With the onslaught of cell phone development, every industry has needed to make adjustments—including airlines. In addition, to warning us about “the unlikely event of a water landing” (which isn’t exactly a comforting thought during a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town!) passengers are also now warned of the dangers of our phones, iPads, and other electronic devices interfering with navigational systems. Passengers are instructed to put these devices in “flight mode” and to switch them off during takeoff and landing. Even when it is permitted to switch them back on, they must in no uncertain terms “remain in flight mode.” I am sure that many are tempted to ignore this instruction, but stewards are instructed to make sure that the exhortation is heeded.
Of course, we should pay heed. After all, who wants to interfere with a plane’s navigational system and therefore put themselves and others in danger? Who in their right mind would want to make the job of the pilot, the one responsible for their safety, any more challenging than it already is? In the light of the potential danger, the admonition to put our devices into flight mode is a small inconvenience.
What is true for flight has a corollary when it comes to corporate worship.
Lately, I have been doing some thinking about corporate worship. Some of my experiences and interactions while recently overseas have contributed to this, as well as some observations over the past several months, and even in recent days. The sum of that thinking is presented to you in this study. In essence when we gather for corporate worship, we too should be in “flight mode.” Not only must we put our electronic devices in flight mode (more on that later), but we must come as a fellow passenger seeking a profitable journey to the glory of God.
Let me put it this way: Each of us needs to do all that we can to assist our “flight” into the worship experience; our flight into the worship event. For, in fact, corporate worship is an event. But if we are not careful—and deliberately so—our experience of worship may be hampered and we may in fact hinder the worship of others. It is for this reason that I wish to address some very practical matters of corporate worship.
Obviously, this particular study has risen from a burden of corporate worship as it is carried out at BBC. Nonetheless, because worship is prescribed, the principles noted here will apply to biblical corporate worship in any setting, even if the specifics do not.
Let me also just say as we commence that this will not be a normal, expository study, but more of a topical consideration of the matter at hand.
The Priority of Corporate Worship
First, we must settle in our minds that corporate worship is a matter of the highest priority. The most important thing you will do in any given week as a believer is to gather with the church for corporate worship.
A Passion for Worship
When Paul ministered as a church-planting missionary he did so because he wanted to see an increase of worshippers. He speaks in v. 23 of “the One whom you worship without knowing.” The word translated “worship” speaks of an act of devotion. In Let the Nations Be Glad, one of the best books I have ever read on missions, John Piper notes that “missions exists because worship doesn’t.”1 He correctly notes that the mission endeavour of the church is temporary, but worship is eternal. And it is precisely because the right kind of worship does not exist that the Great Commission is necessary.
When Paul came to Athens, his priority was very evident. He noted that, although the Athenians were “worshipped”—though they were “devout”—they did so ignorantly (v. 23). His passion was to change this. He wanted them to worship the true and only God. Therefore, he proclaimed the truth about the one true God.
We should keep in mind that, when we send and support missionaries, our purpose is that they will be used of God to turn people from serving and worshipping false gods to knowing, loving and serving the one true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9; see Romans 1:25ff). Church planting is about worship. It is about winning and discipline believers who will worship God. The Great Commission is indeed all about worship. As you financially and prayerfully support missionaries in various countries, understand that the end goal of your support and of their work is unapologetically for those to whom they minister to bow in worship to the God of the Bible.
This is why the Great Commission is to be the priority of the local church. Our passion for God to be worshipped drives us to prioritise making disciple with a view to planting local churches because we know that such churches will produce worshippers. It should grieve us that there are countries and cities in this world in which there are no places of worship—that is, worship of the true God. I remember several years ago visiting a city in an unreached nation, and while there it dawned on me with great sobriety that that city completely lacked a place of true worship.
It is essential that people become individual worshippers of God. It is essential that they bow the knee and the will to the Lord Jesus Christ and thus to the triune God (John 14:6). It is essential that individual believers worship God 24/7. All of life must be lived under the lordship of Christ.
But it is also vital that such individuals worship corporately. This brings us to the primary observation: the priority of corporate worship.
The Priority of Worship
Worship is a prevalent theme in the Bible. The main word for worship is found some sixty times in New Testament. It means “to prostrate oneself, thus to worship.” It describes the act of bowing to one who is greater than you. Most references are to individual worship, but there are a sufficient number speaking of corporate worship (e.g. John 4:20-24; 12:20; Acts 8:27; 24:11).
The point I wish to emphasise is that our passion for worship must remain our passion—long after the initial experience of saving faith. It is to be lamented that, even where the gospel has made significant inroads, corporate worship is often not what it should and could be.
We live in a day in which the concept of a Sunday evening worship service is increasingly falling on hard times. It is as if church members will tip the hat to God on a Sunday morning, but then insist that the rest of the day is their own. Many churches have begun to institute a Saturday night service, so that people can attend church while still having the entirety of Sunday to themselves.
Churches like this often reason that Sunday night should be replaced with “family time,” which usually means the family sitting silently in front of the television! (Of course, corporate worship is “family time”!)
Sunday morning worship is also beginning to fall increasingly on hard times. Sunday morning services are often rushed, with assurances from church leadership that services will not take much more than an hour of your time. Many churches have done away with pre-service Sunday school, because that takes too much of church members’ time. Indeed, corporate worship has fallen on hard times.
The old covenant worship sets a pattern and a priority for corporate worship. The new covenant certainly continues this. Jesus and the Samaritan woman spoke frankly of the importance of corporate worship (John 4:20-24). The corporate worship of the new covenant church plays a prominent role in the book of Acts (see, for example, Acts 2:41-47). In his mission ministry, Paul usually made a beeline to local synagogues—places of corporate worship—in his quest to save souls and plant churches. Acts 20:7-12 highlights the corporate worship service of one particular local church, including the unusual miracle of resurrecting one young man who fell asleep during the service and fell from a third story balcony.
The epistles speak too of the matter of corporate worship (see 1 Corinthians 14:6, 23-25; 26ff). First Timothy—particularly chapter 2—is essentially a manual for church order (see 3:14-15). Ephesians 5:18-21 speaks of corporate worship in Ephesus.
The point is clear and (I trust) indisputable: God places a priority on corporate worship, and therefore so should we.
The Sunday evening worship at BBC has historically been well-attended, and over the years pastors have often asked me how I explain such a good attendance on Sunday night. I don’t have all the answers to that question, but I suspect that part of it is a deliberate emphasis on corporate worship—morning and evening—undergirded by the Fourth Commandment. Mark Dever recently preached at our church, and before the service he sat down with our eldership. He told us that he often tells people that if they can’t commit to Sunday evening worship, then Capitol Hill Baptist Church—the church that he pastors in the United States—is not the church for them. The same might be said of BBC.
But why is this such a priority? This brings us to our next point.
The Purpose of Corporate Worship
Obviously, the main purpose of corporate worship is for believers to worship together. That is inherent in the definition. But I would suggest that Paul gives us some further insight into the prioritised purpose in v. 23: ‘Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you.” As Harrison observes, “Paul was eager to grasp the opportunity to write on that anonymous altar the name of the God he knew. This was the burden of his message.”2
“Paul was moved by the thought of all the ignorance and superstition and vice and immorality by which idolatry is inevitably accompanied,”3 and he knew that theology, rooted in the gospel, was the only antidote. Thus, he proclaimed truth about God to his captive audience. He desired that they would know the true and living God and that they would live in light of this truth, having first been born again by the gospel of God.
I would maintain that this is precisely the purpose of our corporate worship: to equip us to know God.
It is important that the songs we sing be grounded in sound theology. In our church, my fellow vocational elder and I take great pains to ensure that the songs sung during our worship services are theologically sound. We want our people singing truth. It is a wonderful blessing to hear truth sung. At a recent funeral, we were blessed to hear the church choir sing Laura Story’s Blessings, which is a song filled with tremendous truth for times of trial. Such truthful singing honours God.
Similarly, our worship services ought to be filled with theological praying. The pulpit prayers in our church are given much thought and preparation. If we are careful to put time into the sermons we preach, surely we ought to give much thought to the prayers that we offer to God? The prayers prayed in our churches ought to teach our people about God.
Every aspect of corporate worship—public Bible reading, teaching and preaching, observance of the ordinances—is designed to be God-centred so as to teach us more about God. In sum, our corporate worship is designed by God to inform our thinking so as to redirect our hearts and to empower our wills to know, love and serve the living God, who is our Saviour. Therefore, what we do in corporate worship matters. It matters a great deal!
We can say that corporate worship matters in this world. Ultimately, it matters to the world. Though I have argued this in many ways in our studies in Exodus and Leviticus, I will argue it again here: Corporate worship is the most important thing that we do in any given week. It encourages us. It instructs us. It reorients us. And this all serves to increase our saltiness and brightens our light, for corporate worship reconnects us to the Lord. It is one important means by which we learn to abide in Christ.
The Problems of Corporate Worship
There are many challenges that arise against our pursuit of genuine, meaningful and fruitful corporate worship. The main problem is because it is corporate. That is, it involves bodies; it involves others; it involves other people who are also sinners! And wherever sinners are involved, there is potential to distraction, division and disturbance.
Before looking at these very important matters we need to pause and contemplate that corporate worship is an event. It is a God-centred experience. At least, it is designed to be. If I understand 1 Corinthians 14:25 correctly—“And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you”—I must conclude that, when we gather, we are doing so as active participants in a drama: the drama of redemption. And God is our audience. Therefore, if anyone is entitled to attend with a cup of coffee it is the Lord, not us.
This mentality will go a long way towards helping us to deal with the practicalities of worship; practicalities that address the challenges and problems that we encounter in corporate worship. Ask yourself some pertinent questions. When you come to worship, do you come to worship? When you come to worship, do you come prepared to worship? When you come to worship, do you come intending to participate in worship? When you come to worship, do you come intent on your family participating in worship? When we gather to worship, we should do so intent on experiencing revelation (1 Corinthians 3), which leads to realisation, producing humiliation and resulting in transformation.
Let’s now take some time to take a practical look at some of the problems and challenges with reference to corporate worship.
The Practicalities of Corporate Worship
We briefly noted above three categories of challenges to corporate worship: distraction, division and disturbance. It will prove helpful to us if we take the time to take these three categories apart.
If we are honest, we will admit that we are often tempted to be distracted during corporate worship. There might be several reasons for such distractions.
Worldliness on the Mind
Much could be said here, but suffice it for our purposes for me to exhort you to try and put your mind into flight mode when you arrive for worship.
Speak to yourself and remind yourself why you have come.
Try to leave your vocation in the parking lot. And allow others to do so too. Our church is blessed with a great deal of medical professionals, and there is always the temptation to use worship as a consulting time. Our doctors must be allowed to lay aside their weekly concerns and worship. And we must help them with this. Sunday is not the time to consult your doctor or your mechanic or your banker; it is a time to corporately worship the Lord.
Further, you would do well to guard your conversation from digressing away from worship. It is all too easy to spend time before and after the worship service talking about sport, entertainment, politics, or a wide range of other topics. Rather make the deliberate effort to keep Sunday conversation focused on worship.
We all know what it means to come to church tired. Sometimes we may come to church following a bad night’s sleep. That cannot always be helped, but we should do our level best to get a good night’s rest before worship. Saturday night is probably not the best night to stay up late watching movies. If at all possible, get an early night to ensure good rest. And when you get to church, do your best to stay awake!
There is no doubt that technological developments in the area of telecommunications have provided much benefit for the church of our day. Word searches and studies, commentaries and numerous other teaching aids and sermons are literally at our fingertips. We truly are blessed. Gone are the days when a pastor had to travel with virtually his entire library in order to study. Now, most of the essential tools are available electronically.
Furthermore, the Bible can be stored and carried in our phones and so we virtually have the Bible at our fingertips wherever we are. It is a well-known fact in our church that I am not the most technologically up-to-date person there is. A few years back, I was really disturbed in my spirit as I noticed a particular church member staring at his cell phone frequently while I was preaching. After the service, I asked him if everything was okay. When he told me, somewhat confused, that it was, I admitted that I had noticed him looking at his cell phone during the preaching. He chuckled and informed me that he uses his phone as his Bible during worship. I believe I have finally caught up to the 21st century!
Truly, such developments continue to provide many blessings to the church. But having acknowledged the benefits of such technology, we also need to be aware of its attendant temptations and subsequent dangers.
For example, I fear that such technological tools pose a threat to morphing corporate worship from an event or experience of meeting with God into a time of distracting personal Bible study. Thus rather than engaging with the Body in a time of experiential worship it is easy to become distracted and to miss the wood for the trees.
For example, while it is commendable to be Berean in your approach to a sermon preached, I would question the wisdom of using electronic tools to perform word searches during a sermon. Preaching is probably not the best time to google for further information on the subject being preached. A man in our church recently told me how a word spoken during a sermon had ministered precisely what he needed to his soul, and admitted that he may well have missed it had he been preoccupied with his tablet at that moment.
I would submit that such information addiction and overload is not helpful to worship. By all means, do this later, but not during the service. Not only will it distract you from potential blessings, but it may distract others from the same.
A word should perhaps be said about social media during worship. The corporate worship service is not the time to be on Facebook, even if you are “liking” the church’s page! I would question the wisdom of “live tweeting” your thoughts about the sermon. Worship is a time for you to take in what God is saying to you. Only once you have prayerfully digested it should you share with others.
If such technological temptations face you, I would urge you to go old school and bring a printed and bound Bible to church. In fact, that may well be a good practice for your children to learn from. After all, your iPad has dozens of books. Let your children see that the Bible is not just another book; it is special.
I realise that I may be meddling here! However, I am not being prescriptive. I am suggesting, rather, that we think through these issues.
Grace Groups is the name given to our church’s small (home) group ministry. Grace Groups meet at various points throughout the week in various homes, and as helpful as this ministry has been to the church, there is the danger of Grace Groups being a distraction.
Simply put, if you are thinking about your Tuesday Grace Group input when should be thinking about the sermon being preached on Sunday, you are being unduly distracted. I rarely mention Grace Groups during the preaching of the Word, because preaching itself is an event; Grace Groups merely help add benefit to the event preceding.
I am a big supporter of note taking during preaching, and there is no doubt that taking notes is a great aid to meaningful engagement in Grace Groups, but if taking notes distracts you from hearing God’s Word, it may be time to put down the pen and just listen.
The second category of potential problems during corporate worship is that of divisions.
First Corinthians is an incredible insight into problems in a local church. Take, for example, 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul exhorted the church to honour God’s ordained gender roles in corporate worship (vv. 1-16). In the same chapter, he rebuked the church for selfish abuse of the Lord’s Table (vv. 17-34). Then, in chapter 12, he addressed the selfish abuse of spiritual gifts in the church, and urged the assembly to guard the unity provided by the Spirit.
Of course, the antidote to the selfishness in the Corinthian assembly is found in chapter 13, where Paul urges the church members to treat one another with love.
Here is a very simple but important principle to bear in mind when it comes to corporate worship: Everything does not need to be done your way! The local church is a body, and members of a body work together.
We all have our own preferences. A younger generation of church members may call for a “contemporary” church service, while older members may want a more “traditional” service. Whose tradition should be honoured? Some give and take will be necessary. At issue is the need to strive for a biblically traditional service.
The opening chapters of 1 Corinthians reveal another problem that was evident in the church: that of sectarianism. Church members were aligning themselves with a particular minister. Some favoured Paul. Others favoured Peter. Still others aligned themselves with Apollos. The really “spiritual” ones claimed simply to be “of Christ.” This was creating division in the church.
Sadly, our local churches today face similar challenges. But on the Lord’s Day, we need to gather for the purpose of worshipping God by the means of the Scriptures—regardless of who is proclaiming those Scriptures.
The final category of worship problems with which I will deal is that of disturbances.
I have been to enough theatrical performances to know that, in many cases, if you arrive late, you are refused admission. Latecomers may potentially disturb the performers or the audience, and this is not tolerated. And while many people are sure to be on time to such performances, often the same people will arrive late to church.
The principle is simple: If church is important to you—and it ought to be!—don’t be late. Tardiness might be fashionable, but it is rude. In our church, the deacons and door stewards have been asked to refuse latecomers admittance during certain parts of proceedings. For example, we don’t want people walking in and out during times of prayer or Scripture reading. No doubt, there are valid reasons for having to come in late or leave during the service, but I suspect that it happens far more often than it needs to.
Restlessness can be another disturbance to worship. We should beware of treating corporate worship with less respect than we would a classroom. The solution to restlessness is simple: Exercise self-control and actually engage in worship!
I save the best—or perhaps the most controversial—for last.
Children are an important part of BBC. After a recent, two-week trip to the United States, I returned to the church in need of meeting several newborns. At one point this year, there were five babies born in five weeks. Another came two weeks later, and as I write these words there are another three to come (of which I am aware). It has been counted that there are over a hundred children of church members under the age of twelve. Certainly these children should be encouraged to attend corporate worship. Worship is a family affair. We all need to accept this reality. Those without children may at times need to persevere with young parents persevering with their children. There are worse things than a baby crying during a worship service; for example, the parents of that baby staying home because they don’t feel welcome at church!
In our church, children are welcome to sit in the auditorium with their parents during the worship services. Some parents in our church have had their children with them in the service their entire lives, and have never made use of the crèche or children’s church ministries. That is up to parental discretion. But I am convinced that if the children are at church, and are not in the hall, parents should make use of the crèche. There is very little reason not to do so. The crèche is managed and staffed very well. Your child may get sick, but that is life! If family worship is best served by placing your baby in the crèche, then please do so!
In our church, there are several areas in the building that receive an audiovisual feed of the sermon. There is a TV screen with speakers in the foyer and one in the mother’s feeding room. There is another feed in a third room, which can be used by parents whose children are perhaps sick, and who don’t want to expose other children to infection. These areas serve an important purpose, but they also create the temptation for people to remove themselves unnecessarily from body worship. Ask yourself, is it absolutely necessary to make use of an overflow area. If so, then God bless you; if not, consider joining the body for worship.
Don’t make your children the centre of your attention. That is God’s place. Help your children to learn this.
For those whose children join them in the main auditorium, there are some important principles to bear in mind.
Know that your children are more than welcome to join you in the worship service. However, if you choose to keep them with you, teach them how to be reverent. Take opportunity at home to teach them how to sit still and listen. Someone recently suggested getting an audio recording of a sermon and using it at home as a teaching method to “play church.” Tell your children that they will now pretend they are at church, and they must sit quietly (perhaps drawing or colouring) for the duration of the recording. There may be some wisdom in that.
The auditorium is not a dining hall. Children can be taught to eat at home and after the service. Sweet and chip packets, rustled by hungry children, can be potentially distracting. Similarly, if you bring something to keep your children occupied during the service, ensure that it is something that can be utilised quietly. A reading book or colouring pages (with minimal crayons or pencils) can be used quietly. Some toys do not lend themselves to quiet use. Be wise and considerate of others.
Note also that there is no need to give your children a plethora of choices during worship. A book or two and a few colouring or blank pages will suffice. There is no need to pack their entire toy room into the car so that they can keep themselves busy. Limit their choices, and help them to be respectful.
Take opportunity as early as possible to teach your children to engage in worship. Ask them to pay attention to what is being preached and to draw picture of it or take notes. My bookshelf in my study is filled with pictures drawn by children of church members during the service—usually of me preaching. That is a good use of your children’s time. When they are older, encourage them to listen for key words, or perhaps for an outline, and to write things down as they hear them to show you afterwards. In this way, you will train them to meaningfully engage in worship.
The Possibilities of Corporate Worship
I close by drawing attention to the possibilities of corporate worship. That is, there is the possibility of being transformed as we experience God in worship. Paul drew attention to this as he concluded his sermon on the Areopagus:
“Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” So Paul departed from among them.
If the Athenians would heed God’s Word and worship Yahweh as their “UNKNOWN GOD,” their lives would be radically transformed. Paul elsewhere writes of the transforming power of corporate worship:
Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you.
(1 Corinthians 14:23-25)
I have ministered long enough to know of people being saved during worship services and funeral services while the Word was preached. A couple in our church recently celebrated their 56th year of marriage, and I can remember as if it was yesterday the day when the wife was converted during the preaching of God’s Word. I have a good friend in another part of our country that shares that testimony, and others in the church share the same.
Solomon Stoddard, Jonathon Edwards’ grandfather and a long time pastor, was converted during a Communion service.
Believers have the opportunity of experiencing renewed grace to repent or to believe during corporate worship. There have been countless times when I have received messages after a Sunday service from church members who have testified that God ministered grace to them precisely as they needed it during the preaching of the Word. That is the power of corporate worship.
Therefore, in the light of the possibilities of corporate worship, let us do all that we can to minimise any potential hindrance from such potential blessings. That is, when we gather, let us be sure that we are in flight mode.
- John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 11. ↩
- Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 285. ↩
- Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 139. ↩