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Names for Public Worship in a Multilingual World: Playing with Language

Q

The term “praise team” seems so limiting.
Isn’t there a better alternative?

A

There have been many discussions on Facebook and elsewhere of how a good term like “praise team” can end up taking on a life of its own, leading people to further restrict a congregation’s already limited diet of lament, confession, and intercessory prayer. I have experienced some of these terminological discussions, including some of those I have led, as narrow and constricting rather than expansive and imaginative. But we live in a remarkable period of church history, with access to perspectives from many cultures about our naming practices. There is a lot to learn from word choices that Christians make in other languages.

In Urdu, which is spoken by many Christians in Pakistan, public worship services are sometimes named ibadat, which means “obedience with submission.” Imagine a street sign in front of your church advertising “Public Obedience—Sundays at 10,” or that your music group was called a “musical obedience team.”

In Korean, public worship services are sometimes called yeah bae, which refers to prostrating or bowing with honor to a deity. This is like one of the Greek terms (proskuneo) that the Bible translates as “worship.” Imagine a street sign in front of your church that reads “Morning Prostration: Sunday at 10” and an announcement that the “Prostration Singers” (aka praise team) will be meeting for rehearsal on Wednesday night at 7.

In Chinese languages—both forms of Mandarin and Cantonese—I am told that the nouns for “worship” and “worship service” are (l bài), which literally means “ritual worship.” The first character shows the symbol for God. This is followed by a character that suggests two hands putting a ritual vessel on an altar. Imagine, then, a street sign that reads “Embodying Respectful Gestures to God: Sundays at 10.”

In German, a worship service is often titled Gottesdienst which means “God’s service.” Similarly, in Dutch, a service is often called eredienst. These terms simultaneously refer both to “how we serve or bless God in worship” and “how God blesses and serves us.” The double meaning is theologically rich and refers to a reality of communion with God that orthodox Christians in every part of the world affirm. The double meaning is a bit harder to translate into English, but you might imagine a street sign that announces “Divine Gift Exchange, Sundays at 10.”

In some Spanish, French, and Italian contexts, the most common term is culte or culto. This conveys the notion of the gathering as a “culture-shaping event,” as a place for “cultivating” a religious ethos, even though the English word “cult” has gathered quite a different set of associations. Imagine a church sign that says “Faith Cultivation—Sundays at 10.”

No single term conveys all of these meanings—the notion of prayer and preaching and Eucharist and praise and ritual and gathering. Yet in every context, Christians typically settle on one key word, a choice that inevitably highlights certain features of a good public worship service and hides other good features.

I am still convinced that “worship” is a good choice for your church’s public weekly gathering, that “worship” belongs in the title of this magazine, and that it can be fine to call your musicians a “praise team” or “worship team” or “choir” or “pastoral music team” (though I wish that last term were used more often).

But I am equally convinced that is wise to ask what your choice of term might be concealing and then to find ways to strengthen those aspects of worship.

Note: I am grateful for the assistance of my students and colleagues from various countries for help in work on this article. But I know that this material only scratches the surface. I welcome insights from additional languages, or corrections about the nuances of languages represented here.