What is Corporate Worship For?
What do you think corporate worship is for? What’s the goal of local churches’ weekly assemblies?
That seems like an obvious answer. And it’s more than a little right. When we come together as a church we sing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs with thankfulness to God in our hearts (Col. 3:16). We sing and make melody to the Lord (Eph. 5:19). Sounds like worship to me.
But, surprisingly enough, the New Testament never actually uses any words for “worship” in conjunction with singing. In fact, it doesn’t even apply the term “worship” to what we do when we come together as a church. (Though the absence of that term doesn’t mean we’re not worshiping God in our corporate gatherings, or that there’s no sense in which “corporate worship” is distinct from “all-of-life worship.”)
What then does the New Testament say that the church’s corporate gatherings are for?
Speaking of the Corinthians’ weekly assembly, Paul writes, “So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church” (1 Cor. 14:12). And again, more explicitly, “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (1 Cor. 14:26).
Granted, Paul is addressing specific abuses of spiritual gifts in the larger context of this passage, not laying out a treatise on corporate worship in general. But it’s interesting that, when we turn to the passages about corporate singing in Ephesians and Colossians, we see the same thing. Ephesians 5:18-19 says that we are to be filled with the Spirit, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” And Colossians 3:16-17 says, “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.”
In at least these three places, then, Paul argues that one of the primary goals of what we call “corporate worship” is to edify the whole church. In the assembly, we should do all things in order to build one another up. We sing to address God, yes, but also to teach and admonish one another.
This is not to say that edification is more important than worship, as if the two are in competition. But it does mean that even those corporate activities in which we address God directly—singing praises, giving thanks—should have an explicitly horizontal focus as well.
Singing is for teaching. Praise is for instruction. Adoration is for admonishing.
What does this mean for church leaders who are responsible for planning and leading corporate worship? For one, it means that one of the main grids through which you should filter everything in the service is, “Does this edify God’s people?” It’s a question we can use to help ourselves and our members understand what “worship” is.
Say a church member approaches you after the service on Sunday and says, “I really think we should do “x” [insert some cultural or personal preference here] in our church because it will help me to worship.” In response, you can say to both yourself and that person, “Will ‘x’ help to edify God’s people? Because if it doesn’t, it’s not the kind of worship God is looking for.” Certainly this means we should stick to elements of worship that are commanded and exampled in Scripture since such matters promise to edify the body. But it should also help you think through prudential considerations, like whether a particular song is appropriate to sing. One can imagine how a certain song might edify the body in one setting, but be a distraction in another, and so not edify the whole body.
In other words, the priority of edification means that all questions of style and preference are radically subordinate to questions of content. Biblical truth is what edifies. So the first question we should ask of a worship song, for example, is not whether it fits with our or our non-Christian neighbors’ personal musical sensibilities, but whether it faithfully proclaims gospel truths.
Further, the priority of edification bears on how we assess styles and forms as well. For instance, what if certain seemingly outmoded cultural forms—like congregational singing—are actually mandated by Scripture ? (Like in Ephesians 5:18-19 and Colossians 3:16-17!)
Corporate edification is an explicit, New Testament-mandated goal of corporate worship. So give it the pride of place it deserves as you plan and lead your churches’ weekly gatherings. Let all things be done for building up.