A “phatic expression” is a form of communication which has low information-value, yet high utility in establishing a social dynamic. As an example, if you go up to a cashier, you might be asked, “How are you today?” but the response being sought is not an actual, information-laden discourse on the current status of your life.
Instead, you’ll reply, “Very well, and you?” In replying like that, you’ve set up a social dynamic of non-hostility. In effect, phatic expressions help us be pleasant and disarming, but they don’t require much interaction. They are a type of social formality, but they are neither intimate nor familial. In fact, the words spoken in such situations are not necessarily even face-valid. (Ie, you might be absolutely not well, but you still say that you’re fine because you’re maintaining a social dynamic, not actually talking.)
I was thinking about all the different assemblies I’ve visited. In many assemblies, there’s been a focus on accomplishing certain, necessary “worship tasks” in the correct manner. In such assemblies, at least in my experience, the social experience I had was phatic at best.
I believe that assemblies often exist on a scale of formality-to-family, and the more we focus on exterior actions, directed vertically toward God, done in the right manner, the more we lose sight of God’s desire for the assembly to be a place where we are built up. As the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath, so it seems that the assembly is made for us, and not us for it.
And I believe that, in part, our tradition pigeon-holes us into such, often-phatic dynamics. We mostly have the star-speaker, the star-singer, and the star-pray-er, while those on the bench watch the game. Yet as God said through Paul,
“What then, brothers? When you come together, EACH ONE has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” (1 Corinthians)
How can we incorporate this philosophy, wherein each of us brings something of value publicly? Is it possible? Is it worth trying? Will it result in a more familial, less-phatic church?