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Question: Some recent visitors were pretty vocal during the sermon, saying “Amen” on occasion. I know this is largely a matter of differing traditions, but it got me thinking: Should we have more — or less — of that in Reformed churches?

Answer: OPC Minister Joel Ellis provides a thorough treatment of this topic in the following article.

Some readers may recall that transliteration is when you spell a word in one language with the letters of another language. Transliteration should not be confused with translation in which the meaning of a word or term is conveyed in the vocabulary of another language. Over time languages borrow words from other languages. Sometimes called loanwords in modern linguistics, these are usually transliterations, adapting a word from another language and making it part of one’s own vocabulary. When you visit a Mexican restaurant, you do not order a fried shell of corn meal filled with meat and cheese or rice and beans in a thin, flexible flour wrap. You probably just say you want a taco or a burrito.

Most religions have many transliterated terms, words borrowed from the language of origin that have entered the vocabulary of adherents who speak other languages. Christianity is no exception, and many examples could be given. These loanwords have, in most cases, become technical terms with a more specific meaning than their etymology or original denotation might have suggested. But this technical significance is not always recognized, leading to unfortunate arguments over etymology and meaning, as in the case of words like baptism and church.

The word amen is a Hebrew word that was transliterated into Aramaic, Greek, and Latin and then, finally, into English. It appears in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religious practice. Its use is assumed in Christian assemblies by the apostles; Paul instructs the Corinthian saints to order their worship so as to allow the congregation to say “Amen” in response to prayer (1Cor. 14:16). He did not have to command the Christians to say “Amen” at the end of corporate prayer. Everyone already knew they were supposed to. The whole congregation would join in giving their assent to the thanksgiving that was expressed.

What do we mean when we say “Amen”? One Hebrew lexicon glosses the word as surely! and further describes it as a “solemn formula by which the hearer a) accepts the validity of a curse or oath, b) accepts a salutary message, or c) joins himself to a doxology” (Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament). The standard Greek lexicon for NT and early Christian studies defines the word as a “strong affirmation of what is stated” and suggests as translations let it be so or truly. Amen acknowledges that what was said is true and faithful and expresses the hearer’s concurrence with or commitment to it.

Presbyterians can be a pretty staid bunch when it comes to corporate worship. When you hear someone shout “Amen!” in the middle of a sermon, you can be pretty sure they came from a non-Presbyterian background. Much of what may be perceived as stodgy in Presbyterian worship rests on biblical principles and practical wisdom. Corporate worship should be just that, corporate, and therefore not merely a group of people who are all worshipping individually in their own way. We stand together, we respond together, we pray together, we sing together. Imagine the chaos if every person in the assembly picked their own psalm or hymn or their own tune each time the congregation was to sing. The result would neither be reverent or edifying, and it would be directly contrary to how Scripture commands us to worship in the assembly where all things are to be done “decently and in order” (1Cor. 14:40).

Corporate worship must be biblical, reverent, and edifying. It is not an individual experience but a communal expression of prayer and reception of divine presence and grace. But decently and in order does not mean dull and immobile. You cannot spend much time in the Psalms and conclude that the Church’s praise should sound like a funeral dirge. (But years ago I visited churches where Psalm 148 was sung just that way.) Worship is to be exuberant, joyful, and loud. We should shout praise to God. The congregation’s “Amen!” should not only be heard but felt. Some of you know what I mean. I have attended congregations where most (if not all) of the men rose from their seats and knelt on the floor when it was time to pray, and when the prayer ended and they stood up, the walls of the church seemed to shake with their “Amen!” I may be in a minority of Presbyterian ministers, but hearing members of the congregation say “Amen” or “Praise God” during the sermon encourages me, and I find nothing inappropriate or unbiblical about it provided it is not done in a distracting way or to draw attention to the person who says it. We must be careful not to make rules of our tradition or preference where God has not. There clearly is biblical warrant for the congregation to respond with a verbal “Amen.” They are supposed to. The question of exactly when and how is a matter of circumstance.

That being said, corporate worship ought to be corporate, and there is more work that needs to be done in many churches to encourage corporate use of amen by the congregation. Whether individuals say “Amen” during the sermon or not, the whole congregation ought to say “Amen” at the end of every prayer, assuming they agree with and are participating in it. Our songs are also a form of sung prayer to God; therefore, it is appropriate for the whole church to say “Amen” at the end of each psalm and hymn. Ideally this should be said together, not individually and irregularly, so it is appropriate to pause for a moment as the song comes to a close and then, with the pastor leading, the whole congregation responds to what was sung. (You can get an idea of what I mean here.) This may not be the tradition of all psalm-singing Reformed churches, but it is in keeping with the Psalms (41:13; 72:19; 89:52; 106:48), the example of Scripture (1Chr. 16:36; Neh. 8:6; Rev. 5:14; 19:4), and the instruction of the apostles (1Cor. 14:16) and, therefore, it is good and right to do so.

Let me encourage you to say “Amen!” with the congregation at appropriate times in the service. Let it be heard from the mouth of every member, old and young, at the end of every prayer. Let our sung psalms and prayers be concluded with an enthusiastic “Amen!” as well. Just as we say “Thanks be to God!” when the Word of God is heard, so let us shout “Amen!” as prayer and thanksgiving is offered to God. Worship should never be showy, individualistic, or irreverent. It should be done in obedience to God’s Word, and God’s Word directs us to say “Amen!” So let us worship decently and in order by giving our enthusiastic assent to God’s word and the Church’s prayer every Lord’s Day.