such a way that is true to scripture, but also clear to the person so that the peace and joy that flows from that message would be realized.

One last point to consider regarding communication.  If I want you to understand something, then the burden is really on me to tell it in such a way that you can understand.  This is really important.  If I want you to “get it”, then it’s ultimately on my shoulders to do everything I can to understand how I can speak your language so you understand it.  I need to understand how you receive information, process it and use it.  My communication is not what changes hearts, it is the content of God’s word alone that does it.  But it is my responsibility to do everything that I can to communicate it effectively to remove the barriers from a person’s ability to understand it.  If we want to reach people with the Gospel message, it is imperative that we understand the language of our local community and be willing to understand what means of communication work for the people we are serving and reaching.

If a person is offended by the law and rejects the Gospel, we can’t control that.  It is our job to preach it faithfully and part of that is to wrestle with effective communication amongst the people we have in front of us to the best of our abilities.  It is important for any of us who are leading from the front to be a constant learner when it comes to communication, what communication means and how we employ communication in talking with others.

THE BODY OF CHRIST: For those of us who worship in traditional settings to modern settings, it is important for us to understand the value that both have when the content is correct.  It is also important to understand that there will be limits to who we are going to reach and communicate with in our public worship services, because at the end of the day, it’s really hard to make communication happen across all the various types of people in our community.  Rather than beating each other down about how “they” don’t do it the WELS way or “they” aren’t reaching anyone, we need to recognize that some churches will reach people based not only on their message and quality of music/facilities, but how and what they communicate.  Just as the church likes to call itself the body of Christ where there are hands, feet, fingers, brains and toes working together in the local congregation, so too within a synod setting, we have churches that will reach different types of people.  It’s important that we encourage each other to faithfully declare that Jesus is the only way to a right relationship with God, to forgiveness, to peace that lasts for eternity.  How communication works is a driving force in how various churches share and worship publicly.  Those who want to share with a person or a community bear the responsibility of communication.