by Shawn Thomas, Director of Music and Communications at Seneca Presbyterian Church
Have you ever been to a worship service that included sign language? How was it used? Was the entire service interpreted? Were there deaf attendees in the congregation? Was sign language used to interpret both spoken word and sung music? Or, are you unfamiliar with sign language being a part of worship and the idea is completely new to you? Good news! No matter how you answered those questions, this article is for you.
Okay, so this article is for you, but what about the title, “…Who’s it for?” Who is sign language in worship for? What’s the purpose of including sign language in worship? Well, as with all aspects of worship, the number one answer is that it’s for God. It’s part of worship, therefore it’s for God. Worship means to ascribe worth and we are encouraged to do just that throughout scripture, including in Matthew 22:37-38, “Therefore, as we sing praises to God, we are ascribing worth to Him. While the believer’s entire life should be characterized by worship.” We sing for God. We pray for God. We hear and speak the word for God. We bow for God. We stand for God. We play instruments for God. Everything we do in worship, we do it all in the name of Jesus for God (Colossians 3:17). Sign language is another way we can do something in worship for God. It’s another opportunity to present ourselves as an offering through our talents, and in this case, using our bodies in movement.
Beyond that, there’s not really a “right” answer to the question, “Who’s it for?” If you happen to have folks in your congregation who speak ASL (American Sign Language) and/or are deaf, then great! But if not, it’s not a requirement to have attendees who communicate using sign language to include it in worship. So who’s it for then? Maybe it’s for the person who’s looking for a way to be involved in worship, but hasn’t found his or her “niche” yet.
One of my favorite memories as a worship leader was years ago when I was planning to introduce liturgical dance/movement into the service for the first time. I was looking for volunteers and I approached a couple of women to ask if they’d be interested in participating. I was careful as I began the question and tried to set it up without scaring them off. They could tell I was about to ask them something that they might not want to do, and as the anticipation built, I finally said something like, “…and so I just wanted to see if you might be interested in being a part of a new ministry involving movement and dance.” There was a moment of silence as they both looked at each other. After a few seconds, they let out a huge sigh of relief and started laughing, saying, “Oh thank God! We thought you were going to ask us to read in front of people!” Imagine that! For these two, there was no problem getting in front of the congregation and interpreting music through dance and movement, but ask them to read a verse of scripture in front of everyone, and suddenly they’re way out of their comfort zone.
We’re all a part of the Body. Some are the eye or the ear. Some are the readers. Some are the dancers. And some could be the signers!
The trick in introducing sign language into worship for the first time is creating an understanding of what it is you’re talking about and how it will be incorporated into your service. People need a point of reference. There are several ways to provide a reference such as bringing in a guest sign language interpreter or group from another church, sharing online video examples of sign language used in worship, or even visiting a church with an established program and observing a rehearsal. One of the ways I most recently introduced sign language into worship here at Seneca Presbyterian was through the youth group. Adults tend to be much more open and relaxed about experiencing something new in worship if the youth are the ones presenting it, and after they’ve seen and experienced it, there’s a common understanding and reference going forward when talking about it. Immediately following the youth group’s presentation, I began receiving interest from adults asking if they could be on a sign language team, too! A few weeks later, we had our first adult rehearsal, and a few weeks after that, they shared what they had learned as part of worship. In the future, I will probably combine the two groups.
Before actually introducing sign language to your congregation or worship teams, a good first step would be to decide how you want to incorporate the use of sign language into your service. In the above example, our youth and adults interpreted a song which fit well into the service as special music for an anthem or offertory. However, as I implied in the first few questions above, sign language could be used in many places throughout the service including interpreting scripture readings or even sermons. Obviously, that type of interpretation is more involved and would need a fluent interpreter, which is why interpreting music is a great place to start. It also provides an opportunity for expression that is different than interpreting spoken words.
Which brings up another point; what if no one at your church knows sign language? An excellent resource is the website www.signasl.org (American Sign Language Dictionary). There is a search bar in which you can type a word and then view videos of how to sign that word in different variations. Using this site, someone completely unfamiliar with sign language could create a vocabulary large enough to teach and present a song.
There are two important things to keep in mind when choosing a song to interpret:
1. Try to find a song that doesn’t have a lot of words/lyrics – maybe just a verse and chorus that repeats, rather than several verses, a bridge, and choruses.
2. The song tempo (speed) doesn’t necessarily have to be slow, but you do need enough space between the words to be able to sign them without difficulty. So a fast song can work if the words are spread out.
Once you have a song selected, use the www.signasl.org website to begin looking up words/lyrics; however, not every word needs to be interpreted and sometimes it might be necessary to substitute a word in order to convey the intended meaning in the lyrics. Here is an example from a song our adult sign language team just interpreted, “Shout to the Lord.”
The original lyrics at the end of the chorus are:
“I sing for joy at the work of Your hands.
Forever I’ll love you, forever I’ll stand.
Nothing compares to the promise I have in You.”
The actual words we signed were:
“I sing joy because Your work
Forever love You
Nothing is like Your promise”
There’s not a right or wrong way to choose and adapt the lyrics and words, as long as the meaning and message remains the same. Each song will be different and calls for using your best judgment according to who is on your team and the difficultly level of the song. As you continue learning new songs, your team will start remembering signs from previous songs and your vocabulary will grow allowing more intricate signing.
I’ve included a few videos links for reference, and there are many additional great examples on YouTube. The first two links are the Adult and then the Youth Sign Language Teams from Seneca Presbyterian Church that I mentioned above. This is a brand new program for us which started only a few months ago. The second two links are from a church in South Florida where I served for several years, and they provide examples of more choreographed interpretations.
Back to our original question: “Sign Language in Worship – Who’s it for?” I encourage you to introduce the idea to your congregation and find out! You might just be surprised by who wants to be involved in this new ministry, and, in turn, their participation will minister to others in new ways. To that we say, “Yes and Amen,” and give all glory to God: after all, it’s all for God anyway.
Shawn joined the staff of Seneca Presbyterian Church in November, 2022 after 7 ½ years of leading worship in South Florida and 13 years prior of full-time travel in music ministry. As a Contemporary Christian singer/songwriter, many of Shawn’s original works are included in the CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) Library, and he participated as a voting “Grammy” member of the NARAS from 2009-2015. His ministry has served as a training resource for churches including consultation on leading worship, tech/media, and branding/communication, and he is the host of the online social media community, Worship-Together.com. Shawn is a graduate of Middle Tennessee State University with a BA in Music Industry and Recording Industry Management. He and his spouse of 14 years, Brian Ladd, live in Central where their Australian Eskimo, Murphy, allows them to share space.