May 28, 2024

The Shared Language of Pentecost

The Gift of Interpretation

Speaking the Language

Fifth grade was a pretty big year for me, specifically because my parents sent me off to France as an exchange student that year. I’m currently the father of a sixth grader, and there is absolutely no way that I would allow him to go overseas without me. And yet, there I stood in the airport in Paris, with roughly 20 others from my school district, eager to meet my new, temporary French family.

Leading up to the trip, our student group met regularly to prepare some patriotic songs about our homeland, and to learn basic French to help us along the way. The songs—bouncy folk jams such as “Fifty Nifty!” and “You’re a Grand Ol’ Flag!”—came easily, and we absolutely rocked those songs in performance. The language, on the other hand, was a struggle. By the time we arrived in Noisy Le Roi, I basically knew the words for cheese, bread, water, and the bathroom. At least I had what I needed to survive! 

I was grateful to discover my French family spoke incredibly fluent English. I would have been totally lost without their ability to translate and interpret for me. This was in ancient times before Google and smartphones could rescue me from my helplessness and embarrassment. So there was a language barrier between me and every street sign, TV show, or store clerk, and the way the blockade was torn down was through translation and interpretation—my short-term family created a bridge for connection for me in this foreign world, so I felt a little less confused and a little more welcome.

Translation & Interpretation

Much of our task as planners and leaders of public worship is translation, and even interpretation. We share the Good News in forms that help interpret meaning, encourage understanding, and invite the whole person into the Gospel story. “Resurrection life is yours in Jesus Christ,” we get to declare, “and all of who you are—mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually—is welcomed to this beautiful, transformed life.”

You can tell someone that Jesus loves them. That’s a great idea, actually; you should go do that. And we certainly love words in our liturgy. But, we also get to work with beautiful human expressions beyond simple prose that invite our church family to understanding. When the worship team communicates that truth via music, or dance, or visual art, or a poem, or a dynamic and dramatic reading of one of Jesus’ parables, there’s a unique chance for someone to have the doors to the dark, locked rooms of their heart flung open and the light of Christ to pour in in a fresh way. Storytelling—through word, sound, and movement—reaches the soul directly, translating lofty truths into human experience, and inviting people to believe the Good News.

Choosing songs, scriptures, prayers, and art to communicate the Gospel of Jesus into our current day and age is an act of translation. You know your church family better than anyone. You know which songs won’t work, no matter how popular they are. You know which images will challenge and confront. You know, generally speaking, how a dramatic scene might be received, and create a better understanding of God’s glory. 

It’s a beautiful calling to translate the Gospel in our spaces of worship; it’s a calling to faithfully partner with the Holy Spirit—the primary interpreter of the things of God!

The Spirit Does the Work

There is an amazing promise given to us in the new reality of Pentecost. Paul, when writing his theological tour-de-force in Romans 8, shares a picture of the Spirit’s presence and role in the life of those following Jesus together.

The Holy Spirit dwells within us, and when we cry out “Abba, Father,” it’s the Spirit who testifies on our behalf. Perhaps even more to the point, though, is the Spirit’s work in our suffering. 

We groan, with all of creation, as we wait for the restoration of all things. These heaving sighs are a form of wordless prayer because we don’t even know how to pray. But this is a language the Holy Spirit speaks fluently.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Rom. 8:26-27)

The Spirit serves as our interpreter, our translator, turning our lack of words into an understood language of prayer. The Spirit groans just like we do, fully fluent in our desires. It’s one of the gifts from Pentecost, the birth of the Church when Christ sent the Paraclete. At Pentecost, the Spirit broke down barriers of language, and that process continues now, too, in how we pray and worship together.

The Beautiful Partnership

There’s a sly trap for us in planning worship, when we think we can manipulate people’s emotions and force a Gospel experience for them. While we can certainly use art and storytelling to push people emotionally, we are absolutely incapable of forcing anyone into a “spiritual” experience—to encounter God in worship and leave changed. Perhaps surprisingly, “spiritual” experiences are a result of the Spirit at work. Amazingly, I sometimes forget this.

It's humbling to recognize that the Spirit doesn't need us for this work but yet we have been invited to join in the Spirit's work of translating the Good News into our context. With the Spirit leading us we plan, prayerfully and faithfully, for when God calls us together to be with him in worship, one of the primary places God’s presence and our human experience intersect. With the Spirit's leading we offer compelling expressions of God’s glory in Christ, we give an honest voice to our humanity, and we watch as the Spirit opens hearts to the Gospel, doing the “spiritual” work that we can’t do through a perfect performance on its own. 

Our worship is Christ-centered and God-honoring when it is Spirit-filled, when it is Pentecostal: when the Holy Spirit is bringing clarity out of confusion, the Word out of our fumbling words, and the glory of Christ our Lord in our midst for all to see, know, and believe. What an honor for us, that God would invite us to partner with the Spirit and participate in the shared language of Pentecost—the proclamation of the gospel to all people. 

Chris Walker is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church and serves as pastor of worship and the arts at Covenant Life Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, where he has served and worshiped with his family since 2010.