A Foolproof Discipling Program: Corporate Worship
Regardless of how your church states its mission—“living and proclaiming God’s truth in the world” or “spreading a passion for God’s supremacy among the nations”—every biblical church exists to make disciples, that is, gospel-believing, Spirit-indwelt, Word-obeying, Kingdom-advancing followers of Jesus Christ. This goal can be stated in different ways and with different emphases. It can be cute or curt. The bottom line is churches make disciples.
Okay … but how does a church do this? How does your church do this?
A thought experiment might help us here. Let’s say someone is converted through a relationship with a member of your church. What do you do next? Do you put them through a class for new Christians? Rush to place them in a community group? Maybe you’ve read The Trellis and the Vine (ah, that’s where I remember this illustration) and you enlist that member to begin discipling them.
All that’s wonderful. Now let me ask a follow-up question: what does your church’s weekly corporate worship gathering have to do with that baby believer’s discipleship? Further still, what’s the relationship between that newly formed discipling relationship and the Sunday service? More to the point, does your church make disciples when it gathers or only when its members scatter?
If you do a quick Google search, or thumb through your favorite publisher’s most recent catalog, or pick up the latest popular book on discipleship, you’ll find a consistent theme: real discipling work happens either through well-constructed programs or organic personal ministry.
I don’t intend to disparage programs or discipling. A culture of discipling—where members do deliberate spiritual good to one another out of a sense of loving obligation—is necessary for a church to be healthy. Programs can help toward that end.
But I am concerned that many pastors unwittingly overlook the core discipleship program the New Testament prescribes: the corporate worship gathering. It’s more fundamental to Christian growth than any program. Yes, it’s even more fundamental than any personal ministry of the Word that ought to resound throughout the week. The Sunday gathering is the primary discipler of a local congregation. Why? Because of what it proclaims and the pattern it sets.
Proclamation: The Gathering Disciples
When saints gather on Sundays, they do so to worship, yes, and to grow. And God grows his people through the Word—his world-creating, life-maintaining, saint-sanctifying Word (John 1:3-4; Heb. 1:1; John 17:17; 2 Tim. 3:16). It’s no surprise, then, that Scripture regulates the service around itself. In the gathering, we should read and preach Holy Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:1–3), we should sing its truths (Col. 3:16), we should pray its hopes (Eph. 6:18), and we should visualize its message through the sacraments (1 Cor. 11:26; 10:21).
A Sunday morning gathering isn’t a production. It’s not marked by pageantry or sophistry. No. Saints gather every Lord’s Day trusting their pastors have planned a service that delivers up their most important meal of the week.
In other words, the corporate worship gathering disciples the saints because it proclaims God’s Word which in turn teaches for growth and trains for ministry. These saints are then called to teach what they’ve heard in the presence of the assembly (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Pattern: The Gathering Trains
Think about what you want your church’s discipling relationships and programs to look like. You want to equip Christians to read and teach Scripture, to repent of sin, to increase in grace-driven holiness, and to learn how to better bear each other’s burdens and sorrows. The Sunday service not only hones these disciplines, it also models how to do them.
Through thoughtful and protracted prayers of praise, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication, saints are taught how to pray for and with one another. They’re shown how to recount God’s deeds. They’re shown how to confess their sin in anticipation of forgiveness. They’re tutored in praying for missionaries, their city, other churches, and their fellow members.
Because Scripture regulates the service, saints are taught to listen when God speaks. And since good preachers not only explain the text but interpret and illustrate the Scripture, saints are taught how to read, study, and teach God’s Word themselves. Through faithful application, they’re taught how to confront and comfort one another with the Bible. Faithful preaching not only sustains the saints but trains them up as teachers.
Through the sacraments, the body is reminded that the Christian life is marked by repentance of sin and faith in Christ (Rom. 6:1–11). The many members are bound as one body through the bread (1 Cor. 10:17), and they are clearly marked off from the world (Matt. 28:19; see also 1 Cor. 5:9–13).
What should the saints do in community groups, discipling relationships, Sunday schools, and during family worship? Some combination of studying Scripture, praising God, confessing sin, and pursuing one another for the edification of the individual and the whole. Put simply, they should do what they see on Sundays. They should speak what they hear. Individual members should imitate the corporate model. After all, healthy gatherings will over time produce healthy disciples, and weak services over time will produce weak disciples—or teach them to look for necessary edification elsewhere.
Reverberation: From the Gathering to the Rest
The biblical pattern for church ministry moves from the pulpit to the people, from the gathering to the scattering.1 Never the other way around. All other ministries should be subservient to and ordered around the church’s main gathering. It’s intended to be the roaring river that gives life and direction to all the other discipling tributaries of the church. The order is never reversed.
Ephesians 4 says that Christ has ascended to fill all things (Eph. 4:9–10). From his glorious session, he gives to his church. Notably, Paul marks out teaching gifts: apostles, prophets, pastors, and teachers (v. 11). They’re given to equip the saints for the work of the ministry which is for the building up the body of Christ (v. 12). The pastors teach and train the saints. And then the members do what their pastors do: they speak the truth in love (v. 15). Both preaching and speaking are necessary for the entire body to grow into maturity.
But notice one is primary—both temporally and functionally. Discipling flows from the pastors to the people. From Sunday to every other day of the week. Every discipling conversation, every Bible study, every counseling appointment, and every evening of family worship echoes the Word as its taught and modeled on Sundays. This is the basic shape of biblical ministry: the church gathers and then scatters; the saints rest and then work; the pastors preach and then the people parrot. One discipling event leads to and orders the rest.
Prioritize the Gathering
So prioritize the gathering. Read Scripture in your gathering knowing that God uses it to save souls and sustain faith. Model for your members what they ought to do at home and in their classes. Do multiple readings. Read whole chapters. Recite Scripture corporately.
Pray in your gathering. Pray knowing it increases your members’ trust in God and their communion with him. Pray like you want the saints to pray with and for one another: praising God, confessing sin, pleading for the lost, lifting-up neighboring churches, and interceding for their brothers and sisters by name.
And preach. Preach knowing God speaks through you to raise the dead, stir the idle, encourage the faithful, feed the hungry, and mend the wounded. Preach in such a way that your members leave better equipped to teach one another. Exposit the text. Answer difficult questions. Interpret Scripture with Scripture. And apply it to your church.
How does a church make disciples? Through its corporate gathering. While the gathering isn’t sufficient to bring saints to full maturity in Christ, it’s the engine that drives all those other good efforts.
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 On this point see Jonathan Leeman, Word-Centered Church: How Scripture Brings Life and Growth to God’s People (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2017).