Learning to talk is one of life’s great miracles.
But even for toddlers, healthy speech habits don’t come naturally. Young children need to learn to say “thank you,” “I’m sorry,” and “please”—most often with the help of a lot of patient coaching from their parents. Eventually these words become part of the way toddlers see the world and navigate relationships. Indeed, there are few moments quite as sweet as hearing a sudden, unprompted “Thanks, Mommy” or “Thanks, Daddy.”
I love you . . . I’m sorry . . . Thank you . . . Help—words like these are the building blocks of healthy relationships. Every close relationship depends on them. When they are left unpracticed, marriages fail and friendships disintegrate.
Faithful speech is also central to the Christian life. One of the most provocative and inspiring word pictures in all of Scripture is that of God relating to the church like a marriage partner. The God of the Bible is not interested simply in having us contemplate him or appease him. This God desires the give and take of faithful life together, with good communication right at the center. We see ample evidence for this in the Bible’s songbook of 150 psalms, each of which expresses at least one essential communication habit for a people in a covenant relationship with God.
One of the ways we learn good communication habits with God is by participating in public worship. When we gather for worship, the church invites us to join together in saying to God, “We love you. We’re sorry. We’re listening. Help. Thank you. We will serve you.” (Some orders of worship pretty much follow that very pattern, promoting a healthy, balanced diet of faithful speech.) To use a phrase from Thomas G. Long’s recent book Testimony, worship is “God’s language school.”
As with toddlers, these speech habits take practice. But the discipline is worth it, forming us over time to express our deepest fears, hopes, and joys in profound ways. As I travel, I love to hear the prayers of people from different congregations and traditions. So often they echo language learned first in worship.
The challenge is that on any given Sunday, each of us comes to church with something different to say. Some of us come to church ready to tell God, “Thank you!” Others want to cry, “Why?” Still others are ready to say, “I’m sorry”—though we all need to. To say it another way, some of us come ready to sing Psalm 100, others Psalm 13, and all us, if we’re honest, need to speak Psalm 51.
Good worship services make room for these essential words. They help each of us express our particular experience, but they also help us practice forms of speech we’re still growing into. This is one reason public worship is so important—it challenges us to practice forms of faithful speech to God that we’re not likely to try on our own.
Authentic worship, for both brand-new and lifelong believers, expresses who we are and forms what we are becoming.
The good news is that worship isn’t a one-sided conversation. We talk to God, but God also speaks to us. Through Scripture and sermons that echo Scripture, God comforts, challenges, corrects, and convicts us. Through water, bread, and wine, God blesses, assures, and nourishes us. On top of that, even when we speak, it is God’s Holy Spirit who is at work, prompting, encouraging, and teaching us (Gal. 4:6).
So next time you go to worship, look for some toddlers and the parents who are teaching them to talk. It’s not a bad picture of what worship is about for all of us, young and old—for children of God we are (1 John 3:1).