Why does the congregation have so much to do in worship?

In the medieval church, there was a sharp distinction between the worshiping clergy and the spectators found in the laity. The “action” was up front, behind what was called the rood screen, and the people of God assembled to watch—well, mostly to listen. They were permitted to be in the presence of something big, they were around when the mystery happened. But for all intents and purposes, they were shut out, and the experts did the heavy lifting. The Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers changed all that for centuries.

But unfortunately, a very similar sharp division has been creeping back in recent decades—now in the form of professional entertainers up front, and the audience out in the seats. Many who attend church do not expect to be asked to “do” anything. This did not happen all at once; it happened by degrees, but it has gotten to the point where some congregations don’t even sing much anymore.

In the approach taken to worship by CREC churches, the worship service is an active conversation between God and His people. It is a dialog—not a monologue. We are all part of the body, and we all have something to do. The service is initiated from the front, by the minister. He is there in his role as a “deputy spokesman” on the Lord’s behalf. He is authorized to do this by his ordination, and he is faithful to his ordination to the extent that he sticks to the Scriptures like white on rice. In this role, he summons the people to worship at the beginning, and he declares the benediction at the end. He reads the text for the sermon as the very words of God, and he preaches the sermon as the very oracles of God (1 Pet. 4:11). After the confession of sin, he announces the assurance of pardon in the name of Jesus, and so on.

The people of God respond to all this actively. They sing the psalms and hymns and say amen after them. They say the Creed. They respond to the Scripture reading with “Thanks be to God.” They lift their hands in the Gloria Patri. They deliver a corporate charge or blessing after a baptism. They take the elements of bread and wine weekly. In short, in worship, the body of Christ is called to be a conversationalist. One of the first things that visitors to our congregations notice is that there is so much for them to do. This is intentional. The whole body is called to work together, and worship is that work.

These responses are usually prepared for our congregations in a printed bulletin, and because of this, those who are used to a more spontaneous, “go-with-the-flow” style of worship sometimes react to such a prepared liturgy as “kind of Catholic.” Actually, within limits, it is one of the most Protestant things we do. And in a sort of double irony, the spectator approach favored by many pop-evangelical churches is actually drifting back toward a very old error indeed.

Posted in: Worship

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