Dr Jim McClure, noted theologian, writes:
In my January article I addressed the question, ‘Where is the best place to worship?’
This raises another question, ‘Can we worship God without going to a church?’
My first response to that is, ‘Most certainly!’ As I wrote in my previous article, ‘It is not the place that is important but the attitude of the heart and spirit.’ In fact the worship of God must be understood as our personal response to God in our engagement with him.
What does worship mean?
The English word ‘worship’ comes from the old Anglo-Saxon word ‘weorthscipe.’ This developed into ‘worthship’ and then into ‘worship.’ It means ‘to attribute worth to an object.’ To worship God is to ascribe to him supreme worth, for he alone is worthy.
Worship is a recognition of the unequalled awesomeness of Almighty God, a response that humbly, joyfully and lovingly expresses our delight at the privilege of being able to be in his presence to honour him, praise him and declare his worth, and it is also a requirement from God for all who claim to love him.
Going to church and being present at a ‘worship service’ does not necessarily mean that we are worshipping. We may enthusiastically (or not!) sing the songs and listen to the prayers and the sermon, but that does not mean that by doing these things we are worshipping God. Therefore true worship is not determined by where we are, how we feel or the way we do it. True worship necessarily includes earnestly seeking God, surrendering to him and in our spirit affirming his greatness.
King David, aware of his own littleness in the presence of Almighty God, worshipped him in these words, ‘This is what makes you so great, Master God! There is none like you, no God but you, nothing to compare with what we’ve heard with our own ears’ (2 Samuel 7:22 Message).
The church is not dispensable
However what I have just written must not be understood as saying that the church is irrelevant or dispensable in the matter of our worship of God.
I firmly believe in the immense value of corporate worship when God’s people come together in the name of Jesus to offer and declare our adoration of God.
Some reasons given for opting out
But today there are an increasing number of people who have decided to opt out of church and practise private worship or not to worship at all. There are various reasons given for this decision, for example:
1. The church isn’t friendly, I don’t feel included and I don’t experience much love
2. I don’t like the pastor
3. The preaching is too shallow
4. There is very little good teaching
5. I can’t stand loud music
6. They’re always asking for money!
7. I have a ministry but the church doesn’t want to use it
8. There is no consideration made for older/younger/middle-aged people
9. I don’t like the in-groups
10. I simply don’t feel any need for church
11. And so on…and so on!
Some of these reasons may contain a strong element of truth – and for them I have a degree of sympathy – while others fit into the category of excuse rather than reason. Yet however genuine, plausible or persuasive any of the above reasons may be, there is no reason for Christians to abandon the privilege of corporate worship. Private worship is not a valid alternative! While worship must begin in our personal response to God, it must not then become a private response to God!
Worship is a corporate thing
The Bible is quite clear in depicting the Christian faith as a corporate rather than an individual thing. While it is absolutely true that each person must place our faith in Jesus as our Saviour, that act places us into the body of Christ, that is, his church (Matthew 16:18).
Paul draws attention to the significance of this in 1 Corinthians 12:27, ‘Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.’
In the Christian faith we have a unique identity because of our personal relationship with Christ but we also have a corporate (or group) identity as a consequence of that relationship with Christ. An individualistic understanding of Christianity misunderstands and misrepresents one of the glorious truths of the Christian faith!
Corporate worship as taught in the Bible
The corporate nature – as distinct from the personal nature – of worship is clearly taught in the Bible.
1. The worship of the angels
When we read about the angels in the Old and New Testaments, we discover that one of the most distinctive things about them is that they corporately worshipped God. There are many references in the Bible concerning this and I shall mention just a few.
In Isaiah 6:1-3 Isaiah describes the vision that changed his life: ‘I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”’ Notice that ‘they were calling to one another.’ The worship of the angels was not individualistic – they were participating in group worship!
In Luke 2:13-14, after an angel gave the news of the birth of Christ, we read, ‘Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.”’ The word translated ‘great company’ indicates that the angels who sang their praises to God were innumerable.
In Revelation 5:11-13 we are given a glimpse into heaven: ‘Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!” The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshipped.’ What a picture of worship – the whole population of heaven joined in worshipping the Lord God Almighty! If we do not like corporate worship, we are going to hate heaven!
2. Worship in the Tabernacle, Temple and synagogues
When the Israelites left Egypt and entered the wilderness, God introduced them to the principle of corporate worship and gave a detailed design of the Tabernacle that he wanted them to build. The Tabernacle was the place where the leaders and people came together to offer their worship and sacrifices to God and to meet with him.
Each feature of the Tabernacle is significant, but the fact that God was seeking the corporate worship of His people is profound.
When some centuries later Solomon built the Temple which replaced the Tabernacle, once again the fact and the need for group worship was emphasised. While many of the psalms, particularly those of Solomon’s father David, express personal repentance, thanksgiving, yearning for God and such, nevertheless the people of Israel used them as their hymnbook as they worshipped together. ‘I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord”’ (Psalm 122:1).
This was so ingrained in them that following the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BC and the deportation of the people from Israel, those who were exiled built the first synagogues as a place in which they could gather together to worship.
To the people of Israel it would have been inconceivable that they would dismiss the fundamental importance of corporate worship. To them it was both a privilege and a delight.
3. Worship in the early church
The early church gathered to worship. At first they met in the temple and in people’s homes. ‘Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts’ (Act 2:46).
While ‘going to church’ was not a phrase used by early Christians, nevertheless they fully understood that ‘being the church’ included worshipping together as God’s people. Yet, even in those early days there were some Christians who were influenced by the same attitude that is still prevails today. That is why the writer of Hebrews issued this reprimand, ‘Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching’ (Hebrews 10:25).
God did not create us to enjoy him only as private and solitary individuals. We are part of a great assembly in heaven and earth that is called to worship him together and the local church is a local expression of that great truth. Worshipping God by ourselves (or by watching a worship service on television) is not an adequate alternative to corporate worship. Richard Foster has written, ‘When we are truly gathered into worship, things occur that could never occur alone’ (Celebration of Discipline).
Of course it is possible that some churches provide an environment that is not conducive to entering into a worshipful engagement with God. In a previous article I mentioned that ‘When “worship” sets out to compete with the entertainment industry, it ceases to be worship!’ Someone has commented, ‘There are times when what the modern church calls “worship” flows along man-made canals, fed by water pumped from the factory of the worship industry.’ Sadly such so-called worship is intended to appeal to our carnal emotions rather than enabling our spirits to engage with God.
A judgmental and complaining spirit
Despite this, our response should not be to opt out of corporate worship but to find and attend a church in which we can worship. Nevertheless we must acknowledge that no church is perfect for all are composed of imperfect people. Furthermore the thing which will most quickly prevent us from entering into true worship lies within us – a judgmental and complaining spirit. And how easily Satan encourages us to slide into that! Not only does it quench the Spirit for us but it also turns the hosepipe on others!
If we are constantly disgruntled regarding corporate worship, it is important that we examine ourselves. Paul tells us, ‘Do not put out the Spirit’s fire’ (1Thessalonians 5:19). And if we cannot find a church family with which to worship, I suggest that the reason for this is not to be found externally but internally, that is in our attitude and in a critical spirit that we may be nursing.
The missing jewel
About fifty years AW Tozer wrote that worship is the missing jewel of the church.
What was true of his day is even truer today. The answer to this malaise is not to abandon corporate worship but to get our own attitudes right, and to understand that we have both the privilege and the God-ordained obligation to offer him the worship he both deserves and desires.
Dr Jim McClure is the author of Grace Revisited (See Resources), Overview of the Old and New Testaments and the Understanding…series. Orders/enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org
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