a plea from the pulpit
A ministerial friend of mine shared with me recently his discouragement while leading public worship. He likened the worship service to a graveyard because of the deathly silence that followed his leading in public prayer. ‘There was no audible response.
There was no Amen from God’s people’, he lamented.
Indeed, one seldom hears a hearty audible ‘Amen’ in our congregational worship today. Is that because people feel the use of ‘Amen’ in public worship is misplaced or undesirable? Is it just a cultural irrelevance?
While the Bible gives no direct instruction, I believe it does encourage us to offer up an Amen.
All the people said Amen
One of the most demonstrative celebrations of worship in the Old Testament is found in 1 Chronicles 16 – ‘And all the people said, “Amen!” and praised the Lord’ (v.36). A remarkable display of public joy reverberated with the sound of this solemn affirmation – ‘Amen!’
As the ark was brought into the Tabernacle, the entire gathering united in an audible and heart-felt response to David’s song of praise. The congregation were confirming that they agreed with David’s prayer. They were saying, ‘even so Lord let it be’. It was a response that expressed their desire to participate with David in an act of worship.
In the Old Testament we find the Amen used by individuals to confirm a public oath (Numbers 5:22) but more often it occurs in a congregation setting. Israel used it to affirm God’s curses for unfaithfulness in the promised land (Deuteronomy 27:15-26).
By means of the Amen, Nehemiah’s congregation acquiesced to his proposal, and later joined Ezra in praise of God (Nehemiah 5:13; 8:6).
Amen in the New Testament
When we come to the New Testament we find the Amen used in a variety of ways. Jesus used it frequently in his public discourses. His ‘verily, verily’ in the AV is literally ‘amen, amen’ and underlined the solemnity of his words.
It is also often used to end a piece of writing. In Romans we find it appended to both a benediction and a doxology (15:33; 11:36). The Bible itself ends with an Amen in Revelation 22:21.
In 1 Corinthians 14:16 Paul refers to the Amen in the context of Christian worship. If you speak in unknown tongues, he asks, how shall an uninformed person ‘say “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say?’ Paul is concerned that members of the congregation should be able to consent in an audible manner to what they have heard spoken in worship.
Paul addressed the issue of public worship at Corinth because it was a shambles that needed sorting out. The Corinthians had lost sight of what public worship was all about. For Paul the key issue in making worship public was edification of the entire body through effective communication.
Such communication could not occur without the appropriate use of language, uttered so that all could clearly hear and understand (1 Corinthians 14:9). His concern was that the Spirit’s gifts of utterance given to communicate God’s message to unevangelised people of other languages (as in Acts 2:8-11) were being abused.
An audible affair
However, the point I want to make is that underlying Paul’s reasoning is the fact that Christian worship is an audible affair. Why? Because language is the vehicle that God has chosen to communicate his saving message to mankind (Romans 10:17).
In Christian public worship we gather to hear the Word of God read and proclaimed (and explained) through preaching. In response, the congregation lift their voices in praise to God in song. In worship also we address God audibly in prayer. And the use of the responsive Amen is part of this audible programme.
Paul’s evident concern is that there should be structure and order when the church gathers for worship. All present need to participate in corporate worship but nothing can be achieved by a free-for-all where everyone seeks to say something.
Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 14:16 is that prayer in an unknown tongue cannot edify the hearer because he doesn’t understand it. By contrast, a hearer who does understand what he hears is edified and responds with his Amen.
Ordered participation in worship, then, involves the people first understanding and being edified by what is being communicated – and then giving their audible assent to what has been said.
If this is correct, the Amen is not just an optional extra but an essential part of public worship. Effective edification through public worship should produce an audible response by the use of the Amen by the congregation.
The Amen provides a means of assenting to what has been said by those who are leading – and, vitally, communicates to the one leading that his hearers have understood what has been said. Surely therefore, at the very least our congregations should use the Amen to affirm that what has been offered in prayer is right and represents the corporate desire of the church?
Speech that has been addressed to God, and has edified the congregation, should bring forth an audible Amen. And who is to say that the Amen it is not appropriate in other worship settings too?
Not too loud!
Of course, the Amen can be used inappropriately by the congregation. Some say it too loudly! Others use it indiscriminately to approve statements in a sermon. Yet others can use it, intentionally or not, to interrupt the service. These are some of the reasons, perhaps, why most of us are reticent about offering an audible Amen.
Perhaps natural reserve also leads us to think it inappropriate? Maybe we are fearful of being considered ‘Charismatic’ or indulging an unspiritual enthusiasm. Or perhaps we are just unsure about it.
But if Paul saw the correct use of an Amen in Corinth as a healthy corrective to abuses in public worship then an appropriate use will surely enhance our corporate worship today.
Spurgeon on the Amen
In a sermon on 2 Peter 3:18, Spurgeon gives four reasons for the use of the Amen.
First, it expresses the desire of the heart. Uttered at the end of a prayer it is saying, ‘Lord, let it be so. This is our hearts’ desire’. Revelation 22:20 is an example: Jesus says, ‘Surely I am coming quickly’. John responds, ‘Amen. Even so come Lord Jesus!’
Second, it is an affirmation of our faith. We say ‘Amen’ because we believe what has been spoken is true. We are saying, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe your promises are true’.
Third, it is an expression of a joyful heart. We express our joy that Christ has been lifted up as King.
Fourth, it confirms our resolution. We are making a pledge before God that by the strength that God gives we intend to make so what has been uttered.
The Puritans were fond of pointing out an important distinction in the use of the word between Old and New Testaments. In the OT Amen was added to the curses of the law but not to its blessings (Deuteronomy 27 and 28) but in the NT Amen is never added to the curses of the gospel but only to its blessings (compare 1 Corinthians 16:22 where Paul pronounces an anathema on those who do not love Christ, with 2 Corinthians 13:6 where Paul’s ends the triune benediction with an Amen).
The Puritans saw the Amen as something immensely positive because it is used to confirm the certainty of God’s promises – ‘all the promises of God in him are “yes” and in him “Amen”’ (2 Corinthians 1:20).
Finally, some very practical benefits arise from the use of the Amen in public worship:
1. When used by the leader it intimates to the congregation that he has finished speaking. How important this was in the light of Paul’s concern for good order in worship.
2. The congregational Amen is a great encouragement to the one leading – a clear sign that he is not alone in the awesome task of approaching the living God in worship.
3. Its use by the congregation assures the one leading that he has effectively communicated the content of his prayer or message.
4. The Amen demonstrates the congregation’s unity with the leader and that they have been edified by what they have heard.
5. The corporate nature of worship is emphasised as the whole gathering expresses a unified assent to what has been offered to God. As with sung praise, the Amen unites the entire congregation in offering praise to God.
So, be an encouragement to others in congregational worship – join in saying the Amen! ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting! And let all the people say, “Amen!” Praise the Lord!’ (Psalm 106:48).