The Work of Worship: The words we inhabit

Garrison Keillor, in one installment of Lake Wobegon, tells of the priest who has entered into a romantic pen-pal relationship with a woman in New York. The burden of pretending to be some who he is not finally gets to him and he writes a letter to reveal his true identity as a priest. In her response, she admits that she felt something was not quite right. “You used the word ‘goodly’ a lot.” The language we use betrays the worlds we inhabit.

There are problems with this, of course. Traditional religious language can lose its ability to communicate. Part of the power of the Christian faith is its refusal to be limited to one language or to mono-cultural expression. Even the NT writers took the risk of translating the words of Jesus into a language that he did not speak.

At the same time, however, we live in what Alan Roxburgh calls “language houses.” We inhabit the world we speak. Part of what it means to become a Christian is to learn the distinctive language of this particular story. Take again the example of NT writers. While they are being very creative and inventive in the process of translation, they are also shaping their writings to resemble the OT and using the primary religious vocabulary of Israel in very striking ways.

So, part of being Christian in a missional community is to participate in the improvisational art of Christian speech. We are constantly finding words to express something that is both old and new.

Now, I happen to believe that the new is the one thing we can assume in this business of language mastery. That is, we can be fairly certain that worshippers are fluent in the contemporary language of our various cultural flows. Most of us know what it means to update our statuses or tweet something. I seldom use a Seinfeld or The Office reference in a class or sermon without wide recognition among my listeners. (I used a less than obvious Princess Bride allusion in last week’s sermon that many picked up on). I can scarcely talk to people without therapeutic words like “boundaries” coming up, or talking to leaders without the phrase “best practices” emerging. We can assume a certain cultural fluency.

What we can’t assume is a fluency in the Christian narrative. This has to be one of the main tasks of Christian worship–fluency in the faith.

I like the fact that we live in a time when there is a lot of new music being written for worship. That’s a great thing. We are innovating our music in worship and we are slowly getting better at expanding our themes and genres.

(As an aside, I think there is an unfortunate tendency for musical style to self-select potential members. I’ve been to emergent churches where everyone looks the same and they look a lot like the music they listen to, if you know what I mean. My understanding is that the Vineyard churches are fairly homogenous as well. The great thing about the Pentecostal movement that preceded the Vineyard was how it cut across racial and ethnic lines. I have a hunch that the reason the Vineyard has a harder time, even though they emphasize the gifts of the Spirit, is that the music defines much of the Vineyard experience).

We have not, from my perspective, paid sufficient attention to how we experience Scripture in worship. I am convinced that much of Scripture was written for oral performance. It certainly was written for a non-literate community. I want to suggest that our literacy, the fact that we all have our own Bibles and emphasize personal Bible reading, has had the unintended consequence of making the Bible the most boring part of our worship. We read Scripture. Poorly. We have people stand up and read Scripture with little preparation while the rest of us wait for the next song.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are ways to make Scripture dramatic, to lift the words off the page and make them move and perform. One of the things I do when I preach now is recite my text. I’m not particularly flamboyant or dramatic in my recital. But I can tell you that people are more engaged as listeners than when I simply read the text. This is just one of many things congregations could do to enrich the experience of Scripture.

I’m intrigued by the possibilities of poetic performance that are increasingly popular these days. We’ve incorporated more contemporary musical styles, why not the various forms of oral performance that have cultural currency these days like slam poetry. I think in particular that poetic uses of words tend to create imaginative landscapes that we in turn inhabit. Again, many churches are increasing the time given to “teaching.” I understand this when you can only assume a few hours with a post-biblically-literate group each week. But “didactic” experiences tend to limit the imaginative landscape. We need poets as well.

Phew, this seems like a little bit of a rant. But if we see the work of worship as inhabiting an alternative world, then we will have to give attention to the ways we use language.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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2 Responses to The Work of Worship: The words we inhabit

  1. Matt says:

    Thanks Mark for these ting to think about. Just found your blog this week and will continue reading. I agree that the reading of scripture should not be boring and we should try to bring out the emotion and setting when we read it aloud. But that goes for any form of public speaking. I also get concerned with some of the religious jargon we use and how it can hinder newcomers from integrating into our community.

    • Mark Love says:


      I think we’re saying the same things. I certainly don’t think preaching should be boring or simply the explanations of texts (see my recent posts on preaching). And in this post I talk about the challenges of jargon or religious language. Still, I wonder about what qualifies as religious language. Like wouldn’t words like love, faith, hope, grace, etc be religious? Don’t they have a particular meaning in the Christian story? The goal to me is not whether or not to use “religious” language, but to be understood, to be clear, to be compelling passionate, connected to life. In fact, maybe that’s the trick, to keep our language from being abstract. Just thinking out loud.

      Finally, your comment made me wish I had said that in a literate culture we think of a text as something one reads. In an oral culture, it is something that is performed. I’d like to get back to that–not just reading better, but finding ways for the text to perform.

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