Why go to church on Sunday?
For our adult Christian Education Class we recently began a study series on “Contemporary Issues in Worship.” The purpose of this study is to assist us in developing a consistent, biblically reformed understanding of the the corporate worship of God by challenging us to think biblically, confessionally, carefully and deeply about issues in worship which confront the church today. And the reason we are doing this is not simply so that we can stuff our heads full of interesting knowledge (as valuable and necessary as such intellectual knowledge is), but in order that we might all be more intelligently and passionately engaged in the corporate worship of our sovereign, Triune God.
In this course we are covering a number of important topics:
(1) The Purpose of Christian Worship
(2) The Principles of Christian Worship
(3) The Practices of Christian Worship
(4) The Power of Christian Worship
(5) The Propagation of Christian Worship
On this most recent Lord’s Day we began to consider in earnest the purpose(s) of Christian Worship. Since the focus of this study is on corporate worship which takes place in gathered local assemblies of the church, we sought to get a handle on answering the question: Why go to church on Sunday? Today we find that earnest Christians will often disagree with one another about the basic purpose of the corporate worship service on Sunday. This is the case even among Christians within the same denominational tradition or church fellowship who might agree with one another on many other areas of belief and practice, including Christians within the confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Even within the same fellowship or denomination one will often find the so-called “worship wars” raging, with a whole range of conflicting views on the content, style and practice of corporate worship.
One helpful resource that I have found which addresses this matter in a thought-provoking way is a book written by the Rev. Jeffrey J. Meyers, a Presbyterian (PCA) minister, entitled The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, © 2003 by Jeffrey J. Meyers). While I don’t agree with everything that Rev. Meyers writes or every view he promotes, when it comes to issues of historic worship and liturgy he seems to have done his homework. Early in his book he addresses four popular perspectives on the primary purpose of corporate worship held by Bible-believing Christians and shows why they are biblically-inadequate; and then he suggests another, more biblical perspective on the primary purpose of corporate worship. (I will be quoting extensively from his work below.) These four popular, but inadequate, views of the primary purpose of corporate worship are as follows:
1. Worship as Evangelism
Many evangelical Christians, especially heirs to the tradition of American revivalism, view corporate worship primarily as an opportunity to draw the unchurched and non-Christians through “seeker sensitive” services for the purpose of leading them ultimately to make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. Often such services are intentionally stripped of anything that seems too “churchy” or which might put up religious barriers which are perceived as making the unchurched feel uncomfortable. Certainly we can commend the honorable motives of those believers and churches which have a desire to lead the unchurched to a living faith in Christ. And certainly the gospel of Jesus Christ should be proclaimed and should permeate every Christian worship service, so that an unbeliever who happens to visit such a service will be provided with enough gospel content in the service itself so that the Spirit may use such gospel content to bring the visitor to an intelligent, personal faith in Christ. But to say that the gospel should be present and proclaimed (either directly or implicitly) in every Christian worship service is not the same thing as saying that the primary purpose of corporate worship is the evangelization of non-Christians. As Rev. Meyers points out:
“God is the object of worship. Evangelism, however, has man as the object. The Church evangelizes when she goes out from God’s presence to proclaim to the world that Jesus is Savior and Lord (Mt. 28:16-20; Acts 1:8)…God summons His people to make a command performance before him. Unbelievers do not gather for worship. The Lord’s family assembles on the Lord’s Day for worship. In Christ the saints have sanctuary access. They are invited into heaven itself.” (p. 21, Meyers)
“When evangelism becomes the overriding purpose of worship, then what is done in the service easily degenerates into a technique for evangelism. Too often, according to this understanding, results are what count…“Seeker” appears to function as a pious code word for “religious consumer,” a potential client eyeing each particular church to see which one might offer the best product.” (p. 22, Meyers)
2. Worship as Education
This is a view that seems to be very common in confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian circles, since we rightly emphasize the centrality of the Word (read and preached) in the corporate worship service. But while a worship service has an educational aspect to it, and while growing in the knowledge of God’s Word is vitally important for our discipleship, education in itself is not the primary purpose of corporate worship. Again, to quote from Meyers:
“Churches that have this emphasis tend to degenerate into lecture halls complete with overhead projectors and armies of note-taking members…Education becomes the primary goal. Nothing else is of much importance in the service. Most of what comes before the sermon functions as “pre-game ceremonies” for the main event – the sermon.” (p. 26, Meyers)
“Jesus said that the meeting place of his people ought to be a “house of prayer” (Mt. 21:13; Is. 56:7), not a lecture hall.” (p. 27, Meyers)
3. Worship as Experience
In our experience-centered and emotionally-oriented culture, this is a major emphasis in many churches. Once again, there is an element of truth in this perspective. After all, Scripture indicates that worship should be edifying to the gathered Body of Christ (see First Corinthians 12-14), and while our worship should not be experience-driven, at the same time there is probably something wrong with the worship service if the worship experience is always a negative one. Again, to quote from Meyers:
“It would be difficult to prove from Scripture that the principal purpose of the corporate assembly ought to be producing religious and emotional experiences in those who gather. Worshipers gather to perform actions. The biblical language of worship has people doing things before God (“offering” [Ps. 4:5]; “prostrating” [Is. 49:7]; “confessing” [Ps. 32:5]; “kneeling” [Ps. 95:6]; “singing” [Ps. 95:1]; bringing “gifts” in their hands [Exod. 34:20]).” (p. 28, Meyers)
4. Worship as Praise or Exaltation
Meyers offers some convicting comments on this perspective: “The slogan “we gather for worship to give not to get” has become something of a Reformed shibboleth. We love to beat charismatics and others over the head with it. It makes us feel superior. As if we don’t go to church because we need anything!” (p. 29, Meyers)
“For us, as creatures of God, there can be no such thing as “disinterested praise.” We simply cannot love or praise God for who He is apart from what He has given us or what we continue to receive from Him. We are not His equals. The notion that pure love and worship of God can only be given when it is unmixed with all thoughts of what we receive has no biblical grounding…we cannot approach God as disinterested, self-sufficient beings. We are created beings. Dependent creatures. Beings who must continually receive both our life and redemption from God…We will always be receivers and petitioners before God. Our receptive posture is as ineradicable as our nature as dependent creatures. We put ourselves in a position to be served by Him. Recognizing this is true spirituality…Praise follows after this and alone can never be the exclusive purpose for our gathering together on the Lord’s Day.” (pp. 29-30, Meyers)
Well, if the primary purpose of corporate worship on the Lord’s Day is not evangelism, nor education, nor experience, nor praise (although it includes all of these aspects), then what is it? Why get up on Sunday morning and go to church? The answer that Meyers gives, in line with the best liturgical sensitivities of the historic Reformed Faith, including the OPC’s Directory for Public Worship, is that the primary purpose for corporate, Lord’s Day worship is: Covenant Renewal. To quote from the OPC’s Directory for the Public Worship of God: “The Triune God assembles his covenant people for public worship in order to manifest and renew their covenant bond with him and one another.” (2011 Edition, I.B.5., p. 127) “What is ‘covenant renewal’ worship?” you ask?
Stay tuned for more in upcoming posts…