I recently had a conversation with a group of Christians about the nature of Biblical and liturgical translation. As we talked, many within the group expressed a preference for translations that they learned as a child, as well as skepticism for the supposed need for change.
I share these sentiments. I prefer the Lutheran version of the Lord's Prayer common in the 1990's much more than the more recent version published in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal. The same is true for the Apostles' Creed. The congregation I grew up in tended to use the NIV translation of the Bible, so even though I know the NRSV is more respected by experts, the NIV sounds more like my childhood. So, I prefer it.
My skepticism, when I let it rule me, arises in large part from our society's commitment to consumer capitalism. In short, aren't we just making changes to sell more song books, prayer books, and holy books?
But, ultimately, we must remember that the linguistic choices scholars make about scriptural translations and the prayer language of the church is not about our preferences. And it shouldn't be.
Because the vocation of linguistic scholars and translators is to present to the current culture a faithful translation, one that faithfully carries the intended content and yet communicates in a form comprehendible by the surrounding society.
Imagine someone today asking a high schooler to go steady or attend a sock hop. While there's nothing inherently wrong with these terms - in fact, there's nothing wrong at all with them - they have simply fallen out of common usage. Nowadays, if you want to exclusively date somebody, you ask them to "go out with" you (which admittedly makes less sense than the older term). Rather than a sock hop, school dances are now most often just referred to as "dances" (which is much simpler, though less witty). To communicate with this generation of people, we need to use language that makes sense to them, regardless of our personal preference.
This is paramount in terms of the Gospel. If we want people within the present age to engage with God's Word, we must ensure that we present God's Word in a way that speaks a comprehensible language. If we want people unfamiliar with church to comprehend what's happening in worship, we must use phrases that have meaning in their context.
Now, this doesn't mean that our preferences don't matter. When we read scripture ourselves or pray on our own, we get to make choices that help us to speak a language that connects our faith with God. That means, on my own time, I get to pray "Thy Kingdom come," and "He descended into Hell."
Nor does this mean that we're abandoning Christian language or emphases. Language helps to shape the world, so we must use care as we translate and be certain that we faithfully present the content of our faith. Part of the mission of the church is to use the various ways with which we communicate to faithfully communicate the one Word that makes sense.
But our mission must, at all times, guide our decisions about our life together, including things like how we shape our worship . If our mission is to connect people to Jesus, then we must help foster an encounter between God and people. This includes how we shape our space, what kind of music we use, and yes, what language we employ.
Why should our mission shape our decisions as a church? Why should we be willing to give up our comfortability in language and song?
Because God desires abundant life for all people, not just the insiders. We must constantly work alongside Christ, whose mission is to reconcile all things to Himself, something he began when he took on our bodies, our cultures, and yes, our language. That's the reality of incarnation. It is a decision driven by God's mission to bring creation back into peace with our Creator.