Sunday’s Grammar

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?


  1. It’s late, but Julia keeps reminding me to read your blog so you’re getting thoughts, but I promise not actual line of thought, no “meta narrative” and just BARELY promise coherence. 🙂

    I think consistency in worship is an interesting idea to talk about. I very much think people are inherently drawn to consistency because it brings with it comfortability in knowing what’s going to happen. This often lets us worship better because our minds aren’t on “what’s coming next?” but rather free to seek after God. So I’m definitely a big fan of consistency.

    On the other hand, “shaking things up” can have a stimulating effect in shaking us from our doldrums, knocking cobwebs of, and making us examine anew that which our worship has become.

    Finally, I think it’s interesting how people can go into churches that are of a different style then their own and feel immediately comfortable in them but not in others. Is this okay? If it’s not, does the fault lie with a) the church for not having a style that draws people in easier or b) with the individual worshipper for not being more open to receiving God in new ways? I’m specifically thinking of bringing friends of mine to my Lutheran church in high school and having them feel quite odd at the high liturgy, but being comfortable when I brought them to my non-denom church. Is one way better or another?

  2. Just to echo something from Eric’s comment above, I think that familiarity can actually be a boon to the process of discerning what God is doing in us and in our community because we’re not spending all of our time thinking about what comes next or figuring out how to behave.

    This is a major difference I noticed between my Catholic experience growing up and my more evangelical experiences as a teenager and into adulthood.

    I spend far more time worrying about how I sound or what to do with my hands or where to sit or how to handle the pinch of bread and juice (etc) in evangelical contexts than I ever did in my Catholic context. There, the grammar of the service was so familiar to us that we were free to meditate on the mystery of the cross and the miracle of grace without wondering about what to do.

    Having not chosen high-liturgical church as my spiritual home, I would be the first to acknowledge that there are drawbacks to worship in a grammatically-intensive community, and again Eric pointed out some of that above.

    At the same time, I think it’s terribly dangerous to assume all that grammar is negative or that it somehow “gets in the way,” or even that by changing the grammar we will somehow have “less” of it. Whatever we do in church becomes our grammar–we are as shaped in my current community by wearing jeans and eating bagels and putting the kids in their own space as we were in my Catholic community by sitting in pews, kids and all, and praying the liturgy.

    What’s more, familiar grammars shape us in familiar ways; new grammars (to use a loaded analogy), like greenhouse gasses, may have implications beyond what we know or understand.

    For example, I was quick to slough off praying the liturgy after my faith awakened as a teen. I’ve come back around slowly, but when my uncle got diagnosed with Alzheimers, I changed course more seriously. Though he could often not remember his wife or children, he still knew how to pray, and in fact found immense hope in attending church and praying the liturgy he had been hearing since he was a little boy.

    The grammar of the service, long imbibed in all of its particularity, sustained him. The work of learning and attending to a specific grammar all of his days had this totally unexpected effect of blessing and nurturing him in is old age.

    Not to say I’m a high-churcher, just to say my sympathy is aroused there, and I think we emergent communities have lots to learn from our older, and sometimes wiser, predecessors.

    BTW, I think Hauerwas has written on this issue (as vociferously and vehemently as usual)–and in fact, I think he used the grammar analogy as well. I wish I could remember which of his writings it was in…

  3. I think that’s a good word that change for change’s sake can actually damage worship. And a lot of other things too, in my mind.

    I like to think of the issue in terms of ‘rhythms.’ Seems like most of us do our best when we have a chance to get into some ‘rhythms.’

    Most people, for example, aren’t very attracted to atonal music without melody, mostly because it’s just too discordant. We had a church organist when I was on the chapel staff at Occidental College years ago who loved Bartok, but man, after he had finished giving us some ‘cutting edge’ atonal stuff everybody was so confused about how to respond that it really hurt worship.

    I respond best to situations that combine a lot of spontaneity and intuitive stuff with some recurring structure that grounds it. Jazz is a great example and metaphor, in my mind, of how to structure things. Too bad it’s gone out of style–lots to be learned from listening.

    Speaking metaphorically, when the improvisation and openness to consistently new riffs is lost you end up with structures and traditions that are in the way, sometimes terminally so. On the other hand, when it’s all improvisation it’s so disorienting people eventually bail.

    In terms of seating, etc., etc. seems like the key is ‘whatever works and is useful’ for a particular group at a particular time. What’s gonna work for a suburban congregation of folks mostly 50 and over is going to be pretty different from an young, emergent congo. Lots of ways to do it.

    To broaden this out a bit, I agree completely that there are bigger issues at stake than how things are structured, though I think God can be found in lots of situations, even the worst situations, so I’ve found using that question as a general discernment tool –as useful as it is–can be improved by breaking it down a little bit. If I understand what you mean in your last paragraph by ‘changing our grammar’ in the larger sense, I think it starts by asking hard questions.

    Getting back to the recent thread on ‘missional’ orientation, seems to me you’ve got to ask hard questions about the basic outward orientation of a church or organization or group. I think there are a number of other key larger discernment questions besides how ‘missional’ a group is too. I consider those kinds of questions to be ‘big picture’ questions that probably should consume a good bit of the energy of the leadership.

    My rule of thumb is that if even asking those hard questions about potential needed change is difficult to do (for traditional or personal or structural reasons) within a group or has to be ‘danced around,’ that’s probably a sign that the chances for significant change aren’t great. Doesn’t mean a person wouldn’t stick it out in that scenario–John Wesley going the extra mile with the Anglicans is a great example of perseverance–but I think change agents in those situations have got to be sober and realistic. How much are you willing to struggle with a resistant group culture or structure to help change even small things, let alone big ones?

    If the hard questions can be asked–no matter how much disagreement there might be about the answers or how much resistance you might find from the powers that be–then I think you’ve got a potentially life giving situation potentially worthy of going through the challenge of working with others to change things. That’s true–in my mind–regardless of what the group or church ‘looks like’ or how it’s structured or how ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ it might be.

  4. Eric, Ali and Tom,

    Thanks for your thoughts and insights. So wonderfully stated and from our own experience. Thank you.

    My thoughts are not so much to put down or depreciate at all the rituals and rhythms we have but to push a bit on where they fall in our understanding of things. Tom, as a musician I totally resonate (ha) with your jazz analogy. Perhaps that is an even better example than the psalms quote. It takes diligence to play jazz – and while it can sound frenzied and discordant you can bet that the group as a whole recognizes what is happening in the music and exactly where they are in the song.

    My desire with this post was to push what we use as tools of recognition. I, too, agree that repetition is wonderful and a great way to remind us of things. But if it is only to remind us of the tool we are using to remind us of the tool we are using…then I think something is lost or missing. It is only reproducing itself, not sustaining life on top of it.

    Those tried and true ‘repeated’ things can also come at us in so many different ways and at so many different times, as you state Ali, with praying the liturgy.

    Can I challenge us to move beyond discussing the ceremony that we’ve constructed around things and look to what is beneath them? That is the question I am asking for help with. What if humility were a grammatical tool and we learned to look for that as quickly as the rosary or a Bartok organ fugue. What if peace and kindness were dominant grammatical contexts in which our improvisations sat. At one time, I do believe, many of our ceremonial things came from these characteristics. What if the way we conducted the Eucharist, corporately together as a grammar (not just in a single file and order line or by passing the plate), was powerfully shaping us socially and communally, not just what we believed about it for ourselves individually.

    Of course there are physical manifestations of things coming from humans who are physical beings. We see this in all things we do – the houses we build, the cars we choose to drive, the food we cook, the music we listen to (or make). Are our churches learning that it is important to focus on and only identify with their improvisational licks, riffs of long forgotten things, because they haven’t learned to seek out, or have lost all together, the underlying chord structure that gave it consistency and meaning in the first place?

  5. Thinking back on your post last week and after your clarification here, I think I see better where you’re going.

    Yes, if spiritual formation and the important basics of the faith–big picture stuff in my way of thinking–have been neglected, then ‘delivery systems’ or ‘ceremonies’ or ‘ministry philosophies’ or ‘cutting edge cultural adaptions’ won’t profit much as significant as they may be in a secondary way. People won’t find what they’re looking for, and the people who are seeking those things may leave. Others may stay but never develop the kind of maturity that I think Dallas Willard touched on.

    I don’t resonate with his solution to the problem (relegating outreach to a secondary position) but he’s got his finger on a key issue.

    How to change the most important grammar? A couple of suggestions from things I’ve seen over the years in a lot of different church and organizational contexts:

    Mentoring and discipleship are crucial. Spiritual formation has to be the heart of that. If churches don’t major in those things they end up with a few developed folks and large numbers of immature folks. I mentioned in the last thread at least one way to go about doing mentoring and discipling, so I won’t belabor that point here. There are a variety of valuable, complementary ways folks can be led into greater maturity. The issue–in my mind–isn’t that mentoring or discipling are mysterious processes; the issue is that leaders get sidetracked and simply don’t major in them.

    But I also think asking hard questions is key. Leaders–and eventually large numbers of the people in a congo–have got to ask questions regularly about the main things and not peripheral things.

    Some examples of main things: Are we deeply ‘missional?’ Is forgiveness a common concrete trait among us? Is servant leadership a regular reality? Etc. You mention some important issues above. I think Christian non-profits have to also ask, ‘are we actually accomplishing our specific mission?’ I don’t think the list of questions is endless; maybe a half dozen to a dozen key indicators. Different groups may ask somewhat different questions–no matter in my mind as long as they represent core Christian values. Basically, your asking, “Are we doing and being what we exist to do and be?”

    I’ve spent a lot of my time in leadership distracted by other things. Most of us also find a context in which fundamental questions are asked regularly to be fairly threatening.

    In situations where I’ve seen leaders asking those questions more routinely and modeling that for others, I’ve seen greater discernment and maturity on the part of the groups they lead. When they combine that with strong and widespread mentoring and discipling, I’ve seen some pretty encouraging outcomes.

    Maybe the elements I’ve mentioned could contribute to helping a congo experience and understand the Eucharist, for example, with ‘one mind’ rather than as the hodgepodge of understandings that may characterize some groups’ experience with that sacrament.

    This is all easier said than done, though. Asking these kinds of questions and modeling it for others is tricky and I’ve seen a number of folks get pretty beaten up. There’s a cost.

  6. I, too, found your clarification helpful, and realize this conversation is far different from what I perceived you were initiating with the original blog post.

    Of course, if we’re talking about humility and gentleness being our grammar, then the dear pastor friend would likely not object! 🙂

    I think the gist of what’s important if we want love to be our grammar is the quality of our relationships with people. It reminds me of Erika’s post about the boys who were skating in the schoolyard. They would have no idea what the worship practices of the community are beyond her welcome and, if she had been able, invitation to eat. If we embodied that to all those we encountered, then we would be known–as you say, not by the prayers we pray or the music we use, but by the fruit of the Spirit.

    But again, that’s a far different and more complex call than deciding to decentralize how we sit or what we do with our time in worship…

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