Worship Words Too Important to Neglect

In Worship Words, Debra and Ron Rienstra show why and how to give more attention to your church's worship language. A feature story exploring the important use of words in worship.

Have you ever attended a worship service that made you cringe—maybe because of stilted prayers, sentimental songs, or bombastic preaching—yet gave you spiritual insight?

“It’s a wry species of mercy that the Spirit enables us all to worship through what could be called bad worship as well as through what we might consider good worship,” Debra Rienstra writes in Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Baker Academic, 2009).

Debra Rienstra, a Calvin College English professor, wrote the book with her husband, Ron Rienstra, a pastor who teaches preaching and worship at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. The book grew out of three years of teaching and studying in California, Michigan, and Britain. With their children, now ages 15, 13, and 9, they attended “too many churches to count” and “experienced a soul-boggling range of worship styles.”

In Worship Words, the Rienstras show why worship language deserves far more attention than it gets in the average congregation. They offer basic principles that apply across all worship styles, traditions, and theological emphases.

Using words more intentionally in prayers, songs, sermons, and other spoken worship elements doesn’t have to be complicated. Even small steps spark change, especially in how worship language forms and informs children’s faith.

God is bigger

God spoke through Balaam’s donkey and speaks through flawed humans. So is using worship clichés or cliché practices that much of a problem, as long as we’re sincere?

For example, you’ve probably heard prayers with “Lord” or “Father God” in nearly every clause or sentence. “Father God is a wonderfully biblical title—when infused with positive experiences of our own fathers and how they modeled love,” Ron Rienstra says. But constantly inserting “Father God” sounds more like a verbal tic or careless filler phrase than a form of address.

When your congregation’s worship language includes only a couple names for or aspects of God, then worshipers receive an imbalanced understanding of God.

Worship Words advises how to choose songs and name God in prayers, liturgical words, and sermons.

  • Address God with a name. “Wonderful Counselor, we pray for your wisdom.” “Great Healer, please restore Jeremy to full health.”
  • Use a comparison. “God, we know that you are like a farmer who plants the seed of your Word in this world.”
  • Use God’s attributes as adjectives. “Compassionate God, comfort your people today.” “Righteous God, we long for your justice to be revealed.”

“We tend to ask again and again for certain things, such as salvation for souls or healing for physical ailments. We rarely ask God to heal our greed. In speaking of salvation, the atonement metaphor of Jesus paying for our sins with his blood is shorthand for rich theology. Yet it’s easy to fall into reusing the same formulas instead of making the effort to examine familiar phrases with fresh eyes,” Debra Rienstra says.

Ron Rienstra adds, “Christians frequently talk about salvation as ‘inviting Jesus into my heart,’ as if the day you got saved, you made a bargain with God. That’s such an incomplete understanding of salvation and especially dangerous in our consumer culture.”

Structured, simple, specific

Church musicians know that behind every smoothly-flowing song set or choir anthem lie hours of planning and rehearsing. Choosing meaningful words for worship takes time too. In Worship Words, you’ll find pithy stories and practical tips to help you plan worship that is structured, simple, and specific.

The authors show how to assess overall structure in a worship service and how to compose or select sermons, songs, and prayers that people can easily follow and remember. “Structure helps us understand and respond to the theological basis of worship: God’s call, our response. Structure also, happily, helps people stay attentive. The same is true of elements within the service,” they write.

Even improvised prayers need to be organized “so that the congregation can pray along attentively.” This pattern might be concentric (congregation, local, national, global, and eternal concerns) or modeled on the Lord’s Prayer. You might structure the intercessory prayer on emotions, such as grief, fear, and joy, to help worshipers “get out of their heads” and bring their whole lives to God in prayer. “It helps to leave some space, some silence, so people can vividly attend to what God might say to their grief, fear, or joy,” Ron Rienstra says.

As a poet and hymn text writer, Debra Rienstra values simplicity. She knows how to say a lot with few words. She also shares a weakness common to other word lovers asked to offer the congregational prayer. “My temptation is to wax way too poetic up there,” she says.

Keep your worship language simple by asking yourself whether you’re piling on metaphors that would be intriguing in print but would be lost to people who hear them only once in worship.

Simple doesn’t mean bland or generic. Deep simplicity is specific. Instead of praying, “God, we thank you for nature,” try “God, we thank you for autumn leaves and bright sunshine.” Worshipers need just a few details, not a dozen examples.

The reason, Debra Rienstra writes, is that “apart from any visual devices we may use in our worship spaces, we create images in our minds with words. God is a king, a rock, and a shepherd. The church is a bride. We are sons and daughters of God, we are sheep, we are the Israelites in the desert. The kingdom is a pearl, a vineyard, a banquet feast. Words have the power to create pictures inside our heads, and those pictures profoundly shape our devotion.”

Taking baby steps

Worship Words is so well written that you might despair of getting the words right in your context. But each chapter ends with discussion questions for personal or group reflection, exercises that invite you to observe or reflect on particular worship services, and exercises for preachers.

The Rienstras presented an early version of the book to Fuller seminarians, who tested the ideas in churches and suggested tweaks. “Just small changes can make a huge difference,” Debra Rienstra says.

Ron Rienstra says, “A good baby step would be for the pastor to do a sermon series on names of God. And then the pastor could be consistent in the next year to make use of those names.

“Or you could introduce a new song, such as “God the Sculptor of the Mountains” by John Thornburg, and introduce it with a simple sentence. ‘We’re singing this to remind us what God has done and to ask God to do something now.’ ”

How Worship Words Form and Inform Children’s Faith

In Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Baker Academic, 2009), Debra Rienstra recounts a conversation after a Christian school Christmas concert. She asked her children what pictures of God they had in their minds from the names of God used in the songs. Her son said, “Well, it seems like God is either the big old mighty king far away up above or the nice boyfriend Jesus.”

“Our words form us whether or not we pay attention to how they are doing so. Just as children quickly learn to speak with the vocabulary, tones, and inflections of their parents, so we learn to ‘speak’ our spiritual lives with the words and tones, with the emotional and theological range, of what we experience at worship,” she writes.

Rienstra, a Calvin College English professor, wrote Worship Words with her husband, Ron Rienstra, a pastor who teaches preaching and worship at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

The Rienstra children, now ages 15, 13, and 9, joined their parents in three years of visits to scores of churches in California, Michigan, and Britain. The experience convinced them that “the people of God are starving for a richer picture of the One whom we worship,” Debra Rienstra writes.

Comfy chatter

The authors devote a chapter to “chatter and patter,” their term for the casual Protestant worship style that many churches have adopted, probably in reaction to yesteryear’s stiff, cold, formal worship.

“The idea is that you need a chatty atmosphere, with a little humor every 12 to 14 seconds, to feel comfortable. The worship leader begins with ‘Hey, welcome, howdy, how ya doing’ and a joke and then hands you off to the music leader,” Ron Rienstra says.

We’ve learned from talk radio, TV news, and sports commentary to associate this stream-of-words style with relaxing. But worship isn’t about being entertained. It’s about meeting God.

”We do not expect chatty language, ultimately, to transform us. Pique our curiosity and interest briefly, perhaps, or offer tidbits of information, but not transform. Both the words and the emotional blandness of chatter trigger expectations of ease, maybe temporary excitement, but not deep, divinely designed change,” Debra Rienstra writes.

She once surveyed her undergraduates on their favorite worship song, the one they’d not want to live without. The winner? “When Peace Like a River.” It’s not cutting edge but has substance.

Still, it’s easier to talk about reclaiming the beauty and meaning of words than do it. Rienstra writes that she too often uses the phrase “be with…” and has thus taught it to her children.

“Unfortunately, by asking God to ‘be with’ these people, we give the subtle impression that God is always wandering off and we have to keep calling God back to attention.... Don’t we believe that God is always present with us, whether we perceive that presence or not?” Rienstra writes. That’s why she suggests praying, “Savior, bless Dawn and Andrew with patience as they wait for their baby…”

God moves

As they visit churches, the Rienstra children have no trouble recognizing the difference between how God is spoken of in sermons and songs and how the Bible speaks of God. “The idea of broader, richer names and images of God—they got that right away,” their mom says.

To discuss how songs picture God, Worship Words quotes Lester Ruth’s research on Trinitarian language in contemporary worship music. Ruth, who teaches worship and liturgy at Asbury Theological Seminary, used Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) top 25 song data from the years 1989-2004. Many songs stayed so popular that only 72 songs made the list during that time. None named the Trinity or God’s triune nature. Just three songs mentioned all three persons of the Trinity. Most named only Jesus.

Ruth writes, “The songs tend to objectify God as the object of our worship activity. If God seems passive in these songs, we are not. Humans usually get the good verbs in the song.” The few songs that mention God’s saving actions usually refer to the cross and resurrection as applied to an individual.

“So many young people are hungry for a God who actually does something. I don’t know how we teach ourselves that God is active unless we speak, sing, pray, and preach about it. This God who doesn’t expect much of me to cooperate with is such a stark contrast to God in the Bible,” Ron Rienstra says.

Worship Words suggests speaking of God’s actions in the past, present, and future:

  • Use language from the psalms to pray about sovereign and intimate ways God is working in your congregation.
  • Go through a sermon, song, or prayer and circle the verbs. Compare the verb density to songs such as “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” or Marty Haugen’s “Shepherd Me, O God.”
  • As Jesus did in the Lord’s Prayer, use direct verbs to ask God to act. Instead of “God, we ask that you would please make a change in this community with regard to our racist attitudes,” try “God, drive out the racism in our community.”
  • Explain theological terms while retaining phrases layered with mystery and meaning, such as in the ancient communion liturgy acclamation of faith: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

Say what you’re doing

Ron Rienstra says, “You get the biggest formative bang for your buck when the congregation is aware of what you’re doing and why. Some people will notice if a pastor starts using more names for God in prayers or sermons. But more people will notice if the pastor also includes a notice in the bulletin or a sentence on the projection screen. Or a worship leader can say, ‘As we enter worship…or prepare to sing this song, let’s be mindful of…”

In a helpful discussion of inclusive language and naming God, Debra Rienstra notes that even though “Christian orthodoxy insists that God is beyond gender,” we can’t help but imagine God as male if “we only ever use masculine pronouns for God.”

Worship Words gives practical tips for mining the Bible’s language so worshipers understand the fullness of being made in God’s image. Women and girls must claim God’s strength and justice. Men and boys must practice compassion and steadfast love.

When we use worship language thoughtfully, with authenticity and excellence, then “worship achieves the quality of transparencyThis means that a particular prayer or sermon or song becomes not only a good thing in itself, but more important, it becomes transparent to God’s self-disclosure,” Debra Rienstra writes.

Learn More

  • Want to explore more biblical names of God? The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship by John D. Witvliet gives scriptural references for 57 names of God used the psalms. Praying the Names of God by Ann Spangler describes the primary names of God used in the Old Testament and shows how to pray specific passages and promises connected to each name.

Start a Discussion

These questions, taken or adapted from Worship Words, will get people talking about the language you choose for worship.

  • Analyze the metaphors/images/titles/names for God used in your church’s worship. How do you most often picture God in your mind? How might the Bible expand or challenge your common images?
  • Observe what is repeated in a service you attend. Anything? What words do you bring home with you, if any? If you attend this church often, think back over the last several months and recall what is repeated over time at the church. What can you observe about what worshipers here are learning by heart?
  • What’s the difference between deliberately shaping language to elicit an emotional response and manipulating your congregation?
  • Sing a traditional hymn such as “O, Come My Soul, Bless Thou the Lord Thy Maker”—except substitute her for his or him and she for he. Discuss how this tweak affects your image or experience of God.

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to more carefully prepare the words your congregation uses in worship?

  • If you gathered a group to discuss Worship Words, what changes did you commit to? How did you help your congregation understand these changes? What were the results?
  • Did you gather church members for a survey of who knows which worship song and chart how these songs name God and God’s saving actions (which person of the Trinity, divine title or attribute, object or actor)? Did you also look at how often your congregation sings or hears these songs and how they shape worshipers’ understanding of God and discipleship?

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