There’s something special about being with a group of people who are all passionate about the same thing. When the first Star Wars movie of the newest trilogy came out in 2015, Pastor Brent Aucoin (a die-hard Star Wars fan) invited all of Faith West to join our family in seeing the movie within the first couple of weeks of its release.
The theater was packed. All kinds of people who had grown up watching Star Wars were ecstatic that their favorite franchise had a new movie. Halfway through the movie, after a whole half of watching our heroes barely evade the evil empire again and again, at a point when everything looks hopeless, X-Wings swoop in to save the day. The theater erupted with people cheering and applauding as we all enjoyed watching one of our favorite types of rescue scenes re-enacted. Can you guess who was cheering the loudest? Yep, my dad next to me was drinking in every minute of his childhood re-lived.
How would my experience have been different if I had watched that movie for the first time sitting at home by myself? The crowd’s excitement gave me a new delight in what I was watching, and even more than that, knowing my dad’s lifelong Star Wars fandom made me love watching the movie even more.
Does the phenomenon I just described hold true when we consider the weekly gathering of the church on Sunday mornings? When God instructed his people to gather for worship, how does “togetherness” and a common passion impact what takes place? In our individualistic American culture, are Sunday morning worship services supposed to just be exciting, spiritual settings to have “God and I” time? Or should we have a higher goal?
This is the second post in a series on Corporate Worship in Action. In Part 1: “Worship”, we defined biblical worship as the whole-person response of the people of God towards their holy Redeemer that demonstrates he is worthy of honor and glory. In this blog, we’re going to consider the purposes of the Sunday morning worship services, particularly focusing on the corporate nature of corporate worship.
Purposes of Corporate Worship
Several years ago, a group of core leaders within our church’s worship team put together a mission statement that explains our biblical purpose for leading music each week. We put together a mission statement that included 3 purposes for corporate worship. We lead the church in singing biblical truth for 3 reasons:
- To praise our holy God
- To encourage one another in love and faithfulness
- To display Christ’s glory to unbelievers
Matt Merker puts it this way in his book, Corporate Worship: the church gathers for exaltation (of God), edification (of fellow believers), and evangelism (of unbelievers). These three purposes describe three orientations each of us should pursue when gathering for worship.
- When I come to a worship service, I should first and foremost have an upward orientation towards my Savior.
It may seem obvious, but worship is first and foremost about the God who is worthy of our worship. Verses such as Psalm 47:1–2 exhort us, “O clap your hands, all peoples; Shout to God with the voice of joy. For the Lord Most High is to be feared, A great King over all the earth.” We gather, shout, clap our hands, sing, and hear from God’s Word first and foremost because God is worthy of that activity. This point should be convicting, because so often we come to worship saying something in our hearts like, “I will clap my hands and sing because I like the songs this morning and got a good night’s sleep,” or even, “I will come to church and watch others sing and listen to God’s Word.” Worship is first a matter of obedience upwards to our worthy King.
- We should have an orientation around towards our brothers and sisters in Christ when we gather.
Colossians 3:16 exhorts the church to teach and admonish one another “with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” One of the God-ordained means of encouraging and convicting his people is through the corporate worship of the body of Christ. Your voice on Sunday morning could be what God uses to remind a brother or sister in Christ of the exact truth they need to hear.
- We should have an outward orientation, recognizing that there are likely people joining us on Sunday mornings who do not yet know Christ as their Savior.
Paul reminds of this when he encourages us to conduct our gatherings in such a way so that an unbeliever can understand what is going on and be convicted that God is really among his people (1 Cor 14:24). The joyful worship of believers is a powerful testimony to the relevance and power of the gospel.
The Importance of Corporate
Keeping the purpose of corporate worship in focus is critical for God’s people. It’s easy for American Christians to come to worship believing subconsciously that the primary orientation of corporate worship is inward-focused. Essentially, I go to church because I believe I need something, often because I’m desiring an encouraging experience or encounter with God. Corporate worship becomes less about joyful obedience and more about self-fulfillment. If this is the case, you should stay home on Sundays, because virtual attendance is more convenient and the purpose of worship services anyway is to help you have an experience that brings you closer to God.
The problem with this way of thinking is that God did not design biblical worship to be about you! Of course, God does bless us when we obey and worship him because that’s what we were created to do. But just like every area of the Christian life, our focus should primarily be outward and upward and around. What we experience is a by-product of our joyful worship, which itself is a response to the character and deeds of God.
Imagine what pursuing the right kinds of purposes can produe during your Sunday morning worship:
- Imagine a single mom coming to the worship service exhausted and discouraged. Try all that she might, she can never seem to be enough for her kids. The church begins to sing a song about trusting our sovereign, loving God, and she hears the voices of some her closest friends singing. God uses those voice to remind her that God can handle the problems that she can’t handle on her own, and she takes to heart that one of the ways God will take care of her is through faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who will love and support her.
- Imagine an unbelieving college student who gets invited to church by one of his friends. When he comes, he is struck by just how passionately and loudly the people are singing about a bloody cross and forgiveness of sin. God uses the testimony of joyful worship to soften that student’s heart so that after the service he asks his friend, “Why are those people so excited? What do they have that I don’t?”
- Imagine a man who just feels bland and lifeless in his relationship with the Lord. He woke up late and dragged himself to church, but he isn’t excited about it. As the first couple of songs are sung, he looks around and sees people choosing to engage their hearts with biblical truth, and he remembers that God is worthy of his worship today regardless of how he feels. As he sings and as he hears the Word preached, he chooses to set his mind and heart on the character of God and give worship his full attention, by faith knowing that God deserves it.
Aren’t those goals so much grander than the goal of personal self-fulfillment?
God chooses to use weak people like you and me in his mission of redemption each and every Sunday, and we must orient our heart upward, around, and outward towards his purposes. God then uses our rightly-oriented worship to bless our own hearts, prepare us for effective service, and draw us closer to him.
Just like watching Star Wars in the movie theater was so much sweeter than it would have been watching it at home by myself, praising God with my church family takes on a new sweetness compared to watching from home. May we all increasingly pursue God’s purposes for our Sunday worship services, and then taste and see that God’s ways are truly better than our own.
 Matt Merker, Corporate Worship, pp. 61–75.