I’m going to take some time this morning to prepare for my charge to my people at the Worship Ministries Workshop this weekend. I’ve been thinking about a lot of things lately and I hope I can focus in on a compelling 15-minute challenge for our teams as we forge ahead in leading our church family in worship. I’ve been most intrigued lately by the intended corporate nature of our worship gatherings. I think it is an essential aspect of our purpose as a church that is highly understated and underpracticed. While it is good to come to church wanting and even needing an individual encounter with the living God, I think God created us with another need – a corporate encounter with the living God. In fact, could it be that the life and growth of the church is directly related to whether or not the people are experiencing this kind of worship gathering? I’ve read statistics that suggest that the most important element that attracts and causes people to join a church family is not the preaching or the worship – it is the sense of belonging. Since those I lead have a significant role in planning and producing the worship services for our church family, I’d like to spend some time thinking about what we can do to make sure we get the corporate part of our worship gathering right. Let’s think about the corporate nature of our worship. I’d like to look at the first 2 pictures we see of the first church worshiping. “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” (Acts 1:12-14, NIV) The first picture we see of the gathered church after Christ ascended to heaven is them constantly praying together, waiting for God to pour out his Holy Spirit upon them. This was in fact Jesus’ command to them – he said to wait until this happened, and he had taught them to pray. Can you imagine for a moment being a part of this first worship gathering of the church? They were probably eagerly anticipating what was next, while reveling in the amazing events that had just been – the resurrection, their encounters with the risen Christ, his ascension into glory. Isn’t that a beautiful picture of the first worship gathering of the first church leaders – prayerfully waiting for what’s next while reveling in what had been? Sometimes I think we don’t do either thing well. We just go through the motions of planning, practicing and meeting to worship, and we fail to do those two very basic activities – continual prayer as we wait for what’s next, and eager celebration of what has been. Of course I’m supposing the second part, but I cannot imagine gathering the same day that Christ ascended into heaven, 40 days after his resurrection, and not being overwhelmed to the point of continual conversation with one another and with God about the extraordinary events of the past 40 days. Let’s look at the second gathering recorded in the book of Acts. The believers had been praying continually for a few days when the promised Holy Spirit descended upon them producing incredible signs and wonders that attracted a large group of people from around the town. Peter delivered an incredible sermon explaining how this filling of the Holy Spirit they were witnessing had been prophesied 800 years earlier. But he quickly turned all attention to Jesus, His death and resurrection from the dead, and ascension, identifying him as both Lord and Christ. When confronted with their role in killing Jesus, the Lord and Christ, 3000 people were convicted, repented, believed and were immediately baptized. The mega church was born that day, and we see the first picture of their order of service. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47, NIV) The meeting of the church is entirely corporate in nature. I’ve always been amazed by this picture of the early church, and I’m always saddened when I think how churches rarely look or behave like this now. Usually we get a few things right, but as you’ll see, there are areas where even we at Trinity need to focus our attention. Think of your role as a worshiper, as a planner of worship, leader of worship or facilitator of worship and what God may be calling you to do about it. First we see what they were devoted to four things:
1. The apostle’s teaching – there must have been an incredible hunger and thirst for knowledge of the truth, of God’s mysterious ways. I mean, they were absolutely blown away by the story of the gospel and more so by the Lord and Christ of the gospel. Do you approach the worship service with this kind of hunger and thirst for the knowledge of God and his Word? The teaching of God’s Word is central to the corporate gathering of the church. While many churches are dropping the bar here, I think it is Trinity’s greatest strength. I praise God for our teacher, Gary Inrig, who faithfully brings us the Apostle’s teaching each week at Trinity. We are blessed beyond belief!
2. Fellowship – we see here that the fellowship spoken of was both in the larger setting (temple courts) and in the smaller setting around meals together (in homes). We all experience the larger worship gathering – that is why we are here and this is the function that we serve. Think about the smaller part. Shouldn’t we serve that as well? Our focus as Americans is so much on the nuclear family (my mom and dad, my brother and sister, my wife and kids, soccer, school, activities, entertainment, etc.) that we miss out on the fact that God has given us a bigger family with a bigger purpose. I confess to God and to you that I fall short in this area and I am committed to expanding my home and family to the larger view demonstrated here. a. As a subpoint, I would like to add another hugely missing element to this smaller group fellowship of the church, and it is probably that hardest thing for us to do in our culture. (Obviously it was hard for them as well if you read ahead to the story of Ananias and Sapphira). It means throwing my resources, mainly translated, “possessions and money,” into this mix. “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. “ (Acts 2:44-46, NIV) Notice that the hospitality of the first church gathering did not just include fellowship, entertainment, and good times with friends & family, the people we like, etc. It was a complete giving of possessions to make sure that the new extended family (translated, “very needy people,”) were sufficiently cared for. God is pressing the need for this type of corporate worship gathering on me more strongly than anything else. He is saying, “Worship me this way, and lead your church family into this type of worship as well.” The first church gives us this example of small group worship and I want to encourage all of us not to forsake this type of meeting together. Certainly we must begin by viewing one another as family and care for each other as family. Taking it a step further, I think we should lead our church in hospitality – inviting strangers into our home.
3. Breaking bread – this has to refer to remembering Christ as he requested when we eat bread (symbolizing his body broken for us) and drink wine (symbolizing his blood shed for us). This common daily practice of eating was turned into an act of worship in remembrance of Christ with thanksgiving. Meals were never meant to be the same again. Not only was the table filled with a new family, but the meal itself included remembrance, thanksgiving and praise for Christ. It is certain that people did this in their homes together as part of their meal, but I wonder about the large group, the 3000 people gathered in Solomon’s Colonnade. I think we probably get it backwards. I’ve rarely celebrated Communion in someone’s home, but always in the big church setting. Maybe it’s time to reconsider how we do communion, and at least incorporate it into our meals. I think this way all of live becomes deeply spiritual, there is no division between the sacred and the secular – it is all meant to be sacred.
4. Prayer – I feel like such a beginner at prayer – so awkward, so easily distracted, so self-serving, and so undisciplined. But what I am learning is that prayer is an act of love and an act of desperation. It’s the love that is expressed in a personal relationship where we talk to and listen to our Heavenly Father – the dependent child in love with his daddy who happens to be so much more than that – Creator, Savior, Shepherd, and Healer to name a few. It is also love expressed toward others by lifting up their needs above my own. That’s what personal prayer is. But corporate prayer is so much different, and it is only in the past few years that I am discovering and yearning for and leading out in this kind of prayer. Corporate prayer is a combined act of desperation while we wait for what’s next, and praise for what has been. If the first Church had corporate prayer as the foundation of what they did, why don’t we? This quickly translates into, “Why don’t I?” Is it because I’m embarrassed to pray out loud? That begs the question, am I praying to show people that I’m spiritual, or because I’m desperate to see God? I believe that it is the desperation that is missing. When I was in a desperate situation in my home life, my wife and I began praying together regularly. When I felt desperation for our church, I began praying together with a friend and now continue with a colleague. Desperate people pray and they pray together. This aspect of corporate worship pleases God who promises over and over in the Scriptures that he hears our prayers and will grant our requests. I come away from this brief study quite convicted that I fall short in practicing and planning these four essential elements of the corporate worship gathering. While all four are present in both the larger worship gathering and small group gathering, I think that we need to experience both. I’d like to personally do both better and better and see my team leading our church in both well.
Note: I posted my blog titled, Worship Ministries Workshop Closing Address, on September 17th after doing this study. There I considered the benefits of the “big’ corporate worship gathering. In a few weeks I will address some Koinonia (small group) leaders about worship in the small group. I need to do some thinking specifically about that and will try to do that next week.