John, an old friend of mine in love with the Old Testament, is often heard saying of the Psalms: “God is glorified even in the grammar.” What exactly is he saying? Grammar, according to Merriam Webster, is “the study of the classes of words, their inflections, and their functions and relations in a sentence; a characteristic system of inflections and syntax of a language; a system of rules that defines the structure of a language.” In short, the grammar is the ‘decoder’ that allows us to identify the meaning, value, and purpose of the words that it contains. Without grammar, the actual meaning of words is impossible to uncover.
I think John was rightly on to something of which we should take serious note. In a recent meeting with a pastor friend whom I respect dearly, we were discussing the shape of our Sunday services and I was asking for feedback on something we were thinking of doing that was a little different than the norm programmatically: less music, more fellowship, less rows, more gathering in smaller groups…. The thoughtful response from my pastor friend was to be mindful not to change things too quickly. Congregants, he said, need consistency and we should be mindful about how quickly and for what reasons we institute change.
It got me thinking about change and what exactly we had learned was important in our worshiping communities. What exactly were we changing? The number of songs sung? Yes. Where people sat? Yes. The amount of sound equipment we were to use? Yes. The wise counsel from my friend implied to me that these things were of central importance, as change in these areas too quickly would set off alarm bells for the congregation that something was not right.
Said in another way: consistency in the style of music, the length of preaching, the bible translation used, the floor arrangement for seating, the attire of the pastor and other leaders, the flow of the service, are the grammatical things we learn as a community. These things are our identity markers. Change one of them and suddenly the community’s identity is ambiguous. Changes in these things are changes in our grammar. The removal of these things, or changes in them, has an immediate impact on identity and understanding.
In other words, if we don’t sing in a particular style, is it worship? If we don’t use a particular bible translation, is it authoritative? If we change the seating in any way, are people going to feel that they are even at church? Do we not learn this from a very early age? Do not even our youngest learn to discern between those who look like “us” in format and style (and thus are what they come to recognize as church) and those who are “other?”
What if we embraced the harder, deeper task of discerning “is God here?” rather than quickly looking for the organ or guitar, the suit or flip-flops, the showered or the dirty, the NIV or KJV, the old or young? What would it look like to change our grammar?