Compromising Corporate Worship?
Is corporate worship being compromised?
There are so many different phenomena in contemporary worship services, that at times
these church services bear no resemblance to the pattern for corporate worship outlined in the Scriptures. That very presupposition, that the Bible outlines for us a pattern for corporate worship is challenged by the very nature and emphasis of many contemporary worship services. And yet, Paul, writing to his protégé Timothy, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, stated very clearly that there is a prescribed way to conduct ourselves in the house-hold of God. In fact, that is the purpose why Paul wrote 1 Timothy
1 Timothy 3:14–15
14 I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; 15 but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.
The context would suggest that Paul was not only interested in instructing believers on how to conduct themselves in this world, or how to conduct themselves in daily living with one another, but Paul’s interest lies immediately in how we ought to conduct ourselves as believers when we gather for worship.
In chapter 1 he stresses the importance of sound teaching the church ought to be receiving (1:3). In chapter 2 he begins with pointing the church to its corporate
responsibility to pray for the authorities (2:1). He continues in chapter 2 to instruct the church on how men (2:8) and women (2:9-15) ought to conduct themselves in the
gathered congregation. And then in chapter 3 he provides qualifications for church leaders i.e. elders (3:1-7) and deacons (3:8-13). Paul is very explicit in chapter 3 that there is a prescribed way we ought to conduct ourselves in the household of God (14-15).
This clearly demonstrates that when we gather as a church we do so according to God’s revealed will and not according to our restless wishes! The tendency to fill worship services with scripturally unwarranted practices and abuses is not completely unknown to the New Testament. Ask Paul about what happened in the church in Corinth.
The immature and carnal persuasion of the saints in Corinth had almost desecrated every means of grace God had given that local church. They lacked no spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 1:7), yet they lacked every manner of restraint and order in exercising these gifts (1 Cor. 14:26-33). They were faithful and careful to observe the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11:17-22) but they
were flippant and carnal around the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11:17-22). They were blessed with a unity whereby, God through His Spirit, had joined every member to Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:13-14) yet they were blaspheming that very unity by their sharp and immoral divisions (1 Cor. 1:11-13, 3:1-4, 11:20-22).
Everything they needed in order to have Christ-honoring gatherings was given them: spiritual gifts, the ordinances, and unity in the Spirit – yet they neglected, abused and failed miserably in appropriating God’s grace given for true worship. I fear there are many churches of whom this is true today as well.
Are we pressured to pander to the people?
There seems to be constant pressure on church leaders and those who help prepare church services to pander to the appetites, interests and preferences of those expected to attend. On many occasions it has become a trend for Pastors and church leaders to organize services that will not only attract the-whosoever, but also keep those who are coming interested and entertained. Those aspects of a traditionally biblical service, such as preaching, tend to be undervalued and undersold in order to keep people interested. This does not necessarily mean preaching gets replaced (in some cases it would) but the nature, priority and intent of it usually gets radically redefined.
Whereas the nature of preaching should be, speaking God’s Word carefully, clearly, and
correctly; much of what is called preaching today is nothing more than an exposition of our experiences and how God is always there to give us our best life now. Whereas the intent of preaching was to bring glory to God in conforming us to Christ, it now aims to satisfy, please and make the hearers happy – a ’la 2 Timothy 4:3-4. Whereas the Scriptures reserves a very high place for faithful preaching, those now in charge, tend to give preaching as much attention as is deemed bearable.
Similarly the traditionally biblical practice of congregational singing can also said to have been radically redefined. What is happening to preaching is merely one example of how the church service has been adjusted to the appetite of the people. The elements of worship that we see in the Bible for Christ-exalting and corporately-edifying services have essential been lost or its nature and importance radically changed. This has left many churches with worship services that tend to bear no resemblance to the pattern for corporate worship outlined in the Scriptures. In the next post, I intend to elaborate more on the pattern for corporate worship outlined in the New Testament. But very quickly, indulge me as I explore why there tend to be pressure on church leaders to design corporate worship in a way to appease the potential ‘worshippers’.
Will the true worshippers please stand up?
I think the reason may have much to do with the fact that many church leaders have lost sight of who the real participants of a corporate worship service are. I deliberately used the word “participants” in order to give-away how I believe those attending a worship service must view themselves. As we come to a church/corporate worship service, we come not as an audience looking to be entertained but as participants seeking to contribute to the mutual edification of the body (1 Cor. 12:7, 12:12-31, Rom. 12:3-8, Phil. 2:1-5). In fact, one contributing factor to the demise of true worship in the local church is that believers are showing up, wanting to be entertained by the person/people they are giving their money. The reasoning is, “you get paid (so in the infamous words of Kurt Cobain), here we are now, entertain us”.
So, a corporate worship service must be full of participants and that necessitates an important prerequisite, doesn’t it? Who participates in a corporate worship service? Another way to consider the matter is to ask; for whom is the corporate worship service? The answer many will give is, it is for the-whomsoever. Some may even be a bit more explicit and say it is not for those who are already saved but for those who are not yet saved. So, for many the church service is to attract and address unsaved people. However, though unsaved people are most welcome to attend and sit in a corporate worship service, the main aim of the service is directed towards believers and not unbelievers. This point can be seen in the passage referenced at the beginning (1 Timothy 3:14-15). Affirming this point will significantly contribute to the health of our corporate worship services!
The church consists of those who have believed on Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. The church gathers as a body of believers for instruction, fellowship, prayer, and observing the ordinances as can be seen in Acts 2;42-47. The writer of Hebrews calls corporate worship – ‘the gathering of the saints’ (Heb. 10:24). In fact, if we call it worship services, then it stands to reason that it is for those who are able or those who have been enabled to worship (John 3:3, 4:24). This would only include believers and it would necessarily have to exclude unbelievers. So then, it is in vain and unprofitable that church leaders seek to gear their worship services to unbelievers when it is actually the gathering of the saints for worship and fellowship. This does not mean that unbelievers are not welcomed to our services, nor does this mean we should not encourage them to attend.
We should encourage and welcome unbelievers to come with us to church. But our services are not going to cater to their natural expectations and preferences but the services ought to be times of true worship, where the word of God receives a prominent place and is powerfully proclaimed. In this context the expectation is that unbelievers will be overwhelmed with the mercy and severity of God, realize their sinfulness, repent and turn to Christ, in the words of Paul, “the secrets of his hearts are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you”– ( 1 Cor. 14:23-25).
But this will never happen when we are adjusting our services to the preference and for the attention and approval of unbelievers! All we are doing is making them more comfortable in their lost state and unable to detect the presence of God among us. Therefore, I believe we will only honor the true and biblical intent of corporate worship when we accept that it is for true worshippers. Moreover, we will only be of service to unbeliever when our worship services are indeed times of true worship.