Course: Essentials of Worship
Lecture: Principle 5
When we gather together for worship, our worship requires participation. Worship requires participation; it is not a spectator sport. This is true about all worship, but my particular focus now and in the rest of our discussion is going to be on our worship as a community when we gather together.
I am going to be thinking a lot about that phrase from Paul in 1 Corinthians 11–14, a phrase that is repeated several times, “when you come together,” seemingly a reference to the worship gatherings of the church of Corinth.
When we come together, principle #5 says, that worship requires participation. It is not a spectator sport. So often, when people are in a worship gathering, a worship service, a service of worship, which is not a bad terminology by the way, it seems like we are at a spectator event. Especially the larger and larger churches become the more and more it seems that the worshipers, for the most part, are reduced to spectators.
“I am going to watch worship; I watched worship very well.”
I have pastored for many years in the Korean-American church. When I was first learning Korean there were a number of phrases that struck me as very unusual. It was always funny to me to notice that when I pointed these phrases out to a Korean friend, they had never struck them as funny at all; they were just part of their experience. I am sure the same would be true of someone learning English and being dumbfounded by some of our terminology and some of our colloquialisms and expressions.
One expression that I had heard in the Korean church often was, when friends would be on their way to a service of worship, they would say a Korean phrase that basically meant, “I’m going to watch worship.” Then, as they come out, I might hear them say, “Oh, I watched worship very well.” There are Korean phrases to that effect. I thought this was a very curious thing: to watch worship.
Not only is this part of the Korean expression, it is a reality in so many churches. People go in, they take their seat and they wait for the show. The show begins, and often it is a very good show and sometimes it is not such a good show, but it often is a professional performance. There is a professional preacher preaching, professional musicians making music, professional choir singing or a praise team singing praise music to them. Sometimes a drama is done for their sake. Then a basket is passed around, they have paid for their show, thank you very much, and off they go.
Often the entire participation of the people who have gathered is no more than watching, saying a few lines perhaps of some responsive reading, if that is part of it at all, singing along at some songs, and then bowing their heads and being quiet for most of the time.
Sometimes it even seems like someone will be performing a special song or the preacher is preaching a sermon, and there are many people who are not only spectators but seem to see themselves as judges. I have been in meetings before where I almost expected, after the song was finished, that people around me would break out cards with numbers on them — 6.6, 5.8, 4.4 — you know, rate the song or rate the sermon. Obviously, when we think along these lines of just watching worship or worship as a spectator event, we are far removed from the biblical understandings.
Old Testament participatory worship
In the Old Testament, of course, worship was very participatory: the worshiper bringing sacrifices to be offered to God, the worshiper offering tithes of all their harvest. Even in their gatherings of worship, if you will read through the Jewish hymnal, the Bible hymnal of the Psalms, undoubtedly many of the Psalms were sung and said responsively, a leader and a response, a leader and a response. Worship was very participatory.
And, by the way, in the Old Testament if the worship gatherings became noisy and raucous events it was not because of amplification, it was because of the participation of the whole assembly. Often I think those gatherings were noisy and loud and lively events of worship as the people praised God, but the loudness, the volume, was the function of a worshiping community not of a worshiping few.
Theology of amplification
We really have to think about our theology of amplification today; there will be an implication for us to return to. We are the first few generations now, over the last few decades, who have ever wrestled with the implications of amplifying our praises and our preaching. In Judeo-Christian history, worshipers in Jewish and Christian traditions for centuries did not have the music amplified, for good or for ill, as you see it.
But one of the problem areas that I do not think we have attended to enough, thought about enough theologically, is what do we do with new technology when it presents itself to us. Do we simply pick it up and embrace it in uncritical ways or do we wrestle with some of the implications of it?
One of my concerns on the area of amplification is that now, in many churches, you have these very gifted, talented few who are up front with their voices and their instruments, they are mic’ed and they are amplified, and there is a disincentive to many in the congregation to sing.
I have been in many services where I could not hear myself sing if I wanted to. I cannot hear my neighbor sing. All I can hear are the chosen few with the amplifiers singing for us. This is a tough one, a difficult one, but the fine line that praise music leaders need to learn to walk is to use their amplification just enough to help the community worship, but not so much that they usurp the role of the community as worshipers. They are not to take the place of a community in worship but to assist the community to worship. We will return to this thought more.
New Testament Participatory Worship
1 Corinthians 14:26
In the New Testament, the idea of everyone participating in worship is also very clear. Back to Paul’s language of ’when you come together,’ think of 1 Corinthians 14:26. “What shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.”
Two big concerns in 14:26 of 1 Corinthians are, when you come together, everybody brings something to the table and, secondly, it is brought for the sake of the whole, not just for the sake of the individual.
So, we could say that Paul’s understanding of what worship looked like in Corinth, and what it ought to look like in the church is that it was very participatory; all were participants; everybody brought something.
We could look to other Pauline language, in Romans 12 for example, where again Paul says, “Whatever your gifts may be, use them for the sake of the body.” So, when we come together, we should not come to be spectators, to observe, to watch, to appreciate, to enjoy. No, we should come to give, to bring our own worship gifts to the Lord and for the building up of the community.
Worshipers are active
Worshipers are called to be active. Bowing down is an active idea; serving is an active idea; praising is an active idea; contributing is an active idea. In the New Testament it seems from Paul’s teaching that, again, it involved worshiping by bringing some of our giftedness to the community when we gather together for worship.
The Use of ‘Amen’
A couple of other thoughts about the participatory nature of worship, also in 1 Corinthians 14, when Paul says, “Some will bring things.” One of the things he mentions is the bringing of a tongue. But he is going to charge that those who speak in tongues ought not to do so publicly unless there is an interpretation.
In verse 16 of chapter 14 he says, “If you are praising God with your spirit alone, how can one who finds himself among you and does not understand say, ’Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what your are saying?”
Here is another kind of response that Paul envisions as part of the worship gathering, the saying of ’Amen.’ He says we ought to be able to ’Amen’ one another when we come together. You brought a word; I brought a word. You brought a Scripture; I brought a hymn. We ought to be able to ’Amen’ one another.
I preach most of the time in congregations where there is not a lot of ’Amen-ing’ going on and I think it is very sad. I love it when I have opportunities to preach in communities where the congregation participates even in the preaching by ’Amen-ing’ the preacher.
One of our African American faculty colleagues, at a chapel talk at the seminary a couple of years ago, was about ten minutes into his sermon and finally stopped and said, “I am just struggling with the silence in the room here. I am used to having some kind of feedback when I preach.”
And he said, “usually when I preach, if I am doing well, I will hear somebody say ’Preach it, brother, preach it.’ And if I am not doing so well, I will hear someone else say, ’Help him, Lord, help him.’” We all laughed, of course, but I was thinking of how wonderful it is when I have been in communities, and the congregation was responding to me and participating as I preached.
Again, the kind of participation Paul envisions is an informed ’Amen.’ I have been in some congregations where the ’Amens’ were not so informed and not as strategic or wise as they should be. It is another possibility of participation. In fact, we do not know exactly what this may have looked like in a New Testament environment, and I am sure that there is no one way it may have appeared.
Paul also mentions this idea in 2 Corinthians 1:20, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ’Yes’ in Christ. And so through him the ’Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God.”
Some liturgical scholars, New Testament worship thinkers, have suggested that there was a liturgical ’Amen’ that was part of the worship gatherings of the people. In any case, again, it seems clear that this was another form of participation; as revelation is given, there is an ’Amen’ that is spoken.
As a revelation is clarified in our understanding today, we believe that God has revealed Himself completely and perfectly in Jesus Christ, and in the Scriptures. But as this revelation is declared to us, taught to us, proclaimed to us, part of our response is the ’Amen.’
That is why I love the practice that, when the church reads the Word of God together, when the Word of God is read publicly, there is some sort of response to the Word itself, a simple form of response like ’Amen.’ The whole assembly saying ’Amen’ is a beautiful thing.
This happened in the Old Testament in a beautiful story from the Book of Nehemiah. In Nehemiah 8, Ezra comes forward and reads the book of the law to the people. Ezra opened the book, all the people could see him because he was standing above them, and as he opened it, the people all stood up. “And Ezra praised the Lord, the great God, and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ’Amen, amen.’ Then they bowed and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” A beautiful picture; the Word is read, the people ’Amen, Amen.’
I think we need to find ways to remind our people that the Scriptures are no mere word, they are, indeed, the very Word of God. We need to remind them of that truth, marvel in that truth, and respond to that truth, some sort of response. The Word well read, people responding ’Amen,’ lifting our hands if we would, or falling on our faces if we are bold.
I love the liturgical practice where, when the Scripture has been read, the reader says with conviction, “This is the Word of the Lord,” and the people respond to that truth, that beautiful truth, with the cry of, “Thanks be to God.” Some form of response to the word is a very important kind of participation for us.
We could speak also of the response in the language of Paul in Ephesians 5:18-21. In Ephesians 5:18, Paul says that we are to be, “Continuously filled with the Holy Spirit,” and then, expounding upon what that looks like, Paul uses four participial phrases. “Continuously filled with the Holy Spirit,” is the imperative, and then these four participles follow.
What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit? First, it means “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Second, “singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord.” Third, “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything.” Fourth, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
In a sense, these are all, also, ways that we participate when we come together. We come together and speak to one another songs and hymns and spiritual songs. We give thanks to the Lord in the presence of one another, a very big idea carried over from the Psalms. We stand in the midst of the assembly and give praise and thanks to God. And, we submit to one another in our love and lives lived out before each other. Again, these are all beautiful ways to respond to the Lord in worship, because worship requires participation.