A further word ought to be said about building community within local churches. In all of the discussion to this point, one element has barely been stressed, and it needs to be. It is that the local church is, by its nature, a worshipping community.
Worship is the most fundamental duty and privilege of all creatures. Jesus commands the devil himself to worship God (Matt. 4:10), and the wording of the command certainly applies to all humans. The first act of the disciples after the resurrection of Jesus was to worship Him (Lk. 24:52). Their mouths were continuously filled with the praise and blessing of God. Church saints are marked by the fact that they worship God in the Spirit (Phil. 3:3), continually offering the sacrifice of praise (Heb. 13:15). The church itself is constituted as a temple and, indeed, as the “holy place” (the naos, 1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:21)—and a temple is simply a place in which God is worshipped. Worship is fundamental, not only to our humanity, but to the nature of the church.
The church is a temple as a corporate body. Consequently, corporate worship is essential to the being of the church. Worship is more than an individual obligation: it is a duty of each local congregation. The church must be a worshipping body. If it is not, then it is (at best) a very sick church.
God desires more than the individual worship of separate Christians. He wants churches to worship Him corporately. A church that intends to fulfill this duty must remember four dicta.
First, corporate worship is more than individual people worshipping at the same place and time. It is possible to have an entire room filled with worshipping Christians who take no cognizance of each other. They may all be worshipping, but if they are acting severally and not jointly, then they are not engaged in corporate worship. Their assembly no more constitutes a temple than a crowd of people listening to their iPods constitutes a concert.
This being the case, corporate worship ought to aim to engage the congregation as a whole. The point of corporate worship is that the church worships together. Most obviously, they sing together. They read the Scriptures together (either in unison or responsively, or with their Bibles open before them as one member reads aloud). They submit together to the proclamation of the Word. They give together. These are corporate acts, done as a body to the glory of God. As a congregation participates in them together, it worships as a body.
For corporate worship to be carried out successfully, it must remain accessible and even transparent to the congregation. There should be no unpleasant surprises, no cringe moments, no distractions that draw attention away from the business at hand. The songs that are chosen may be ancient or recent, major or minor, simple or complex, but they should be songs that the congregation knows (other times are appropriate for teaching new songs). The order of service should be sufficiently familiar that church members can anticipate what is expected of them. While variety is certainly permissible and even helpful, worship services are not suitable times for untried innovations.
Second, corporate worship cannot be done vicariously. One person cannot worship in behalf of another. Worship cannot be delegated to a minister or other worship leader. Watching someone worship does not constitute worship. In other words, worship is never a spectator event.
What about pastoral prayers or prepared music? They are legitimate only to the extent that the entire congregation is able to enter into the event. Pastoral prayers should never express merely personal and idiosyncratic concerns. Rather, they should be so worded that the entire congregation can enter into the prayer, praying along with the minister as he voices words in behalf of all the people. The same applies to prepared music. The point of the music is not to provide a scintillating performance—in fact, a performance that draws attention to itself has already failed. The point is to frame an expression in behalf of the entire congregation, so that each member feels as if his or her heart is being expressed to God.
Third, worship does not have an audience. It has an object, and its object is God Himself. Occasionally someone will say that God is the real audience of worship. That is not true. God is not an audience, a mere observer of what is being done. Rather, He is the object of worship. We are to worship Him. Furthermore, He does not merely observe our worship, He either receives it or He rejects it. If He rejects it, then it stands under His judgment.
Fourth, true worship is neither a spectacle nor a form of entertainment. Worshippers are not performers. They are adorers, admirers of God who praise Him for His character and His mighty deeds. Therefore, worship leaders must never behave as if they are either entertainers or impresarios. Indeed, it would be preferable if all public worship were led by people who made themselves inconspicuous. Worship services would be stronger if readers, instrumentalists, prepared singers, choirs, and so forth were put in the balcony behind the congregation. Barring that, let these people be as modest in their persons as they possibly can be. Let the focus of the service be upon the Scriptures and upon God Himself.
By the same token, we should never think of ourselves as mere performers in worship. Worship is adoration. It is the admiration of God’s perfections, resulting in the echo of praise to God for the perfections that we have encountered. When we are worshipping, we are not performing. We are loving, adoring, prizing, esteeming, marveling, rejoicing, submitting, respecting, enjoying, admiring, glorifying, surrendering, exalting, exulting, magnifying, venerating, yielding, cherishing, reverencing, wondering, relishing, approving, honoring, blessing, savoring, delighting, and praising—but never merely performing. The moment we begin performing, we have stopped worshipping.
A church is not simply a community. It is not even just a religious community. It is a worshipping community. As other bonds are established and strengthened, each church needs to remember the centrality of congregational worship. The task of corporate worship is an important element in reinforcing the ties that bind the local church together.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
George Herbert (1593–1633)
HOLINESS on the head,
Light and perfection on the breast,
Harmonious bells below raising the dead
To lead them unto life and rest.
Thus are true Aarons drest.
Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest:
Poor priest! thus am I drest.
Only another head
I have another heart and breast,
Another music, making live, not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest:
In Him I am well drest.
Christ is my only head,
My alone only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me e’en dead;
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in Him new drest.
So holy in my Head,
Perfect and light in my dear Breast,
My doctrine tuned by Christ (who is not dead,
But lives in me while I do rest),
Come, people; Aaron’s drest.