Verbal and Symbolic Communication in Worship

Posted: March 5, 2012 in Sabbath
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Robert Webber’s book Worship is a Verb describes the communication that occurs in worship.  Webber believes that there are two forms of communication: verbal and symbolic.  Both of these modes of communication are well represented within Scripture.  This two-fold process of communication is also noted in scientific studies.  Webber writes, “I have been surprised to discover that recent studies in neuropsychology and communication theory affirm these two forms of communication as valid and significant means of passing information, values, and perspectives” (89).  If Sabbath living is about passing information, values, and perspectives to ourselves and others, then we may need to incorporate both verbal and symbolic communication.  Doing this will allow us to worship holistically.

“We now know that the left hemisphere the brain specializes in verbal skills, while the right side of the brain centers on nonverbal and inductive skills such as the spatial and poetic impluses of the person.  The left side of the brain is more word oriented and orderly while the right side of the brain is more symbolic and creative.  Now, we function from both the left and right sides of the brain, but some of us function more from one side than the other.  This is why for some people the communication of words is more effective while for others the communication of symbols is more powerful… since all people are capable of communication through both methods, improvement of both the verbal and the symbolic methods of communicating Christ in our worship experience is desirable.  It is also important for us to remember that communication in words and symbols is two-way.  While God communicates to us through words and symbols, we also respond and communicate with him through words and symbols.  Worship as an act of communication contains the ingredients of speech, symbol, dialogue, interaction, and relationship” (89-90).

The primary distinction between verbal and symbolic communication lies in the terms transmission communication and cultural communication.  Transmission deals with verbal communication.  It is about transmitting information from one source to another.  Information is passed along, analyzed, and learned.  Cultural communication deals with symbols.  It is worship that is done and acted out.  These can be nonverbal ways of communication (i.e. kneeling, communion, creating art).  Together, both forms of communication can impact the mind, will, and heart of the individual.  I say this because what we fill our minds with becomes what we act out and what we act out becomes our very character.  Worship when approached through both verbal and symbolic communication not only informs us but transforms us.  As such, there is a need for us to incorporate both into our worship.

This is undoubtedly true for Sabbath practice and living as well.  Sabbath is about communication with God.  It is opening up space for God to speak to us and for us to respond.  As with all relationships, we communicate on both levels.  We transmit information about ourselves to the other party.  But, we also use nonverbal, symbolic language to communicate: we hug to show affection, we nod to show we are listening, we smile, we clap, we fold our arms.  Objects can even take on special significance in representing our relationship (i.e. a gift, keepsake, or event).  Why should Sabbath be any different?  What sorts of practices can emerge out of both verbal and symbolic communication as a way of relating to God and growing in Him?  Moreover, what practices can we institute in our families that will also engage them in Sabbath together as was the custom in Jewish and early Christian homes?  As mentioned in other posts, worship cannot remain simply an intellectual affair if it is to be character shaping, both personally and socially.

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