Forming Faith Blog

Language, Liturgy & Education

Our regular worship services are the biggest way that most people engage with your congregation. It is critical that worshippers understand what is going on. For those using a traditional liturgy, we must educate all worshippers on what it all means. Without this, there can be no real sense of belonging.

A hymnal or liturgy book on a lectern at church.
Expansive Worship Review

Throughout most of the month of June, I have been writing about insiders and outsiders in the church and how we insiders can be more welcoming, inclusive, and expansive to outsiders. Last week, I looked at the corporate worship service as the primary event of a congregation and the main access point for “outsiders” to become a part of the community. This worship service can be expansive (foster a sense of belonging to this community) with a deeper understanding of the language of faith and a web of relationships within that faith community.

Liturgy and Worship

It is a common practice for people sharing a common faith to gather to profess and practice that faith, specifically through worship. Instead of being chaotic and individual, assemblies (secular and religious) have a specified order things happen in. In a secular meeting, this tends to be an agenda. In a religious setting, this is generically an order of worship. Even at its simplest, this is a liturgy (originally “work of the people”). This order of worship has evolved set, common language—what we think of now as a liturgy. Liturgies, then, can have few set words or many, but they are the basis for orderly worship. They are the structure we use to worship our Triune God.

Ancient and Modern

Not all congregations and Christian traditions use the common, set words of the liturgy, much of which predates church schisms (which explains why much of the liturgy is common among the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions). While “non-liturgical” churches avoid some of the pitfalls of a formal liturgy, they still encounter plenty that marks “insiders” from “outsiders” in their language of faith (and miss some of the benefits of liturgical worship).

The common liturgical form among traditions using it across Christian traditions has portions that have been used for hundreds of years. They encapsulate a historical view of Christian tradition and—in some ways—codify our language of faith (in addition to Scripture). The commonality of Christian liturgies allows people to attend liturgical services within and beyond their particular church’s worship and find some familiarity. These beautiful benefits do come at a cost, though. The codification and formalization of the language of faith separates church-language from the common, secular language that people speak in their daily lives.

Language and Communication

The purpose of language is to communicate meaning. Period. As I mentioned in last week’s post, teaching me to pronounce and repeat a few phrases in Hindi—without understanding them—is basically a parlor trick. This can, unfortunately, become true of liturgy, too.

An extreme example is that of the Latin Mass (and Bible) of the Roman Catholic Church. To oversimplify a bit of Christian history: in the beginning of the Christian movement, the church was Greek, the common language of the eastern Roman Empire. However, this left out the western Roman Empire which spoke Latin. So, to help western people to understand Scripture, some—most famous of which was Jerome of Stridon—translated the Bible into Latin. That became known as the Vulgate (common) translation. The worship liturgy at the time was also in Latin. No surprise there.

The problem came when the languages of the people of the western Mediterranean (and beyond) evolved from Latin, but the church kept the Latin liturgy and Latin Bible. While ancient and significant, this language of faith became unintelligible to the common people. It ceased to communicate meaning. People could memorize and repeat the Latin responses—they might have even felt a sense of connection and familiarity with this—but it stopped being communication. [This can even be seen in our English “magical” phrase hocus pocus, which is likely a bastardization of the Latin liturgical phrase Hoc est corpus meum (This is my body…”).]

Progress, but Not Enough

Thanks to the reforms of the Protestant reformers and even those of the Catholic church in the second Vatican Council, we now have Scripture and liturgy in our common language. That improves the situation, but the liturgy (and Scripture, but that’s another story) still consists of formal church jargon. This makes it difficult for visitors, children, youth, and even your cradle-Christians to understand what they are saying.

The solution of some is to toss out the liturgy altogether. While this is a perfectly acceptable course of action, it is not a reasonable option for others. This is where Christian education (and educators) come in. If we are going to keep the liturgy in worship (which is my preference), we need to teach people what it means: why we say what we say and why we do what we do.

Teaching the Liturgy

This is why, and how, I created Spirit & Truth Publishing in the first place. I saw that my kids didn’t understand what was going on in church, and I had the wild idea that if kids understood what was going on in worship, they would have a higher probability of being engaged in the worship service. So, I wrote Spirit & Truth: Teaching Kids the Heart of Worship for PK-2nd and 3rd-6th graders. In it, I use stories to explain the concepts of worship (PK-2nd) and readers’ theater skits to teach the Lutheran liturgy (3rd-6th). I have received feedback that it works, and even that the teachers are learning something valuable! [In case you are wondering, the company was named after the curriculum as I didn’t think I would be adding more products. Delightfully, I was wrong about that.]

A Richer Experience

Understanding what is going on around you has two main benefits. First, it gives you a richer, more meaningful experience. A walk in the woods can be a beautiful experience. However, a walk among the white oaks and shagbark hickories, upland boneset, rough-leaved sunflower, and red-headed woodpeckers (etc.) is a more meaningful experience.

The Importance of Education

Second, if I understand what is going on in worship, I am much more likely to feel like I belong, while the opposite is also true. Add meaningful relationships to the mix and you have a worship experience that fosters a sense of belonging: expansive worship.

This means that education, both within and outside of the worship service, is critical to welcoming and expansive worship.

In the love of Christ,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

2021-2022 Faith Formation Resources

Our Narrative Lectionary and Revised Common Lectionary products for the upcoming 2021-2022 program year are now available for download. Find out more!

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