Worshiping Jesus together may be the single most important thing we do. It plays an indispensable role in rekindling our spiritual fire, and keeping it burning. Corporate worship brings together God’s word, prayer, and fellowship, and so makes for the greatest means of God’s ongoing grace in the Christian life.
But thinking of worship as a means can be dangerous. True worship is fundamentally an experience of the heart, and not a means to anything else. So it’s important to distinguish between what benefits might motivate us to be regular in corporate worship, and what focus our minds and hearts should pursue in the moment.
According to Don Whitney, “There’s an element of worship and Christianity that cannot be experienced in private worship or by watching worship. There are some graces and blessings that God gives only in the ‘meeting together’ with other believers” (Spiritual Disciplines, 92). Surely, many more could be given, but here are five such “graces and benefits” that we experience uniquely in the context of corporate worship.
Often we come into corporate worship feeling a sense of spiritual fog. During the rough and tumble of the week, the hard knocks of real life in the fallen world can disorient us to ultimate reality and what’s truly important. We need to clear our head, recalibrate our spirit, and jumpstart our slow heart. Martin Luther found corporate worship powerful in awakening his spiritual fire: “at home, in my own house, there is no warmth or vigor in me, but in the church when the multitude is gathered together, a fire is kindled in my heart and it breaks its way through.”
Better than Luther, though, is the experience of the inspired psalmist. In Psalm 73, he begins by despairing over the prosperity of his wicked peers (verses 2–15). But the fog clears as he comes consciously into the presence of God: “When I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end” (Psalm 73:16–17).
He was embattled. The spiritual haze was thick. But the breakthrough came in the context of worship. Which then leads to this climactic expression of praise: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25–26).
How many times have we found this to be true for us as well? Instead of staying away from corporate worship when we sense ourselves to be spiritually lethargic, precisely what we need more than ever is the awakening of worship. When our hearts feel it least is when we need most to remind our souls, “For me it is good to be near God” (Psalm 73:28).
A second benefit is the community dynamic — which means not only meeting our good desires for belonging and shared mission (fellowship), but also providing a catalyst for our assurance.
While we may admire figures like Athanasius and Luther who stood contra mundum, alone against the world, we must remember God has said it is not good for us to be alone (Genesis 2:18). These heroes were the product of dire days, and inevitably their stories have been thinned in the collective memory of distant history. Neither Athanasius or Luther truly stood alone, but were part of faithful communities that fostered and strengthened their otherwise unpopular beliefs.
And so it is with us. We were not made to stand solo with no fellows. Even in times as troubling as Elijah’s, God gave him seven thousand who hadn’t abandoned the truth (1 Kings 19:18). God made us for community — and named her “the church” — and being part of this great local and global community plays an important role in assuring us not only that we are not deceiving ourselves in pretending our profession is credible, but also that we truly know whom we have believed (2 Timothy 1:12).
And worship in the local church points us to the worship of universal church, and that Jesus has a people from many nations, and one day will include every nation (Revelation 7:9).
Corporate worship also plays an indispensible part in our sanctification — our progressive growth in being conformed to the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29). Corporate worship is for our general “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Corinthians 14:3), but also in beholding Jesus together, “we all . . . are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Christian growth is not just something that we take away as sermon application and then work into our lives that week. As Tim Keller says, sanctification can happen “on the spot” as we sit under gospel preaching and engage in corporate worship. There are times — may God make them many — when the Holy Spirit takes the Scripture read, the prayer spoken, the chorus sung, or the truth preached and presses it right to the point of our need, and not merely informs our Christian walk, but heals us in that moment.
When we join in corporate worship, God loves not only to change our minds, but irrevocably change our hearts “on the spot.”
4. Accepting Another’s Leading
One important distinction between public worship and private worship is the place of our initiative. Corporate worship reminds us that our faith is fundamentally reception, not our own initiation. In private devotions, we lead ourselves in some sense. In corporate worship, we’re made to receive the leading of others.
In private worship, we’re in the driver’s seat. We decide what passage to read, when to pray, what to pray, how long to linger in Bible reading and meditation, what songs to listen to or sing, what gospel truths to preach to ourselves, and what applications to consider. But in corporate worship, we respond. Others preach and pray and select the songs and choose how long to linger in each element. We’re positioned to receive.
It is a wonderful thing in our personal devotions to make such choices, but it is also good for us to practice engaging with God when someone other than ourselves is making the calls. Corporate worship demands that we discipline ourselves to respond, and not only pursue God on our own terms. It is an opportunity to embrace being led, and not always taking the lead.
5. Accentuated Joy
Last, but not least, is the heightened experience of worship in the corporate context. Our own awe is accentuated, our own adoration increased, our own joy doubled when we worship Jesus together.
As the Swedish proverb says, a shared joy is a double joy. In corporate worship, the “graces and benefits” we uniquely enjoy are not only awakening, assurance, advance, and accepting others’ leadership, but also the accentuated joy of deeper and richer and greater adoration and awe, since our delight in Jesus expands as we magnify him together with others.
The secret of joy in corporate worship is not only self-forgetfulness — or to put it positively, preoccupation with Jesus and his glory — but also the happy awareness that we are not alone in having our souls satisfied in him.
A revised and expanded version of this article now appears in Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines. The book is available in hardback, for Kindle, as an audio book, and free of charge as a full PDF.
David Mathis also has written a study-guide workbook to facilitate individual and group study of the book.
Also available is an email course of five short videos, provided by Crossway Books.