Why Does Your Pastor Monopolize Your Worship Service?

Why does our pastor monopolize our worship service? He does and he doesn’t. He leads the whole service, but this does not mean he monopolizes the service. In fact, our service is profoundly more participatory than the run-of-the-mill evangelical service.

"Protestants Worshipping by Night in the Church of the Desert"

"Protestants Worshipping by Night in the Church of the Desert" (click to enlarge)

“You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” So goes the charge by church members who think that the church is a democracy. Well, not really.

Actually, this was Korah and his band of 250 well-known tribal leaders of Israel accusing Moses and Aaron of being the dictator of Israel (Num 16:3). Korah, a Levite, was not satisfied with his position as a priest, but wanted to have a more prominent and authoritative role in Israel’s theocracy. Same old, same old, never-changing human nature. The rest of Numbers 16 tell us about the dire consequences of man’s greed for power, authority and fame.

The church as a democracy? This is what most evangelicals believe the church should be. A typical Sunday “worship” service consists of an unending parade of men, women, and children taking turns doing whatever they deem to be pleasing to them and to the congregation. A typical monthly schedule has the men, women and youth leading the service, the pastor being relegated to the sidelines once a month. Even when it’s his turn to preach, the pastor’s only role is preaching and pronouncing the benediction (if there is any).

Some churches even allow their young teenagers to preach, and their parents are so thrilled watching the talent show! But these are extreme cases because in many churches, the pastor still preaches most often, allowing that the preacher should be the pastor, just as the Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 158 says,

The Word of God is to be preached only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office.

as the prophets, apostles, evangelists, and pastors and teachers were, since they were given as gifts to the church (Eph 4:11). “Bishops” (elders) are responsible for teaching (1Tim 3:2,6; 2Tim 2:2). The Old Testament priest is “the messenger of the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 2:7), and the apostles are “ministers of a new covenant” (2Cor. 3:6).

The Larger Catechism states that even the reading of the Word in public worship is to be done only by those who have been duly approved as pastors or elders, as Moses (Deut 31:9, 11–13), Ezra (Neh 8:2–3; 9:3–5), and the Levites were:

Question 156. Is the Word of God to be read by all?
A. Although all are not to be permitted to read the word publicly to the congregation..

“Every Believer is a Minister”?
Okay, okay, pastors and elders are the only ones duly approved to preach. What about the rest of the worship service? Didn’t the Reformers teach the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” so that there is no higher office in the church and all are “ministers”? Martin Luther, of course, was the one who coined the term—”the name and office of priest are common to all Christians”—but today’s evangelical notion of this doctrine is a world apart from what Luther had in mind:

For although we are all priests, this does not mean that all of us can preach, teach, and rule. Certain ones of the multitude must be selected for such an office. And he who has such an office is not a priest because of his office, but a servant of all the others, who are priests. When he is no longer able to preach and serve, or if he no longer wants to do so, he once more becomes part of the common multitude of Christians. His office is conveyed to someone else, and he becomes a Christian like any other. This is the way to distinguish between the office of preaching, or the ministry, and the general priesthood of all baptized Christians. 1

If not all are “ministers” in the church, how are believers “priests” in Luther’s understanding?

A shoemaker, a smith, a farmer, each has his manual occupation and work; and yet, at the same time, all are eligible to act as priests…. Every one of them in his occupation or handicraft ought to be useful to his fellows… 2.

Since God has called all believers to be His royal priests (1Pet 2:9-10), the vocation of a doctor is not better or more “sacred” than that of the shoemaker. Because he is not in “full-time ministry,” a Christian call center agent sees his vocation as inferior or unspiritual compared with the pastor in “full-time ministry.” The problem with the current notion of the “priesthood” is that many Christians do not see that God is able to accomplish His work in the world and in the church through their vocations. As Hagopian again says:

As priests, believers are endowed with the incredible privilege of ministering for God daily in their vocations. But because many believers lose sight of their priestly calling, they slosh through their tasks day after day, without seizing valuable opportunities to serve God as priests in their vocations… with vigor and zeal, viewing them as an opportunity to serve our Great High Priest. 3

Michael Horton echoes this priesthood view:

Every believer is called to evangelize, so Bob and his friend do not need to leave their vocations in order to take up evangelism. Furthermore, the church is God’s ordained institution for evangelism. Notice the distinction here between individuals and institutions: every individual believer evangelizes, but not every institution is evangelistic. Christ has many brothers and sisters, but only one church. Individual Christians working on an assembly line may win their co-workers to Christ over time, but the factory does not become an evangelistic institution. 4

So, Rick Warren’s proposal, “every believer is a minister,” is based on an aberrant understanding of the Reformed “priesthood.” In the public worship of God every Lord’s Day, this error has led to the “democratization” of the liturgy. There are various “ministers”: worship band, presider or emcee, event announcers, choir, dancers, special musicians, testimony givers, etc. They are all supposed to be “messengers,” but Scripture tells us that only duly-ordained ministers are God’s messengers in the assembly of God’s people.

Word-Centered, Pastor-Led, Participatory
Since only pastors and elders are God’s ordained messengers in the assembly of God’s people, they are the only ones appointed to “mediate” between God and his people during the worship service. Thus, D. G. Hart & John R. Muether says,

With the exception of singing and confession of faith, the elements of worship all involve the work of the minister. He invokes God’s presence by reading Scripture, prays on behalf of his flock, reads and preaches the Word, administers the sacraments, and pronounces the benediction. All of these activities are given to ministers. They are in the vocation of Word, sacrament, and prayer. 5

But even in singing and confession of faith, it is the Word of God that is used. We sing songs from the Psalms and other Scriptures. The creeds and confessions are saturated with Scripture texts. Thus, since the whole service is filled with God’s Word because we read, preach, pray, sing and confess it, the whole service is led by the messenger of God’s Word, the pastor.

Why then has the worship service become democratized? It has everything to do with two fatal flaws in evangelical theology: first, the purpose of the service is to evangelize unbelievers and all believers are “evangelists”; and second, Warren’s “every believer is a minister.” But as Hart and Muether again says,

The funny thing about this transformation of church ministry is that few proponents of every-member ministry would think of applying this logic to other aspects of their lives. For instance… How many automobile owners would take their vehicle to a repair shop in which dentists and bakers performed the tune-ups and replaced the timing belts? The obvious answer is that today’s Christians tolerate a high degree of hierarchical expertise when it comes to any number of society’s functions, but refuse to do so when it comes to religious matters. 6

Why does our pastor monopolize our worship service? He does and he doesn’t. He leads the whole service, but this does not mean he monopolizes the service. In fact, our service is profoundly more participatory than the run-of-the-mill evangelical service.

While the worship team dominates the singing in evangelical worship, we emphasize congregational singing with gusto—and we can actually hear our own voices, not the blaring drums and twanging guitars. While evangelicals pray individually in simultaneous cacophony, our pastor leads the congregation in praying well-thought, well-prepared Scriptural prayers. While the evangelical pastor engages in preaching humor and anecdotes, our pastor expounds Scripture and applies it to the life of the congregation.

This is why the Westminster Shorter Catechism says in Q&A 90, “That the word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives.”

Worshippers in our church are not passive and inactive. They are involved in the service, even before the Lord’s Day, when they are encouraged to prepare by reading the Scripture lessons and praying before the Lord’s Day. During the service, they receive God’s Word with faith and love, carefully reflecting while listening. And as they go out into the world, they appropriate what they have sung, prayed, confessed and heard in Christ through the ministry of the pastor during the assembly on the Lord’s Day.


Notes:

  1. Quoted in Horton, Michael, “What About Bob?” Modern Reformation March-April 1997, 8-15
  2. Woolf, Bertram Lee, Reformation Writings of Martin Luther (Lutterworth Press, 2001), I.116. Quoted in “Trading Places: The Priesthood of All Believers” by David Hagopian
  3. Hagopian, “Trading Places”
  4. Horton, “What About Bob?”
  5. Hart, D. G. & Muether, John R., With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 112.
  6. Hart & Muether, 109
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