The Pursuit of God in Corporate Worship
Gravity and Gladness on Sunday Morning
The next section that we’re going to look at is in the outline called Worship Services are Normative and Preaching is a Normative Part.
What I’m going to do is to seek to answer why we have worship services. I’ll try not to take too long on this since it’s the most difficult section from a historical standpoint, and it may be overly complicated. I may move more quickly through it in the hope that you will simply take the pointers that I give and think on them for yourself, because most of us are not on a crusade to abandon worship services and say they’re not biblical. But I do feel some sense of urgency, as a biblical person, to ask why we have them. Why are there services? For me, as a person who gives my whole life to preaching, to know whether or not I’m doing something that the Bible considers to be right — indeed, whether or not it is warranted and commanded — is important. Is preaching to be as prominent in our services as it is?
From generation to generation, there always rise up people — usually it comes from people who are disillusioned from something that’s gone wrong in the church — who say, “Preaching is simply not for our day anymore. We need discussion. We need interaction. We need conversation.” And so, they get rid of pulpits and put things in a circle, because they think preaching is just of another age. Is that the case? Did Calvin’s quote that we quote about the amazing flexibility and how you can change things from age to age mean sermons are good in some periods and sermons aren’t good in other periods? So that’s what this is for. Let’s go there for a little while.
First Thesis: Regular Services of Worship
I have seven theses, or points. The first one is that regular corporate seasons of worship, or services of worship, are a corporate act of honoring God by the pursuit of satisfaction in God. This happens through several elements. Confession of sin toward God is one aspect because that expresses our contrition and brokenness that we have sought to satisfy our heart’s desire somewhere besides God. In other words, if the essence of worship is being satisfied in God, and we know we haven’t been satisfied with God this week, it seems fitting that there be seasons in which we give corporate expression to our failure to be satisfied in God the way we should. That’s what the confession of sin is.
Another piece of these services would be supplication to God — expressing dependence on and longing for God. These are prayers, and we could sing those prayers. We could pray those prayers in a written way read together. Somebody could also do a pastoral prayer, but in that event of coming together, we should say corporately, “We need you. You’re the source of everything that we want.” So we pray the Lord’s prayer and other kinds of prayers.
We should thank him, giving expression for God’s glory and his gifts. And we should praise him, expressing delight, admiration, and adoration toward God. So I’m arguing then — that’s the thesis — that regular corporate services of worship of corporate honoring God by the pursuit of satisfaction through confession, supplication, thanks, and praise are normative for local churches. There are at least four arguments for this claim — at least four kinds of support. Let’s look at those.
1. Structured Patterns of Worship Stemming from the Old Testament
There’s a clear pattern of corporate worship in the Old Testament. The temple was there, sacrifices were there, and there were dozens and dozens of stipulations of how to do this, how to approach God. And we may assume — though it’s a big assumption — that the regular gatherings of the early Christians had similar elements, although the details of what was in the New Testament gatherings for worship are very sparse. This vagueness is, I believe, intentional on God’s part so that the New Testament is a very flexible missions book for all the churches, not a prescription of form that would make cultural adaptation harder.
That argument goes like this. If you look at the way God worked with his people in the Old Testament, he had some pretty clear designs on how they should approach him. And when they came together, they did a certain kind of thing. Now you move over to the New Testament and if you remember in the previous sessions we gave about four or five texts where it shows that Christians did come together. So I’m assuming there would be specifics that they would pursue and they would draw from the Old Testament, but it’s kept very, very flexible. So there are these gatherings, these forms, these approachings corporately to God, and it’s left flexible, I think, primarily for missionary reasons.
This Book is amazingly translatable. Sometimes we talk about the difficulties of translation from one language to another, and there are difficulties, but just think of it. This is in hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of languages. And those languages generally reflect cultures that are dramatically different from our own — I mean, dramatically different from our own. What if this book said, when Christians come together they should have organs or guitars? Or that there should be sound systems or pews, or it has to be 11 o’clock on Sunday morning? Or what if all that stuff was specified, and there were cultures where it totally would be impossible and totally wouldn’t work? God means for this message to get to every people group on the planet. And when it comes, glorious truths come. But there are very few specifics about how to do worship services, which means missionaries are free.
They’re free to study the culture and study their Bibles and then develop something that seems appropriately indigenous musically and orally and structurally and relationally, and then go hard after God in it and cultivate satisfaction in God. I just think it’s glorious. And I think that’s why there is so little there in the New Testament. But the point there was that since there were concrete ways of doing it in the Old Testament and they are coming together in the New, we may assume there were some kinds of structured services that happened in the early church.
2. The Gathering of the Early Church
Here’s the second kind of argument. We have seen from these texts that I gave that the early church gathered for corporate meetings even if we’re not told in detail what they did there.
3. God’s Greater Glory in Corporate Worship
Third, we have seen already in this course that God’s aim in the universe is to be known and enjoyed by his creatures and thus to be shown more glorious than any other reality. And here’s an argument: corporate worship is one essential way that God designs for this display of his glory to be expressed in the world and in anticipation of the final perfect worship in the age to come. The Book of Revelation shows us worshiping corporately there. And I’m arguing here that since God’s aim in the universe is to be known and enjoyed by his creatures and to be shown to be glorious, one way that happens is corporate togetherness for the display of our enjoyment of that glory.
I’m arguing that if there were no such thing as corporate gatherings for worship, and you all just did private worship, God would not be glorified as fully as he intends to be. He intends to be glorified more publicly and more fully in ways besides the intense enjoyment you have in him when you sing to him, pray to him, confess to him, thank him, and praise him in your private room. He’s a public God. And therefore, corporate-ness is huge to God.
4. God’s Greater Glory in Harmonious Unity
There’s a reason why the getting together adds to the glory that God gets than just private. And one of the reasons is that it’s hard to do unified corporate worship. If you can overcome all the diversity it’s significant. Now, in one sense, there’s huge diversity in this room because you’re all so different. And in another sense, there’s little diversity in this room ethnically, linguistically, or culturally.
But just take this diversity for us to meet on common ground, sing songs together, pray prayers together, and hear preaching together. It’s hard because you’re not going to like some of the songs and you’re not going to like some of the things the preacher says. Just being you makes you want to do it your way and go somewhere else. If we could pull off a sweet, tender unity in corporate praise, confession, and thanks, God would get more glory than if we all fragmented into our private rooms.
A second way to say it is when there’s a choir that sings in unison, it can make a magnificent, loud, powerful sound to the glory of God. But when they break into parts, something else happens. It’s hard to describe what it is. I try sometimes to sing a part, but I can’t. I’ve only learned a few hymns with parts. I’m not a singer, but I love it when I’m in a little prayer meeting or a big prayer meeting and the person next to me, like Amy Anderson or Ed Catterson, hits another note that if I tried would sound like I was off-key. When they do it, it doesn’t sound like they’re off-key. It sounds like beauty, a different beauty, a more beauty. I mean, unison is good and that’s good. And what I’m saying is corporate-ness is the more. It’s more of a reflection of God’s glory, not only at the musical level but at all kinds of levels. So that is an argument from the purpose of God being glorified fully implying corporateness — a getting together to praise him.
Second Thesis: Intensity and Authenticity of Affections
Here’s thesis number two: these corporate services of confession, supplication, thanks, and praise, will honor God in proportion to the intensity and authenticity of the affections, responding to the truth of God and his ways. There is such a thing as hypocrisy. We can go through the motions without the heart and have a mere form of godliness. This is deadly it brings no honor to God. Here’s an implication. My point there is that thanks, praise, confession, etc. honor God in proportion to the intensity and authenticity of the affections. That is going to dictate, I think, some things that we do. If that’s true that the affections must be real in order for this service together to be real, it’s going to imply some things.
Third Thesis: Spiritual Affections Need to Be Stirred
Third, in the real world of ordinary Christians, the pursuit of satisfaction in God through confession, supplication, thanks, and praise does not usually arise in the hearts of God’s people without being stirred up in some way when they come together. Following from thesis two, I’m drawing out the fact that that intensity and authenticity of heart affection for God generally are not brought into the service to the degree that we would like it to be here. That is, the average Christian does not come to a worship service filled with joy in God and ready to overflow. It would be wonderful. The more that come that way, the more remarkable things might be.
There are at least three reasons for this. First, we have our own remaining corruption and sin. God designs for us to live on the portrayal of Christ in the word of God in a continual way. In other words, he doesn’t ordain that we sustain fever-pitch affection for him without reference to the influence of the word of God. And therefore, there’s this rhythm of emotions. The Word comes and emotions rise, the Word comes and emotions rise. In other words, in this world, it is normal to go backward without continual exposure to the word of God awakening in us the spiritual affections God deserves from us.
God also designs that some of this continual exposure to Christ in the word of God be provided by leaders in the church whose calling it is to make the truth known to the people and to be examples of Godward affection for them. Thus, it is not only a sign of weakness but of God’s will that the spiritual life of a people depends in some measure on the regular gathering for exposure to these leaders feeding the flock on the word of God. And that might be the musical dimension. We’re feeding through the lyrics. We’re feeding through the words in the prayer dimension because the Bible says, “How can you say ‘amen’ to a prayer if you don’t understand it?” (1 Corinthians 14:16). That means you’re supposed to hear another person’s prayer and join them in it and go to God with it. And it would obviously involve preaching. That’s what preaching is for.
So I’m arguing this is ordained in the New Testament. Leaders are there in the New Testament and they’re there because some of the influence that God ordains to stir up the hearts of his people comes from them.
Fourth Thesis: A Fresh Declaration of Truth
Fourth, therefore, essential to a corporate season of confession, supplication, thanks, and praise is a fresh declaration of truth about God and a fresh demonstration of affection for God. You can see that I’m on the way to defend preaching. That’s where I’m going. This is a case being built for services gathered around the word of God and the preaching of God as essential to them. This is true not only because ordinary Christians need to be exposed to the truth and awakened afresh to its value in order to respond authentically, but also because the declaration of God’s truth and the demonstration of its value with appropriate affections is worship. That is, it displays the value of God in that it shows he is worth knowing and proclaiming and feeling strongly about.
Thus, it would be misleading to think of the declaration of God’s truth and the demonstration of affection for God as preparation for worship. It does awaken worship, but it is worship and should always be seen that way.
Now let me try to put that in my own words because this is my life. We’re talking about preaching here. I think we’re free from this at Bethlehem, but it took some years. We used to say — and I inherited the language — we worship for 30 minutes and then there’s preaching. That’s not right. We worship for 75 minutes, including preaching. And if I’m not worshiping in preaching, it’s not preaching. My two-word description of preaching is expository exaltation. I don’t mean exaltation, I mean exultation.
The word expository implies this Book better be open and the truth coming out of my mouth better accord with this book. It better be expositing leading out from this book. Preaching that is not rooted here, saturated with the Bible, shaped by the Bible, and communicating the Bible isn’t preaching. And the word exultation means that I, as a preacher, better see what’s in this book and what I say as magnificent and worthy of my highest exultation so that my demeanor is not just transferring ideas from here to there. My demeanor is saying, as these ideas come, “Catch their value, feel their power, know their depth, and be changed by them.” That’s what exultation is for.
So for me, this service is seamless. I’d love to have our worship leaders here to talk about this. I have worked hard over the years. I don’t have to work hard anymore because we’re all on the same page. But in the early days, I had to work hard to impart how strongly I felt about the seamlessness of this service.
I get really bent out of shape. And I just have to back up and say, “Stop being so controlling of other people’s worship.” But when I go to a service, whether it’s 60 or 70 minutes, or whatever, and they do something and then they pause and tell you what they’re going to do, and they pause and do something else, and then they pause and tell you another thing they’re going to do, and everything is so disjointed, and some leader is intruding himself and his comments in — “Good singing! Let’s sing another song. Stand up. Smile this time” — that’s just totally distracting. That is all horizontal. I want to say, “Just get out of the way.” I don’t even think about it anymore because we do it so intuitively, but we call it lingering in the presence of God.
We put our welcome at the front. And when I do the welcome, I try to make the welcome worshipful. I want it to have a certain tone. I don’t want to be a slapstick artist during the welcome. I don’t want to be a talk show host. I just want to help people get ready to move into a sustained lingering in the presence of God. Watch Dan, Chuck, Rick, and Mark. These guys don’t get in the way. They don’t jump in. It’s this careful balance. You will almost never hear from one of those guys as a song comes to an end — it’s a great song and it’s in the second person being addressed to the Lord — say, “Let’s pray now,” because I’m on his case if he does. I’m going to say to him, “Chuck, we were praying. That’s what the song was.” If you stop and say, “Let’s pray now,” what are you communicating? What were you doing when you were singing that song? Flapping your lips? No way.
When we come to the end of a song that says, “You are great and you are worthy,” how fitting is it for Chuck to simply say, “Oh God, some of us right now, haven’t been able to sing that song the way we want. We’re sorry for our sins. And we want to confess our sins before you.” And then he starts reading. You don’t jump in there and announce something. You just maintain communion with God. You sustain it for 30 minutes, or you try anyway. We’re not perfect at it. The point there was to say that preaching is a continuation of that.
We stand up and we read a text, and I stand up and I ask for God’s help. And then I keep worshiping. That’s what I’m doing. I’m enjoying or I’m frightened by what I’m seeing in the text. And I’m telling you about it to draw you into that joy or draw you into that fear and meet God there. That’s what it’s about. That’s thesis four.
Fifth Thesis: Godward Affections Stirred by Preaching
Fifth, this fresh declaration of truth about God and fresh demonstration of affection for God, honor God most and help people honor him best when they happen not only in song, confession, supplication, gratitude, and praise, but also in preaching. In other words, we should not conceive of the service as separated into instruction (teaching a lecture) and inspiration (music and testimony). The preaching should be expository exultation, and thus an act of worship. If these are separated, a false message is sent to the people, namely that truth about God is not the key to spiritual awakening, but rather some other avenue like music. I don’t want to communicate that.
The truth in the music is the key to awakening hearts. The music is the carrier of the affections. If the music becomes the dominant awakener of the affections, that will not be spiritual affection. This is very difficult for worship leaders. It’s very difficult for human beings because we all know that music itself awakens our affections. It does. You can’t not be affected by music, either bad or good. And yet our goal is that the music be helpful as a carrier of the spiritual affection that’s awakened by the truth of the glory of God in the lyrics. And the music is carrying when they come together in the best way. When it’s the best kind of music for the best kind of lyric, then you get the best of all worlds, but we’re all fighting that battle, aren’t we? I mean, you’ll find yourself at the end of a song like How Great Is Our God and be totally oblivious to what we’re saying. We all fight that.
And you have to go back and say, “Oh God, I don’t want to be just aesthetically moved here.” And no worship leader worth his salt wants to move anybody musically alone. He wants them to be moved with the truth of God. Otherwise, it’s not honoring to God. God invented music. Human beings didn’t invent music as a competitor with truth. God invented music as a carrier of affections with the truth. And we just have to battle it through and work at it. It would send a misleading message, if we separated preaching and the other part, that inspiration can rightly awaken the affections without a biblical vision of God functioning as the basis for those affections.
Sixth Thesis: Biblical Evidence of Preaching
Sixth, there is biblical evidence from the time of Ezra to Jesus, from the synagogue to the beginnings of the Christian Church, that corporate worship included preaching. I’m not going to read all these texts, but there’s Nehemiah and they come together and they stand up and the law is read and they are given instruction. They gave the sense so that the people understood the reading (Nehemiah 8:8).
So you have a model in Ezra of the word being read and a preacher standing up, giving the sense of the word. And you come over into the New Testament and you see something similar in Luke where Jesus comes in and he reads Isaiah, and then he exposits Isaiah, saying, “This is now been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Then you go to Acts chapter 15:21 and it says that from ancient generations Moses has in every city those who preach him.
The word preach (*kērussō) was in the synagogue already. So the church that’s growing up out of the Jewish synagogue already has a pattern for regular exposition — the word being read and somebody giving an exposition of it.
Preaching for the Sake of Maturity
So when Paul comes to this church here in Acts 13, they say, “Do you have a word of exhortation for us?” (Acts 13:15). When the Scripture has been read, they are saying, “Speak to us.” In Colossians 1:28, Paul says:
Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
So this word proclaim is the word for preach, and it’s for the purpose of every man being complete in Christ. It’s not just evangelism. Preaching is not just for evangelism. This proclaiming him is to work toward maturity in the church.
Or listen to Romans 1:15:
So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
Paul wanted to go to Rome, and when he got to Rome, he was going to preach — not just on the street corner to the unbelievers.
Preach the Word
And here is the most decisive text on all preaching, where the Scripture is inspired by God. And then Paul gets down here to 2 Timothy 4:1–2, and he says:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word . . .
Now that’s to Timothy, who was the main pastor of the church in Ephesus, who had to be encouraged to do the work of an evangelist in addition to this. But look at the context here. He says:
Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers (there’s teaching as part of preaching) to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths (2 Timothy 4:2–4).
So he’s saying, “Timothy, it’s so dangerous. People in the church will come to the place sometimes where they want their ears tickled and want you to say what pleases them. I’m telling you, preach the word.” I hear that as a mandate I cannot escape. I believe that is designed by God for all worship services.
So there’s my little effort in six theses to argue that as redemptive history moves from Old Testament to New Testament, through Jesus and the synagogue to the emergence of these gatherings, with all kinds of open-endedness to form and structure, nevertheless, praising God, thanking God, confessing to God, pleading with God in the context of people who come needy for God and needing to hear a word from God is normative. Structures, lengths, locations, forms, styles — those things are not addressed in the Bible, but that the people hear the word of God, that they’d be awakened by the expository exultation of preaching the word of God, that they be given the opportunity to give the expression of their hearts to God and their longings for God, I would say that corporate reality, however you do it, is normative.