There are many words we use to describe ourselves in worship: the congregation, worshippers, or simply the church, to name a few. From a liturgical standpoint, one of the best words to describe the people of God at worship is the “assembly.” It is a reminder that worship is a communal activity, something for which the church “assembles,” comes together to do as a community. (While it is possible to praise God as individuals, our faith also drives us to be a communal people. As Jesus reminds us, “where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am also” [Matthew 18:20].)
It is important to note that an assembly is not the same as an audience. An audience is a passive observer of something, but the assembly is actively involved in the act of worship. While we have pastors and music leaders, they participate with, not on behalf of, the assembly. (In Martin Luther’s day, there were priests who would spend their days performing Mass [communion] without any people gathered, attempting to do the “work” on their behalf.)
In an assembly, everyone present is a participant, every voice is important, from a fussy baby to an off-key singer. It is the collective voices that form our praise and prayers. If we keep silent during the hymns, are we acting as the assembly or an audience? When we pray, we leave space for people to speak their own prayers out loud during worship. This is because we take seriously that every voice is important. While our pastors craft prayers that attempt to speak for the whole congregation, they cannot know every concern or thanksgiving that you bring into the assembly. By speaking your personal prayers, we also grow as a caring community.
In the assembly, every voice is important and needed. Voices that are overcome with joy or voices struggling with doubts or grief; voices of young or old; voices that are angelic or slightly off-key: all are welcome and necessary for our worship. All of them strengthen us as a community and strengthen our praise and prayers to God.
Worship is universal, but it is also contextual. It must always fit the reality of the assembled people.