Are You a Spectator on Sunday Morning?

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Professor, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary

Medieval worship was a spectator sport. Pious peasants would attend Latin Mass — a language they could not understand — and gape in amazement as the bread and wine turned into the body and blood of Jesus. This miracle happened when the priest said the magic words, Hoc est corpus meum (translated “This is my body”). This phrase is the origin of the magician’s phrase, hocus pocus. The peasants were rarely allowed to eat the bread and they were never entrusted with their Savior’s blood. They merely watched as the priest behind the altar consumed Jesus.

The Reformation’s emphasis on the priesthood of all believers turned these spectators into participants. Ordinary Christians no longer needed a priestly class to intercede between them and God. Martin Luther translated the Bible into German so everyone could hear from God, wrote a German Mass so everyone could sing along, and said every Christian must be given both the bread and the cup.

Worship was wrestled away from the professional, priestly class and opened wide for everyone who put their faith in Christ.

Watching Worshipers

Modern worship is becoming a spectator sport. Pious evangelicals stand mute before the overwhelming volume of the praise band — a loud sound they cannot compete with or contribute to — and gape in amazement as this priestly class of talented musicians soars for impossibly high and sustained notes. The worship is typically ebullient, and also far beyond the reach of the ordinary person. Many don’t even try.

Pastors, look around during worship this weekend. How many of God’s children are singing? How many simply stand there, watching the professional performance on the platform?

Ask them why. Is it because they don’t know the songs — which are often sung for a few weeks and then forgotten? Is it because they can’t hear themselves or the person next to them, so they figure, What’s the point? Is it because they don’t feel the enthusiasm projected from the stage, and they don’t want to force what isn’t there? Ask how you can engage them better in worship.

Undistracting excellence is a good aim in corporate worship, but it is not the primary aim. The measure of our worship is not how well the band played but how much the people sang. Let us hear our voice mingle with the rising swell of the congregation, so “that together [we] may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:6).

Priestly Worshipers

What about us worshipers who are tempted to become spectators? Respectfully encourage your pastors to foster participation. In the meantime, ask God to help you attempt two, somewhat contrary acts:

1. Sing Thoughtfully

Our hymns and choruses are essentially sung prayers. We set our words to music and then sing them to God. Consequently, I only want to sing lyrics I would pray to God, because if I sing them, I am.

Sometimes I will change the words into something more accurate or biblically robust. I may change a line about our “failure” or “brokenness” into our “sin” to better emphasize the depth of our need for Jesus. I may change “When we’ve been there ten thousand years” to “When we’ve been here ten thousand years” to better reflect God’s promise of a redeemed earth. When there’s no easy fix, I simply take a breath while the line is sung and join in on the next one.

I also tend not to sing all twelve repetitions of the same line. I worry that such redundancy might disobey Jesus’s command, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). I wonder whether our endless repetition might annoy God. Does he throw up his hands and say, “You’ve been ‘Running to my arms’ for ten stanzas. Get here already!” Remember his warning, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. . . . Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:1–3).

2. But Not Critically

I’m a theologian, so it’s easy for me to sing thoughtfully. But as you might have guessed, it’s also easy to become critical. Like a proud Pharisee, I look around at the unsophisticated publicans and think, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” who mindlessly repeat shallow lyrics (Luke 18:11). I must remember that only one man went home with God’s blessing, and it wasn’t the Pharisee. There is something worse than singing thoughtlessly. That is to have such high standards that we don’t sing at all.

It is hard to get “lost in wonder, love, and praise” when we weigh each line as we sing it, yet we must aim to do both. It helps when the worship leader has earned our trust, or when we’ve sung this song before, but there is no easy formula. Our worship cost Jesus his life. We shouldn’t be surprised if it demands our best, too.

This Sunday, let’s stand and sing. Even if no one else hears you, even if you can’t hear you, know that God hears you. And he is listening.