Christian worship is no secret. The Church is not a private society with our own clandestine practices. We are a family trying to grow, and our family ways may be strange to some. With love and truth being at the core of who we are, we do well to have reasons ready (1 Peter 3:15). But as it goes sometimes in a family, we get too familiar with each other and our practices. To some, our gathered worship could be strange. Some people are completely new to Christian worship. While others may come from another tradition or from a more “freely” expressed style of worship. Whatever the degree of unfamiliarity, we the family should know why are the way we are and do the things we do so we can be all the more hospitable and thoughtful when we do them. So for starters, what is the ditty at the end of the service often referred to the ‘benediction’?
Definition & Distinction
Simply broken down, benediction is ‘a good word’. It means ‘blessing’ and is a blessing given to others. It is not something that is silent and, thus, is usually uttered in the context of a religious service. When you reply to someone’s sneeze, technically, you’re giving them a benediction. But spiritually, it’s not true at all. It’s just a common courtesy which probably even has a superstitious origin. Maybe it’s just best to say gesundheit; unless, of course, you want to turn a ‘God bless you’ into a jarring evangelism opener. =+)
Some consider benedictions to be a pronouncement; others, a prayer. I don’t see the need to be so fastidious. It also differs from a doxology which is a liturgical formula of praise to God. It’s helpful though to see the distinction between benediction and doxology, yet I don’t think there is anything spiritually dangerous or theologically confusing in conflating the two whether intentionally or not.
Prescription, Parts & Precedent
Biblically speaking, there is no mandate on churches or their worship leaders to give a benediction at the end of a worship service or during whatever special event or public occasion. The words of benedictions are often found in the Scriptures, but the practice, per se, is not. That, however, has not stopped churches over the majority of the Church’s history to employ these spiritual “formulas” as public pronouncements or prayers. The benediction is not merely a signal that the worship service is over. If we think of a benediction like movie credits, then, we’ll check out or leave. The benediction isn’t a sermon recap or even a continuation of the sermon. It’s more like the liturgical echo to the ‘call to worship’ (at the beginning of the service). This ‘sending blessing’ from God is offered by the minister as a confirmation of His power and presence in the lives of people who just heard His Word proclaimed. It tops off their tank as they scatter to their diverse vocations as Gospel ambassadors. Mike Cosper in his book Rhythms of Grace nails it this way: “The benediction has a centrifugal force to it— spinning us out from the gathering to our scattered lives where worship continues as before, but in our varied corners (148).”
Examples: biblical & extra-biblical
The Bible has several benedictions that describe for us the shape and purposes of a benediction. They are less obvious in the Old Testament than they are in the New Testament letters. While there is no strict formula for a benediction, you will notice language of conferral or wishing (“may…”); or, matter-of-fact, direct statement of God’s promises and presence. And often, they are trinitarian. Here are the two most well-known biblical benedictions used in Christian worship:
- “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26, ESV).
- “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ [Son], and the love of God [the Father], and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14 NIV).
It is not uncommon nor biblically “out of order” in public worship to paraphrase a biblical benediction or to even fuse more than one together. Keep in mind they should be short. And if benedictory passages of Scripture are fused together, they should be done carefully respecting their original contexts. Check out this benediction which based on Philippians 4:7 comes from Anglican and Presbyterian traditions:
- “The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.”
Extra-biblical doesn’t necessarily mean unbiblical. It just means that you won’t find its phrasing or practice explicitly (and sometimes even implicitly) in Scripture. And, because benedictions are more of a historic precedent in the liturgies of Christian churches over centuries, there is some wiggle room for what you use. I think the intent should be the same, and it definitely should still be biblical. Also, they should reflect the flavor of the whole service or sermon. Remember, it’s a worship service echo or bookend. Test these ‘extra’biblical benedictions against the contextual meaning of Scripture:
- “Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that the words, which we have heard this day with our outward ears, may through thy grace be so grafted inwardly in our hearts, that they may bring forth in us the fruit of good living, to the honor and praise of thy name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
- This one, from late pastor, hymn writer and author, John Newton, is especially biblical, powerful and simple: “May the grace of Christ our Savior and the Father’s boundless love, with the Holy Spirit’s favor, rest upon us from above. Thus, may we abide in union with each other and the Lord, and possess, in sweet communion, joys which earth cannot afford.”
- “As you go, remember that the One who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and watches after every sparrow, didn’t spare his Son to set you free. Go with confidence in the Father’s provision, joy in the abundant grace of his Son, and power in his Spirit. Peace be with you.”
Practice and Posture
Most of the time, the benediction is offered by the elder who has just preached or officiated the communion sacrament. Again, no hard and fast rules on the ‘who’, but we must keep in mind what is consistently unifying spiritually and wise not just logistically expedient. He will often do so with an arm (or both) outstretched over the congregation as a symbol of priestly service and shepherd-like generosity. Aaron Garriott states: “The benediction, then, is to be apprehended by faith and received with gratitude and assurance.” Given this, it isn’t uncommon or inappropriate for congregants to respond to the benediction by reaching out their hand(s) as a visual way of receiving the blessing.
Would a congregation somehow be less blessed or slighted if the minister didn’t offer a benediction from God on their behalf? Probably not. We have all the blessings we need in Christ (Ephesians 1:1-4). But, the reminder and reinforcement values pregnant in every benediction are worth the thoughtful planning and extra seconds. You’re not just leaving a worship service week after week. You are being sent. You have not earned your church attendance check mark. Brothers and sisters, you are King Jesus’ servants being recharged and receiving a blessing for the road; a road that winds for you Monday through Saturday and leads right back week after week to the blessedness of Lord’s Day gathering.
“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
(Hebrews 13:20–21 ESV)