(In Part One we saw that the widespread idea that worship is the purpose of church meetings is not supported in the New Testament. Now, in Part Two, we will take a closer look at the New Testament pattern for gathering and ask why a clear idea of the purpose matters.)
The “Currents” in a Church Meeting
In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include a diagram (see right) with arrows that show the New Testament picture of the dynamic movements that ought to take place when we meet as Christians.
I. Howard Marshall explains these movements in these words: “When a specific function or purpose is ascribed to a church meeting [in the New Testament] it is not the glorification of God but the building up of the church and the ministry to its members. Church meetings are for the benefit of the congregation and so indirectly for the glory of God [emphasis added]. Worship in the sense of giving praise to God is thus logically secondary to ministry in the sense of God’s ministry to us. At the same time, since this ministry is exercised between persons, the church meeting has the character of fellowship in which the keynote is mutual love. The symbol of the church, therefore, is not simply an upward arrow from man to God, nor simply a downward arrow from God to man, but rather a triangle representing the lines of grace coming down from God to his people, the flow of grace from person to person, and the response of thanks and petition to God [emphasis added].” (From "How Far Did the Early Christians Worship God?")
As Marshall’s last sentence points out, worship can and should take place in a church meeting. But it comes about as a by-product of our Spirit-empowered one-anothering. By his Spirit, God pours his grace into this Christian and that one in the church gathering. They share it with others in the same meeting, who—moved by God’s action—then return thanks and praise to him.
Why Does Our Purpose for Gathering Matter?
As stated in Part One, congregations typically get the message that worship is the purpose of church meetings. Holding this idea can determine how church leaders format the Sunday agenda. If worship sums up the whole point of the meeting, then some things just don’t fit. For example, it may seem out of place to include reports on what God is doing on weekdays through those who work at Starbucks, Lowes, or Homeland Security. Why? Because those concerns seem earthly, not heavenly (not worshipful). As a result, a congregation never gets to hear fresh accounts of how God is moving through his people during the other six days.
Believing the church meets to worship can press leaders toward manipulative methods. A blog carries this title: “34 Tips for Creating Powerful Worship Experiences and Vibrant Worship Teams.” But worship is not an “experience” one person can “create” for someone else. Another blog, “How to Set up a Worship Set,” offers a 13-step process for doing so. Nothing like those steps, though, seem to have been included in the New Testament for use by the first-century church.
Members of a congregation may hold an unbiblical definition of worship, seeing it as the music or as a feeling. If they think the whole meeting is about worship, they will try their best to get into a worshipful mood. Or they may struggle to keep their focus exclusively on God. In response to Thom S. Rainier’s blog post, “Should Your Church Stop Having a Stand and Greet Time?” one reader explained emphatically why a greeting should have no place in the congregational meeting: “You do that before and after worship — not DURING worship! Worship is for God – that is why you are there!!!” In this way of thinking, one-anothering would distract from the “real” purpose of gathering.
God is Glorified in Our One-Anothering
At times, of course, we should focus our attention exclusively on God. But God, unlike some of us, does not insist on constantly being the center of attention. Like a loving human father, God delights in seeing his children enjoying, helping, reassuring, supporting, and encouraging each other. “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! . . . For there the Lord bestows his blessing. . .” (Ps. 133:1, 3).
It pleases God to have us focus on and serve one another when we meet. The plural-you wording in each of the following verses strongly suggests a church-meeting context. And in each case, Paul was calling on the believers to pay attention to each other:
- “I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14).
- “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19).
- “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).
As God’s grace reaches us through our fellow brothers and sisters, we will—and without any human engineering—spontaneously praise and worship God. Serving other members of Christ’s body is serving him—which he receives as worship. So, yes, worship should take place when we gather as it should when we scatter. And it will rise to God as we practice the unified one-anothering he repeatedly calls for in the New Testament.