In Praise of Congregational Participation

By Becky Ahlberg

Contrary to what you might think, “worship wars” have been going on for centuries. I’ll not slip back into my music history professor role and bore you with all the details, but suffice it to say that, from early church days, how we worship has been the topic of a lively, ongoing debate. As is the norm for humans, we tend to swing the pendulum from one extreme to another, rarely finding that center of balance. I suppose if we carry through with that analogy, though, the good news is that it is the swinging pendulum that keeps the clockworks running, so at least we know we’re still ticking!

When I began in church music, if you showed up at the door of the church with drums and guitars, they wouldn’t let you in—that was the devil’s music. Now, if you don’t show up with drums and guitars, you are out of touch and unable to reach the lost. In just 40 years, the tumult has ebbed and flowed by the latest new thing, and ironically, as I reach the sunset years of my ministry, traditional, liturgical, unplugged, a cappella . . . they’re all coming back. Go figure.

While music has certainly been a significant part of the controversy, I am most concerned about the general lack of participation by our congregations in our regular worship experiences . . . no matter what the style.

Several weeks ago in his column in The Lookout (September 26, 2010), David Faust lamented the lack of participation in congregational singing; “We don’t want to just stand there,” he wrote. Shortly after that, Mark Taylor, in an editorial for this magazine (November 14) wrote, “Corporate worship is not a concert followed by a lecture, but a confrontation with the living God. And he’s been moving worshippers since long before believers debated worship styles or created worship budgets.”

More Than Music

But even their lament falls short of what I’d like to consider. Congregational singing—as significant and foundational to worship as I believe it is—is not the only way a congregation can participate. For far too many of us, the word worship has come to mean music. When we say, “Let’s have a time of worship,” these days, it almost always means, “let’s sing,” period.

The band and worship team spend hours in preparation and offer their gifts with the highest of motives and the best of intentions—I don’t doubt that at all. On the contrary, the commitment to excellence of most worship leaders and teams is inspirational. But I also know how easy it is to fall into the trap of “the next big thing” and to spend too much time on what happens up front instead of what is happening in the congregation. NOTHING we do up front will ever replace the vital importance of the body of Christ meeting together and building one another up as we corporately, and regularly, renew our commitment to God, to each other, and to the mission of the church.

From beginning to end, the corporate worship experience should facilitate the “call and response” of God to his people and his people back to him. It cannot be authentic worship if it is simply a flawless performance. Every worship leader, and every worship team member, must see his or her role as a prompter, not a performer. The goal of excellence is so important because that’s how to get out of the way for the worship of God’s people together. Leaders are to prime the pump, jump-start the engine, light the fire, and let the Spirit of God envelope his people in a corporate experience of varied expression. And it’s so much more than music!


When was the last time your congregation read a significant passage of Scripture together—out loud? The entire book of James takes about 12 minutes, but is also a tremendous foundation to build an entire service around. Weave songs, prayers, Communion, and offering throughout such a reading, and end it with a summation sermon and invitation*.

Romans 8 takes about 4 minutes, the Sermon on the Mount about 10. With a variety of passages assigned to soloists and subsets of the congregation, as well as the entire assembly on sections, reading God’s Word purposefully and corporately is one of the most thrilling worship experiences there is.


When was the last time the cacophony of prayer was heard in your assembly? Small groups praying aloud all around the room, for either suggested topics or specific people or specific circumstances, is an amazing acoustic experience. Sensitive prompting will be required to keep it from being too off-putting to visitors or the shy, but it is a marvelous thing to hear so many lifting voices to God.

Too many of our prayers are delivered by too few. Do you use children, families, and teens, or just the staff and elders? Don’t miss an opportunity to involve more.


Hearing what God is doing within the congregation is an exhilarating and instructive time, and it helps a congregation retell the story of God in our lives. Again, sensitive planning and prompting are required to keep on point and to maximize the impact, but when “even my voice” finds a place in the assembly, there is a renewed sense of “spurring one another on” and a renewed commitment to “not forsake assembling together.”

Because our lives are so separated in today’s world, this intentional opportunity to know and be known is crucial to authentic community and, I believe, to shaping the context for worship. Yes, it can get a little messy, but worship is about family life, and what adoring father doesn’t love to hear from his children—all of them?

Communion and Baptism

For a movement known for the observances of Communion and baptism, we too often give them short shrift in our assemblies. We worry too much about the timing and not enough about the moment.

If you observe the Lord’s Supper in the exact same way week after week, be careful that it does not fall into the “vain repetition” category. There is room for tradition and even ritual, but relationships require fresh, vibrant, meaningful attention . . . full engagement. What could be more indicative of our relationship with God than the Lord’s Supper or the participation in the baptism of one becoming a member of the body of Christ?

Consider doing more things to engage the whole group: coming forward to partake (in a large assembly, having multiple stations), sometimes take the elements together, sometimes take them privately, sometimes sing in the midst, sometimes make small groups that serve each other. Get people involved.

One of the travesties of our Communion observance is how many people think it’s just a private thing . . . just between me and God. NOT SO! To discern the body of Christ all around you is a profound part of the Lord’s Supper. That means people have to be engaged in the process.

Same with baptism—don’t just make it an “also ran” at the end of the service. When you know about baptisms ahead of time, build them into the service. Take a person’s confession in the water! Of course, more may come at the end of the service, but even then, consider having those in the room waiting to share their own conversion/baptism stories in small groups around the room—something more than just watching.

Artistic Expression

To access only music for worship is a poverty of artistic expression. To access only prerecorded, “canned” media can stunt a congregation’s creative expression by again relegating them to a passive role.

Do you have photographers among you? Dancers? Sculptors or potters? Visual artists? Graphic artists? Thespians? We serve such a creative God; surely he inspires the best among us—not just the staff and hired pros.

One of the greatest compliments ever paid to me was, “Becky, I just love how authentically amateur your people are. It’s so obvious that they do this work for the love of it and bring their best to it. What an inspiration!” Yes, use everything you can find, but don’t forget to use people!


We live in a LOUD world. Take the time to be silent. It is a fine art that has been lost in the hustle and bustle of American life. Prompt moments of confession or petition. Encourage mental list-making and thanksgiving. Challenge people to bring scenes into their “mind’s eye.” Just let a meaningful moment sink in!

I’ve only scratched the surface in this appeal to engage God’s people when they assemble together. Let that pendulum swing, but take everyone along for the ride!

It will require the intentional, concerted effort of many to make it happen, but I believe the highest calling of the people of God (and therefore the highest priority of corporate worship planning) should be to worship him with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and to include as many as possible in as many ways as possible praising, thanking, blessing, grieving, hoping, serving, loving, giving, sharing, laughing, crying, being . . . together . . . every week . . . to the praise of his glory.


*Access a pdf of a script for a worship service built around the book of James by clicking on this document: Book of James Script.

Becky Ahlberg serves as worship minister at Anaheim (California) First Christian Church, executive director of My Safe Harbor, and as a Christian Standard contributing editor.

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  1. Todd Lundgren
    March 31, 2011 at 1:06 pm


  2. Philip Andrews
    March 31, 2011 at 8:10 pm


    D. P. Shaffer, the minister of my home congregation before I was born, is credited with saying “What you win them by is what you win them to”….

    I wonder if we have less participatory worship nowadays because we have been “winning” them by having a good show, and now we have congregations full of spectators.

    I also wonder how our focus in worship would be affected if the praise teams were at the back of the auditorium and we all faced forward and focused on the words as we voiced our praises. (It has been suggested that you then wouldn’t wonder who liked the limelight a little too much as they wouldn’t be in the limelight any longer.)

    Maybe silence and meditation and scripture reading are the ways God intends to speak to us.

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