Sunday, June 13, 2010


In my previous post I made the case (I hope) for the congregation to speak up and speak out their parts in worship. One of the smallest yet more frequent of their parts is the single word, “amen.” Four letters, two syllables, are to be spoken boldly by the people in the pews a number of times in a given worship service.

It tends to be treated as a throwaway, but it isn’t—or should not be. “Amen” has a long history and a rich heritage making it deserving of respectful and appreciative use in any time of worship, from the loftiest service in a lavish cathedral, to grace among family at the kitchen table. A Hebrew word, it’s been borrowed by Christians and Muslims and in constant use since ancient times.

By my Midwestern upbringing, I learned early on that “amen” was a useful liturgical expression. The boyhood saying I remember was, “If you believe it, say ‘Amen!’” Therefore if we did assent to any given comment—in church or outside—we’d give it a hearty “amen.”

That’s at least a beginning of its liturgical meaning. At the end of a prayer, we “sign on” by adding our verbal “amen.” If our “amen” is limp and low-volume, then the chances are we don’t really agree with the prayer.

Yet “amen” means more than simply “I agree.” The Hebrew root of the word translates variously as “firm” or “fixed” or “sure.” It speaks of something foundational, solid, unchanging, something that is true in an absolute sense. So when we say “amen,” we are affirming truth. This is much the same way Jesus used the word, which the English Bibles used to translate “verily.” As in the NRSV, Matthew 18.3, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” “Truly” translates the Greek word for “amen.” So saying our “amen” at the end of a prayer, for example, we agree that the prayer has truth in it, something that rings personally true.

“Amen” is also sometimes used in the sense of “so be it,” which also indicates agreement, but can carry the sense of trust, giving oneself up or over to another. The use of “amen” in worship, then, is a reminder that we yield our lives to God.

A rabbi friend of mine once told me that he could preach more than one sermon on that single small word. “‘Amen,’” he said, “is like a creed, a statement of faith. It’s an acronym in Hebrew for ‘God, trustworthy King.’” Its liturgical function for Jews is to say it to oneself silently before reciting the Shema (“Hear O Israel….”).

Every time we say “amen” in our worship, we bring a bundle of meaning to our affirmations of prayers both sung and said. Such a wondrous word deserves to be said firmly and faithfully.

Do people in your church speak up with their “amens”? If not, what’s holding them back? What might encourage them?
In my youth I learned to say “ay-men.” When I came to live in the great Northeast, I discovered most people said “ah-men.” Singers almost always sang “ah-men.” I’ve been told that “ay-men” is more common among conservative Christians, while liberals tend to say “ah-men.” Really?


  1. Being a liberal Yankee transplanted to the conservative South, maybe I should say AWWWWW-men? I find I say Ah-men when singing and group prayer (think Lord's Prayer) but AY-men other times.

    Thanks for the post, this was very informative!

  2. We may read Isaiah 7:9b from the Hebrew as follows: 'Unless you amen, you will be Amened!' The relationship we call the covenant possesses its own dynamics, all rooted in the One the Great I-AM is as our Lord and God.

    John McKenna


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