Rev. Terpstra is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.
The topic before us may seem to be one that is relatively simple and clear, even free of any controversy. Who would possibly dispute that the believer is to be an active participant in the public worship of God?! And who would argue what the believer ought to be doing in the worship service, namely, praising and thanking God through singing, hearing the Word, prayer, and giving?
But the fact is that this subject is worthy of special and separate treatment. This is true for several reasons.
For one thing, criticism has been made regarding the believer’s role in what is called traditional worship services. The criticism is that the believer’s role is too passive and insignificant. The pastors and elders are the only leaders and therefore the ones really involved in the worship service. They get to do things, while the Christian in the pew just sits there, passively watching things happen. The regular church member does not have an active role in this type of service.
In response to this, the contemporary church has opened up the worship services to more lay-member involvement. There are worship teams, made up of members who plan and prepare and lead the services. Young people are being asked to lead services. Children are being given a more visible role in certain services. This is the trend because that has been the criticism. We want to address that criticism and that trend.
But another reason why this subject deserves to be treated is that there is a real danger that we, too, not only think the same way, namely, that our role is entirely passive, but also act this way in the worship of God. That is, the danger is present that we not be truly active in our worship, but just show up and let things happen. Or that we would go through the motions, so that we are active but not in the right way. Or that we would participate, but not consciously and fervently and gratefully—so that we are not thinking about what we are doing and why and for whom.
This passive way of thinking and participating is reflected in the fact that we often think our worship services are boring, unexciting, and even dead. Or when we talk about what we got or did not get out of the service, as if things are simply happening to us instead of by us. That too betrays a passive mentality.
So we want to be critical of ourselves too. That’s why we believe this subject is worth pursuing further.
We begin by facing that criticism we mentioned in the introduction: that the believer in the traditional type of worship service to which we are accustomed does not have an active role. We want to assert over against this that the believer does have an active role, even a vital role.
The argument is that, because the pastor and elders lead the services and do most of the external, visible acts of worship, they are the only truly active ones in worship. And along with that, that because the persons in the pew do not lead or perform most of the outward acts, they are not active in worship.
There are several reasons why this is wrong thinking.
First, the implication is simply wrong. Just because someone else leads in an activity does not mean the ones being led are not active and participating. That would be similar to arguing that because a teacher leads the students in learning, the students are not active in the classroom. Or that because a father leads in family devotions at home, the rest of the family is not active and participating. You sense the weakness, even silliness, of the argument.
There are good reasons why the pastor and elders lead us in worship. They are the ones called by God to do this; this is part of their office. They are to oversee the public worship of God and to lead the congregation in the various elements of the service. God does not give this calling to any and every member of the congregation.
Specifically, the pastor is given the authority to lead the service because he is given the right to speak on God’s behalf to the people, in the salutation and benediction, as well as in the preaching of the Word. Again, the believer is not given this authority in the worship service.
Besides, to have the elders leading the worship service is doing all things in decency and in order, as the Scripture directs (I Cor. 14:40). The service can quickly become a chaotic circus if all kinds of people are leading the worship. That is, in fact, what has happened in many Reformed and Evangelical churches today. As a parade of people go up and down the aisles and the platform of the sanctuary, the fear of God is lost and the worship of God is distracted from.
Having the pastor and elders lead the worship services also prevents other problems, such as members vying for control on worship teams, or striving to gain a more visible role in the service, or trying to introduce unbiblical innovations into the worship of God.
But now, to assert this position is not to say that the believers have no active role in the worship service. They certainly do. That is what has to be stressed at this point. That this is so is evident from several points of view.
In the first place, it is evident from the viewpoint of the believer’s salvation. When God saves His elect, His purpose is to make them a worshiping people, a people for the praise of His glorious grace (Eph. 1:6). And that is what His grace actually accomplishes (cf. Isaiah 43:21; I Pet. 2:9). How then could we not be active in worship if this is what God by His saving grace has made us and given us to be?!
A.W. Tozer, in his great little book on worship (Whatever Happened to Worship: A Call to True Worship), puts it this way, “Jesus was born of a virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, died on the cross, and rose from the grave to make worshipers out of rebels! He has done it all through grace. We are the recipients” (p. 11).
Therefore God gives His people an active role in worship, because this is what He has saved them for. His grace makes them worshipers and enables them to worship Him in spirit and in truth. And all of Scripture reveals that this is what the saved believer does: he worships God, actively, consciously, no matter his specific place in the service. If you stand in grace, you do and you must participate in the worship of God!
In fact, we may say that there cannot be worship apart from a worshiping people! Worship implies worshipers! That is how vital our role is in worship. It is important that we remember this truth. If we have lost sight of our role, let us look at our salvation! If we have fallen into a passive mindset with regard to our place in public worship, or are bored with our traditional style, let us look at the grace of God to us in Jesus Christ!
In the second place, that the child of God has a vital role in worship is evident from the viewpoint of what public worship is (the nature of worship). We have in mind here especially the relationship between worship and the doctrine of the covenant. Two things we wish to bring out here.
For one thing, public worship is covenantal because it is the gathering together of the covenant people of God. Worship is a corporate affair because the people of God in the covenant of grace are a body, the body of Christ, the church. They are not so many individual worshipers, to worship by themselves and on their own. But by virtue of God’s covenant they are formed into a corporate worshiping people. That is why we gather together for public worship.
But that means, then, that worship belongs to the whole congregation, not to just a few people in the congregation, say, the adults; not to just the pastor and the elders. No, worship is the business of the whole church: the office-bearers, the adult confessing members, the young people and children who are baptized members, these all participate.
That is one reason why we do not take the children out of our services or have them come forward during the service for “children’s church.” They are part of the worshiping congregation; they do participate! The same is true of our young people. We do not have to have a special worship service led by young people to have them become involved in worship or to make them feel more involved. They too are members of God’s covenant and therefore are part of the worshiping congregation! In every service, every member of the covenant of grace is a worshiper, an active participant. That, too, is the vital place God gives to His people in worship.
For another thing (still in connection with the covenant of grace), we must also keep in mind that worship is covenant fellowship between God and His people in Jesus Christ. Or, as some have put it, it is covenantal dialogue between God and His people.
That is, in our worship God comes to dwell with us and to reveal His saving communion with us. He draws near to us as our sovereign Friend and calls us to meet Him as His friend-servants; He walks and talks with us by his Spirit and Word. And we draw near to Him to walk with Him and talk with Him. Worship is intimate, conscious, covenantal fellowship!
This, too, shows the important place God gives to His people in worship. The fellowship of the covenant is mutual; it involves and must involve our activity. If we understand worship to be so, then you and I also know we are not and cannot be passive bystanders or observers. Things don’t just happen around us and to us; but we are engaged actively in holy communion with God! If this is what worship is, how could we just sit there and do nothing?! Or be weary and bored?! Or think the service dead?!
In the third place, the believer’s vital role in worship is also evident from all that the Scriptures say about worship and from the words that it uses to describe it. In the Bible, worship is not just a noun; it is a verb, and a transitive one at that. “To worship” is to be active and do something. The various words for worship in the Bible mean “to bow down to,” “to kiss the hand toward,” “to serve,” “to show fear to, to honor and reverence,” “to praise” — all activities!
Our English word “worship” means “to ascribe worth to,” which implies active participation. The word “liturgy” does not refer simply to the form of worship and the layout of the elements, but it literally means “work of the people,” again, pointing us to their vital role in worship.
From these three perspectives, then, we see that God’s people have a vital role in the worship of God. They are not passive spectators at all, but most surely active participants.
(to be continued…)