Every Sunday the church gathers to participate in corporate worship. It is during this one gathered meeting of the church each week where we celebrate together what God has done for his people in Jesus Christ. Yet for all of the attention given to our attendance on a Sunday morning, how many of us have ever paused to consider what exactly corporate worship is and why it is so important?
One of the repeated themes in the book of Exodus is that corporate worship is said to be the purpose of redemption (Ex. 3:12; 5:1, 3, 8; 7:16; 8:1, 8, 20, 25-29; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 7-11, 24-27). Such repetition tells us that gathered, corporate worship is essential to the life of the redeemed people of God. It is this central idea that leads the author of Hebrews to exhort us not to neglect meeting together (Hebrews 10:25). This is why one author was able to write, “Flowers refresh us and trees give us shade and fruit. Rivers run along their course to the ocean, and the mighty sea ebbs and flows. Man is designed for a nobler end, suitable to the excellence of his being: to worship the glorious and blessed God.”[i]
Worship is important to God. Not only is the act of worship important to God, but so is the content of our worship. Consider what follows in the rest of the book of Exodus: God picked the place, he picked the time, and once Israel reached Mt. Sinai God greeted his people in Exodus 20-40 by giving them the terms and procedures on which their worship of him would be grounded. In other words, “corporate worship is too central to God’s purpose in redemption for Him to the leave the specifics of it to the likes of us.”[ii]
So what exactly is corporate worship? We can get a better understanding of our worship if we understand its content in five primary ways: reading the Bible, preaching the Bible, praying the Bible, singing the Bible, and seeing the Bible.[iii]
Read the Bible
We are to read the Bible in public worship. The Apostle Paul told Timothy to “give attention to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). Our worship services should be filled with the public reading of Scripture, and not just from the sermon text. In the reading of God’s word, he speaks directly to his people. This part of our corporate worship acknowledges that we need to be continually reminded of what God has said, that we’re willing to listen to his Word, to sit under it, to be instructed and evaluated by it. It says we agree with Jesus that we live on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). It says we’re willing to submit to its presentation of reality without qualification.
Preach the Bible
Preaching is God’s prime appointed instrument to build up his church and gather his saints. The Apostle Paul reminds us, “Faith comes from hearing” (Rom. 10:14, 17). He again exhorts Timothy to preach the word (2 Tim. 4:2). Preaching is the central feature of Reformed worship, because through it we see more of the beauties and preciousness of Christ.
Pray the Bible
Every week we use portions of Scripture as prayers of confession, assurance and for needs of the church. This is because Scripture teaches us how to pray. Praying God’s Word back to him in our public worship communicates that we want to approach him on his terms, not ours (Matt. 6:5-15, 1 Tim. 2:1). As we plunge the language and depth of Scripture, our prayers are enriched and our Spiritual lives are formed.
Sing the Bible
The best worship songs are those that draw us out of ourselves and our circumstances and instead focus us on God. It is therefore right and necessary for us to demand that all worship songs are centered on God and his redemptive deeds – not on us. When we talk about singing the Bible, we do not mean we sing portions of Scripture or the psalms alone. What we are saying is that our singing must be biblical and saturated with the language, categories and theology of the Bible (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16). It is only then that our songs in worship take our eyes off of ourselves and instead help us meditate on what God has done for us.
See the Bible
Augustine called the sacraments “visible words.” In the sacraments of both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we see the promises of God. God’s promise is made tactile and tangible to us. A sacrament is a covenant sign and seal, which means that it reminds us and assures us of God’s covenant love and promises. When we regularly participate in the sacraments as a church, we see, touch, taste and smell the promises of God to us (1 Cor. 11:17-34).
So what is corporate worship? Dr. Ligon Duncan says it this way: “It is a family meeting with God, it is the covenant community engaging with God, gathering with his people to seek the face of God, to glorify and enjoy him, to respond to his word, to render praise back to him, to give unto him the glory due his name.”[iv] Our weekly gathered worship is life-giving to us as Christians.
Here are a handful of reasons to consider the priority of corporate worship in your life:
We worship God for his own glory (1 Cor. 10:31; Ps. 29:1-2). The glory of God is more important than anything else in all creation. As the Westminster Larger and Shorter catechisms remind us, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. This is so because the chief thing in all the world is God’s glory (Phil. 2:9-11).
We have already seen from the book of Exodus that the goal of redemption is our worship. If we are to respond rightly to what God has done for us in Christ, then we should gather regularly for corporate worship with his people. Consider also Jesus’ words to the woman at the well in John 4:20-26. He tells her that a time is coming when true worshipers will worship in spirit and in truth, because the Father seeks them to be his worshipers. God the Father sought after us so that we might become his worshipers.
Corporate worship teaches our covenant children about what it means to love and serve the Lord. The book of Exodus also teaches us that it is assumed that children will be a regular part of worship and that we are to instruct them as they learn and grow (Ex. 12:26, 13:8).
Corporate worship is a witness to non-Christians (Ex. 11:9, 13:5; Ps. 96; Acts 2:1-13; 1 Cor. 14:6-23; 1 Pet. 2:9). One of the primary ways we can confess and witness to “the nations” is to give corporate worship the proper priority.
Our public worship serves as an encouragement to other Christians in the faith. The Apostle Paul reminds us to sing songs and hymns not only to God, but also to one another (Eph. 5:19, Colossians 3:16). When we ourselves are weak in the faith, the songs and singing which comes from the mouth of others reminds us to continue to believe God’s promises.
[i] George Swinnock, Works, I:46-50
[ii] Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church, 78.
[iii] For more on the content and theology of corporate worship, see Philip Ryken, Derek Thomas, and J. Ligon Duncan III, eds., Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, specifically chapter 2.
[iv] Ibid., 61.