Posted: September 23, 2008 in Music, Perspective, Worship

Church language is amazing.  I can think of few other places on earth where people gather on a weekly basis to sing/speak words and phrase that NO ONE UNDERSTANDS.  Okay, maybe some people do.  Still, I think it is a dangerous thing to assume that people understand our Christian-speak.

This past Sunday, we sang the song “Hosanna.”  Now, I grew up in church.  I was involved in countless youth ministries and college ministries.  I even went to seminary.  But Sunday, as I first spoke this word, my mind went blank.  I’m thinking, “What the heck does this even mean?”  At the end of the service (when Dave was praying), Dave implied that it meant “God in the highest,” but even he confessed that he was just guessing.  He also said that is a reason he has disliked this song in the past because it has a “churchy” word which most people simply do not understand in 2008.

Think about all the things that we, as church people, say.  In the hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” there are lots of confusing phrases (as if “Thou” and “Fount” in the title already weren’t headscratchers to the unitiated).  There’s the line, “let angels prostrate fall.”  Okay, prostrate is a posture of being on one’s knees.  But do people use the word “prostrate” in talking today?  “Hey, I’m prostrate looking for something under my bed.”  Hmmm… Doesn’t quite fit.  Sadly, the closest sounding word used much more commonly today is “prostate.”  I think as a kid, I was shocked by this phrase.  Angels…dropping…prostates…Huh????

Then there’s the line, “Here I raise mine Ebenezer.”  Raise…what?  The only Ebenezer I know is that creepy guy in “A Christmas Carol.”

But my favorite hymn of all time was Hymn #20 in the old hymnals they had in the church were I grew up:  “God of Earth and Outer Space.”  I kid you not…there’s a line in that hymn that says, “Bless the astronauts who fly in their rockets across the sky.”  Oh, man, that is just FUNNY!  Worse even, there was another space-related hymn that referred to stars and planets as flaming balls or something…  I have to say – “hymn request night” on Sunday evenings was riotously funny when some of the youth would raise their hands recommending these things (Oh, not me…never… 😉 ).

If I haven’t stepped on your toes yet, I probably will now.  The King James Bible – great, eloquent translation.  I love it for reading the Psalms.  But some of what it says just makes you laugh…unintentionally.  1 Kings 21:21:  “I will cut off him from Ahab, he who pisseth against the wall.”  First, the passage actually uses the word “pisseth.”  That’s just funny (in an “I’m being childish” sort of way) – especially when as a youth leader I’d get sleepy teenagers to read this verse out loud first thing in the morning on retreats.  They’d read, get to that word, and just stop.  They’d have this look on their face that communicated, “Can I read that word out loud???”  Second, what does that passage mean???  Why is God going to cut off from Ahab people who urinate on walls?

Even our language with one another changes when we’re at church.  We start calling everyone “brother.”  We say “Amen” when we hear something we agree with.  (Think, do you say “Amen” when a politician speaks?  Do you say “Amen” when your favorite football team scores?  No, only at church…).  Dave pointed out a few weeks ago that even when we pray, we suddenly become King James English pros.


Okay, I laugh at this stuff.  I must admit that.  But let me be clear.  I do not laugh at the meaning behind this stuff AT ALL.  Angels being on their knees before God is a powerful image.  I know an Ebenezer is a type of altar.  I know that in 1969 singing about astronauts was probably “cutting edge” in its own way (I guess).  I know that the imagery of people urinating on walls paints a picture of people who were deep in sin and drunkenness.  I know that the way we sometimes talk at church, to some degree, elevates the church experience beyond the everyday.  I even know (now) that Hosanna is cry of praise to Jesus.

But many of the people we want to reach do not know these things.  To them, it’s alien.  It’s strange.  Because – good or bad – people do not talk this way anymore.  Ony us.  And being as blunt as I can, if we use these phrases – without taking the time to pause and explain them – people might not “get it.”

We have a rich heritage of music and language we can revere and draw upon in reaching people where it works and can be explained.  We’d be foolish to ignore the contributions of the past.  So we will continue to sing songs like “Hosanna,” but only after pausing long enough to teach people what it means.  Heck, we have sung “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” at Crosspoint – but only after we took the time to dive into the depth and meaning of the song.

My thinking in all of this is that Jesus didn’t speak in religious language to the Gentiles of the non-religious.  He spoke in parables.  He told stories about planting seeds and shepherding.  He spoke in the language of the people, using examples/stories they understood.

And I believe Jesus just might be a good example to follow.  Don’t you?

  1. jalack says:

    A lot of us use church language, I have noticed that when I quote scripture 90% of the time it is King James, I am trying not to do that. I loved Hosana this past Sunday, that song rocked, I hope you leave it in the rotation. Thanks for what you do Kevin.

  2. Oh, yeah, it will stay in the rotation… I just want people to know what it means, so we don’t look like some cult singing odd music. Oh, wait…people already think we’re a cult. HA! I can’t win.

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