When it comes to worship, Christian culture in America has shifted slowly back to a mentality from the late Middle Ages. Theoretically all Christians are called to worship God. But we’ve begun to think of worship as something which clergy and music leaders do, and which the people passively observe. Singing is called “worship” simply because it is the only time in which many Christians are actually asked to fully participate and offer praise to God. Scripture is often read and prayers prayed only by the pastor, and sanctuaries and services are crafted as theaters maximized for observation and not participation.
All this in the context of our service-oriented culture, can make us think of the service as being presented for us, rather than something we do together. We can think of worship as something we watch happen, and then evaluate in terms of our own sense of happiness or aesthetic pleasure. We can see ourselves as outside looking in.
So who participates in worshiping God when we gather on Sundays?
There was a time in the Middle Ages in which the answer would have been “The priest, of course!” Christian worship became the exclusive work of the clergy, and the people gathered to watch the priest worship God on their behalf. There were even “secret prayers” and “private prayers” that the priest prayed while the people watched. Of course, the people were still faithfully worshipping God during that time despite this. But fortunately, the basic Christian belief in the priesthood of all believers was restored in time, and the participation of every baptized Christian became central again. Full participation of every Christian is the way worship was understood in the New Testament and Early Church.
In The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, a document written in A.D. 215, The Eucharist Prayer (the Communion Prayer) began very much like the one we use today:
The Lord be with you
And with your spirit
Lift up your hearts
We have them with the Lord
Let us give thanks to the Lord
It is proper and just
The people were praying the prayers with the celebrant, participating together at this early stage, as we do today. The travel journal of a (probably) fourth century Nun named Egeria shows this as well. While there were specific roles for Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, all of the people were fully engaged in prayer and worship. She writes of her experience at the worship services in the Jerusalem Church of her day:
Hymns as well as antiphons are said…one of the priests says a psalm to which all respond…after the reading [of the Gospel] the Bishop goes out, and is accompanied by the Cross by all the people with hymns…
Besides the late Middle Ages, when clericalism reached its height, Christian worship has always been seen as a “work of the people” as Paul describe it in Romans 12:1, “present your bodies a living sacrifice…which is your spiritual worship.” This phrase “spiritual worship” is liturgical, which related to the actions of the priest in Jewish worship. This means that Paul saw each Christian as a priest who offered himself to God and fully participated in worship. There were no spectators (except for unbaptized seekers who were allowed to listen in).
But slowly the idea that worship is a performance by the pastor and the musicians has crept back in with the focus on long, rhetorical sermons and “worship bands.” Worship is even sometimes referred to as a “worship experience.”
Thankfully, our liturgical tradition provides a framework for inviting all the people into engaging in and “doing” worship together. This can be turned on its head if we “over professionalize” liturgy, but in its simplest form, it is an invitation to participate in worship. Liturgical worship calls us to lift up our prayers and songs to God together. A priest cannot celebrate communion without others present. The responses of the people, including the “Amen” are necessary and essential components.
Lay ministries of reading Scripture, leading prayers and music, and assisting in administering communion are important, visible testimonies to our full participation. This is our worship presented to God as a whole people. We aren’t on the outside looking in, we are all on the inside looking up. Gestures such as the sign of the cross or bowing, and of coming forward to receive communion, involve us in visible and tangible ways. The priest usually coordinates and leads worship, but only as the “presider” who guides, not as the “performer” who is there for our observation. Each order has its part, Bishop, Priest, Deacon, and the Laity.
As we gather on Sundays, we are a Body. All of our prayers and readings and songs are our worship. All of our orders are represented. All baptized Christians are priests unto God, and all that we do is offered to God. What a beautiful invitation into God’s presence and into offering our lives as living sacrifices unto God. I’m joyous every Sunday when I hear the hearty singing, loud responses, and see the various ministries given to God in the name of Christ. The Holy Spirit is weaving all of our parts together into a harmony of praise.
We are doing the work of worship, and God is the audience. Thankfully he is also the inspiration, guide, and comforter.
Photo: The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24) Tempera on wood, 31,9 x 63,5 cm cm National Gallery, London by Fra Angelico. Public Domain.