September 29, 2020

The Evangelical Liturgy 4: The Congregation

CongregationI’ve been thinking about this post quite a bit, and for the life of me I really can’t think of much to say than some of the obvious.

The evangelical worship service is the worship of the people of God. God acts, speaks invites and offers. God’s people respond in worship, service, ministry and mission. This is the character and content of worship as a gathered event and as a continuing influence. To make the evangelical worship service anything else is to misrepresent worship.

The congregation represents the human and cultural spectrum in which the church exists. To create a congregation that distorts the natural human and cultural context may provide an effective matrix for growth or other activities, but will have serious consequences for many aspects of church life where multi-generational and natural contexts are important. (A congregation of twenty-something skateboarders only is certainly possible, but will have issues regarding leadership and mission beyond that age and culture.)

The congregation is not an audience. They are not consumers. They are not a market. A congregation is a gathering of God’s people, and their participation is defined by that identity and not any other. If a gathering is treated as anything other than a congregation of God’s people, it is difficult to call what happens a worship service. It may be a legitimate gathering for outreach, entertainment or communication, but it is not a gathering of the church. (I am completely comfortable with gatherings that are not intended to be the worship of the gathered church, but we should be honest about the congregation’s role.)

Every opportunity for participation by the congregation should be utilized. Singing. Praying. Responsive reading. Active listening. Adding the Amen. Ministering to one another. Serving and partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Reading/listening the proclamation of the Word.

The design of worship should be with the congregation’s worshiping response to God as the foremost human goal. The congregation should not be rendered passive or irrelevant.

Much that is done in evangelical worship treats the congregation with less than the respect due the people of God. Leaders are not celebrities to be adored. Responses that are human responses to human actions are of little interest in worship, but congregational responses to God are of great value.

It is the congregation that is the great worshiping instrument in the evangelical liturgy. Leaders are worship prompters by reminding the congregation of God and the Gospel. God the Spirit is present in the Gospel and the sacraments. The response of the congregation to God- and nothing else- defines the purpose of a gathering of the people of God for worship.

There are, therefore, occasions where boundaries to “congregation” may be necessary. Various Christian traditions will approach these boundaries differently. If membership in a congregation exceeds union with Christ or participation in the Kingdom, there may be excessive emphasis on boundaries. But without boundaries, the idea of the people of God will sometimes be nonsensical.


  1. Great thoughts Imonk.

    2 questions

    1. as far as individual response is concerned, what are your thougths on the “amen corner, shouting etc.?

    2. and this one interest me more, what are your thoughts on who can or should oversee the Lord’s Supper, in every church i have seen it is the pastor and deacons, i’ve actually read that it was debated pretty hotly in baptist churches in the 1700’s if pastors empowered by the church should be the only one’s officiating at the supper, that to let just anyone set the table might lead to chaos etc.

    any thoughts?

    • 1. Depends on the culture and tradition. Can be a lively and sincere addition. Can be a distraction. I have no problem if the cultural tradition “sanctifies” appropriate displays of verbal affirmation.

      2. I believe anyone authorized by the church can serve the Lord’s Supper. In fact, I really don’t know what an unauthorized Lord’s Supper means. If someone has the LS at a Bible study, I don’t think they’ve sinned.

      • Tom Meacham says

        On two occasions I worshipped with Zion Lutheran in Franklin, KY, where the minister used to encourage “Amens”. They favored hymns like “Just as I am” & “The Old Rugged Cross”. They’re a small-town rural Kentucky congregation in a largely Baptist/Church of Christ religious culture, and they naturally adapted to the taste of the people. That pastor has retired now, but it was a loving, emotional, close-knit but open-armed congregation when I visited.

        • I have a problem with the preachers asking for “amen.” Last week we visited a church we do not normally attend, and during the sermon the preacher repeatedly (a habit, perhaps?) asked, “Can I hear an amen?”

          • Ever have a pastor hold up a sign that said (bold Sans Serif) “AMEN”?

            Yes, I’m serious as sin.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            That anything like (bold sans serif) “APPLAUSE”?

          • Yep. He kept the sheet of paper (8.5 x 11″) under the podium.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            That’s something out of a sitcom.

          • Nope. Real. 100%. I’d have taken a photo with the cell/camera if I had thought about it.

            I just take exception to someone telling me to do something that the Spirit should be raising up in my heart, if it wants to. And it didn’t. So, I’d not respond to the sheet of paper.

  2. Steve Newell says

    In other aspect of the congregation is that it is to include all ages gathered together in corporate worship. I brought all of my kids to worship from the time they were infants. We set in the front row so that they could see what is happening (we love front row sites at sporting events but hate them at worship). As they grew older, they participated in the aspects of worship they could understand such as saying “Aman”. Later, they could recite the Apostles Creed and sing parts of the Divine Service liturgy. While they may not understand what they were saying at that time, it was part of building their faith.

    Many congregations don’t engage in corporate worship by demographic worship. They try to “tailor” the worship service to a specific age group instead of have worship for all ages.

    • “The congregation represents the human and cultural spectrum in which the church exists.”

      And that must include the children, amen.

      Is “children’s church” really worship, or is it Christian Ed? I’m not sure that worship is something we can or should stratify into age-appropriate activities.

      • In the church I attend (a really international English-speaking Baptist church in Vienna, Austria), and in most other churches I have attended here in Austria the children stay in the main service until just before the sermon. Only at that point are they dismissed to “Children’s Church”.

        While this seems to me to represent a wise middle road between banishing them altogether from the “adult” service and making them sit through the sermon which may be both too long and not altogether comprehensible to them, it also means (in those situations which I have seen) that they are not there for the Lord’s Supper, which is something I am of two minds about.

        • “the children stay in the main service until just before the sermon. Only at that point are they dismissed to “Children’s Church”…. it also means (in those situations which I have seen) that they are not there for the Lord’s Supper”

          Hmmm. The local AMiA church does the children’s church but they come back after the sermon so they can be present during the Lord’s Supper.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Same order in my parish (RCC). Kids are ushered out into a separate service just as the Liturgy of the Word starts the first reading, then come back after the homily for Liturgy of the Eucharist. Other than that, they’re in the main sanctuary for Mass.

        • Steve Newell says

          Why do we need children’s church?

          • One huge issue with children’s church (although only tangential to this thread) is that it can drive away visitors looking for a church for their family.

            The family comes to visit a new church. Maybe they’ve never attended a church before. The kids sit in the pews and look around, and what do they see? Not another child in sight.

            Sending them off with strangers to another part of the building works even less well.

            If mom and dad’s motivation to begin looking for a church is their children, and those children don’t like the church they just visited, it’s doubtful that family will be back.

            This is a large problem at the church where I work right now. The main service ought to be called the Abraham-and-Sarah service, it’s so barren when you walk in.

          • I’m not a big promoter of children’s church. I think once a kid gets about four they should have the ability with a little parental help to make it thru most services. I do think that a well staffed and well kept nursery is a must.

            babies crying do not bother me, but a lot folks are bothered by their own babies and it is hard to care for an infant and particiapte in service, we have actually lost visitors b/c there was no where for their infants.

      • At our church, children’s church is definitely worship. They do everything we do in the regular service, and then they join the adults for a children’s sermon, and Eucharist.

        • We were allowing our children to participate in communion with us during the service (once a month communion was added to the schedule). After a while, their Children’s Church “teacher” (?) told us that they would be doing communion in Children’s Church. (the “dismissal” to Children’s church was before communion)

          Needless to say, we kept our kids with us for communion because we believe that it’s a family thing. And if the kids who aren’t eligible for communioin (whatever that might mean in any tradition), why not keep them IN the service so they can see what’s going on? Education, and, perhaps in an environment of deep community (same roots as communion, right?), they might realize a desire for that, too.

  3. Michael-

    What do you think the content of the worship service should speak to? Obviously it should be interacting with God, but how does the content, (words, actions, etc…) inform the service and the congregation? I am curious because I know you are specifically engaging the idea of evangelical worship, which will have an evangelistic bent. I guess a better question would be, in what way is the congregation engaging God in the worship service?

    • This is not an answer to your question but a reaction to this phrase:

      evangelical worship, which will have an evangelistic bent

      I am not convinced that evangelical worship should have an evangelistic bent. That leads very quickly, in my experience, to worship giving way to evangelism.

      I do believe, however, that genuine worship is evangelistic anyway in that it will be attractive to people who are already seeking and open to the idea of a God who has a claim on them.

  4. In worship planning I always try do design all the music to facilitate maximum congregational participation. Sometimes just going at it a capella will get people to sing louder than the most kickin band can. I’ve also seen setups where the band actually led the music from benind the congregation so as to provide less distraction. I have a habbit of staring down people in the congregation who aren’t singing. Is this bad? It certainly is motivating 😛

    • Guilt-laced participation… is that bad?

      And just cuz someone’s singing louder, I’d not say it’s more “worshipful”… Some of the most beautiful music, to me, is soft and even instrumental.

    • I love to sing. I am definitely not usually one of the non-singers.

      A couple of years ago I was prescribed a common medication for a common ailment, experienced a common side effect, and ended up with such severe, painful laryngitis that it took months of time and the assistance of a speech therapist before I could talk without pain. Singing without pain took months more. During that time, I was mute in the congregation by necessity, not choice. I’m in a congregation that not only has congregational singing, but also responsive readings, corporate affirmation of faith (assorted creeds and confessions), corporate confession of sin, etc. I was participating in my head, but that probably looked pretty non-participatory to an outside observer. (It was basically a common malady that I didn’t think needed to be common knowledge, so most people had no idea anything physical was going on with me.)

      Also during that time, my doctor sent me for a work-up by a specialist to make sure I didn’t have laryngeal cancer. So for the weeks I was waiting for the specialist appointment, I was mute in the congregation, with the awkwardness of not following along with the crowd causing the niggling to start up in the back of my mind “Surely it is just the side effect from the medication, but what if it is cancer? Does that mean they will remove my larynx? Might I never talk or sing again?”

      Would it have it been appropriate for the worship leader to stare me down trying to motivate me to sing? The speech therapist said that she frequently sees problems similar to mine. And I’m sure my problem is only one of many that might cause people to have difficulty participating in the same way a healthy twenty-something participates. Yes, I’m sure there are people who don’t participate for poor reasons, but I suspect there are quite a few people who have very valid reasons. The outside observer just never really knows. When I sing on the worship team, if I see someone who is giving off an odd vibe, I just pray silently for them and try not to make judgments. In some situations, I’ll make a point to catch up with them after the service in a general, non-threatening way to see if they seem to want to talk about anything. (I figure that the last thing people need is the feeling that the worship team is watching them and is going to jump them if they show any chinks in the usual Sunday morning armor.)

      During those months of enforced silent worship services, I did grow to appreciate that being silent and listening to the rest of the congregation enhanced my feeling of being part of a gathering, a congregation. I am often a vocalist on the worship team, so I also noticed quite a lot about how worship team members can assist or hinder congregational participation. I also noticed quite a lot about how things that musicians like to fret about are completely irrelevant to the congregation. Sometimes when I have a Sunday off from the worship team, I’ll just listen silently from within the congregation to remind myself of how I can best serve the congregation when I am on mic. If someone is going to judge me for how much my mouth is or is not moving, I figure that says more about them than it does about me.

  5. The picture with this post prompts this question:

    How appropriate is it that in most churches the minister(s) face the congregation? Is it significant at all?

    It is an interesting discussion in Catholicism, where prior to Vatican II the congregation and the priest all faced the altar, whereas after the reforms at that time the altar was turned around and the priest now faces the congregation across the altar. The discussion being, among other things, whether it isn’t more appropriate for both priest and congregation to face God (in the form of the Eucharist on the altar) together rather than facing each other and thus talking to each other.

    I realize that in evangelical worship there is no altar where God is believed to be present, but would there be real significance in worship leaders facing the same direction as the congregation (with the musicians perhaps being either behind or off to one side), especially as in the evangelical tradition the minister is not in persona Christi but merely one of the priesthood of all believers?

    Would that be a way of counteracting the performance/concert/consumer aspects of contemporary evangelical worship?

    (BTW for something to chuckle: younger German-speakers are fascinated by English-language worship songs, but their command of English often leaves something to be desired. It is not uncommon to come across songsheets with misspellings like “whorship” — any significance to that? 🙂 )

    • Steve Newell says

      In a Lutheran worship, the Pastor will face the congregation when they are speaking the Word of God such as the invocation, the word of absolution, reading the Gospel, speaking the words of Holy Communion, and the Blessing. The Pastor will face the cross when they are speaking with/or the congregation such as confession of sin, speaking the creed, prayers of the people.

  6. Chad: The content of the liturgy/worship service is the subject of the rest of the posts in this series.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I wonder if after everything shakes down and settles, how much this “Evangelical Liturgy” will resemble Western-rite Mass or High Anglican Communion or Eastern-rite Divine Liturgy.

      These are existing traditional Christian liturgies that have had centuries to millenia to shake down and settle down. Like ’em or hate ’em, they’ve demonstrated staying power. If Evangelicals reinvent Christian liturgy from scratch, how much will they end up reinventing the wheel?

  7. “Every opportunity for participation by the congregation should be utilized.”

    I see this as a major weakness in many evangelical churches. It is certainly true in the one that I attend. The music leader leads music and the senior pastor does the rest. This practically ensures that the service will become a spectator event for everyone else.

  8. It is very tough to get folks involved. About the only place we have much partcipation is the one place we don’t need it. That being the song leader. We have the old Appalachian habbit of all the men taking turns leading a song which means that there is zero prep or thought put into what is going to be sung and the folks leading have zero knowledge of music.

    On the other hand, I have begged for folks to volunteer to do a scripture lesson reading and no almsot no one has shown interest. The participation in the responsive reading was better, and folks do actually say the Lord’s Prayer now, so it is small steps.

    I’m about to open the call for readers up to women as well. I know for a lot of folks that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but trust me at my church it will be a fight. But, IMO even if a person wants to hold to a position that women should not be teaching anyone other than women and chidren in public, I don’t think you can make the arugumetn that simply reading the text is teaching, but some folks will object. I do have thought, several women who I think would make good readers.

    • A mid-sized emergent church that I visit from time to time does it beautifully. Different people/groups of people from the congregation go up front to do the opening prayer, make announcements, the offertory prayer and offertory, the communion prayer, and then 6 others go up to administer communion (intincture method). Someone else then does the benediction prayer at the end. The teaching pastor does the sermon and a small band does music. I love it.

    • Women? Reading in church? Egads!

      Really, I feel your pain. I get the readers at my church and it’s not fun. People have issues speaking in front of crowds, the lectern is so high up, they’re on vacation, they have family in town, the list goes on. It is a humbling experience to have to go begging for readers every week. I have gotten to the point that anyone who volunteers will not be denied for any reason. If God has sent this person to me, then He knows best.
      The only mitigating practice I have discovered for getting readers is to make it a disciplined task. Arrange for the readers at least a week in advance and don’t put it off. Study the readings for the coming weeks and ponder whose voice would sound best speaking these words. Think about whose voice you have not heard recently and why.
      Several years ago, Walter Brueggeman wrote an excellent essay called The Text, The Preacher and The People (or something like that). I HIGHLY recommend it. His contention is there are three parties in any public reading of scripture: the reader, the hearers and the text itself. I’d make a hash of describing the rest of his argument, so I will leave to you all to read it for yourselves.

      • “Women? Reading in church? Egads! ”

        Just ask Anne Graham Lotz what can happen when women get up in front of an SBC gathering.

  9. With current projections of this multi-campus church movement increasing (a whole other problem for congregations), it is often justified under the aegis of evangelism – a strong portion of evangelical identity. In some respects, our current trends of church planting and outreach (ye ole homogeneous unit principle – skaters reaching skaters to use Michael’s example) is fed by this type of leadership. Change the music at different campuses, but the teaching is still the same.

    To be with people I look like, worship and serve the people I look like and antithetical to the Gospel. The church is designed to demonstrate the reality of the incarnation that transforms you and I into radical Christ followers. The bedrock of church identity is Christ-identity. The church ceases to truly represent Christ when we separate generations or on the basis of ethnicity or socio-economics.

    When congregations realize the radical nature of the church itself, it cannot help but become transformative in their community. This is way more than the “guys up front” (or on screen) could ever do on their own.

    • The church is designed to demonstrate the reality of the incarnation that transforms you and I into radical Christ followers.

      I do not mean to be snarky, but I’m not sure that the church was “designed” so much as it “happened” by the work of the Holy Spirit. What we do to make it more pleasing to outsiders, and (more often than not) ourselves is not necessarily the plan or the will of God.

      I believe that the purpose of the church, first and foremost, is to love our Groom while in community with one another. THEN to demonstrate the love of Christ to the world. The church was called for Him. Not for the world.

      • Christiane/L's says

        “I do not mean to be snarky, but I’m not sure that the church was “designed” so much as it “happened” by the work of the Holy Spirit”

        If you check your Gospel account, you will find that Christ founded His Church Himself.
        And after his Resurrection, He sent the Spirit as a paraclete for His Church, so the ‘gates of hell would not prevail against it’.

        What is ‘snarky’?
        I have heard it used before on evangelical web-sites, but it isn’t from my generation.

        • “What is ’snarky’?
          I have heard it used before on evangelical web-sites, but it isn’t from my generation.”

          Sort of like they way Southerner politely make comments like.
          “You wear that dress so well.”
          “Amazing how your hair looks.”
          “A more unique dinner I’ve not had in years.”

          A dig thinly disguise as a comment.

        • My point is that the church wasn’t designed. It is BEING designed. It’s as fluid as grace, constantly transforming into what Christ had in mind when He established it.

          snarky… snide and sarcastic…. snarky.

          • Snarky is ok. I think I have the spiritual gift…

            Perhaps it is semantics, but the church was inaugurated by Christ and is designed by God for a purpose in the world (Eph. 3). Has it arrived yet? Is it a completed work? No. But by using the language of design, most attempt to communicate that the church is not an accident – it has a purpose to fulfill in the world. Perhaps, using your corrective, we should say that it is designed AND becoming all at once.

            To top it off, God continues to protect the church, grow the church and use the church to advance his kingdom despite our own inadequacies and failings. If that isn’t grace in the process of Bride preparation, I don’t know what is…

    • Christiane/L's says

      ” The bedrock of church identity is Christ-identity. The church ceases to truly represent Christ when we separate generations or on the basis of ethnicity or socio-economics.

      When congregations realize the radical nature of the church itself, it cannot help but become transformative in their community.”

      BRAVO !!!

      If this is evangelical, I did not know they felt this way.

      • There is a wide spectrum of views and opinion in the Evangelical movement, just as in the Catholic Church. Big difference is that there is not a single recognized magisterium so it’s difficult to say who is the “true” Evangelical 🙂

  10. “God the Spirit is present in the Gospel and the sacraments.”

    Woa, Michael! Getting on the edges of evangelicism, there, aren’t you!


    (Good post, and good comments, by the way. Quite thought provoking.)

  11. I guess my earlier question could maybe be sectioned out, in response to Wolf and IM. Inside the idea of “evangelistic worship”, that which would an attraction towards God and would lead people into relationship was very popular in the late 90’s, and was really held up by Louis Giglio and his Passion conferences. Sally Morgenthaler wrote “Worship Evangelicism” during this time and many considered it to be a key book in the movement. All of this happened while I was in college, and it was really popular.

    A few years ago, Sally pretty much took back all of her words. There were alot of things she was uncomfortable with (the Article was on, but my link is dead).

    I think what many churches need (and what people have been expressing) is a better answer of “Why we do all this”? The idea of worshiping being able to lead people to God is not new. John Wesley called the Eucharist a “saving sacrament”, and had no problem giving to people that he thought needed Christ.

    Michael-I love how you aren’t afraid to show your sacramental bent, its something more and more Baptists are really starting to think about.

    To me-the overarching action in worship is the participation with God in his salvific activity. Thats why we don’t need to the hyper-individualized services and exactly why we think participation is so important; People are drawn into a reality of God during worship because it (the churches action) offers an entry into narrative that is so much bigger than them, their world, and what they have ever imagined.

    • I think the problem with the movement or fashion you describe is that it was looking for ways to make worship evangelistic, and thus changed the intention from “God’s people worshipping him and interacting with him for his own sake” to “God’s people teying to impress outsiders with their relationship and interaction with God.” The focus is wrong.

      I see Louis Giglio in a different light because for the most part what he does is not designed to take the place of the church’s Sunday worship. It’s o.k. to use God’s greatness and the awesomeness of his creation to draw non-believers to him; I just don’t think the church’s worship service is the time and place for that intention.

  12. Michael,

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on Frank Viola’s approach to Christian gatherings, the simple church, movement, organic/missional church, etc. I know that is broad a broad array, but in general, all are critical of and promote an alternative to the institutional models that have been described in this series. I come from a Church of Christ background and have experienced a lifetime of mind-numbing, spirit-killing discussion about what is and isn’t acceptable worship. I’ve found much of what I’ve read regarding “simple church” very refreshing, although I have yet to experience it.

  13. Do you know where the picture that you used at the top of the article was taken?

  14. “The congregation is not an audience. They are not consumers. They are not a market. A congregation is a gathering of God’s people, and their participation is defined by that identity and not any other. If a gathering is treated as anything other than a congregation of God’s people, it is difficult to call what happens a worship service.”

    Could not be more in agreement. Somehow we need to clarify language in evangelicalism about this. Most Sunday morning services in evangelical churches are fellowship, edification, and teaching meetings, not worship. And I’m with you, those kinds of meetings are perfectly acceptable and valuable. However, though people may offer worship in the context of such meetings, they are not worship services. The goal and focus of such meetings is not worship. Evangelicalism is generally good when it comes to the more horizontal activities of the faith; less able to provide means for true vertical interaction.

  15. We left a church a year or so ago in part because a split to three services that had been sold to the congregation as accommodating three different worship styles was actually a way to accommodate generational differences and keep the older crowd (who have most of the money) happy. I thought it would work at first, but it soon became apparent that people were choosing the service based very largely on personal preferences and comfort, and events at which all three groups could participate together were to be few and far between (like maybe twice a year). That’s not the calling of the church. That’s not what a congregation should be.

    We finally just recently found a very small church that is warm, welcoming, preaches the word, and is multigenerationall and has some diversity while remaining centered on worship and celebrates the Lord’s Supper every week.

    • While I see the pragmatic/practical bennifit of a church going to multiple services, sometimes I wonder if it might be better to just plant a new church. I don’t know, though.

      • To plant a new church you have to get a decent number to go with the plant. Most people like the status quo. Stridently so. Planting requires work and change. Most people shrink from such things.

      • I have had several teachers that have suggested this.

  16. This may not be the time/place for this, but has anyone (seriously) considered kicking over the ant hill of ‘virtual worship’ via the internet. Motivation comes from having lots of isolated folks in various sandboxes (euphemistically termed Southwest Asia) however with internet access. Actually, not that much different from various live radio/tv broadcasts of services. Probably even better.

    • Check out You can join the church, give and worship online. No biggie.

      I don’t know if they still do it, but they also had a campus in second life.

      • I’ve toyed with online church community. Had one going of about 15 people (including spouses). Led prayer times and discussion with another brother. Healing services (didn’t lead those). Folks would share a link to a praise video (or a hymn video for your hymnal-keepers!) and we’d watch and listen and “sing” together.

        Laying on hands was a bit of a challenge, but we’d lay hands on the monitor and have the one wanting healing do the same. A few ailments and injuries were healed.

        It’s challenging and it reminds me that folks walking in freedom from the do’s and don’t’s are sparse.

        Second life? Really?

        When my FIL died last year, I was on travel about 90 minutes from home. Middle of the night here, a friend from Australia kept online with my wife during the drive (Skype call) – with a few others from the west coast (US). Once I got home, we got her packed and rested for an early morning drive to the airport (75 minutes) and the Aussie mate stayed up with me and prayed till she got in through security. (was about 7pm for him at that point).

        Similar was done when I had a kidney stone last year.