A biblical understanding of the corporate importance of gathered worship should impact everything we do in corporate worship.
First, although every church member is a priest with direct access to God, we do need to remember that the Spirit of God does gift different individual Christians in different ways, and he does gift some men as set apart leaders of the church. The emphasis of this post is on every member participating in corporate worship and in the ministry of the church, but that does not discount that fact that God sets aside elders to oversee and shepherd the church and deacons to administrate the physical necessities of the church. In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, Paul gives specific qualifications for elders and deacons, and only some are called to serve in these offices. These are not a special class of Christian, but they are gifted in specific ways by God and charged with leading and equipping God’s people, as we saw in Ephesians 4.
But even though elders are the leaders of the church, nothing in the New Testament says that elders are the only ones who can lead various aspects of a corporate worship service, and in fact, as we have seen, the emphasis in several passage is on every member ministering. Nowhere does Scripture say that only elders may read Scripture or pray. Yes, elders should give guidance and leadership to all aspects of the church, but God gifts every church member in a variety of ways, and some of those giftings involve the public reading of Scripture and public prayer. Certainly not everyone has gifts for public speaking, but more do than only ordained elders.
This is why in our church, we intentionally include many members of our congregation in public Scripture reading and prayer. If a church member has the ability to speak well in public with clarity and the desire to serve through Scripture reading and prayer in our services, then we welcome their contribution.
But those instances of public Scripture reading and prayer, or leading and accompanying singing, or preaching the Word are not the only elements of corporate worship. They are certainly aspects of corporate worship that give direction and order to the service, but actually, in all aspects of the service, the whole congregation ought to participate for the reasons we’ve seen from Scripture. So let’s explore what implications this important principle has for our corporate worship services.
First, a church should not artificially darken the congregation and light up the front. This was deliberately done through medieval architecture, and it is deliberately done electrically in many contemporary worship services. Darkening the congregation communicates that they are merely spectators watching the worship taking place on the stage. The whole congregation ought to be able to see one another as we all participate in the corporate worship.
Second, congregational singing is the most important form of worship music. I do not believe there is anything inherently wrong with a soloist or ensemble or choir, but since Scripture commands the whole congregation to teach one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, the whole congregation ought to sing. Especially when a song is a response toward God, we all ought to be responding through that song. Yes, God gifts some people with abilities to sing or play musical instruments, but the whole congregation ought to sing, even if you don’t think you’ve been especially gifted musically.
This also affects the way that congregational singing is accompanied. Instrumental accompaniment is meant to support congregational singing, not overpower it. This is why churches have found the organ to be so useful; since the organ can sustain its sound better than any other instrument, it is particularly suited to support congregational singing better than just about any other instrument. But, the power of an organ is also a danger, and if the organ is ever so loud or the accompaniment so complicated that it overpowers or distracts from congregational singing, we need to change that. Some instruments, while they may be beautiful for playing solos, are not able to support singing. You can’t support singing well with a flute. The same is true for a guitar. Those instruments are too soft and cannot sustain sound long enough to be able to support the singing of a congregation, unless they are artificially amplified. Our goal should be to do whatever will best help to encourage and support the whole congregation singing.
Third, we should emphasize corporate prayer. Some prayers in our services are offered by an individual, but never should we have the idea that the person is praying on our behalf and we are simply spectators. If someone leads in a prayer, we should actively engage our minds and hearts with that prayer, making the prayer our own. And this is one reason we frequently have corporate prayers in our church, whether corporate prayers of praise, or our weekly corporate prayer of confession. Every week, the whole congregation ought to be actively participating in corporate prayer. We even intentionally include extemporaneous corporate prayers of praise and intercession in our services. All of these examples help to ensure that we all are responding to the Lord in prayer, not just a select few.
Fourth, the whole congregation should read Scripture. Sometimes an individual will read Scripture publicly in a service, but frequently we include public Scripture readings that involve the whole congregation. The Word of God is available to all believers, and so all believers can and should publicly read and affirm what God has said.
Fifth, as I mentioned briefly in a previous post, all believers should respond to the Word of God every time it is preached. Those responses will vary from person to person, but we all respond in some way through prayer, a hymn of response, and our giving, not just those who walk down an aisle.
And then finally, this is another important and beautiful benefit of the Lord’s Table as the climax of our corporate worship gatherings. The Lord’s Table pictures our communion with God through Christ, it is a way to renew our vows to him, but we don’t come to the Table as individuals. We come together as members of one body and surround the Table of the Lord. And in so doing, we portray and reaffirm that our union with Christ is corporate. “Because there is one bread,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:17, “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”