More than Music: How the Congregation Plays a Part in Every Element of Worship
I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. (1 Tim. 3:14-15)
Suppose that on Monday morning you strike up a conversation with Andrew, your Christian coworker. The topic of church comes up, and you ask, “Andrew, what do you like about your church?”
He replies, “Well, my church has a wonderful children’s program. The messages are always encouraging. And I love the worship.”
You then ask, “What exactly do you enjoy about the worship?”
“My goodness!” he answers. “We have an amazing worship band. They’re so talented and can play any style. They play a mix of hymns and contemporary songs. We even have services for each and members get to choose based on what they enjoy. For me, I prefer the contemporary service. The songs get me into a worshipful mood. You know, our worship leader actually went to Juilliard and toured with the band Third Day?”
There are many aspects of Andrew’s answer that are worth highlighting. I wish to highlight only one: when asked about worship, he only speaks of music.
Is Andrew odd?
Probably not. My guess is that most evangelicals merely think of music when they think about worship. The words aren’t synonymous, but they’re close. You’ve surely heard something like this at church: “Before we move back into a time of worship, I’m going to lead us in prayer.” Fifteen minutes later, a pastor delivers a thirty-minute message, followed by (you guessed it) more “worship.” Why are so many of us inclined to reduce corporate worship solely to the musical portions of our gatherings?
Perhaps the main reason is this: we equate worship with music because we have been trained to think that singing is the only way in which congregations actually participate in worship.
But Scripture is clear: corporate worship encompasses much more than music. In fact, every element of Christian worship involves the active participation of the entire congregation.
THE ROLE OF EVERY MEMBER IN EVERY ELEMENT OF WORSHIP
In order to understand corporate worship, we need to first understand what a church is. The Apostle Peter says of the church: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5).
According to Peter, Christians are stones. Together, they form a spiritual house which we call a local church. Every time a church gathers in the name of Jesus, the people form a habitation of praise—an environment of exultation that exists for the sole purpose of glorifying God.
Such a vision for the church should shatter any desire for one-sided performance in corporate worship. If every member is essential to what a church is and if corporate worship is essential to church life, then every member is essential to corporate worship. Congregations are never audiences; they are eager and active participants.
Let’s examine the congregation’s role in different elements of corporate worship.
The Congregation’s Role in Singing
Most of us intuitively recognize singing as participatory. Nonetheless, many Christians sadly refrain from singing. Perhaps they don’t like the songs, or maybe they think they’re bad singers. Such Christians would do well to read the 400+ references to singing in Scripture. This includes fifty direct commands to sing. The largest book in the Bible, and the most quoted book in the New Testament, is the Psalms, which is essentially a songbook. Evidently, it’s of paramount importance to God that his people—every last one of them—sing his praises.
The apostle Paul makes no exceptions when he says in Colossians 3, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” The only instrument referred to in New Testament worship is the human voice. That matters. It’s God’s design that the local church’s music ministry be comprised of an untrained choir of blood-bought saints.
The Congregation’s Role in Prayer
A cursory reading of the New Testament reveals the priority of prayer in gathered worship (Acts 4:23–31, 1 Cor. 11, 1 Tim. 2). We see churches pray together in one voice, and we also see individuals lead congregations in prayer. And we should do this all to edify or build up the whole body (1 Cor. 14).
When individuals stand before a congregation to give prayers of confession, pastoral prayers, and prayers of thanksgiving, these shouldn’t be personal spiritual performances. They are congregational cries to God. Christians don’t merely listen to prayers—they are led in prayer. When someone leads a prayer in corporate worship, they speak as a mouthpiece for the congregation. That’s why their words demand the attention and “amen” of every saint.
The Congregation’s Role in Scripture Readings
Paul charged Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13). This was no empty exercise. Paul knew that active listening was one of the chief means of implanting truth into the hearts of congregations. In our age of high literacy, we can forget that early believers studied the Bible chiefly by meditating on what they had memorized in the context of corporate gatherings.
As Christians, we would do well to stand in awe of God’s Word every time it’s read. We should have the same posture as David, who says in Psalm 19, “More to be desired are they [the Scriptures] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.”
The Congregation’s Role in Preaching (Yes, Preaching!)
At least the congregation has a passive role in preaching, right? Wrong.
Preaching is an active element of congregational worship. John Piper is right to define preaching as “expository exultation.” Peter exhorts preachers to “speak as the oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11). This means that when people hear true preaching, they are engaging with God. The preacher’s task is to facilitate fellowship between the congregation and the Lord. True preaching upholds Christ in such a way that hearers meaningfully commune with the Almighty. In this way, preachers are simply instruments through which believers behold their God.
In Nehemiah 8, God’s people—after years of rebellion and neglect of Scripture—recommit themselves to God’s Word. After Ezra and others expounded the Scriptures, Nehemiah 8:6 reads, “And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”
Notice how the people actively interacted with the Lord in the context of biblical exposition. And this was described as worship. How could it not? The people were engaging with God. Commenting on this text, Charles Simeon (1759–1836) asserted:
They did not look to the creature, but to God, whose voice they heard, and whose authority they acknowledged, in every word that was spoken. What a contrast does this form with the manner in which the word of God is heard amongst us! How rarely do we find persons duly impressed with a sense of their obligation to God for giving them a revelation of his will! How rarely do men at this day look through the preacher unto God, and hear God speaking to them by the voice of his servants!1
Consider that phrase “look through the preacher unto God.” Think of that the next time you sit under preaching! So long as the sermon is faithful to the Scriptures, you are communing with the living God.
The Congregation’s Role in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
The congregation’s role in the sacraments is tremendous, though perhaps it’s not obvious with regard to baptism. Christians tend to think that baptism is merely about a new believer’s profession of faith: someone’s personal decision to express their allegiance to Christ. And that’s certainly one necessary element. But it’s only part of the story.
In baptism, the believer declares both his union with Christ and his union with Christ’s church. In other words, baptism is best understood as an avenue of entrance into formal membership of a local church. The New Testament has no category for a Christian who’s not a part of a local body of believers. This means that when a congregation witnesses a baptism, they are formally welcoming that new Christian into their family. It should be a sweet occasion in which the whole church celebrates the goodness of God.
Similarly, when we take the Lord’s Supper, a Christian communes with Christ. But we must never forget that the Lord’s Supper is a family meal in which we acknowledge our bonds and fellowship with one another. The “He” and “me” of communion becomes the “we.” What He has done for me on the cross has purchased the fellowship we together share.
The congregation has a role in every element of the Sunday morning gatherings. Again, congregations are not audiences. In light of this, consider three practical applications.
1. Think about corporate worship before you worship corporately.
I pastor a church that uses a bulletin which includes the order of service. I have long made it my practice to read our bulletins before our gatherings. This helps me prepare my heart for worship!
Whether your church has a bulletin or not, I encourage you to arrive early on Sundays. Take a moment to consider the different elements of your church’s worship. And then think, “How will I participate this morning? What’s my role in the songs? In the prayer of confession? In the Scripture reading? In the sermon?”
Don’t let the elements of the service wash over you without pondering their significance.
2. Look at others during corporate worship.
I occasionally have the privilege of leading the singing at my church. One of the sweetest parts of this is getting to face hundreds of saints as they sing. Unfortunately, the average church member misses out on this because our sanctuary is designed to emphasize what’s happening up front. Nevertheless, I encourage members to look around at each other throughout our service.
Remember, one of the ways we let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly is by encouraging one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. This means when I worship God in song, I’m not only addressing God, I’m reminding the saint next to me of the goodness of God and the beauty of his promises.
3. Plead for God’s blessing upon your gatherings.
If you’re a member of a local church, the most important thing in your life is what happens when your church gathers on Sundays.
Corporate worship is the rushing river that runs through every current of your life. So make it a priority to plead with God that he would greatly bless your church’s gatherings. He’s already made special promises to his gathered people: the risen Christ is in your midst! With your whole heart, seek and anticipate God’s rich supply of grace in corporate worship.
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 Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 4:292.
For more on this topic, read A Foolproof Discipling Program: Corporate Worship, by John Sarver