Today we move from considering the organizational structures, finances, and the clergy systems that characterize most contemporary churches and shift our attention to the Sunday gathering. What goes on at a typical Sunday gathering of an evangelical, Bible, or community church? (I am not at this time addressing the theology and character of liberal, mainline, or liturgical churches.) And why do such churches gather? I think we can place the Sunday activities of these churches into three general categories: worship, instruction, and fellowship. Ideally, these three types of activity aim at forming the church as a group and as individuals into the image of Christ.
It would be worth our time to examine all the biblical words and activities related to worship, but I can achieve my limited purpose in this essay by working from a general idea of worship. Worship is a God-directed activity that attempts in thought, word, bodily position and movement, or symbolic use of elements of creation to express a fitting response to the being, character, and action of God—in expressions of admiration, gratitude, and submission. In worship, we place before our minds the greatness, goodness, beauty, generosity, and love of God. We don’t need to think of these qualities as general characteristics only. For God demonstrates these qualities in the wonders of creation, in acts of salvation and judgment experienced and told by the prophets and poets of ancient Israel, and most of all in the life, words, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In worship we express awe at God’s greatness, gratitude for his generosity, praise for his excellence, longing for his presence, and amazement at his love.
Strictly speaking, worship is an individual act. It must come from the heart and express the true thoughts and affections of the individual worshiper. Certainly the presence of others of like faith can enhances our worship. We find others’ expressions of worship resonating with our own and increasing our sense of God’s presence and glory. Hearing others sing, pray, praise, witness, and explain the scriptures can enhance our perception of God’s presence, praiseworthiness, greatness, and love. Some are gifted to articulate in words what we can only feel. Many eyes and ears can perceive and many voices can express what one cannot. Hence corporate worship can be transformative. But the transforming power does not derive from the number of people praising God but from the vision of God that together we see. And for worship to be authentic and transformative, each person must see with their own eyes, hear with their own ears, and express their own hearts.
I understand completely the desire to attend worship at a large gathering in a state of the art facility to be lead in worship by talented professionals. The music is excellent, the lighting is perfect, and the stage presence of the worship leaders is impressive. The worship flows smoothly. Sound fills the room. Just seeing a sea of people standing to sing and raising their hands gives one feeling of confidence and spiritual power. But as someone who served as a church leader in one role or another for thirty years, I ask myself about the cost in financial resources and volunteer time to make this event happen. Is it worth it?
More importantly, does this impressive event accomplish the purpose of corporate worship better than less elaborate and costly gatherings? If the purposes is, as I stated above, to encounter God’s greatness and love and express our wonder and gratitude, all with the goal of transformation into the image of Christ, I don’t see any decisive advantage. Twenty believers gathered in a living room can accomplish the same goal. No doubt the large gathering, because of its greater resources, can do things a small group cannot.
But the reverse is also true. In an assembly of 2,000 people, 1,950 will be completely unknown to you. You will sit in rows looking at what is happening on stage. The senior pastor is like the celebrities you see on the screen. You feel like you know them, but you’ve never had a meal with them. And they don’t know you. In a small gathering you can hear from everyone, you can learn their stories, see their faces, and hear their voices. There is no stage, no spotlight, and no microphone. You know their names and the names of their parents and children. You know their concerns. You grow to love them in the concreteness of their everyday lives, and you are available to each other throughout the week. Worshiping with this church is really transforming.
Of course, these two models are not mutually exclusive. You can choose one or the other or combine them. Whatever you choice I hope you will measure what we actually do as churches against the essential nature and goal of church. I get the attraction of the big church in the matter of worship. But what about the other two reasons for gathering, instruction and fellowship? Next time we’ll think about that.