As a proto-hipster of the late 1990s, I entered the worship wars of my local church with mandolin and accordion in hand, ready to change the world with quirky acoustic folk music for Jesus. Had you asked me why that was important, I wouldn’t have given you a good answer. I wanted things to change in gathered worship because I wanted it to be relevant—that is, to my liking. As I ventured further into music ministry in later years, I realized not only how self-centered I was, but how shortsighted my view of gathered worship had been.
In Corporate Worship: How the Church Gathers as God’s People, Matt Merker—director of creative resources and training for Getty Music and composer of “He Will Hold Me Fast,” among other hymns—argues that in order to understand what is best for gathered worship, we must first understand the local church. With a robust ecclesiology as the foundation for corporate doxology, we’ll better appreciate the corporate aspects of worship—including prayer, Scripture reading, responsive reading, confession, ordinances, sermon responses, and singing.
By definition, the church is an assembly or gathering (ekklesia). When the pandemic first struck, a megachurch pastor said he couldn’t wait to show the world that we don’t need to gather to be the church. It’s odd to imagine, though, that an assembly need not assemble.
More than an activity to be performed, assembly is an identity to be lived. We gather as those united to Christ by faith (Matt. 18:20). “We don’t ‘go to church’ to worship,” Merker writes, “we worship because we are the church” (37). It follows that Christians should be about the business of giving glory to the God who has called them to assemble, following the counsel of his sufficient Word (2 Tim. 3:16).
In order to understand what is best for gathered worship, we must first understand the local church.
Many churches have sought to stress the comfort of non-Christians when designing gathered worship, neglecting the command to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). Of course, every church family should strive to be hospitable to outsiders (1 Cor. 14:1–19), but the church needn’t suppress the communal culture of the kingdom in order to be attractive. Merker gives a helpful example on this point, comparing corporate worship to a Honduran tailgate party he saw before a soccer match:
Flags flew. Music blasted. Meat sizzled on the grill. . . . I both felt like an outsider and was attracted to their gathering.
Most of us would love to be invited to this party, and we would be disheartened if we received only a burger and fries because we’re American. Likewise, the local church is an outpost of a glorious kingdom unknown to the world, with strangely beautiful truths to proclaim, profess, and celebrate for all to see.
It’s in obedience to our King (first) and in service to one another (second) that we can create an attractive culture of corporate worship in our churches. We assemble, not as individuals vying for our preferences, but as a unified people submitting to Scripture and glorifying God. In this kind of gathering, we’re reminded of the truths we profess and are thereby encouraged, convicted, sharpened, and enthused.
Corporate worship is a family meal, as Merker calls it, which differs from eating alone. Creating an environment in which we experience the presence of the gathered church—not just those up front—is crucial to the corporate aspects of worship. A service that elevates entertainment over engagement fails to involve the gathered church in the work and witness of worship. “The real action is in the pew, not on the platform,” Merker writes (40).
We assemble, not as individuals vying for our preferences, but as a unified people.
For many of us, the pandemic has highlighted how good it is to gather for this family meal, as many have been forced to “eat alone” for a long time. A meal enjoyed alone can accommodate our individual preferences, but it can’t replace the same sense of joy, community, love, and connection that can come from gathering with other people. Will it always be completely to your liking? Probably not. But if the Lord has given you pastors and church members who prepare a table where you can gather to be nourished, rejuvenated, and sustained, then show up and dig in.
After all, you’re not coming for the quirky acoustic folk music for Jesus—you’re coming to join in a family meal.