Books: What Language Shall I Borrow?

As chair of the worship committee at church, I look for resources to enhance our public worship. Most of our time as a committee seems to be spent on planning the logistics of the worship service ( e.g. who is the accompanist each week, who is doing special music), but I try to occasionally bring up topics about the meaning and purpose of worship.

What Language Shall I Borrow?, by Ronald Byars, intrigued me because it addresses the issue of whether to use traditional or more contemporary language in the worship service. I have attended churches that used traditional language and others that use contemporary language, and I see certain benefits in both.

When I was growing up, we attended a church that used primarily traditional language. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but then I’m not sure I would have understood much more if they had used more contemporary language. They did try to explain certain practices and concepts for the children, especially during the children’s sermon, but most of the time I tuned out what was going on around me as something mostly for adults.

As a teenager, I began attending a fundamentalist Baptist church. Their service did not include a Call to Worship or a unison Prayer of Confession, and I found it refreshing that I could understand what was said and done in the worship service and what it meant. They still used lots of theological language – words such as redemption, atonement, justification, eschatology. But they explained the words clearly so I didn’t have trouble understanding them (not that anyone can fully understand the atonement!).

Then I married a Presbyterian, and discovered that I was glad to attend a worship service that included certain liturgical elements such as the Call to Worship, Prayer of Confession, Assurance of Pardon, reciting a creed, and singing the Gloria Patri and the Doxology. In the Baptist churches I had often thought that if I weren’t “feeling” worshipful, that I might as well not bother being there (though I almost always went anyway). But by participating in the liturgical elements of the Presbyterian worship service, I was worshiping in some meaningful sense, whether it felt meaningful to me at the time or not.

Then for a few years, after my husband’s first two pastorates and before he was called to another church, we attended a large evangelical church that focuses on being seeker-friendly. (It is Baptist in beliefs and denominational membership, but they choose not to use the word Baptist in their church name because they think it unnecessarily would discourage some people from visiting.) They used contemporary music and contemporary language almost exclusively.

They not only avoided words such as propitiation and eschatology that even a lot of long-time church members may not understand, they even tried to minimize use of familiar terms such as Lord and Savior. Instead, they invited people to accept Jesus as Forgiver and Leader. The idea, the pastor explained, was that our language, like our faith, should be part of our everyday life, not something associated only with a certain time and place.

What Language Shall I Borrow? begins by explaining why traditional language is important and beneficial. Worship is not only expressive (we express what we believe and what we feel) but also formative, in that it shapes us as people of faith. Using contemporary language may be more immediately understood, especially by people new to the church, but it does not contribute in the same way to the development of a deeper understanding.

Byars likens the process of learning traditional language to that of learning a foreign language, especially where one is immersed in the culture. Learning the dictionary definition of a word in another language is only the first step. To use it correctly, one must hear and see it in various contexts to understand how it is used and its shades of meaning. This takes time, and a willingness to get through a period when one does not understand what is being said very well.

Over time, we learn the nuances of a language. … It becomes a framework through which we view and understand the larger world.

Likewise, one learns the meaning of words such as grace, redemption, Lord, and repentance over time. We hear the words in sermons and prayers, we use them ourselves in hymns and prayers, and we come to better understand their significance.

I had expected further discussion of this, perhaps zeroing in on certain words and phrases. Instead, Byars spends the rest of the book explaining the Scriptural background of the phrases that make up the traditional liturgy. For this he uses the order of service from the Presbyterian (U.S.A.) Book of Common Worship, though as he points out, much of this is common to other Christian traditions.

When I was a young adult, I read a book by J.I. Packer explaining each phrase of the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed. (It is currently published as Growing in Christ; my copy from thirty years ago is I Want To Be a Christian.) In fact, that was probably a large part of why I was happy to switch from being Baptist to Presbyterian.

Byars explains those and much more, selecting one of the options provided in the Book of Common Worship for each element of the service, including the Communion liturgy. In a sense, he is illustrating what he had explained in chapter 1, how one learns the meaning of these words by learning their Scriptural context.

It was fairly interesting reading, though all more or less familiar to me. At the end of each chapter is a section called Bible Encounter, for study on one’s own or with others to look further at the passages from which parts of the liturgy are taken or refer to. I’m not sure yet how I’ll make use of this material, but it seems a good resource to have.

What the book doesn’t address, though, that I had hoped for, is a discussion of specific words and how the use of traditional or contemporary language shapes our understanding. For instance, there is the use of “Leader” instead of “Lord” at the one church I attended. (Not that they avoided the word Lord, but particularly in reference to salvation they use the word Leader.)

What are the nuances of meaning associated with each word that help or hinder us in developing our relationship with God? Lord certainly implies a far greater degree of submission, but for many people it also carries negative connotations or simply seems too foreign to our own lives.

Also, the mere existence of a book such as this – at least the majority of the book, relating words from the liturgy to passages from Scripture – suggests that people are not simply absorbing the meaning of these words by hearing and using them over and over in worship services. There apparently is more teaching needed as a supplement to the “immersion experience” of that language in church services.

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