It's Greek to me! A plea to get rid of outdated worship language

You asked that nice couple to join your Koinonia class. They were new in town, so you told them all about agape and diakonia at your church. But they said they weren't too sure. They said they'd think about it. They said it all sounded like Greek to them.

Well, exactly.

And it's not just the Greek that sounds like Greek to nice folks seeking to learn more about Christianity It's the Hebrew, the Latin, and the English. The words we use to talk about building, staff, calendar, worship, the Bible, and even God sound like a foreign language to persons who are new to the Christian tradition.

"Is the narthex really a place? My neighbor said to meet her there, but it sounds more like an acne preparation to me!"

"My husband's boss is one of the elders, but honestly, he doesn't look a day over 45!"

"Who is this Grace they keep on talking about?"

God's gift of language allows us to share ideas, dreams, and wishes. But the same language that can bind us together and give us friendship and community can also separate us and give us exclusivity and isolation. The common speech shared by humans at the beginning was fragmented into thousands of languages and dialects and accents by which we still sort ourselves as belonging/not belonging; same/different; friend/enemy; QK./not O.K.

The language Christians use in worship may also become that sort of litmus test. Without meaning to, we may have drawn a linguistic line in the sand that only people who are "in-the-know" may cross. Many of our words and phrases no longer communicate and, perhaps, no longer describe, much like the language of an exclusive club. Members only, please!

And yet, the first gift of the Holy Spirit was the gift of communicating to people of all nations and backgrounds.

When the day of Pentecost came.. .all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them ... declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!"
[Acts 2:1-11 (NIV)]

The disciples declared the wonders of God in living languages that all who heard could understand. How have we lost that gift? Have we stopped praying for it? Have we decided that we don't want persons of all nations and backgrounds to understand? Have we made language the first line of defense for a beleaguered worldview? Or have we simply failed to notice that we are only talking to ourselves?

If we want to become congregations who welcome visitors by taking down the wall of words that keeps us from declaring the wonders of God to all, we need to take a close look at our worship language. Some of the following ideas may help in that process.

Define the words that are important for Christians to know.

In a secular and diverse society we cannot presume that everyone—even Christians—knows what we mean by "grace," "trinity," "baptism," "sin," and the other marker words of Christian theology. But, neither should we throw them out. These are megawords for us, holding such cargo of experience and tradition and learning that each could take a lifetime to unload. No wonder we grab these words and send them forth, assuming that having sent the words, we have sent their meanings. Unfortunately, all too often we have not. So, these words must be defined and related to common life... at every opportunity.

Some terms match experiences—liberation, for example. If a person has no experience of liberation, the term makes no sense to him or her. But if there is experience (directly or indirectly), the term adds meaning and depth. Therefore, to increase understanding of a term like baptism, we need to invite visitors to observe the sacrament before we expect them to listen to a sermon about it. We need to help them see and understand the sacrament firsthand before we can design a small group study for new parents or new Christians about baptism. We can talk about the history of the sacrament, the first time it is mentioned in the Bible, and the different ways in which various denominations celebrate the sacrament. But not until a person actually witnesses the sacrament in worship will the terms and symbols of the sacrament take on deep meaning for him or her.

Provide contemporary English translations of the Bible.

We often make the mistaken assumption that because people are reading the Bible, they understand what it means. That's simply not true. And since we can't throw out biblical terms and biblical language without throwing out the Bible, it is vital that we do all we can to help newcomers understand the Word.

Some of the newer and simpler Bible translations can be helpful here. Even if you use a more traditional version in worship, make a contemporary English edition available to seekers and visitors who are eager to learn. Remember that one translation does not fit all. just as one-size-fits-all clothing really only looks good on a few middle-sized bodies, the translation that seems just right for one congregation will be too tight for another and too loose for yet another. The idea is to understand your faith so thoroughly and believe it so strongly that you can break free of set wordings, old or new, and tell God's story to your listeners in their language.

Translate the words that no longer work.

In the sixteenth century, some people were appalled at the idea of translating the Bible from the Latin Vulgate (or common Latin) into the barbaric language of English, "a language such as men do use." That common, vulgar, barbaric edition was, of course, our beloved King James Version—the one that now seems so elegant and melodic beside the newer translations from the original Greek, itself a language of commerce and administration.

In living languages, words drift; that is, their meanings change over the years, sometimes so radically as to become op-posites of the originals. Some Christian words and phrases now have secular and even negative connotations beyond the churchyard, far different from our intended message.

For example, to some people evangelism has come to mean an aggressive imposition of someone else's religious dogma, an electronic-media approach to pocket picking, a Sunday afternoon invasion of privacy. Steivardship, a lovely (and "politically correct") word in its original notion, can summon up images of pledge cards and guilt trips and arm twisting. Confession in current secular use is entirely associated with admission of wrongdoing and guilt, and so seems incongruous as a public acknowledgment of faith. A bulletin is what interrupts Monday Night Football with news of the latest disaster. Is that what we are passing out on Sunday morning?

In living languages, words sometimes die. As they lose their cultural moorings, they are no longer spoken and are soon meaningless or, perhaps worse, merely quaint. Where do we go to hear the speech of yesteryear? Why, to Jamestown settlement, to colonial Williamsburg, to Sturbridge Village... and to church.

Many of the words we use to describe the order of worship in a typical Sunday bulletin are among these "dead" words and expressions. How many "parishioners" (there's another!) could define the terms introit or votum, doxology or Gloria Patri, invocation or benediction? And yet we hang onto these words as abracadabras, fearing that if one phrase is left out or rearranged, the magic will fail; forgetting that we're worshiping God, not trying to get a genie out of a bottle.

It's dangerous to use sixteenth-century words when we address God or talk about God or worship God because our listeners may decide we're talking about a sixteenth-century god—a historical or dead god rather than the living God. It wouldn't take much more space in the Sunday worship program to translate words of incantation into phrases of invitation.

  • We Come to Worship Our Creator and Lord (instead of Votum)

  • We Lift Our Voices to God (in place of Introit)

  • We Call Upon the Lord (rather than Invocation)

  • We Profess Our Faith (instead of the Apostles' Creed)

  • We Give Gloy to God (instead of the Gloria Patri)

  • We Share God's Gifts to Us (instead of Offering)

  • We Sing Our Praises to God (instead of Doxology)
  • We Receive God's Blessing (instead of Benediction)

C. S. Lewis once wrote, "If you can't turn your faith into the vernacular, then either you don't understand it or you don't believe it." Those who translate from language to language know that sometimes one word must be replaced with a phrase to convey the original sense. Wycliffe Bible translators in Papua New Guinea found that "Savior" had to become something like "one-who-jumps- into-the-dangerous-river-to-rescue-someone-he-doesn't-even-know."

Translators know that a written work can be translated in many different ways, depending on the art and purpose of the translator, and still retain the essential meaning. Thanks to translators, we don't need to read Greek to read the Bible; but we still have to understand some Latin to understand and fully participate in too many services of worship.

Identify people and places.

To the new Christian or the unchurched seeker, a public worship service is like a series of inside jokes. You know the feeling? Someone gives the punch line and everyone laughs . . . except you. It's like being at someone else's twenty-fifth reunion. Everyone knows everything about Mary and Jane and Peter and Paul... except you.

If the burning bush is worth a mention, it's worth tlie whole story. Don't just drop Zacchaeus's name; explain why he fits into tlie discussion. A reference to 1 Corinthians 1:27-29, then, becomes "the first letter of Paul to the fellowship of Christians in Corinth, chapter 1, verses 27 to 29" (Paul, of course, being that perpetual definer and translator of Christianity and seeker of new Christians).

Identify people and places within the local church too. Imagine the frustration of the lonely newcomer reading this announcement in the bulletin: "Come one, come all! Memorial Day picnic at the park. Bring a covered dish. If planning to come, see Eunice." What park? What kind of covered dish? Who's Eunice? Where's Eunice?

Never mind.

Return the ivory tower words to the ivory tower.

We don't find $100 words in the gospel. Jesus built his message on the common stuff of daily life, using language and metaphors that the simplest person—even a child—could understand. To see how hard it is to enter God's kingdom, you don't need exegesis or cate-chesis or hermeneutics, but you do need an idea the size of a camel as opposed to the size of a needle's eye.

It's fun to know that agape means God's no-strings love, that diakonia means serving others, and that koinonia means living in faith together, but it's better to model our meaning than to show off our knowledge. We want language as extraordinary and holy as God. But, God wants it as humble and homely as humanity.

Imagine yourself as a missionary if your church is attracting new Christians or seekers. Or even if it is not... yet.

Look everywhere for language barriers that prevent the hearing and seeing and declaring of the wonders of God. A good place to start is the bulletin (would program make more sense?). Look in the children's classes. Most curricula assume a Christian background. Look in the adult Sunday school classes (would the term study groups seem more grown-up?), Bible study groups, and at newsletters and calendars. Walk into your building as a stranger. Do the names of people and places on maps and directories make sense? (There are maps and directories, aren't there?)

Once we begin to watch our Christian language everywhere in our churches, we, like the apostles, will start amazing people by declaring the wonders of the living God in a living language that each one can use and understand, in a loving place where everyone is "in" and no one is "out."

Reformed Worship 31 © March 1994, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.