Another good reader question! First I’ll need to define the word laypeople, and after that I’ll talk about what my church — the Anglican church — teaches about the role of laypeople. I’d love to delve into every church’s teaching on the subject but if I did this post would get way too long! So I’ll welcome comments from people in other church traditions.
The words “lay” and “laity” stem from the Greek word laos meaning “the people”. In Scripture laos takes on a more specific meaning: the people of God. “My people” — laos mou — becomes God’s term of endearment for those who love Him.
So in the strictest sense, ‘what laypeople do’ is anything any believer might do at any time of the day or night!
In everyday usage, though, the word “laity” has come to mean any believer who is not professional clergy. In the Roman Catholic church, the laity are people who have never received Holy Orders. In Protestant churches, Holy Orders are not considered a sacrament, but generally speaking the laity are people who are not ordained.
However in Anglicanism the laity are ordained, at confirmation, by the bishop’s laying-on of hands. We are ordained into the “fourth order” (after bishops, priests, and deacons), recognizing the scripture’s teachings regarding the commissioning of all baptized believers into Christ’s service.
In the Anglican church (as in most other churches) laypeople may serve in the church as musicians, in governing bodies such as church or parochial school boards, as lay readers, as people who carry crosses or light candles during worship, as church staff, Sunday School teachers, ushers, and so on.
More importantly, though, Anglicans believe all baptized people are expected to minister in Christ’s name. According to the Book of Common Prayer, the laity is “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.”
Laypeople therefore have an extremely important role to play, not only in the church but also in the world. In fact the true role of the bishops, priests, and deacons is to be “the servants of the servants of God” by helping us laypeople fulfill our mission to reach the world for Christ.