One of the things my Vicarage Supervisor* taught me is that it is critical for us as the Church to “Never forget what it’s like not to know.”
Do you remember how scary it was to walk into a new church for the first time? How do they do things? Am I dressed appropriately? Will I sit in somebody’s assigned seat? That last one’s sort of a joke, though it applies in real life more often than it should (which is never…). And then – communion? Oh, no. Everybody does it differently! When do I go up? Can I go up? Will it be wine or grape juice? Do I eat and drink right away, or wait? Do I get dismissed, or just leave? It’s all so confusing and scary!
And churches, like any organization, speak in code. “Insider speak.” I’m talking about things like, “After service, just head on down to the fellowship hall for a reception.” Umm, where is the fellowship hall? What kind of a reception is it? Or, “We still need volunteers for Impact and JOLT, but next week’s blended worship service will be led by Unashamed!” Huh?
My favorite example of this was the church bulletin that said, “This year’s church picnic will be in the same place at the same time as last year’s.” I guess they’re not planning on anybody new being able to attend!
SO! One of the recurring series on this Blog will be called “Why Do We Do That?” It will cover many of the questions you are afraid to ask because you just assume everybody else knows already – or never thought to ask, because it’s just “a church thing.” No more! I hope that through this, I can not only answer some of your questions, but also make some of the taken-for-granted traditions of the church relevant again – or at least interesting. So this won’t be every week, but every so often – I’ll try and mix things up as much as possible.
So, to get us started, here’s a very basic lexicon/glossary/dictionary of church speak:
- Altar – The table at the front toward which worship is directed. Symbolizes the presence of God and should be treated with respect.
- Bulletin – The piece of paper you are handed as you come into a church for service. It may contain some or all of the order of service, important announcements, a list of people to pray for, an explanation of how communion works, or any other information deemed important enough to print in tiny booklet form, such as the Pastor’s picks for this week’s NFL games…
- Church/church – Christians like capitalizing words to differentiate them from the same word without capitalization, like for example God vs. gods. In the case of the word church, a capital C denotes “The Church” around the world and throughout history, united by faith in Jesus Christ, while a lower-case c denotes “a church,” found locally. This is further complicated by the fact that the name of a local church is capitalized, e.g. St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, hence the reason we need to keep remembering to explain what we mean when we say something… Oh, and both spellings refer to the group of people, not the building they meet to worship in, except that we also call those buildings churches. Christians, I hope you’re paying attention to how ridiculous we sound!
- Congregation – A word used for a local church, to differentiate it from “The Church” universal. Interchangeable with the Roman Catholic term “parish.”
- Contemporary – A style of worship that can range from traditional hymns being played on a piano instead of an organ, to camps songs played on a guitar, to a full-on rock band experience. Basically, it is a completely vague and meaningless term used to describe anything that is different from what you are comfortable doing.
- Denomination – A large group of churches that agree to the same set of doctrines (teachings) and practices, e.g. Baptists, Methodists, Catholics.
- Doctrine – The set of teachings and beliefs of any church or denomination.
- Dogma – The set of doctrines that cannot be compromised or changed. For example, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ is dogma – it is foundational and fundamental to the faith. Although the related term ‘dogmatic’ is often used as a criticism synonymous with ‘stubborn,’ anyone who believes and practices anything is dogmatic about some things. If you don’t believe it’s truth, why do it at all?
- Hymnal – A book of songs written in a particular style, generally more complex and difficult to sing than a typical praise song but also capable of greater beauty, especially if harmonies are incorporated. Many denominations have their own.
- Liturgy – The order of the service. A ‘liturgical’ church generally follows a traditional form from a hymnal, but every service has a of liturgy of some sort.
- Pew – The long benches with backs that are generally found in older, more traditional churches. Pews are replaced with chairs in more modern settings. Also a great sliding surface for young children, providing no cushions are present.
- Worship – A word that is used differently from denomination to denomination. In many churches, it refers to the musical portion of the church service. Traditionally, however, it is the entire service itself, where people are gathered together around God’s Word and gifts to praise and glorify Him. For more on worship, read here.
There are oh so many more, but this is just a bit to get you started. Please feel free to ask about other terms, traditions or topics you have questions about in the comments below.
*A Vicarage in the Lutheran Church is a pastoral internship, usually for a year, done under the supervision of an ordained Pastor. I did my Vicarage at Salem Lutheran Church and School in Affton (St. Louis), Missouri, under the Rev. Richard Rossow.