Mark Greene on the power and potential of our gathered worship. 8 minute read.
Growing up in a Jewish home, Friday night was always special.
We welcomed the Sabbath in with tall white candles, and hazel-coloured challah bread and rich, red sweet wine, glinting in a slim silver goblet. My father would read the Sabbath prayers in Hebrew before the meal, and sprinkle salt on the bread and pass it round. We were always together – either at home or at a relative’s. It was a rule. And it was a rule that expressed something vital about family. I remember one occasion, just the one, when my parents went out on a Friday night to see some friends without me and my brother. And there I was, about ten years old, standing in our little driveway shouting at them as they slunk guiltily away in our dark blue Vauxhall Victor. It wasn’t that they were going out, it was that they were going out on a Friday – without us.
That regular ritual bound us together in family and culture, in solidarity with a shared history and in commitment to a shared future. Parental abandonment on Friday night seemed, to a ten-year old, to betray it all.
Rituals and routines shape us – consciously and unconsciously.
They are meant to.
And our Sunday worship services shape us too – whether they tend to climax with the preaching of the word, or the body and blood of Christ given for us, or prayer ministry at the front. Whatever the tradition, the words and music, the rhythm and patterns and rituals all shape our minds, our hearts, our imaginations, our understanding of God, our expectations of Him, our relationship with other Christians, our relationship with our communities and workplaces…
They are meant to.
And because our services shape us, every element matters.
And because our services shape us, it matters very much if they shape us not only as fellow-believers commanded to gather to worship God together but also as fellow-believers sent out as his ambassadors to continue to worship Christ as Lord in word and deed in all of life. We come together not only to get perspective like Asaph about some apparent injustice in the world (Psalm 73:17) – to have, as he had, our confusion resolved, our envy dissipated, our resentment dissolved – but also to learn to see the world through God’s eyes when we are away from his people.
Inevitably, the content of the service shapes our sense of what is important and what is possible. How could it be otherwise? Just as a newspaper’s content reveals the editor’s priorities and preferences, and perhaps prejudices too, so the content of our services does the same. If the preacher never tells a story of God working in or through someone in a workplace, it would be hard for anyone to really believe that God might still do today what he so clearly used to do through Noah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Deborah…
So the question arises: does the combination of song and supplication, scripture, sermon and sacrament, envision and nourish us for our daily calling to live out, show and share the way of Jesus in all of our life? Does it empower us to play our part in God’s mission not only in home and neighbourhood but in work and leisure, not only in services and shelters but out on our daily frontlines?
So the team here saw not just a need but an opportunity. But it would need deep understanding of various worship traditions and a high level of expertise in shaping worship to address it. So we were delighted when Sam and Sara Hargreaves accepted a commission from us to develop material that would resource church-leaders and worship leaders with the biblical perspectives, the practical skills and a range of examples to enable them to shape congregational worship that will shape us for all of life. They have brought their considerable experience of leading worship, and of teaching worship leaders across the streams, to the writing of Whole-life Worship – empowering disciples for the frontline and to the development of the journey pack that accompanies it. The results are inspiring and will, we pray, enrich worship in thousands of churches here and overseas.
Still, there is more to congregational worship than ensuring that it has a whole-life perspective.
We gather together for a vital and often neglected reason. You can, after all, sing along to a worship song on your phone, choose one with lyrics that precisely fits the issue you are dealing with and in a musical style that precisely fits your mood. You can read your Bible on your own, remind yourself of the great truths of the Christian life on your own, summon a web sermon in the comfort of your own bath from any number of world class Bible expositors or inspirational speakers on the topic that particularly interests you at that particular moment… You can confess, praise, thank, intercede on your own, text a prayer request to a friend… You can customise it all precisely to your own tastes and you can ensure that ‘your’ service ends in good time to catch the beginning of the Grand Prix. But it is not enough. It is not meant to be enough.
God may certainly be present to those of his people who are cut off from fellowship with his followers by sickness or persecution or circumstance but it is not meant to be that way.
It takes a village to raise a child.
And it takes a church to raise a disciple.
And it takes a church to sustain a disciple.
Our community shapes us. And our gathering together is vital to that.
The words that God pronounces over Adam in Genesis 2: “It is not good for man to be alone,” are not only a statement about the impact of the absence of a female companion on Adam they are an insight into God’s design for human life. We are not meant to be alone. We are inherently relational and limited beings. We are not born again into splendid isolation but born again into the community of the worldwide church and into a community of local believers who are given to us, and us to them, to help each other grow in holiness, fruitfulness, service and love.
The early Christians didn’t have a temple to go to – at least not for very long. And they didn’t have access to synagogues for very long either. In fact, for the most part the only space the first century Christians had to worship God together was a room in someone’s house. Indeed, the key feature of early Christian worship was not the special nature of the place they went to but the special character of their gathering together. This gathering together was not primarily to create sufficient numbers to generate a particular atmosphere – emotions, after all, are stronger, more intense when many feel them at the same time. No, their gathering together was not about whipping up emotion but primarily about ministering to one another. Corporate worship is rightly focused on God but we do not just sing to God, we sing to and for one another:
“Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:18-19)
Paul writes something very similar to the Christians in Colosse:
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” (Colossians 3:16)
Here we can see that God intends our corporate worship not only to express our devotion to Him but to be deeply strengthening to one another. And it is clear that the worship of the community plays not only a didactic role but also a formational role.
This is reinforced by the context. In the previous verses, Paul calls the Colossians to live out their identity as God’s holy people, ‘Put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature”; “Clothe yourself with compassion”; Bear with each other and forgive each other”. Why? To create a unified community of mutual love and commitment, whatever the individual believer’s background may be, “Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free.”
So, worship directed upwards to God is not disconnected from horizontal ministry to one another. Song and spoken word are specifically for the benefit of the other. And corporate worship is located firmly within the overall command to believers to love one another. Indeed, the letter to the Hebrews is explicit about the vital importance of meeting together and its purpose:
“And lets us consider us how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, but encouraging one another and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Here the text does not name worship but worship is surely included in the overall category of ‘meeting together’. In the case of the Hebrews, a community suffering persecution, the writer identifies wells of encouragement in the example of Christ, in the efficacy of his sacrifice, in the example of Old Testament models of faith, and here in the commitment to deliberate, purposeful, energetic encouragement of fellow-believers.
So then our gathered worshipping should not only praise God for who he is, and strengthen one another to deeper trust and joy when we are together, but it should shape and empower us to reflect the character of the one we worship and pursue his priorities when we are apart, scattered out in His world among those he yearns to draw to himself.
Not seen Whole Life Worship yet? Packed with ideas that could transform worship in your church – Whole Life Worship.