Corporate Worship: Benediction
Dear Church Family,
In our examination of the various elements of corporate worship, this week we come to the concluding element of our service, the benediction. Our English word derives from the Latin and refers to “speaking a good word” or “blessing.” Like many of the other Biblical parts of the corporate worship service, the benediction seems to have fallen on hard times in our day. On several occasions when I have had the opportunity to preach in other churches, I have had the experience of raising my hands at the conclusion of the service to pronounce the benediction only to find looks of bewilderment and surprise on the faces looking back at me.
Even in churches and worship services where one is used to hearing a benediction at the close of the service, there may be some confusion as to what exactly is going on. As Terry Johnson observes, “There is considerable disagreement as to the nature of the benediction. Is it a pronouncement, spoken to the congregation with head uplifted and eyes opened, or is it a prayer, prayed with head bowed and eyes closed?” (Johnson, Terry L., ed. 1996. Leading in Worship, 36).
Pronouncing a Blessing
Previously, in our discussion of the invocation, we looked at the difference between the invocation and the benediction. There, we pointed out that in the liturgy of the Christian church, an invocation and benediction have very specific meanings, and they represent two different directions of communication. In the invocation, the congregation (through a representative voice) is calling upon the Lord, their Creator and Redeemer, asking Him to be present with them in worship. In the benediction, the communication is reversed: the Lord pronounces a blessing upon His people (using Scripture, through a representative voice), and usually by way of dismissal.
It is also helpful to remember that in our corporate worship service, God assembles His covenant people in order that they might renew their covenant bond with Him and with one another. This principle of worship as covenant renewal helps us to recognize that in the benediction, God addresses and blesses His people as He sends them out into the world:
“Apart from the narrative structure of this covenant gathering, the benediction could easily become (and too often does become) little more than a way of saying, ‘The service is over, so good-bye.’ But here, one last time, God addresses his people. Grace has the last word, as the people receive God’s blessing through the minister with raised hands. Not only do these benedictions appear throughout the Old Testament (chiefly the Aaronic form), but they are replete in the pastoral letters of the New Testament, closing these missives that were intended as apostolic sermons to be read publicly in churches throughout the Empire.” (Horton, Michael. 2002. A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-centered Worship, 160).
I can attest to how the benediction can easily become little more than a way of saying ‘good-bye’ as Horton describes. My wife and I once attended a worship service which concluded with the worship leader declaring, “Y’all come back, now! Ya hear!” Rather than a colloquial “see ya later!”, the benediction is the pronouncement of God’s blessing upon His people at the conclusion of the worship service, these words of blessing coming from Scripture.
Receiving a Blessing
The benediction is pronounced by a minister or elder, but we must remember that it is God who is speaking to His people. The man who pronounces the blessing is simply a representative voice. As such, it is a solemn, yet joyful word of dismissal from the Lord Himself and God’s people would do well to heed these words and meditate upon them as they depart. I have personally known some people who would take the words of the benediction (or other parts of Scripture from the order of worship) and tape them to their mirrors or a conspicuous place by which they could be reminded throughout the week of what the Lord had declared to them on Sunday.
There is no directive given in the Scriptures concerning the proper stance that one ought to take in receiving the benediction. Some raise their hands and look to the one who declares the benediction in a posture of ‘open reception.’ Others bow their heads in humble reverence in hearing the Lord’s blessing. Still others simply stand. Any of these is appropriate; the most important thing, though, is that we acknowledge the great privilege that is ours as God’s people in receiving His blessing to those who belong to Christ.
In our service at Hill Country Church (PCA), following the benediction, the congregation typically responds in a short song of praise and thanksgiving. Whether it be through the Gloria Patri or the Threefold Amen or some other song, it is appropriate for God’s people to respond to His pronouncement of blessing. Singing thanksgiving and praise to God as we are dismissed is a practical reminder that that we respond to God’s initiative. Singing together with one voice as we depart, we are also reminded of the bonds of Christian unity that we share as we prepare to re-enter the world.
May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!