Kindle the Fire in Corporate Worship
You were made for more than private devotions.
As nice as it can be to tuck ourselves away in some nook and cranny, all by our lonesome, and read the Scriptures we want to read, pray the prayers we prefer, play the songs we like, memorize the verses we pick, and fast from food when it’s convenient — as important as it is to pursue a regular rhythm of “private worship” in these personal disciplines — this is not the pinnacle of our Christian lives.
We were made to worship Jesus together. Among the multitude. With the great horde. Swallowed up in the magnificent mass of the redeemed. God didn’t fashion us to enjoy him finally as solitary individuals, but as happy members of a countlessly large family.
When the fog of everyday life clears, and we catch a glimpse of heaven’s bliss, we don’t find ourselves sequestered at a study desk or hidden alone in a prayer closet in paradise, or even standing alone before the great Grand Canyon or mountain peak of God’s majesty, but joyfully lost in the worshiping throng of Christ’s people from every tongue and tribe and nation.
We were made for corporate worship.
Cheerfully Lost in the Crowd
Heaven will be more spectacular than we can dream — and the new earth, even better than heaven — but it might be surprising to hear that perhaps the best foretaste we can get on this side is with the gathered church, worshiping Jesus together. Not that eternity will amount to an unending church service, but that we will be wonderfully immersed in a joy-multiplying multitude of fellow worshipers.
And in heaven’s adoration, we join not only “many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” (Revelation 5:11) — you might say “innumerable angels” (Hebrews 12:22) — but also the innumerable communion of the ransomed,
a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . . and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9–10)
While the corporate worship of Jesus by the church universal is an essential element in our great destiny, it is the corporate worship of Jesus by the church local that is a vital means of God’s grace in getting us there.
Most Important Means of Grace
And it may be the single most important means of grace, and our greatest weapon in the fight for joy, because like no other means, corporate worship combines all three principles of God’s ongoing grace: his word, prayer, and fellowship. It is corporate worship, with its preaching and sacraments and collective praises, confessions, petitions, and thanksgivings, which most acutely brings together the gifts of God’s voice, his ear, and his body.
And so, 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 ‘meeting together’ with other believers” (Spiritual Disciplines, 92). Or as Richard Foster says, “When we are truly gathered into worship, things occur that could never occur alone” (Celebration of Discipline, 164).
Perhaps your own experience of corporate worship as a means of grace has, at times, echoed that of Martin Luther: “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.”
Worship Is No Means
But talking about worship as a means of grace is tricky, because, as John Piper cautions us, true worship is not a means to anything.
Worship is an end in itself. We do not eat the feast of worship as a means to anything else. Happiness in God [which is the heart of worship] is the end of all our seeking. Nothing beyond it can be sought as a higher goal. . . . [T]rue worship cannot be performed as a means to some other experience. (Desiring God, 90)
What then do we mean when we say that corporate worship is an essential means of God’s grace? Can it really be such?
The Secret of Joy: Self-Forgetfulness
One distinction to make is between the essence of worship as joy in God and the context of corporate worship as the gathered assembly. While praising Jesus together is its greatest expression, worship is bigger than just the gathered church — for Sunday mornings and for everyday life (Romans 12:1). And related to this is the difference between how we think about corporate worship (and the various motivations for it and benefits from it) and how we experience it in the moment.
There is more to be said about the “graces and blessings that God gives only in ‘meeting together’ with other believers” — which can inspire our faithful engagement and help us appreciate the irreplaceable role corporate worship plays in our Christian health and growth — but for now, the question is, where should we turn our hearts and minds collectively in the moment to experience this grace from God?
The answer is that our focus should not be self-consciously preoccupied with how we’re being strengthened or what grace we’re receiving. Rather, our focus together is the crucified and risen Christ, and the incomparable excellencies of his person and work. Which illumines all the various spiritual disciplines. Corporate worship is a means of grace not when we’re caught up with what we’re doing, but when we experience the secret of worship — the joy of self-forgetfulness — as we become preoccupied together with Jesus and his manifold perfections.
See, then, the pregnant application to corporate worship in this summary by Piper:
All genuine emotion is an end in itself. It is not consciously caused as a means to something else. This does not mean we cannot or should not seek to have certain feelings. We should and we can. We can put ourselves in situations [corporate worship] where the feeling may more readily be kindled. . . . But in the moment of authentic emotion, the calculation vanishes. We are transported (perhaps only for seconds) above the reasoning work of the mind, and we experience feeling without reference to logical or practical implications. (92)
In this way, corporate worship, which is no means to anything else, is a powerful — even the most powerful — means of God’s grace for the Christian life.
So come to corporate worship for the many blessings, and then let the calculations vanish and lose yourself in the Blessed. Get yourself there with a reminder about how good it will be for you if you do, and as the gathering begins, go hard after the goodness of God and seek to forget yourself as you focus on his Son.
For more on corporate worship, see the sequel to this post titled “Five Benefits of Corporate Worship.”
A revised and expanded version of this article now appears in Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines (Crossway, 2016).