Theologian and teacher types are often taken for pedants, and no doubt that’s often with good reason. When, for example, I make the observation / loaded comment / speech / rant that “worship” isn’t the bit with the guitars at the start of the meeting, as in many charismatic circles, people tend to roll their eyes and wonder why anyone would bother being so fussy. What does it matter what we call it? Surely what matters is that we’re doing it, right?
Well: yes and no. Yes, it matters more that we worship God than that we use the right language for it. But no, the words we use are not irrelevant, and can in fact inhibit and prevent true worship from happening if they are used often enough and inaccurately enough. For a case in point, consider this statement I heard recently, which is (so I’m told) a regular part of the culture at one very influential and well-known Pentecostal church in the US:
In our meetings, we always worship, and we normally preach. Ministering to God comes before ministering to each other.
Now: for those unfamiliar with charismatic vernacular, “worship” in this sentence does not mean “express devotion to God” but “singing songs of praise and worship to God”. For those unfamiliar with evangelical vernacular, “preach” means “proclaim Christ”. And for those unfamiliar with Pentecostal vernacular, “ministering to” means “serving”. So that sentence could be rendered:
In our meetings, we always sing songs of praise and worship, and we normally proclaim Christ. Serving God comes before serving each other.
It should be clear already that something odd is going on here. Singing songs is being taken as an entirely Godward activity, despite the clear statement of texts like Ephesians 5:19 that songs are addressed to each other. Proclaiming Christ is being taken as an entirely manward activity, despite the fact that exulting in who God is from the scriptures, as part of a community who are exulting in God as they receive revelation of who he is, is one of the most God-centred and worshipful things we can ever do. And then the two are being contrasted, such that the singing time (which is all about serving God) takes precedence over the preaching time (which is all about serving us). Not only our theology of sung worship, but also our theology of preaching, is in grave danger if people start talking like this.
That might be an especially egregious example, but it’s things like that which make me jumpy about phrases like “let’s start with a bit of worship”, or “we’ll have the notices in between the worship and the preach.” Not only is the place of singing in the meeting inflated, but the meaning of true worship – devotion to God in all of life, as has been stressed repeatedly (but often to deaf ears) by many of our most gifted worship leaders – is reduced to the part of a Christian meeting in which the musicians are playing. (And just before all the preachers start feeling smug, perhaps we should consider whether we ever use the word “preach” to mean “forty minute talk from the Bible” instead of “proclamation of the gospel”.) Words matter.
So yes, sometimes I fuss about words. But that’s one of the reasons why.