Corporate worship is vitally important for Christians, but it is also heavily undervalued by many. That’s what drove Seth Brown to write this post today. Seth is another one of my closest friends whom the Lord has used to grow me more into the image of His Son. Seth lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife and two children, where they are faithful members of Imago Dei Church.
If there is anything I have learned in the past five months, I have learned the importance (and immense joy) of corporate worship. Growing up as a “church-goer,” corporate worship, in my mind, was an obligation to be kept. “Do we have to go to church?” was the line that frequently came off my lips at 8:00 am on Sunday morning as I slouched out of bed. That type of outlook on corporate worship makes its way into our adult lives many times. That’s a shame. I realized this, not by tying my tie tighter and vowing to stay awake the whole sermon, but by tasting worship that is truly and faithfully centered on Christ.
Some of you may long for that experience. You know, the one where time seems to stand still. Every song, every passage, every sentence of the sermon grips your heart with a vision of God’s glory shown in his son Jesus Christ. Your mind sees the truth, your heart feels the reality, and your emotions reflect the depth of the Gospel. Those are wonderful times. Indeed, they are the greatest times in the Christian life. They prepare us for meeting God face to face in the New Creation.
And then, you go to church. The sanctuary smells funny. The temperature is never comfortable. The music is lackluster. The sermon is, well, like most other non-comedic monologues. Why can’t every week’s service captivate the heights of what it means to be lowly sinner re-born into the image of Christ? Well, it can.
I would like to offer a few suggestions on how you may cultivate Christ-centered worship through the ebb and flow of the Christian life. Note, these are only suggestions. The Holy Spirit is the only person who can radically captivate your heart. I do not mean for this to be an “insert-your-favorite-Christian-conference” in a box.
First, understand the elements of Christian worship that are found in the Bible and handed down to us through the centuries by our forebears. I count at least five elements that should be present in every local-church worship service. Some may suggest more or combine them for less. Scripture Reading –– yes, I mean reading aloud as a congregation. It’s not as awkward as you think (Neh. 8:1-3). Prayer –– there should be at least one period in the service where the pastors pray for the people and the people pray for the pastors. The latter may best fit within or during a song (1 Cor. 1:4-8; 2 Cor. 1:11; Heb. 13:18-19). Song –– this element is important because it illustrates our heart’s response to the Gospel (not because it’s entertaining). Sing to Christ, not yourself (Ps. 96). Sermon –– this is an active element for the pastor’s and the congregation. Hearing and receiving God’s Word takes action and attention (Acts 2, 5:42). Sacraments –– by that, I mean Communion and Baptism. Baptism may not occur every week (how wonderful if it does!), but Communion should (Mk. 14:22-26; Matt. 28:18-20). It is a gracious gift from God to tangibly reflect on our union with Christ and his Church. Trust me on this one. I don’t have space to argue here, maybe another post. Take these elements seriously. Think hard about what they mean and how you can glorify God through each one.
Second, resolve to work the Gospel deep into your heart through creative, repetitive “Gospel nuggets.” Likely, prayer is the most repetitive and under-appreciated part of the Christian life. Take the time to pour your heart out for yourself, your family, and your fellow members. Pray the Scriptures. Pray the Gospel. Pray to Christ. It’s not always easy. Still, we have multiple opportunities (nuggets) throughout a usual service to reflect on the grace we have been shown. Another way of capturing those small moments is to notice the multiple ways in which the Scriptures express the Gospel. Some examples are: Atonement, Adoption, Born-Again, Justification, Grafted-In, etc. Make an effort to notice as these different expressions come up through the text, sermon, prayers, and songs. Reflect on these Gospel nuggets and the truths they express. Take them with you throughout the week, even. You will start to develop short, clear ways of speaking the Gospel. Sentences like “Jesus lived the life we couldn’t live and died the death we should’ve died” communicate the Gospel accurately and are easy to remember. This can be incredibly useful for reminding yourself of these truths and, who knows, you may find yourself speaking them to others as well. Be creative, yet true to the Scriptures.
Third, plan your worship to be well-rounded. In other words, introduce some structure to your worship. It may be helpful to break each year down into weekly, seasonal, and yearly goals.
During corporate worship, try to notice aspects of the service that glorify the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit individually. Better yet, don’t simply notice, but worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Often, we tend to neglect one or more persons of the Trinity due to our style or personality. We should worship all three –– as a church –– every Sunday.
If your church is like most, there is an overload of programs to plug into. Bible studies, book studies, mission trips, mission projects, food pantries, clothes drives, just to name a few. Once again, our personalities usually dictate what we are involved in. You may be in three Bible studies but never engage the community. And you wonder why you struggle to pray during corporate worship. Or, you may cook meals every night of the week for your neighbors, but you never study the Bible in depth. And you wonder why the preacher always uses big words that you don’t understand. Truth is, we need both. We need orthodoxy (right thinking) and orthopraxy (right actions). Plan to alternate what sort of programs you are involved in so that you can worship God with your heart and your hands.
I will be short on this one. You need to read the Bible –– the whole thing. (see Wade’s post on Bible reading plans) God has revealed himself in a book. He gave us this book so that we may know him. He is high and lifted up, glorious in every way, worthy to be worshipped. If you know him, you will worship him.
As a side note, these suggestions arose from my own journalling about important things I would like to remember if I ever pastor a local church. This was originally sketched from a planning perspective. Yet, I realize most of us are not in a position to dictate what happens during corporate worship. You may be in a congregation that does not participate in corporate Scripture Reading or one that takes Communion every week. Make the most of what you have for now. Meanwhile, study the Scriptures concerning these things and go to your church leaders in humility by asking them to consider what the Bible has to say about them.