The church in many places is taking its cue from the entertainment world when it comes to how a congregation responds to truth during worship. If we like something, we applaud. The preacher makes a good point and we applaud. The musicians sing an exciting piece. We applaud. The biblical “Amen!” seems to have lost its place.
No congregation should be faulted for wanting to make some sort of response in a service of worship. Worship in many places needs more of that. But applause is known in virtually every other context as affirmation for performance. Thus, the question: is applause during worship our best choice to affirm what is happening?
Not that there isn’t any place for applause in church. For example, when a member is celebrating her 100th birthday or another member has been chosen as valedictorian of her class, applause may be the right response. It’s acknowledging the achievements of God’s people. It’s rejoicing in community.
But, applause seems to have nudged out the Biblical response that is sprinkled liberally across the Scriptures – the word, Amen! The difference is this: Applause is a way of saying “We like that,” or “You did a good job.” It’s used as a measure of performance, and one isn’t required to put the weight of one’s character behind applause. “Amen,” on the other hand, is a way of saying, “That’s the truth.” That word expresses commitment. The difference is subtle but real.
The Hebrew meaning of the word is “surely,” from a root which means “to be firm, steady, trustworthy.” The Greek word has the same sounds as the Hebrew and this is why in more literal translations the word is often rendered “Verily” or “truly.”
The Book of Psalms, the hymnbook of the ancient church, is divided into five books, perhaps to parallel the Pentateuch — the first five books of the Bible. Each division, except book four, ends with “Amen and Amen.” Book four ends, “Let all the people say, “Amen!” (Ps. 106:48) The Amen is the congregation’s special word for responding to and affirming God’s truth.
When Nehemiah charged wrongdoers to return to the poor a portion of the money they had exacted from them, “The whole assembly said, ‘Amen’ and praised the Lord.” (Neh. 5:13). Again, the word carries the weight of truth, fidelity, the pledge of obedience.
David presented to Asaph a psalm for worship, ending with the words, “Praise to the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Then all the people said ‘Amen’ and ‘Praise the Lord.’” (1 Chron. 16:36) This use became common in synagogue worship and passed into the practice of the early church.
Paul writes that in Christ God’s promises are authoritative. “No matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘yes’ in Christ. And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 1:20). When a congregation says “Amen” they are saying yes to God’s truth and thus glorifying God.
Amen is a good word, sprinkled throughout the Scriptures! It is a robust word. It is congregation-friendly, to be spoken with conviction when the Scriptures are read or at the close of a pastoral prayer, or when a benediction is pronounced over a dispersing congregation. The word can echo warmth and confidence. It is a God-directed word and shouldn’t be surrendered without much thought to a less biblical way of responding to God’s truth revealed in Christ.
When a prayer ends with the Amen of the congregation, we are saying “That is my prayer too,” or “I own that as the truth,” That seems to me more potent than applause that says, “I like that,” or “Nice going.”