How can we use words well in worship?

 We live in a very wordy world. And Christian faith and worship can often be wordy too. But how can this ‘wordiness’ be used well? Mark Earey, who teaches at the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham, explores this question in the latest Grove Worship booklet.

We use words a lot in worship—sometimes too much, making worship ‘wordy’ in the worst sense. But the Christian faith is based on one who is the word of God made flesh, and gives a central place to Scripture, so Christian worship can never escape from words—nor should it. For all the value that there is in silence (which is simply another part of the soundscape of worship) and in the use of symbols and actions, Christian worship will always need words. Our culture is changing in relation to the spoken word. Informality dominates both writing and speaking, and it can be hard for worship leaders to know how to pitch spoken communication in the context of a church service.

He illustrates this with a range of examples that you might have encountered:

Fliss, the new minister, wants to make worship creative and varied. Most weeks her services include responsive liturgical material from the Iona Community, or something from New Zealand that she finds on the internet. People love the variety and the rich imagery that these pieces of liturgical text often include, but sometimes find them so rich as to be indigestible—and sometimes not easy to say together either.

Leo plays guitar in the worship band. Recently, the normal band leader has been encouraging him to take a lead in the 20 minutes of sung worship which normally begin the service. Leo now spends most of Saturday evening reading his Bible and seeking guidance from the Lord. Last Sunday morning he added long extempore prayers between the songs, which seemed to be partly addressed to God (though it was not always clear which person of the Trinity he was talking to) and partly aimed at the congregation. The momentum of the worship felt a bit lost, and some members of the congregation began to feel got at.

Eileen is a church steward and helps lead one of the Bible study groups. At the start of Sunday services, before she hands over to the minister, she has been asked to give the notices and then say an opening prayer. Her prayer is heartfelt and passionate, but some in the congregation feel uncomfortable about the style and the content. It is as if they are over- hearing Eileen’s private prayers, and she often expresses views about what is going on in the world that they find it hard to say ‘Amen’ to.

The booklet aims, not to teach ‘correct’ ways, so much as to alert the reader to the issues that need consideration, and practical approaches to using words well. The first area of exploration is that of leading prayer.

When we lead in a church context, we are not simply saying our own words in front of lots of other people; we are focusing the praise and prayers of the whole congregation. This representative role is one that takes a while to get used to. It means that those particular hobby horses or doctrinal emphases, which are forgivable when we express them in our home group or Bible study meeting, start to feel odd and eccentric (in the true sense of off-centre) when we are speaking on behalf of a large group of people, in which there may be many other perspectives. This can be a particular challenge in prayers of intercession, and there are many good guides to help. However, it is not just an issue for prayers of intercession.

A prayer of praise and thanksgiving that thanks God for the lovely sunshine and warm weather might be echoed by many in the congregation who are looking forward to a holiday, but not by the farmers or gardeners for whom the long spell of hot weather has spelt disaster. Similarly, a prayer of confession has to be speci c enough to have bite, but not so idiosyncratic as to distance it from half the congregation.

Prayer or praise which you lead on behalf of the congregation has to be basically assent-able—this means that all (or most) can, with integrity, say ‘Amen’ at the end. This does not mean that the church can never say anything challenging or prophetic—but it does mean being careful how and in what context we do that.

The next chapter looks at particular aspects of selecting and using words—and address the perennial temptation to include a mini-sermon at every opportunity!

Most regular worshippers will have experienced prayers of intercession which become excuses for the person praying to share information or to express their own views. (I recently heard intercessions which began, ‘Dear Lord, please help our bishops to realize that they are completely out of touch with ordinary worshippers…’)

It is, however, equally possible for any form of public prayer, call to worship, introduction to songs, links between items, or praise responses, to be used in ways which are either manipulative or primarily aimed at teaching us or persuading us of something. Make sure that praise and prayer is directed to God, without a sideswipe at anyone else.

Christian charities and campaigning organizations increasingly provide worship materials to help busy leaders, especially around Lent, Harvest, Christmas, or the special Sundays which pepper the calendar. These resources often widen the scope of our praise and prayer, but they need to be used with special care because organizations which exist to get a message across are not always able to resist turning prayer and praise into mini-sermons. Do not be afraid to amend where necessary to make them work doxologically rather than didactically.

But Mark goes on to explore practical skills in composition which can make all the difference—such as seeking to be rhythmical in what we say.

A bit of rhythm can help the human brain to catch the drift—this is why people often remember what they pick up from songs more easily than what they get from sermons. You cannot always make this happen, but basic rhetorical tools can help. One of the most useful of these is the rule of three. We already know it in relation to sermons (the three-point sermon has not become a dominant model by accident), but it applies in prayer and praise too.

If you say things in a triplet, somehow the points resolve at the end and it feels as if the words have landed safely. Though it works most neatly with threes, the general rule of using an odd (rather than even) number of responses, or phrases in your prayer, or things you are asking God, is a good default to work with. Take the following prayer: Loving God, we thank you for your faithfulness, your patience, your kindness and your grace…

This is fine, but would work even better like this: Loving God, we thank you for your faithfulness, your patience and your grace… It rolls off the tongue more naturally, and enters the ear more smoothly, enabling the brain to process it more easily. As a bonus, try adding in a little alliteration: Loving God, we thank you for your faithfulness, your goodness and your grace…

Alliteration can be overdone, and no one wants to sound cheesy. In addition, it can be a dangerous addiction for someone praying extempore, because the temptation to use a word which begins with the same letter can produce bizarre results which your brain does not have time to filter. Do not change the meaning of what you want to say to produce a forced alliteration, but if you could use a number of different words to make the same point, choose the one which introduces a bit of alliteration to lift the prayer. The rule of three is also worth remembering when creating or choosing sets of responses.

Throughout the booklet, Mark includes exercises to invite the reader to actually have a go at the kinds of things that are being suggested—using active rather than passive verbs, using variety, adding richness to language—but not too much! The booklet concludes with practical assistance in speaking clearly and using microphones. All in all, it makes this a really good tool for use with all those involved in leading worship—another essential for the training library.

You can order the book for £3.95, post-free in the UK, or a PDF to download immediately, from the Grove Books website.

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5 thoughts on “How can we use words well in worship?”

  1. I would add a moratorium or proscription on a few dull and clichéd phrases, e.g.

    – ‘We pray for the situation in (Sudan / Korea / Iraq etc) – who prays for a ‘situation’ (except a jobseeker a generation ago)?

    – “We thank You that on this day in 1940 etc’

    – all things ‘amazing’ and ‘awesome’ that reflect the sentiments or maybe just the linguistic styles of teenage girls.

    And in the spirit of ‘Sursum Corda’ we could literally put our hearts into our prayers so that there is more poetic and emotional engagement. Perhaps because nobody reads poetry today (unlike the Victorians, whether it was Tennyson or ballads) there has been a reduction of the more traditional poetic diction among most people, so many extempore or even written prayers have an emotional flatness about them.
    The model of the Psalms has historically informed Christian worship – but what evangelical worship uses the Psalms today?

  2. “The model of the Psalms has historically informed Christian worship – but what evangelical worship uses the Psalms today?”

    Is it that dead’? I’m helping out, temporarily, in an evangelical church elsewhere and they clearly use the psalms (spoken) as part of the worship. It’s not all of the time but certainly some of it.

    I think congression could be more open to this than might be thought. The chanting some of us suffered (yes, I know some love it) doesn’t haunt them.

    …another good article Ian….

    • I hope I am wrong and reflecting only my parochial (ha!) experience, but I rarely come across it. When I was regularly leading worship, I usually tried to work a congregational psalm into the liturgy. On the whole, the language of our praying together will be more affective the more Scriptural we seek to make it.

      I agree also that it needs careful phrasing. Historically in the Reformed tradition a good deal of planning went into composing ‘the minister’s prayer’, building up phrases from the Scriptures of doxology and petition – but then that reflects a more literary and more consciously rhetorical age.

  3. Paul McCartney never attended a music conservatoire but had a natural flair, along with John Lennon, for song melody which George Martin (classically trained) recognised; and he did much to help turn their songs into memorable Beatles productions at Abbey Road. Since then musicologists have spent plenty of time analysing the songs and why they work so well. Interestingly, few musicologists are remembered for great compositions which they have come up with themselves. Why this preamble?

    I think there’s a similar thing with words, especially when used in worship. Ideas don’t exist for us humans in a vacuum; they are contained within words that are chosen to express them, and so our choice of words is central to the ideas we want to convey. That means we must understand for ourselves exactly what we want to say; put it into clear, memorable phrases and sentences; and, of course, speak those words in a way that makes them live. And the different gifts people have will be valuable in different parts of the process; but indifferent contributions at any stage (especially by whoever speaks the words!) are going to undo the whole thing. Thought and effort cannot be bypassed (even by talented people) if muddled ideas or dullness or the dreaded cliché are to be avoided.

    I would think that quite a large number of people who are Christians will find themselves involved with choosing or writing or delivering words for worship at one time or another in their lives. And I guess that, whatever type of worship we are talking about, working hard in order to do our best for God has to be a far better attitude than the dubious: ‘so long as it comes from the heart the Holy Spirit will turn my spontaneous outpourings into something wonderful for God’ (church-speak for covering up either arrogance or laziness or both). The experience in many fields of human creativity is that what appears obvious and flows with a natural ease is most likely to be the result more of perspiration than inspiration (my cliché for today) and often a pretty full waste paper bin.

    ‘How to Use Words Well’ sounds as if it should be on a great many Christian bookshelves.


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