Worship and the Deaf Community

When we enter a worship setting, we’re often met by a cacophony of sounds: the hum of friendly greetings, the strum of a guitar, the laughter of young children. We absorb God’s Word and proclaim God’s glory through speaking and listening and singing. But what happens when the person walking through the doors of our church is deaf? How does one participate in worship, specifically musical worship, without the ability to hear?

This varies from individual to individual and is often dependent on whether the person is deaf or Deaf. Deaf, with a capital “D,” is a cultural term. Although it typically refers to someone with a hearing loss of some kind, it’s more of a cultural identifier, showing that the individual prefers American Sign Language (ASL) and adheres to Deaf culture’s social standards. Individuals who still experience a hearing loss but identify with spoken English and standard hearing culture are referred to as deaf, with a lowercase “d.” Each of these communities has a different experience with worship in the church and its accessibility.

Individuals who are Deaf first and foremost need to experience worship in their own language. This typically means hiring an interpreter through the church who will listen to the lyrics of the songs in English and interpret them into ASL. Although there may be a family member or friend in the congregation familiar with ASL, it’s important to hire a certified interpreter who will interpret the songs both linguistically and culturally. A word-for-word translation likely won’t make sense because of cultural differences, so terms like “listen” and “hear” may be interpreted to “pay attention” and “watch” for a clearer understanding.

Just because Deaf members of the congregation can understand the lyrics of the worship songs doesn’t mean that participation is entirely accessible. Just as hearing members of a congregation prefer either to sing along or meditate on the lyrics of a song, some Deaf members will prefer to sign along with the interpreter while others may prefer to simply let the song wash over them. Interpreters should be aware of whether the Deaf members of that congregation prefer to sign along or not. If they prefer to sign along, the interpretation should be more structured, rhythmic, and repetitive, making it easier for the congregation to copy. If not, the interpretation should be more poetic, staying true to both the meaning of the lyrics as well the ASL equivalent.

When we participate in worship, it isn’t only the lyrics that have an impact but the instruments and the musical style as well. Historically, ASL interpreters have only interpreted the words and simply signed the word “music” during instrumental sections; however, it’s becoming more evident that this method doesn’t convey the whole meaning and feeling of a song. By interpreting the instruments being played—the tempo through the speed of the signing and the volume through the intensity of the signs—the Deaf member of the congregation can experience the fullness of worship that the hearing population experiences.

While Deaf populations can sometimes participate fully in worship within a hearing congregation, the worship experience in a Deaf congregation with a Deaf worship leader is something completely different. Worship music in a Deaf setting is developed in their first language, American Sign Language. Although it may not follow an auditory cadence like many of us are used to, it has the same poetic and rhythmic quality that we experience in auditory music. It follows its own “Deaf rhythm,” which comes naturally to Deaf individuals, allowing them to worship in their heart language rather than assimilating to our auditorily based worship.

While these strategies may offer more access to Deaf individuals, not everyone with a hearing loss knows ASL or is familiar with Deaf culture. Many people lost their hearing as adults, use assistive technology like hearing aids or cochlear implants, or were raised speaking and lip reading; they won’t benefit from an ASL interpreter or music led by a Deaf worship leader.

Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing tend to have more of a connection to auditory worship music. Late-deafened people may remember the songs from before they lost their hearing and hear the memory of the music in their heads. Individuals with hearing aids may benefit from a hearing loop, allowing the sound to be amplified directly into their hearing aids. People with cochlear implants or some residual hearing may prefer to sit in the front or near the speakers, allowing them to hear more of the music.

Because deaf individuals operate in a world without auditory cues, they rely more heavily on sight and touch than the average hearing person. Although we’re used to experiencing music through our ears, many aspects of worship music can also be conveyed in a visual and tactile way. Light and color can show the mood of a song and portray feelings the way an instrument does. Many deaf people also feel the rhythm of music through vibrations on the floor or through the speaker. They can also feel the changes in volume by sensing the intensity of vibrations.

Just because an individual can’t hear shouldn’t stop them from hearing the love of Jesus Christ. Making worship music accessible for deaf and Deaf congregation members is an important part of our mission as Christians. If there are already members of your congregation who are deaf or Deaf, ask for feedback on how accessible worship is to them. If you don’t currently have any members of your congregation who are deaf or Deaf, find ways to make your worship setting a welcoming place to invite them. By implementing accessible worship, we open the body of Christ to everyone, regardless of hearing status. Welcome them in. Allow them to participate. Invite them to worship.

Amanda Potthast is a student at Calvin College studying speech pathology. She has served as a worship apprentice on campus as well as an intern with Reflectors Ministry, a disability ministry at Faith Church in Dyer, Indiana.

Reformed Worship 129 © September 2018, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.