I remember many a bulletin as a child in which the service order was printed line for line, item for item, song for song. I particularly remember a funny word at the very end of the service: the “benediction.”
I remember that during this part of the service, a random church member (usually an older man) was called on to pray while the pastor quietly walked to the front to meet with folks as they left the church building. Sometimes, thanks to the wonder of lapel mics, the pastor himself would pray as he walked toward the front so that when everyone opened their eyes, “shazam!” the pastor had magically transported himself to the front door. That was cool.
But it wasn’t until I was in college that I experienced a true benediction, a blessing, at the end of a service… and it pierced my heart.
As a college student in Nashville, I was wrestling with my newly found Reformed or Calvinistic convictions. Trying to find a theological footing and a church that would help, I began attending a local Presbyterian Church (PCA). A lot of things about the church felt like a typical evangelical mega-church service with a fan-shaped auditorium, contemporary-ish worship music, the sermon, and a response song. But inter-mingled with these familiar elements were traditional forms of prayer and confession including a call to worship, an invocation, and the benediction.
I remember coming to the end of my first service there. As it came time for the benediction, I expected the typical “Brother so-and-so, won’t you pray for us as we dismiss;” but what I got was eye opening. One of the elders came to the pulpit area and said, “lift your hands and receive your benediction.”
Instead of bowing their heads for a simple, common closing prayer, the people looked up eagerly as the minister lifted his hands toward them and said:
“Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” – Hebrews 13:20-21
The people responded in the like saying, “Amen.”
I remember thinking how sweet and wonderful that simple gesture was.
Here was the elder, one of the under-shepherds of the local church, standing in the place of Christ, and blessing the people as they left.
From that point on, I have never thought of that old liturgical word the same. Every time I see “benediction” in a church bulletin or service order, my heart leaps that such an element is being included… but then sinks knowing it will probably be a generic, anemic substitute for what would be a tremendous word of blessing and encouragement.
The time of the sermon can be a painful time. Is not the Word of God like a cutting sword (Heb. 4:12)? When we are subjected to it as listeners, we are subjecting ourselves to the Great Surgeon’s knife as the Holy Spirit, through the Word, cuts and separates in order that we may be healed from our sinful afflictions.
It may not seem like it at times, but the preaching moment is a moment of great grace. Think of the great Creator God who could leave us in our sins and condemnation and be rightfully just in doing so. But no, God condescends to us in that he actually speaks to us; this is grace. Even if it is painful, and provoking, and causes us great sorrow over our sin, it is grace that we experience when God speaks.
Not only that, but even after receiving such a Word, God invites us to his table to sit and eat with him in the Lord’s Supper. Grace.
If you notice at the end of nearly every single Apostolic letter in the New Testament, a benediction is given. Paul offers everything from a formulaic Trinitarian blessing to a simple, “grace be with you.” But with those simple words, Paul extends the blessing and the welcome of God to his people; some of which he has just spent paragraph after paragraph correcting and admonishing.
Think of Peter who spends much of his first letter encouraging his listeners to be steadfast in the midst of great suffering and persecution and who will go to a cross himself. At the end of such an exhortation and in the midst of “fiery trials,” Peter blesses the church saying, “Peace to all of you who are in Christ” (1 Pet. 5:14).
What an amazing encouragement! Even when God’s Word comes with swift discipline and judgment, as it did to the Corinthians, God still blesses the people with the “grace of the Lord Jesus” (1. Cor. 16:23).
Further, even in the threat of certain persecution and trials, the Holy Spirit ministers, “peace to all all who are in Christ.”
How fitting then that at the end of our services together, a minister of the Word and Sacrament would stand before God’s people and declare God’s full and effectual blessing on his needy children!
As quaint as the closing prayer is in most church settings; it is no benediction (just like an instrumental prelude is no Call to Worship… but that’s a different post).
No, but the benediction is a blessing, a word of love and grace from God for his people to strengthen and encourage them even as they go back into the world to do war with sin.
Minister, take advantage of the role you have to represent Christ to your people and to care for your sheep. What better way to do this than to speak kindly and gently; blessing them with God’s grace.
Church member, receive God’s blessing with joy and expectation knowing that God has spoken to you in mercy, he has invited you to fellowship with him, and now sends you into a chaotic world with the blessing of sanctifying, preserving grace.
Let’s recover the lost art of the benediction together. Simply search for biblical benedictions online or prepare your own based on God’s Word or your sermon text. Then, at the close of the service, invite your people to “receive the benediction” rather than just listening to a cheapened replacement.
If your people aren’t used to, take it slow and keep it short. In the end, I know you’ll come to cherish the warmth of such a moment.
“Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” – 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13