The Language of Church

It’s baffling that we don’t pay more attention to the language that we use in church.

I’m not talking about ‘taboo’ words – arguably we place too much emphasis on certain words that we can’t say in church. Instead, I’m talking about language more generally.

One useful way of thinking about language is that it’s the way we translate ideas into a format that can be shared between people. I would probably have to use language to let someone else know that I think that Arrival is one of the best sci-fi films I’ve ever come across, and I would definitely have to use language to explain why.

The same is true for the Christian Church. Language is how we turn theological concepts into things that can be shared, taught and questioned. Given the importance that most churches place on sound teaching (which stems from the importance that the Bible places on it), why is there not more care taken over the language that is used in sermons and songs?

Let me use an example that appears all over the charismatic church in songs and sermons: ‘come, Holy Spirit.’ This is a simple statement, but it comes with very definite theological implications, the most important of which is this: at the time of the statement, the Holy Spirit is not present.

It doesn’t take a linguistics PhD to see why, but I’ll break it down for the sake of clarity. Come is a verb – an action word – that, when used as a command, as it is in the above statement, signifies motion from over there to here.

All of the above is fine if it falls in line with what you believe about the Holy Spirit. However, I have seen this statement before: “‘Come, Holy Spirit’ does not imply that the Spirit is not present.”

Unfortunately, it implies exactly that.

‘Come, Holy Spirit’ is an example of colloquial church language does not match up to the theological idea that we are trying to convey. If we believe that the Holy Spirit is present within us as believers then our language should not imply that he is distant until we ask/command him to approach.

Perhaps a statement that more reflects belief in the Holy Spirit’s ongoing presence would be to say, along with one well-known worship song, ‘let us become more aware of your presence.’

When language that doesn’t match theology is spoken by people in authority or is used in the worship songs we sing, it shapes the way that the Church as a whole talks about God, which leads to us thinking about God in unhelpful ways. This is why it is so important to think about the words we use, and not settle for cliches or things that sound good.

I used a particular example to illustrate my point, and I hope that you can see where I’m coming from even if you disagree in my interpretation of that particular phrase. My point in all of this is that language should reflect theology.

This is not easy to put into practice. Language isn’t like a jigsaw puzzle where each piece fits perfectly into a definite spot. Words can convey multiple meanings, and their meanings and implications will change depending on who hears them. Describing God as a father will elicit different responses from different people, as will words like ‘love’, ‘justice’ and ‘faith.’ This is not to say that we should avoid complex words – we wouldn’t be able to say very much if we did – but it is a call for more consideration of the way we talk about God.

When you next hear a sermon or sing a popular worship song, ask yourself if the language really reflects what you believe about God. If it does, fantastic! If not, ask yourself why not, and what would reflect your beliefs more.

In the coming weeks I’m going to write about how we describe ourselves as Christians affects the way we think about ourselves – do we see ourselves predominantly as sinners that have been saved, or saints that stumble now and again? That’s something for you to chew on.

Do you think I have a point, or am I making a fuss about nothing? I’d love to hear either way, so leave a comment below!

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