When is the last time you said amen out loud at the end of a prayer that someone else led in worship? And what’s the difference whether you say it aloud, or let the person leading the prayer say it? What does it mean to say amen?
I kept thinking about these questions after worshiping with Christians last year in several different countries, two in Asia (China and Japan), and two in Africa (Ghana and Nigeria). In each country, everyone said all the amens to all the prayers. That really struck me. And in China, during the congregational prayer, everyone said amen at the end of every sentence! Voices rose and fell in volume and enthusiasm, sentence by sentence, as they matched their voices to the intensity of the one who led them in prayer.
That’s not how I grew up in a primarily Anglo congregation. I know that African American practice is much more participatory, with amens regularly punctuating preaching as well as concluding prayers. But after hearing amens aloud in different countries, I wondered: just what is the amen all about? Is this little Hebrew word merely a signal that the prayer is ending? Shouldn’t it be more?
Amen is found about twenty times in the Old Testament, more often in the New, in several different contexts, two of which are most common today.
An Emphatic Yes!
The first practice is to offer our emphatic yes in response to what we believe. Following Jewish practice, early Christian practice was to add an amen at the end of doxologies or blessings (2 Cor. 1:20). That is the most common use in the New Testament (except for the amens used by Jesus himself). The doxology in Revelation 1:6 concludes with an amen, followed immediately by a declaration that Christ will return, ending with “So it is to be. Amen.” That phrase is picked up in the final question and answer (Q&A 129) of the Heidelberg Catechism:
This is sure to be!
It is even more sure
that God listens to my prayer
than that I really desire
what I pray for.
A Conclusion to Prayer
First Corinthians 14:16 assumes that everyone speaks the amen. Evidently Christians in Rome spoke their amens with such intensity that Jerome (fourth century) said it sounded like a clap of thunder.
But the custom of everyone saying amen, like so many practices, fell on hard times during the middle ages, when clergy took over what had been the practice of all the people. Then only the priest said the amens.
Luther tried to restore the communal practice, even saying that if we do not end our prayers with amen we pray not in faith, but like doubters (James 1:6-7) who should not expect to have their prayers answered! Anglicans too tried to restore the practice of everyone saying amen, but the idea met with resistance. Puritans in seventeenth-century Scotland considered saying amen merely a formula, and therefore offensive.
But some English Nonconformists, Primitive Methodists, and eventually African Americans considered this little word much more than a formula; it was a way to give earnest expression to their devotion.
Try It Out Loud!
I’ve started to say amen, not loudly, I’ll grant, but aloud, after every prayer led by another, whether in church or in a meeting or at home. And here comes a confession: Saying amen out loud helps me listen and participate in the prayer. I’m more hesitant to say amen if I haven’t really prayed the prayer with the one who was intending to lead me in prayer.
The congregational prayer is often one of the most challenging parts of the service for people to really participate in. If that is true for you and for your congregation, try saying amen aloud. Ask your entire worship committee to try it with you.
And after a doxology or blessing, and not only when invited by the formula “And all God’s people say . . .,” add your amen with feeling. It is in such small steps that people learn the practices of participating in worship, taking on their own lips the yes! of faith.
Reformed Worship Celebrates Twenty Years
This issue of RW begins our twentieth year of publication. We’re grateful for the support of our readers. Some of you have subscribed for all twenty years! Whether this is your first (in which case, welcome!) or seventy-seventh issue or somewhere in between, we hope you will find something helpful in this issue.
We’d love to hear from you during this anniversary year. Send an e-mail or letter (to me or to firstname.lastname@example.org) telling us how you’ve used RW in your worship planning, what impact it has made on your church, and what you’d like to see more of in the next twenty years. We hope to publish some of your letters in the next three issues.