At the end of last year, Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) wrote and article for the magazine Living Lutheran about what she called “church-speak”, the language used by those who grew up in the church. Eaton pointed out that fewer and fewer people have a background in the church and so are not familiar with some of the words and phrases that have been taken for granted for years, decades and even centuries. She used the examples of words such as Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and Holy Week, as well as incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. The “churched” folks may know what those words mean, but could they explain them to those for whom they are not familiar?
Eaton’s article sent me to the Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) book, the hymnal used at Grace Lutheran and many other Lutheran churches. I tried to read some of the various worship settings as if I were a newcomer to the ELCA, wondering what might trip me up. Here’s a short list of words and phrases that I think may be hard to understand, at least in the context of the Christian church and Lutheran worship.
Consolation, inspiration, magnify your name, captive to sin, mercy, glory, repent, forgiveness, Trinity, salvation, Holy Spirit, anointed, grace, communion (and Holy Communion and how are they different), gospel, acclamation, steadfast, creed, begotten, incarnate, catholic and apostolic, commend, holy, covenant, salutary, passion and death, hallowed, and trespasses.
That list comes from one worship service and is probably not complete. And it doesn’t even get to some of the words found in Scripture or some of our favorite hymns. Nor does it include sanctuary, narthex, pulpit, nave, etc.
I’m not sure that the ELCA or any other church will put out a dictionary soon, but perhaps being aware of the issue is a start to finding ways to make our language a bit more approachable. That doesn’t mean watering down the message or abandoning our history or tradition. Martin Luther in the 1500s made it one of his main goals to translate the liturgy (there’s another one!) and the Bible into the common German language of his friends and neighbors. By making the words of the church more accessible to the average person coming through the church doors, Luther opened the doors of faith to more people.
The basic message of the Christian church does not need flowery language: God’s love is huge and a gift to everyone. Jesus died so that we have an unbreakable relationship with God. Nothing we do can earn us God’s love. We live with love for God and our neighbor in response to that huge, unbreakable love. God loves all and welcomes all no matter what.
Those are words we can share with those we meet who are wondering and wandering. Understanding those simple truths about God may be the first steps toward a new or growing faith.