The understanding of the purpose of corporate worship that I have been exploring for the past couple of weeks is this: Corporate worship is communion with God in his temple, or better yet as his temple, the church, which is made possible only through Christ by the Spirit. This understanding has important implications for what we do when we gather for corporate worship.
First, corporate worship is for believers. Only those who have access to God, those are brought near through Christ, are members of the household of God and part of the temple. Only believers can commune with God. Therefore the primary purpose of the corporate worship gathering is for believers to meet with God. Now, this does not mean that we forbid unbelievers from being here; as Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14, believers gathering to meet with God is profoundly evangelistic. But when unbelievers come, they come as observers, not as participants, and never do we design what takes place in the corporate church gatherings based on what unbelievers want any more than what took place in Israel’s temple was based on what uncircumcised pagans wanted. Corporate worship is for believers to meet with God.
Second, corporate worship is relational. We don’t simply go through a series of rituals as a duty. What we do when we gather is for the purpose of fostering our relationship with God. This is the emphasis of Ephesians 2; this whole passage that leads up to a description of God building a temple by his Spirit expresses those realities in relational terms. The gospel that results in this temple is not simply a legal transaction or ticket to heaven, it is a reconciliation of our relationship with God. We have access to God through Christ, we are welcome in his presence, and so we gather to develop that relationship.
This leads to a third point: corporate worship is formational. Even as believers who have access to God through Christ, who are members of God’s household, our relationship with God is not perfect, it is still growing and deepening. We must continually work to nurture a right relationship with God, allow his Word to correct us, and work toward sanctifying our responses toward him. We certainly do this through personal Bible study and prayer, but one significant and necessary purpose of corporate worship is to help mature our relationship with God. This point is another reason we must make sure that the content and forms of our worship are derived from Scripture, because we know that it is inspired Scripture that is profitable for teaching, for reproving, for correcting, and for training in righteousness.
But also, more specifically, it is the gospel itself that continues to sanctify us. Paul says in Titus 2:12, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,”—so he’s talking about the gospel that brings salvation, but then notice what else he says the gospel does: “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” In other words, the gospel that saved us is also the gospel that sanctifies us—the gospel that reconciled us to God, that brought us near to him, is the gospel that will continue to grow our relationship with him. We don’t just believe the gospel for salvation and then leave it behind; even as believers, we must continually renew ourselves in the gospel so that it continues to train us and cultivate our relationship with God.
This is the fourth point: corporate worship renews us in the gospel. Historically Christians have often referred to corporate worship as covenant renewal: it is a way that as believers, we can weekly renew our covenant relationship with God.
Really, the image of a marriage perfectly depicts this (and, of course, the NT also uses marriage as a fitting metaphor for the relationship between Christ and his church). A man and a woman commit to one another in a wedding; this is akin to our salvation when God makes a commitment to save us out of his great love, and we make a commitment to love and serve him. Baptism is like our wedding vows, where we formalize the covenant relationship. So now the man and woman are married; that doesn’t change until death do them part. But the relationship between husband and wife rises and falls over time, does it not? Many things can harm the relationship, and many things can rekindle the relationship. Your personal devotional life is like a husband and wife having conversations with each other; that’s really important to nurture the relationship. But another thing that some married couples do to rekindle their relationship is to renew their wedding vows; sometimes they even dress up again like the did when they first wed, and they repeat those same vows again to each other. They’re already married; those vows don’t “get them married again.” But by repeating their vows again, they renew their love for each other and rekindle the relationship.
Corporate worship is like renewing your gospel vows to Christ. Just like when we were first converted, God calls us to draw near to him. Just like at our conversion, we respond with confession of sin and acknowledgement that we have broken God’s laws. Just like when we were first saved, we hear words of pardon from God because of the sacrifice of Christ. Just like when we began our relationship with God, we eagerly listen to his instructions and commit to obey. We are not getting “re-saved” each week, but we are renewing our covenant vows to the Lord, and in so doing, we are rekindling our relationship with him and our commitment to him, and he with us.
A few weeks ago I outlined the historic order of worship that derives from Scripture, but that particular order was modeled for us in Scripture specifically because it rehearses the gospel—it allows us, week in and week out, to renew our vows to Christ and rekindle our communion with him. The order of Revelation, Adoration, Confession, Propitiation, Proclamation, and Dedication is the order of the gospel, it is a weekly covenant renewal that will help to continually grow our fellowship with God.
This recognition is really important for us as we approach what we are doing in corporate worship each week; we need to recognize that what we are doing is not just expressing what is already in our hearts, it is reforming our hearts, renewing our relationship with God each week. So, for example, you might not feel like expressing a certain sentiment in a particular hymn that you’re singing one week, but that’s not the point; that hymn was chosen to help you renew certain aspects of your relationship with God. Or, you might get to corporate prayer of confession one week, and you might think, well that prayer doesn’t really reflect what is in my heart and mind right now, but that’s not the point; that prayer was chosen to help remind you of what you are because of the gospel and to help you renew your thankfulness toward God and your commitment to him.
Sometimes we say “I love you” to a spouse because we really feel it deeply, but sometimes we say it to help rekindle the relationship. The same is true for worship. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but the marriage that sustains your love.” The feelings rise and fall, come and go, but the covenant a man and a woman make to one another sustains them despite their fickle feelings. And in the same way, it is not deep feelings for God that sustain our worship, it is what we do when we gather for worship that sustains our love for God.
And so it’s really important as we come to corporate worship each week, that we approach what we are doing in this way—everything about the service is chosen to form and nurture our relationship with God. We expect that of the sermon, don’t we? We know that sometimes the sermon will encourage or comfort us, but sometimes the sermon will challenge us or correct us.
We need to view every part of the service this way. I do not design the service order in our church or choose the songs based on what I like or what anyone likes; I don’t plan the service and choose the music based on preferences or what anyone grew up with. I plan the service, choose the Scripture readings and the songs specifically based on what will best help to nurture our relationship with God that week, tying everything in with the gospel structure and with the sermon text for the week. And so sometimes the service and songs will be comforting and encouraging, sometimes they will be convicting and correcting, all toward the goal of drawing us closer in relationship with God.
And then finally, this leads us to explicitly identify the goal of corporate worship. All of this leads us to conclude and to affirm: the goal of corporate worship is communion with God. Through the gospel, we are God’s temple, his house, where we are enabled to meet with him for fellowship. Our primary goal is not evangelism, though a gospel-shaped service will be evangelistic; our primary goal is not expression, though we certainly express toward God in worship; our primary goal is not an emotional experience, though we will certainly feel things. Our primary goal is to nurture and cultivate a life communion with God.
This is why the climax of this covenant renewal worship is communion around the Lord’s Table. Throughout Scripture (and, indeed, history), the ultimate expression of free and open access is being invited to sit at the table. This is illustrated throughout the Old Testament, it is pictured with the Table of Showbread in the Temple, and it is one of the beautiful images depicted by the Lord’s Supper. A Christian worship service pictures that believers are brought near through Christ, and now sitting around his table both commemorates the sacrifice that made that possible and expresses our unity with him and with other Christians as the body of Christ. It does not accomplish peace with God; rather, it is a beautiful expression of peace already achieved through the sacrifice of Christ and a renewal of our fellowship with him. This is why the Table is the ultimate climax of any gospel-shaped worship service. In the Table, Christians are enabled to sit in full communion with their Sovereign Lord because of Christ. The Lord’s Table is the most beautiful earthly enactment of the complete fellowship made possible by union with Christ.
So, we come to corporate worship, not to perform rituals out of duty, not primarily to evangelize unbelievers, not even primarily to express what is already in our hearts; we come to corporate worship to meet with God and renew our communion with him.