Unity in the words of worship
What words do you use in worship to sing, pray and confess your faith? Which biblical texts does your congregation read on any given Sunday of the church year?
Every worshiping assembly uses a mixture of language. Age-old words of the prophets and apostles are proclaimed in Scripture readings. The words of Jesus are prayed in the Lord’s Prayer. Carefully crafted language may be used during the prayers of intercession. Poetic, scriptural language is sung in hymns, liturgical music and songs. More conversational language may be used in preaching and invitations to ministry. Heart-felt responses are spoken by the assembly in prayers and proclamation. Responsorial phrases, known by heart, are exchanged between leader and congregation.
Worship language holds the tension between what is unique to each worshiping assembly and what is shared throughout the church. Language reveals both our uniqueness and our commonality between congregations and across denominational lines. When we use language in worship that is shared with other congregations, we proclaim our connectedness by the words we share.
As a visible sign of unity in the church’s worship, most English-speaking, mainline Protestant congregations in North America share a body of worship texts. As a sign that we share the same gospel, we read the same biblical texts on Sunday mornings, pray the same words in the Lord’s Prayer, sing the same texts in liturgical song and confess the same creeds.
But where do these texts come from? The Consultation on Common Texts offers us the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year series of Bible readings for the worshiping assembly. This group of representatives of various North American church bodies and scholars also suggests a daily lectionary and other worship resources.
The English Language Liturgical Consultation suggests common language for the Lord’s Prayer, Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed and shared liturgical songs such as the “Sanctus” and “Lamb of God.” The consultation last met and suggested language changes for these shared texts in the 1980s. Showing a commitment to the unity of the church in worship language, ELCA worship resources published after 1988 use the most recent texts of this body of scholars. A document titled “Praying Together” explains the rationale for all the language changes and is available on their website under the “texts” tab.
While common worship texts unite us between congregations and across denominations, the language we use in worship can also unite those who gather in any particular worshiping assembly. In each gathering for worship, the Holy Spirit gathers people of different ages, cultures and economic status. In everyday life, each may use language very differently. However, when we all respond “And also with you” to the presider’s bid, “The Lord be with you,” language unites us beyond our differences. The unique language of worship points us to the good news we share in the body of Christ.
The language we use in worship forms and shapes our faith individually and communally as the body of Christ. Fresh images and language open our hearts to experience the gospel anew. And also, small changes in a well-worn phrase in a creed or prayer may be unsettling precisely because of the faith-formative power of language. Our worshiping assemblies do well to celebrate the common language we hold as a visible sign of the unity of the whole church while also finding unique ways to express the faith of the church anew each week.
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