Liturgical Titbits: The Idle Congregation

“Why don’t we get to do more in the service? Why does the pastor get to do (almost) everything? All that the congregation seems to do is to sing hymns and say ‘Amen’ a lot. Why? It makes it feel like the pastor is more special and important, and makes us feel devalued.”

This way of thinking is based on a misunderstanding of what happens in Christian worship. It assumes that in church, like in much of modern life, doing makes you important, so doing less means you are less important. It also assumes that what happens in worship is that we come to do things. The more we do, the more involved and important we are.

But that is not what worship is about. Lutherans often use the term ‘Divine Service’, a translation of the German term Gottesdienst. What happens at church is Divine Service: in worship, God serves us. He is the host, we are the guests.

And like at any great banquet, the host does his serving by means of servants. They do the laying of the table, the cooking, the cleaning, the distribution of food and drink, the clearing up. At a banquet, the more you do, the less important you are, and the more important you are, the less you have to do. The guest of honour only has to sit back and wait for food and drink to appear and for dirty dishes to disappear again.

And so it is in church. The congregation are the guests of honour at the heavenly banquet. God is the host, Jesus the food; the invitation comes from the Holy Spirit. And then there are servants (the pastor(s) and any lay members who assist him/them) who distribute the goodies from the host to the guests. The more you do, the less important you are. The more important you are, the less you do. All you have to do is sit and wait for God’s gifts to appear, and your dirty dishes to be taken away. The only thing left to do is to receive and to say ‘Thank you’.

Immediately after instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus taught this to His disciples:

For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:27)

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession expresses the same truth thus:

The difference between this faith and the righteousness of the Law can be easily discerned. Faith is the divine service (latreia) that receives the benefits offered by God. The righteousness of the Law is the divine service (latreia) that offers to God our merits. God wants to be worshipped through faith so that we receive from Him those things He promises and offers. (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, IV:29)

So, when in church, don’t do something: just sit there!

P.S. Yes, in many churches there is a lot more ‘lay activity’ in the service than in the Lutheran church. But that’s because frequently they have a very different view on what the nature worship is.

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