Words Matter - LANGUAGE
“Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.” Acts 2:5-6
I studied Latin for two years in high school because my parents felt that I had some potential to possibly be a Pastor one day. So instead of Spanish, I took Latin with the awesome Mr. Schneider my freshman and sophomore years at Wisconsin Lutheran High School. All these years later, the only words I could remember to say were “Ego tu amat”, which means “I love you”. This was never going to be an investment for romantic evenings with my wife nor will it be very good at communicating those words to her, but at least I know how to say it to someone I loved in Latin! In America today, bilingual skillsets are on the increase as more and more students learn Spanish at a fairly young age. It is seen as extremely valuable to have so that you can communicate with more people because of the increasing dominance of Spanish as a secondary language with Chinese becoming an increasing focus as well. For some, that ability isn’t just nice to have, it is mandatory.
We would all agree that if we are going to communicate with a different kind of people group that don’t speak our language, visual expressions will only get us so far. While it is true that visuals are a big part of communication and are extremely helpful if you don’t know the language, we also know that the content of the conversation makes all the difference in avoiding confusion and getting to a quicker understanding. Those words are important and we all recognize the value they have for conveying a need, an expression, a thought or even feeling. Not having that common language greatly diminishes the opportunity for people to deepen a relationship and it often leads to frustration and miscommunication.
In the conversations around worship “styles”, much is made about what people see and think about those environments. Harsh judgments can often be thrown out as people compare and defend their own worship style preferences. We insist that it must be one way to be true worship or it must be another to truly communicate. We look at style and we attach words to it like: showy, entertainment, boring, relevant, irreverent, divine, liturgical, watered down, disengaging, exciting… you get the point. Depending on where you are on the worship map, you and I will use words to defend and deepen what you believe is right and best and you and I will often use words to tear down the competing “style”. But if the message is the same Christ centered, Jesus centric and if some people connect better to traditional, or modern, or contemporary, or blended – what is really going on here?
In a similar way to the notion of communication, I believe what these different environments provide is the language that some people find is more natural to them, both for listening and for responding. Contemporary worship is labeled that way because certain people value that communication style because they can hear, perceive and understand what is being said and can then respond to God and to others about God within that language of worship. Similarly many people appreciate the language of hymns and liturgy, the symbolism and church architecture as well as the order of service. When a person who naturally speaks, sings and processes information in a traditional service moves to a contemporary or modern environment, they find it hard to hear and connect to the content. The language is foreign, even though the content may be identical. Likewise a person who speaks contemporary/modern, finds it very difficult to follow the hymns and the communication style of the Pastor in a traditional setting making it difficult to connect to and understand the content of that worship.
Rather than seeing this as a right and wrong, thou shalt do one or the other, I think it is important to acknowledge that because of how communication actually happens, that worship “Style” can often be more about a person’s native language. Before we reach for the defensive statements, it is wise for us to wrestle with language when it comes to worship style, especially when the worship content pieces are similar or the same (confession of faith, sin, absolution, readings, message, prayers, songs etc…) May we look and be willing to consider them with an eye for taking words and actions in the kindest possible way as we seek to speak and enable the languages of the people around us. May we be a church that is willing to learn other languages as well as the one we own.