The gathering of the saints on the Lord's Day is the most critical gathering of the local church. I know not everyone sees it this way. Call me "old-school." Call me traditional. Call me institutional. But, I am convinced that gathering together to hear the Scripture read and preached, to observe the Lord's Supper, to sing Christ's praises, and pray together as one family is the central event in the life of the church and that everything else she does is rooted in and grows out of this assembly.
Some of our smaller churches who highly value corporate worship sometimes feel as if they cannot have a great worship gathering because they don't have "____________." That blank can be just about anything: a stellar preacher, a full choir, a proficiant band, a charismatic worship leader, lights, stage dressing, a great facility. You get the idea. It's easy for us to think that great worship hinges on something extra-biblical.
Of course, sometimes we feel our corporate worship is lacking because it is lacking. It may lack focus, depth, clarity, purpose, or passion. When these things are absent corporate worship is dull; where they are in full effect worship is powerful. And these things have nothing to do the "blank" most churches believe they need.
I have worshipped with tiny congregations where worship made me exult in the joy of our risen Savior, and I have worshipped with large congregations that left me wishing I stayed in bed that morning. And, of course it often works the other way as well.
My wife and I once attended a Reformed Baptist Church that fits my current definition of a "small" church. There was no worship leader. No choir. No instruments. No overhead projection. No cool lights. The building was plain-Jane. Yet their gathering was powerful. Why?
On the one hand they had all the essential elements needed for corporate worship. Yes, some things are required: the word of God read and preached, the prayers and songs of God's people lifted up in the name of Jesus Christ, and the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper. But having these elements in place is not enough. With these things there must be focus, depth, clarity, purpose, or passion.
The focus of the gathered church is the Lord Jesus Christ and his work of salvation for all who believe accomplished through his life, death, and resurrection. Corporate worship should be distinctively, uniquely Christian, making it incapable of being confused with another cause, movement, or religion.
A proper focus on Jesus means that the whole gathering should work to lead everyone present to "see" Jesus. This means every aspect of the gathering, every part of the liturgy, should be designed to help us draw near to Christ by faith. Whatever is not helping us move toward him needs to be cut.
Worship that is powerful gains its strength from the heralding of the glories of our triune God. This means that our worship must be intentionally and deeply theological. If we are God's people, saved and gathered together to "proclaim his excellencies" (1 Pet. 2:9), then we must not only know them, but make them known. Worship that doesn't revel in the character and work of our sovereign and saving God will lift up something, or someone else, instead.
Deep worship is critical, but without clarity it will prove fruitless. Our gatherings must not only be Christ-centered, but also comprehensible. Words must be defined. The manner of speech, style of music, where you gather--all of these things must be taken into consideration as we worship. Let me be clear on this point. The question is not, "Will the culture like this or not?" The question is first: Is this biblical? Only then can we begin to answer other important questions like, Will the people understand what we are saying and doing? Will this help us lead them to the gospel?
Worship should be felt. Our affections should be stirred when we gather to sing with one voice the praises of our one Lord. If our singing, praying, reading, and preaching isn't earnest why are we surprised that the rest of the congregation is listless? More than eloquent speakers with clever sermons, we need men filled with the Spirit, fueled by faith, who passionately proclaim the good news we all need so desperately. More than accomplished musicians up front we need congregations so full of the joy of salvation that their they must sing, and sing loud.
People often get wrapped up in the "target audience" of the worship gatherings. Is it aimed at the uncovered walking into our midst, or should we target believers for their edification? I think both emphases miss the mark. Our target in worship is God himself. We want to first, please him (do it his way for his glory), and then reveal him (make him known to the people gathered) as we give people the opportunity to draw near to him in faith and repentance (see him as Lord over all). The purpose of our worship is the glory of God. Knowing why we gather, and for whom we gather, results not only in the glory of God but also necessarily leads to evangelism and edification in our gathering.
The small church can do all of this, and sometimes smaller churches have an easier time getting here because they do not have the trappings that can encourage trust in other things to move the hearts of those gathered.
Small churches are not hindered by their size in worshipping in spirit and truth (Jn. 4:24). Christ is with his people. His is Spirit convicts and converts, and continues to fills his people. Corporate worship in the small church can be a very big thing, and it should be! But this doesn't just happen. It must be worked toward together as a congregation.
In the follow-up post I will offer practical advice to smaller churches who find themselves struggling in corporate worship. It won't be theory, but practical things we have had to do as a church. This means they won't necessarily be biblical absolutes, but practices that have helped us at Redeemer Fellowship.