The Scriptures tell us to worship together.
Keep in mind that as we speak of corporate worship we’re not limiting “worship” to just singing songs—though it is included—we are looking at anything that we allow to happen during a corporate gathering. The liturgy, as some would say.
So we fill in the blanks, remaining as faithful to Scripture as we can, yet only a few of the practices we adopt in corporate worship are mandated by the New Testament (Lord’s Supper, Word of God, prayer, etc). Dan Kimball once pointed out that “almost all of the specific ways we worship in most churches today are neither directed nor informed by the Scriptures themselves, but rather evolved from people in church leadership, reflecting the culture of their time.”1
I love this.
Otherwise, we would all look the same (How monotonous would it be to visit a rural church in the jungles, and find that they all sing contemporary worship music and clap on the downbeat like you do?), yet God glories in bringing together different nations, languages, and people-groups to gather before him. And as I’ve visited churches around the world, I’ve recognized this to be a beautiful aspect of the church. To see one God at the center of so many expressions of worship testifies to the captivating beauty of Jesus. Yet it still begs the question…
Here are two common views…
I tend to fall on the normative side of ecclesiology. I have the mandatory elements of worship in place (Lord’s Supper, prayer, Word of God, etc), but also include everything from candles, paintings, dark lighting, to text-messaged interview dialog during sermons. It seems that when it comes to worship, God is less concerned about form than our allegiance.
1Dan Kimball. Perspectives on Worship. p.250
2Matthew Pinson, Perspectives on Worship. p.325
You may recognize this as the common evangelical practice of calling people to the front of a meeting after a church service in order to make a decision for Christ. It originated in the nineteenth century under the revivalist, Charles Finney, who first described the practice as an “anxious seat” which denoted those souls which were urgent to make a public pronouncement of their faith in Christ.
Preach to him, and at the moment he thinks he is willing to do anything . . . bring him to the test; call on him to do one thing, to make one step that shall identify him with the people of God. . . . If you say to him, “there is the anxious seat, come out and avow your determination to be on the Lord’s side,” and if he is not willing to do a small thing as that, then he is not willing to do anything for Christ – Charles Finney (cite).
I have conducted altar calls in the past—I know it works. I’ve seen the wonderfully changed lives it has yielded. I’ve also seen the same people come forward over and over and over. But, that’s not what causes me to write this post.
You see, a baptism is a public profession of faith that identifies in you the saving power of God to a community that loves you. How is an altar call any different? And if it isn’t any different, why should we entertain them both?
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it would seem that we may have replaced water baptism with the altar call, which brings good results, but not always great ones. But when a baptism happens, worship and community combine for the joy of the newly forged saint.
To my right was a girl wearing high heels and a scarf, seemingly unaware that she was at a sports arena about to watch a bunch of sweaty guys hurl their bodies across the air like gladiators. To my left were a pair of slightly drunk men, convinced that they could start a wave across countless rows of waiting fans who seemed content with eating popcorn and overpriced churros. It worked! A two-tier wave rippled halfway across the stadium, and why not? There was this buzz of anticipation in the air that would make a crazed fan do almost anything. At this point, the crowd was pulsating in a restrained manner, as if it were waiting for an excuse to enter into a frenzy. That excuse came as soon as the starting line-up for L.A. entered the home court under a spray of purple lighting. In the wake of this event, I learned more about worship than many books on worship have offered.
And when Kobe made a classic, game-winning clutch shot in the fourth quarter, I lost control, too. I started screaming at strangers! The stadium erupted in excitement, as people toasted their $10 beers, and jumped up and down.
But we weren’t applauding each other. We were reflecting the fame of the team off of each other, and back on to our beloved sports franchise.
He says we are to come together in order to speak “to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19, NASB. emphasis mine). Notice two directional elements to corporate worship,
Is it possible that our Christian singing is not designed to be as personal as we would like it to be?—at least, not as the New Testament depicts it. What Paul has in mind is more akin to an arena, in which elated fans cheer with each other, yet not for each other. This happens on Sunday mornings, when buildings are crowded with people who have gathered in droves to be in corporate awe of a famous person.
Are you engaged in what is unraveling before your eyes, namely, the beauty of Jesus? Or are you the one with high-heels, oblivious to what’s going on?
An uncomfortably intimate group of five or six people gathered around a semi-circle of plastic fold-up chairs, eating brownies and feigning accountability while the extroverted person in the group asks probing questions from a bible verse that seem to careen into a wall of silence before dying expectedly. Was this what they meant when they told me they were “going deep”?
It brings thoughts of wake-boarding, tri-tip, laughing with people who make things worth laughing about, late nights, transformation, early mornings, renewal, coffee by the waterfront, suntans, new friends, watermelon games, the presence of Jesus, the only time you’ll ever get 70 of your friends to an In-N-Out, community meals, worship, pancakes, new friends, baptisms, finding new ways to patch up Sea Doo wounds, turning ordinary things into extraordinary experiences, finding God in a different way than you did back at home, crying and smiling at the same time, mixing the best of both worlds, eternal and material. Plainly, you come back home with a story.
A “college lake trip,” then, conjures a story from the archives that is forever sealed in your memory because it’s one you never want to forget.
The difference between the first example and the last example I gave are both staggering and depressing, if only because the former is often how we view and treat any written revelation of knowing God.
Our concept of “Scripture” is often rigid, uncreative, and uninvolved.
Both of them are dynamic, especially when applied to life shared in community. Consider Paul’s famous exhortation on corporate worship to the Colossian church,
Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts (Colossians 3:16, NLT).
Paul sounds like he’s describing a college lake trip more than a cheesy semi-circle. It’s a scene that’s dynamic, real, and applied. The scriptures are a story, after all; and the best stories engage you. They animate your thought life, and perforate your normal conversations, while causing you to empathize with its main characters in all the subtle, yet meaningful details of your life. They transform you via supernatural revelation from God to mere human being.
Must the Word of God be so uneventful unless spoken of on a Sunday morning?
It might be helpful to think about each one at a time. I will throw out some of my initial ramblings, and you can contribute to the mess, if you like (ha!). I want to start with one of the more evasive,
Of all our various practices this probably seems the least communal—most of us are prone to experience this rich act of worship in isolation. We take a wafer and some juice, or wine, and reflect quietly on the finished work of Jesus on the cross. During this act, we are proclaiming “the Lord’s death until comes” (1 Cor. 11:26, NASB) as a way to remember him (Luke 22:19). Yet, how much more intense were early Christians when they engaged in this ancient, Christ-ordained act?
In fact, Paul’s beef with the Corinthians was over their factions, cliques, and ethnocentrism. It was to his chagrin that he had to call them out on their lack of community,
But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you. Therefore, when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-20).
Now, there’s a good question. Jesus celebrated “communion” with his closest friends, in a house, at a table of food (see Luke 22:7-21). Now, let’s think about this gracefully…because there is a reason we have the cute wafers and little plastic cups of juice at our corporate gatherings—try inviting everyone from your church over for dinner—my question is more geared towards smaller communities within the church.
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Especially with other worshippers. There is something very special about being with others who have this common agenda. We all have our own way of expression, too. Some dance, others lift their hands, some sit and contemplate. I usually sing in a corner of the room in private isolation, I take communion by myself (or with my wife on occasion), and I quietly reflect on the Scriptures as the music plays. In fact, I frequently encourage others to “be intimate with Jesus” in this same way, by finding a quiet isolated place “away from distractions” so they can pursue personal space with the Lord. It’s a wonderful time of introspection.
But is this right?
Can you think of a single passage in the New Testament that involves worshiping as an individual? I can’t either. (hence the term corporate worship). In fact, almost every instance of worship in the New Testament involves the community. We don’t congregate so that we can worship alone. Yet, this is a far cry from how I normally experience worship in a gathered setting when I retreat in my aloneness with the Lord. Consider some of the most popular passages on corporate worship in the NT, as when Paul encourages us to be “Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19, emphasis mine). Recall his glad exhortation for the church to “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16, emphasis mine). Worship has a deeply communal aspect. Again I ask, is there ANY passage in the New Testament that promotes worship in isolation? Some would imply that communal worship is actually embedded in our DNA as Christians…
It is no accident that to follow [Christ] meant cleaving to him bodily. That was the natural consequence of the Incarnation. Had he merely been a prophet or a teacher, he would not have needed followers, but only pupils and hearers. But since he is the incarnate Son of God who came in human flesh, he needs a community of followers, who will participate not merely in his teaching, but also in his Body. The disciples have communion and fellowship in the body of Christ. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)
Worship does not just consist in the singing of lyrics either. Consider sacraments which the church has in place as deeply significant experiences of worship, that being baptism and the Lord’s supper. All of those happened in New Testament communities too, never in isolation. I mean…what good would a baptism by yourself have for anyone if no one was there to experience it with you?
I’m just processing. No, I’m not going to refashion the way we do worship at our gatherings next Sunday. But I do hope I have your attention. Because here comes the double-jeopardy question.
Are there ways we can renew a sense of community around these aspects of our worship…