Sunday, May 03, 2009

Linguistic or Liturgical Intelligibility?

In his book The Lord’s Service, Jeff Meyers makes a great point about the difference between intelligibility and familiarity, and how that often a lack of the latter is confused with a lack of the former.

Why does this matter?

Well, in discussions about the need for contextualization in worship, the claim is often made that all that’s being argued for is that pastors be intelligible in their presentation of the gospel. "Just speak in a language that people can understand," we often hear. If we reply, "Oh, you mean English and not Farsi?", we begin to see by the answer given that intelligibility involves a lot more than it seems at first glance.

On top of linguistic intelligibility, there also seems to be the need for liturgical intelligibility, which is far more controversial an issue.

But here’s where Meyers’s distinction between intelligibility and familiarity becomes very helpful. If we’re honest we will admit that a visitor at our church, whether a believer or not, will be able to understand lots of practices and concepts with which he still may be unfamiliar. For example, there’s nothing inherent in the practice of kneeling during a confession of sin or raising hands during the singing of the Doxology that is unintelligible to everyday Americans. Assuming a normal level of intelligence, anyone can look at a group of people bowing and asking God for forgiveness and conclude, "Hmm, it seems that these people think they’ve done something wrong, and they want the God whom they think they’ve offended to pardon them." The same goes for the lifting of hands during the Doxology: sure, the words and melody may be new, but the posture and practice themselves are perfectly understandable, albeit unfamiliar.

So the question that arises (but is not "begged") is, Is it legitimate to alter the church’s forms of, or practices in, worship for the sake of those for whom they may seem odd, foreign, or irrelevant?