The purpose of Corporate Worship - Part 2

January 09, 2008

In a recent post provocatively titled "Preaching the Word, Not Presenting Entertainment" I pointed readers to an interview with R.C. Sproul about the problems with 'seeker services'. Sproul suggests that such services are based on a wrong understanding of the purposes of corporate worship, as well as the motives of unbelievers in coming to church. In commenting on this I suggested that:

Church services are events where believers come together corporately as part of their all of life worship of God. These events will include instruction from God's word, edification of God, the Lord's Supper, sharing our lives, confessing our sins, praising God, prayer, singing etc. The core and foundation of this worship together will be the preaching of the word! The hope is that, as 'strangers' share in this, they will be convicted by the Holy Spirit and place their faith in Christ.

I want to follow up this topic as one post hardly does it justice. In the process I also want to point to some other resources that people might find helpful in thinking through the topic, including one that a reader of this Blog suggested in response to the last post.

In a helpful article on Evangelistic Worship Tim Keller (Senior Pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan) suggests that while there are at least 9 models of corporate worship in Protestantism alone, most fall into two dominant categories - historic (HW) and contemporary (CW). He suggests that advocates of CW are guided by the Bible and contemporary culture, while advocates of HW advocates look to the Bible and historic tradition. Instead, he suggests we would do better if we gave consideration to the Bible, the cultural context of our community and the historic tradition of our church.

What Keller seems to be suggesting (although not explicitly), is that in arguing about the best way for churches to engage in corporate worship, it is just as easy for HW advocates to be driven by tradition as it is for CW advocates to be driven by contemporary culture. In each case, corporate worship is impoverished.

Keller argues that church evangelism relies on believers seeking to encourage unbelievers with whom they have a relationship to attend church activities, including services. Our hope is obviously that we will see unbelievers commit to Christ either during the services through varied forms of invitation and response (e.g. as part of the Lord’s Supper) or after the service through other meetings, small groups and follow-up of various forms.

For this to happen, Keller argues that we need to make corporate worship comprehensible to unbelievers while not losing sight of the ultimate purpose of our coming together. The purpose of the church service he argues from the Scriptures is NOT to make the unbeliever "comfortable"; in fact, in I Cor. 14:24-25 or Acts 2:12 and 37 we see that they are cut to the heart! As I argued in my last post, services are primarily opportunities for the corporate worship of Christians; but as Christians we should expect (and want strangers) to attend. Hence church services need to be intelligible to unbelieving hearts (1 Cor 14:25). Keller suggests that we can achieve this in a number of ways. His points follow with a number of qualifiers from me.

a) Worshiping and preaching in the "vernacular" – avoiding “ghetto-ized” language that can shut unbelievers out. Avoiding sub-cultural jargon and showing respect and sympathy for unbelievers.

b) Explaining the service as you go along - while not wanting a running commentary Keller suggests that it is helpful to give 1 or 2 sentence, non-jargon filled explanations of each new part of the service. This he suggests is how we instruct newcomers to corporate worship.

c) Directly addressing and welcoming unbelievers – Keller suggests we should talk directly at times to unbelievers, for example "those of you who aren't sure you believe this, or who aren't sure just what you believe."

d) Considering quality aesthetics – While the ‘art’ must never be the focus, Keller suggests that the power of art draws people to behold it. He argues that the quality of music and speech in worship will have a major impact on its evangelistic power.

e) Celebrating deeds of mercy and justice – Keller suggests that effective churches will be so involved in deeds of mercy and justice that outsiders will say, "we cannot do without churches like this” and hence they will want to be involved. Again, social justice is not the focus of church, but for many unbelievers, this is their focus. So to make them aware that the church is concerned with justice, and that the Bible teaches about a God of justice who expects justice from and for his people, is important.

f) Presenting the sacraments so as to make the gospel clear – Keller believes that baptism, especially adult baptism, should be made a much more significant event if worship is to be evangelistic. As well the Lord’s Supper should confront every person with the question "are you right with God today? Now?"

g) Preaching grace - the message that both believers and unbelievers need to hear is that salvation and adoption are by grace alone. The teaching of God’s word must always come back to this central message centred on Christ.

There are many other helpful places to go if you'd like to explore this topic further. Tony Payne conducted a helpful interview with Don Carson for the Briefing some seven years ago in which Carson shares his perspective of the way he sees corporate worship. Some of Carson's thoughts in this interview as well as those of Tim Keller, Mark Ashton and Kent Hughes were subsequently published in a book titled Worship by the Book. The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship also has a number of helpful practical pieces on various topics and aspects of corporate worship. While I'm not prepared to recommend all the material on these links there is some very good and practical material for people who lead church services, for example:

hospitality as part of worship;
justice and worship;
evangelism and worship.

As the Westminster Shorter Catechism prompts - What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever - our corporate meeting together at church, like our worship in all parts of our life, needs to glorify God and demonstrate our thankfulness and praise of him. As in the rest of life, the focus is on glorifying God, not the wooing of seekers or our own needs. Such meetings together should be inspired by, shaped and based on God's truth taught in the Scriptures, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and centred on the possibility of salvation through faith in Christ and by God's grace.

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God." Ephesians 2:7-9

Such grace, mercy and love should inspire believers to be lost in wonder, love and praise. Our hope is that as strangers gather with us, that through the power of the Holy Spirit they might be convicted of their need of salvation as they share in Christian corporate worship.


See other posts on worship and Christian assembly here and here

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.

Also in And Just in CASE

In the Flesh

January 14, 2016

Powerful Words: The Key Role of Words in Care

October 27, 2015

The Powerful Words conference was held at New College on the 26th September. It was planned for chaplains and others interested in pastoral theology and care and was joint initiative of CASE and Anglicare. The conference was based very much on an understanding that Christian chaplaincy is a prayerful cross-cultural ministry that focuses on the needs of others. Chaplains meet people at times of...
The Bible's Story

August 17, 2015

The Bible has come a long way. In the latest issue of Case Quarterly which is published by CASE we look at the 'journey' that took place to arrive at the Bible as we know it today.

In the beginning was the Word, but it took a while for the hundreds of thousands of words in the Bible to be composed, written down, painstakingly copied, preserved, passed around, tested, accepted, collected together,...