The first part of bringing people in a more actively participating role in worship is to bring them to a place of understanding the what and why of liturgy. This can go a long ways in helping people engage more fruitfully and deeply with liturgical worship.
The second part involves how the liturgy is done. Things get fuzzy here. There are different degrees of participation, affected by the understanding, attitude, and discipline of different people. How leaders perform affects the ways the congregation responds, and vice versa. A ritual that is meaningful for one person may not be for another. But still, there are some broad principles that can help foster active participation in the liturgy, even though any liturgy will need to be adapted to a congregation’s needs, understanding, and gifts.
Leaders and people. Worship necessarily involves a juxtaposition of leaders and people: those who stand to proclaim “Christ in person” and those who respond to the proclamation. It’s the old revelation and response thing, embodied in leaders and people. Both leaders and people participate actively in the liturgy, but in necessarily different ways.
An eight-century liturgical document shows this dialectic in place in explaining what it is the bishop does at a meeting: “The bishop addressing the people, blesses them, saying: ‘The Lord be with you always.’ The blessing is returned, ‘And with your spirit.’ He receives a blessing from the mouths of all the people so that he may be more worthy to bless them in return.” So active participation is the responsibility of both leader and people. This is why Pentecostal preachers want you to “help” them when they preach – your response is your active participation in the preaching of the Word.
Doing it well. Active participation depends as much on the way things are done as what is done. If the “drama” of worship is performed poorly, it reduces a congregation’s ability to actively participate in it. Robert Jenson warns:
If the language of our gospel-address is broken and unnatural in its speech rhythms, if we read texts that set us glumly aback just as we are well launched into declamation, if “free” prayer simply means clumsy and repetitious prayer, this is not merely an aesthetic misfortune; it is quenching of the Spirit.
This is why I encourage our worship community to become proficient on their instruments, and to select songs that lift the congregation into the dizzying heights of the nature of God, and to play them well, and never to read Scripture in a monotone voice, etc. The way things are done has a profound affect on the congregation’s ability to actively participate.
Disciplined participation. Certain disciplines are needed if active participation is to be fostered. General Instruction of the Roman Missal instructs that texts should “be spoken in a loud and clear voice” and in a manner suited to the dynamics of the liturgy. The role of the responders is also critical. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal instructs responders to “listen with attention.” Attentiveness is necessary for active participation, because “liturgy is not something done for the people by the minister; it is done by all in their different capacities. Just as there is power in the spoken word, there is also power in attentiveness.” Another necessary discipine is silence. Worship is revelation and response, and silence puts us in a receptive mode–which is a prerequisite for responding well to the revelation.
Music. “Singing, chanting and other musical forms are other important means of fostering active participation.” Many expressions of thanksgiving and praise are better sung than said, because music has a power exceeding that of merely spoken words. St. Basil knew this power:
The Holy Spirit sees how much difficulty mankind has in loving virtue, and how we prefer the lure of pleasure to the straight and narrow path. What does he do? He adds the grace of music to the truth of doctrine. Charmed by what we hear, we pluck the fruit of the words without realizing it.
And music in liturgies should not be reduced to the “praise and worship time” before the sermon. We suffocate the transforming potential of music if we limit its function to expressions of praise. Song is much bigger than praise. Worship is much bigger than praise. Take a look at the Psalms. Methodist theologian Don Sailers insists that true worship should evoke the “senses” of awe, delight, truthfulness and hope. Jack Hayford calls for worship that inspires thankfulness, humility, dependence, awe and obedience. Our music should reflect all the “religious affections” as Jonathan Edwards called them.
In all these ways active participation can be fostered in liturgical worship.