A Look at Corporate Worship

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Evan May

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Today, in my attempt to once again point us back to the local church, I'd like us to take a look at corporate worship. What is corporate worship? First, what is worship? Worship is a response that is driven by a changed heart which has beheld the glorious attributes of God and their application in redemptive history. The worshiper is not merely an observer of redemptive history, but he has been included in this story on the basis of God´s grace alone, and has been personally impacted by the Trinity´s salvific and now-sanctifying work. Worship has several manifestations. In a general sense, the act of worship is anything which reveals the glory of God. However, worship in the Bible is also specified in song (Exodus 15:1; Psalm 33:3; 68:4; 92:1; 96:1; 144:9; 147:1; Isaiah 42:1; Revelation 4:8; 15:3) and involves the expression of the impression which God has placed upon the hearts of the redeemed. Scripturally speaking, while the primary dwelling of worship is the heart, it is undeniable that the expression of worship is a physical one. This is because this is God's world, which he created to be good. He designed his image-bearers with not only hearts that always seek to worship something, but with bodies that are able to portray the heart's feelings. The expression of worship allows us to portray outwardly what is felt inwardly, and the normative mode of this expression is music.

I stated earlier that a life of worship, in a general sense, involves anything which has its goal in revealing the glory of God and proclaiming the gospel of Christ, whether this be through marriage, relationships, evangelism, personal sanctification, or the studying of the Word of God. So I do not believe that it would be Scripturally preposterous to call general activities done with a heart seeking to glorify God, even if they are eating or drinking (1 Cor 10:31), "worship." But my theology of worship also leads me to believe that it does not undermine this fact to recognize that Scripture's normative focus of worship, whether private or corporate, involves the modes of music and singing. In fact, in several places in Scripture we see the imperative command to not only worship God, but to do so using instruments and singing (Psalm 81:2; 150:3). This type of worship (musical) has both personal and corporate manifestations. What of corporate worship?

1. Corporate Worship Allows Us to Proclaim Truth to Each Other in Song

Personal worship is performed privately. It is a vital component of the Christian life to not only privately express personal devotion to God, but to regularly utilize the normative means of song. Personal worship does reflect the "just me and God" component which the Christian enjoys through the cross of Christ. However, it is not quite so with corporate worship. If you view corporate worship as a "just me and God" experience, you will not only lack the joy which comes from the component of corporate worship, but you will be failing to accomplish the purpose of your meeting together. You see, Corporate worship not only focuses on God-the-worshipped, but on the fellow worshipers. As pious as it might sound, your sole focus during corporate worship is not to be God alone (though God alone is certainly the only object of worship). Rather, corporate worship is about teaching and admonishing one another in songs (Col 3:16). We proclaim truth to each other. In singing about God´s glory as revealed in our lives, particularly through Christ on the cross, we fulfill the general purpose of meeting together, which is to edify one another (Heb 10:24).

The corollary of the fact that corporate worship allows us to proclaim truth to each other is the fact that corporate worship allows us to learn truth from one another. Consider the theologian who, during worship times, appears to be disengaged but rather is, in fact, so mentally engaged that he fails to express outwardly his inward feelings. Is he truly accomplishing the purpose of corporate worship? I would love to be in his mind. I would love to be listening in on what his thoughts are during the moment that he is contemplating the magnificence of the gospel of God. If he is regenerate, and especially if the Spirit has blessed him with such a knowledge who God is, there is no doubt that, in his mind and heart, he is jumping up and down over the truth that he witnesses others singing. But the problem is that I am not in his mind, and, to me, he appears to be disengaged. It appears that he cares nothing of these truths because his physical composure is no different now than when he is eating his morning cereal and reading the news paper. But in reality, this is far from the case. His outward expressions are, in some way, deceiving to me. In fact, what if I am a new Christian who knows this theologian (or whoever he is) to be someone who has walked with God for quite some time now and really knows who God is, really knows those incommunicable attributes which separate the self-sufficient God from his creation? What am I to learn from his expression? Might I determine that Biblical Christianity really isn't as exciting as the New Testament describes it to be? Don't get me wrong. In his mind, Christianity is a blast! But remember, I cannot be in his mind. I can only see what he expresses outwardly.

This is how corporate worship serves as a means of teaching the church. The church is not only taught by the lyrics of the song (lyrics that hopefully adequately proclaim truth), but by the church's response to these lyrics, what it looks like to be impacted by truth. While this may certainly be a controversial statement in some circles, if you are failing to express outwardly what you feel and know inwardly, you have not fully accomplished the purpose of corporate worship. I'm not going to here explore the Biblically permissible, or even Biblically commanded, expressions of corporate worship. But it is my hope that you realize that the Bible does emphasize such expressions, and that these expressions are one means of teaching the church. Consequently, if the church fails to utilize such expressions, it has, to some degree, failed to feed its sheep with the teaching that corporate worship should offer.

2. Corporate Worship Gives Us a Glimpse of the Glorified State

While private worship is a vital component in the lives of God´s children which allows us to personally express devotion to God, corporate worship is God´s design to give us but a glimpse of what it will be like to be glorified in heaven. While there is certainly many things which the Bible does not tell us about heaven, there are a few things which it has made clear. One of these things is that the redeemed will be joining together in one song: "œHoly, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come" (Rev 4:8), "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!" (Rev 5:12) "Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth" (Rev 5:9-10).

I long to be where the praise is never ending
Yearn to dwell where the glory never fades
Where countless worshippers will share one song
And cries of "œWorthy" will honor the Lamb


To see the church congregated together to worship God in song gives us a glimpse of this. It increases in us the hope for future glorification which God has placed in the hearts of his people (Rom 8: 24-25). Again, if worship had only the "just me and God" component (a component which it certainly has), this representation of the glorified state would be missed. If when we envision worshipping God the only thing which comes into our minds is ourselves, we fail to recognize that we are but part of a "chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God's] own possession" (1 Peter 2:9) which has its purpose in proclaiming the excellencies of God. It reminds us that we are not to be loners, but that we are part of a church which God has chosen for himself. Corporate worship points us back to the people which Christ has redeemed, "from every tribe and language and people and nation." The preaching of the Word and times of fellowship accomplish this as well, but corporate worship accomplishes this in a way that is unique from all others.

Let me say that the doctrine of worship (especially concerning the corporate manifestation) can often be a controversial subject. But it is my hope that we will allow Scripture to inform the purpose of the corporate worship setting, in order that we might have the benefit and the joy of participating in this wonderful gift which Christ has given to his church.
 

Evan May

Inactive User
At first I was like "A bucket of nails...what?" :cool:

In any case, I should surely hope that an introductory discussion on what the Bible states about such a wonderful topic as corporate worship is no can of worms.
 

Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
There's no question that corporate worship is well worth discussing. A foretaste of heaven every week, that's what it is.

I think the "can-o-worms" that some were laughing at was due more to previous discussions on the topic, than to your precise offering. That, and the fact that "singing" and "music" is what came up as the opening. In a way, that starts the topic off within a category that is bound to provoke strong disagreements as to what constitutes their proper expression in worship.

Perhaps I can further the discussion by asking a couple questions:
Does this statement
originally posted by Evan May
corporate worship is about teaching and admonishing one another in songs
really get to the heart of corporately worshipping God? How does the ministry of the "ordinary means of grace" fit into this statement? Is singing and/or music of primary significance to worship, or adjunct to it?

I would go so far as to say that true corporate worship can take place without singing or music at all (although I do not think such absence is normative). Circumstances may not permit employment of that element, yet the genuine article of corporate worship be present. But that would demonstrate that singing is an adjunct element (though quite a vital adjunct) of worship. Singing isn't strictly "optional" as far as corporate worship goes, but its absence does not vitiate true worship.

Conversely, without the proper employment of at least the "primary means of grace", one would be hard-pressed to define any specific gathering of believers as corporate worship, at least as such is defined as the gathering of the church for its regular biblically defined duties of assembly.
 

Evan May

Inactive User
Hey Bruce:

Thanks for the contribution.

In my article I stated:

I stated earlier that a life of worship, in a general sense, involves anything which has its goal in revealing the glory of God and proclaiming the gospel of Christ, whether this be through marriage, relationships, evangelism, personal sanctification, or the studying of the Word of God. So I do not believe that it would be Scripturally preposterous to call general activities done with a heart seeking to glorify God, even if they are eating or drinking (1 Cor 10:31), "worship." But my theology of worship also leads me to believe that it does not undermine this fact to recognize that Scripture's normative focus of worship, whether private or corporate, involves the modes of music and singing. In fact, in several places in Scripture we see the imperative command to not only worship God, but to do so using instruments and singing (Psalm 81:2; 150:3). This type of worship (musical) has both personal and corporate manifestations.

So when you state, "I would go so far as to say that true corporate worship can take place without singing or music at all (although I do not think such absence is normative)" I absolutely agree. However, I was simply exploring here what I believe Scripture presents as the normative mode of corporate worship.

Thanks,
Evan.
 

Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
Evan,
In your paragraph there, you appear to start out meaning to narrow the topic from the general and (largely) uncontroversial thesis: "worship is in all of life" to (presumably) corporate gatherings for worship, as indicated by the thread title.

Yet, if I understand your ultimate goal, it is to get to a place where you can discuss the place of music/singing in the context of corporate worship, "(musical) [worship-type] has both personal and corporate manifestations." Beginning where you have, for you to get to the real subject under discussion requires a tremendous amout of condensation in one, short, introductory paragraph.

One way to avoid some ambiguity in introduction (rather than by starting in a broad generalities of common but vague consent--and then narrowing your focus, which to do really well usually takes both time and skill) is to begin by introducing some definitions and starting assumptions you are using to build a case. Others may disagree with them, but at least you can say to begin with: I'm assuming these basic things are true and given, and from there I am arguing for X.

For example, how are you defining corporate worship? Is this an informal gathering, or more precisely defined as the gathered church for stated times of worship? Are certain things OK in one context but not another? What exactly do you mean by "Scripture's normative focus of worship"? Does this mean "ordinarily when the Bible talks about worship"? Whatever it means, it is supposed to "involve the modes of music and singing." Are Music and Singing the modes, or are these modes variations within the categories of music and singing? How specific do you think the Bible is on this subject?

Again when you say you are "exploring here what I believe Scripture presents as normative mode of corporate worship," I am left unsure at the end whether you mean singing/music IS the "normative mode of corporate worship," (because that is the sole topic of your article); or if you mean that within the realm of corporate worship (however you define that term) singing/music is a normal component. As you state such things and define them, you are not wasting space at all. You are building up a body of material from which you will draw the content of your case as you construct it for your readers. And it governs your use of terms so that you guard yourself against unintentional equivocation.

That said, I will engage you further, and we can sharpen our irons.
In the body of your article, related to your first heading, here is a question: in song, as we teach together (harmoniously) as the body, do we not also learn (individually) from the body? So, if JoeBlow is sitting and not singing, but 99% of the congregation is, how does his failure to express the body's teaching affect my learning ability or capacity? I think that my learning comes about primarily from my participation, as well as my internalizing that message I'm voicing in song (teaching along with the others).

One thing I fully agree with you, in theory if not in practice--the way in which a church conducts itself in its expression and response is itself instructive. "The medium is (itself at least part of) the message"

In your second section you say the following:
Originally posted by Evan May
Corporate worship points us back to the people which Christ has redeemed, "from every tribe and language and people and nation." The preaching of the Word and times of fellowship accomplish this as well, but corporate worship accomplishes this in a way that is unique from all others.
I chose this quote because it highlights some of the ambiguity to which I refered to above, in the necessity of defining your terms at the outset. I'm seeing three things distinguished here, all on the same "level", so to speak: preaching, fellowship, and corporate worship. In the same section, you appear to come quite close to identifying "corporate worship" AS the redeemed singing together one song. A clear, consistent definition of "corporate worship" is really needed here.

I agree that corporate worship is a foretaste of heaven. I agree that normal, brotherly fellowship is not corporate worship. But preaching, as the primary means of grace, is one indispensible element of corporate worship, apart from which such worship ceases to be. I would argue that the church gathered for nothing but the preached Word and prayer, although singing would normally be a necessary component of the "corporate worship", yet would be a proper performance of "corporate worship," even if irregular. I can't square this my understanding, my definition of "corporate worship" with the quotation above.


Well, there's some constructive criticism and questions, agreements and disagreements.
Blessings,
 

Evan May

Inactive User
One way to avoid some ambiguity in introduction (rather than by starting in a broad generalities of common but vague consent--and then narrowing your focus, which to do really well usually takes both time and skill) is to begin by introducing some definitions and starting assumptions you are using to build a case. Others may disagree with them, but at least you can say to begin with: I'm assuming these basic things are true and given, and from there I am arguing for X.

Rather than starting from a general and moving on to a specific, I started with a specific, but "covered myself" so to speak by giving additional information. That is, in order to avoid the objection that I was ignoring other definitions of "worship," I included the definition of worship in the general sense.

But thanks for the criticism.

So, if JoeBlow is sitting and not singing, but 99% of the congregation is, how does his failure to express the body's teaching affect my learning ability or capacity? I think that my learning comes about primarily from my participation, as well as my internalizing that message I'm voicing in song (teaching along with the others).

JoeBlow's particular lack of participation may not affect my over-all learning. However, of course, if everyone acted as JoeBlow did, it would indeed affect me. Or what if I am sitting next to Joe and his lack of participation causes me to question the purpose of why I am singing?

Most importantly, JoeBlow's lack of participation means that Joe does not receive the joy that comes from not only his own participation, but from how he is teaching others through his participation. Needless to say, if everyone acted as Joe, it would be a sad affair.

I agree that normal, brotherly fellowship is not corporate worship. But preaching, as the primary means of grace, is one indispensible element of corporate worship, apart from which such worship ceases to be.

The preaching of the Word can indeed be (and should be) included in the definition of "corporate worship."

It could also, however, be argued that the preaching of the Word has its purpose in pointing us back to corporate worship.
 
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