It is one of the ironies of our day that while Sunday church attendance in America is at an all-time high, the majority of Protestants attend no divine services regularly. The situation is tragic too in that for Christians the hour of public worship is the most eventful hour of every week. The anonymous author of Hebrews intimated as much when he solemnly warned his readers about “neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some.” What then are the primary values of corporate worship which make its faithful observance on the part of Christians so imperative and its neglect so perilous?
COMMUNION WITH GOD
First, in the worship services of the Church we have personal communion with the living God in Jesus Christ who is present in his Spirit.
Some years ago the secret police broke in on a group of Russian peasants who, in open defiance of the law, had assembled for worship. The police carefully recorded the identity of each offender and then made ready to leave. But at the door an elderly man stopped the commanding officer and said, “There is one name you missed.” The agent confidently assured him that he was guilty of no oversight. But when the Christian continued to disagree, the officer said: “All right, we shall count again.” The second count verified the first—30 names—and he shouted, “See, I told you I have them all!” Still the peasant insisted that one name was missing. “Well, what is it then?” snapped the agent. “The Lord Jesus Christ,” answered the old man. “He is here too!” And he was.
Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” It is true, of course, that our risen and glorified Lord is present with us as individuals at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances. He also said to his disciples as individuals: “I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” But this former promise suggests that in the services of worship the presence of Christ is somehow qualitatively different from and more perceptible than that same presence in our lives under other circumstances. We may not be able to define that difference, but if our spiritual senses are on pitch on the Lord’s Day we know it to be so.
A man who wished greatly to hear Robert Murray McCheyne preach attended his church one Sunday in Dundee. Upon his early arrival, he anxiously inquired of a member of the congregation, “Can you tell me for certain whether Mr. McCheyne will be here today?” The parishoner answered, “I do not know whether our preacher will be here, but I do know Jesus Christ will be here.” That was a fitting rebuke and may be addressed to many of us today. Sunday services are not occasions for paying tribute to the man behind the pulpit. Rather, they are gracious invitations and sacred opportunities to enter the presence of the living God who condescends to meet with us in Jesus Christ.
Communion with Deity is a universal need of man. Unlike the brutes, we were created for intimate fellowship with our Creator. This is one of the fundamental truths of which Adam in Paradise is symbolic. Before his fall, Adam enjoyed perfect bliss. In his garden sanctuary he had free access to the revealed and immediate presence of God. Man’s soul is homesick until he makes his home in God. Communion with Deity is not merely our privilege; it is the foremost reason for our existence. With profound insight Augustine prayed, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee.”
Obviously, one can best commune with God where the divine Presence is most perceptible. The patriarchs erected their altars and returned again and again to worship at those places where God had appeared to them and opened the windows of their souls to his Presence. Thus, for example, after many years Jacob came back to Bethel where, as a fugitive from Esau, he dreamed his immortal dream of the ladder stretched from earth to heaven. The descendants of the patriarchs congregated at the tabernacle, and later at the temple, because it was here in the Holy of Holies that God took up his special abode among men and manifested his glory. Likewise in the Christian dispensation, the divine Presence is mediated to us through Christ most fully in the midst of his worshiping people. Here our communion with God reaches its highest intensity. Because our spiritual faculties are what they are, we need this particular experience each Lord’s Day to keep alive our sense of God’s presence with us through the rest of the week.
Divine worship is of inestimable value because it provides the setting in which we meet the risen Christ who unites us to the living God.
A MEANS OF GRACE
It follows, therefore, that services of worship are also a means of grace. We use this expression frequently, but it may be helpful to define it. Grace is God’s free and unmerited gift of salvation and the dynamic whereby we are enabled to live the new life in Christ. The means of grace are those special media through which God communicates to us his abundant, saving and sanctifying grace.
Worship is one of these media. Moreover, its composite character brings together three basic means of grace, namely, the Word, the sacraments, and prayer. Whenever our communion with the living God in worship is consummated, something significant transpires within us. On the one hand, we come into judgment. Before One who is infinite and terrible in his holiness, our hearts can no longer hide their dark secrets. We feel the penetrating power of his searching eyes and know that to him we are as open books. We perceive the frightful contrast between what we ought to be and what we actually are. We become conscious of sins of which we were long ignorant, but which have cast their shadows across our souls and robbed us of our peace. We sense more keenly the justness of divine wrath.
But mercy is added to judgment, and so we also feel the impact of our Lord’s purifying, transforming, and energizing power. Like Isaiah in the temple, we are at once cleansed and renewed. We pass from death into life. The archbishop Richard Trench wrote these immortal lines:
“Lord, what a change within us one short hour
Spent in Thy presence will avail to make,
What heavy burdens from our bosoms take,
What parched grounds refresh as with a shower!”
Our renewal prompts us to respond to divine overtures of love with further decisions and commitments which deepen our discipleship, expand our spiritual capacities, advance us in holiness, and enlarge our service. It was in such a moment that Isaiah heard and answered the call to prophetic office in Israel. And with each repetition of this experience we enter more fully into the joy of our Lord.
Viewed from a slightly different perspective, what we are now discussing may be designated the therapeutic value of corporate worship. Because there is such value in worship, the results of absenteeism are spiritually disastrous. A member, living next door to a church I once served, and having attended it only three times during my pastorate, was taken to the hospital and confined there for one week. Nearly that whole week passed before I learned of her illness, and when I made my first visit, she was convalescing at home. As I entered her room, she startled me with the greeting, not spoken in jest, “Where the devil have you been?” Then she explained how she had succumbed to such a state of spiritual depression while in the hospital that she summoned the resident clergyman, a Roman priest. Now if this woman had included divine services in her regular Sunday schedule, she would have had at least a minimum of inner spiritual resources to fall back on in her hour of crisis. Preachers who are eager to help people whenever spiritual crisis arise in their lives agree that those who make the greatest private demands on their time, pester them with petty problems, and crave spiritual pampering, are for the most part the very ones who neglect regular public worship.
Corporate worship is a means of grace. And it is a mistake to suppose we can derive its full benefits via radio or television. There is a mystical something which the air waves never pick up nor transmit, but which is reserved for those who make their way to the sanctuary.
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR WITNESS
Again, the worship services of the Church afford us an opportunity to witness in public to our faith in Jesus Christ. Both the apostles and our Lord himself make it clear that witnessing is not optional, but obligatory. It is a duty of the Christian life none of us can evade. But unfortunately many of us stereotype this witness and restrict it to the spoken word. It cannot be denied that verbal testimony is the primary mode in which our Christian witness finds its expression. A professing Christian whose lips remain sealed to open declaration of his Redeemer’s grace and who never says to anyone, “Hear what my Lord has done for me!” is at best an enigma. Our words may not be eloquent, but like Andrew we must tell others about Jesus.
Nevertheless, witnessing is not to be limited to the spoken word alone. Other types of testimony are equally valid, and attendance at divine worship is among them. Every time we walk or drive our cars to church, we are saying in effect to those about us: “We believe in Jesus Christ. We are citizens of his Kingdom. In his Gospel we have found deliverance from sin in this life and hope for eternity. Surely this kind of witnessing everyone of us can do without hesitation. We may not be at liberty to press the claims of Christ verbally on a certain unregenerate neighbor, friend, or relative, but we can work toward the same goal in this unoffensive way.
We ought not to underestimate the effectiveness of such witness. The blatant skeptic whose blasphemous ridicule of the Church and her Lord chills our souls, the practicing atheist who carelessly devours even the Lord’s Day in materialistic pursuits, and the shameless violator of moral law, are taking note, perhaps unconsciously, of our habitual attendance at services of worship. Over a period of time the totality of this weekly impact may drive a wedge into people’s lives for the Gospel. More likely will this happen if, upon returning from church, our faces reflect the joy and peace that worship is designed to impart. The Lord Christ has walked into many hearts and homes simply because some devout believer walked down the street and up the steps to his church every Sunday in fair weather and foul.
Corporate worship gives us an excellent opportunity to witness of our Saviour and Lord.
ULTIMATE FUNCTION OF THE CHURCH
Furthermore, corporate worship is the ultimate function of the Church. The Westminster Shorter Catechism opens with the affirmation: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” This is equally definitive with reference to the Church. The best way we can glorify God is to worship him humbly, adoringly, and reverently.
In the present world the Church is essentially a redemptive community. Each member shares the divine commission to confront the world with the Gospel, to pursue the lost wherever they have strayed, even to the uttermost regions of the earth. We are to proclaim to men God’s good news of reconciliation through the Cross of his Son. We are to dispel their gloom and fear with the message of Bethlehem, Calvary, and the Empty Tomb. In the face of the universal human predicament we have been commanded by our Lord and constrained by his redeeming love to take up the evangelistic burden.
But toward God the Church, even now in the context of this world, is a worshiping community. Whereever a group of persons have embraced the Gospel they have erected a sanctuary, often at great personal sacrifice. The crowning attraction of not a few communities is their beautiful churches. Cathedrals in Europe annually draw thousands of tourists to their doors because of their grandeur and magnificence. These buildings, the objects of lavish care and maintained at tremendous expense, were dreamed into being only because public worship was essential to Christian faith, love, and life in this world.
Moreover, corporate worship is prophetic of and preparatory to the Church’s vocation in eternity. When the last page of history has been written and the dawn of eternal day breaks over all creation, the temporary redemptive toil of the Church shall come to an end. Then she shall remain the risen and exalted Body of Christ to worship everlastingly in the Holy of Holies not made by human hands. The most stirring scenes of the Apocalypse are those which vivify this theme. They fix our eyes on the Church Triumphant, in the glory of heaven, assembled in reverent worship before the throne of the holy and triune God. Then with one swelling voice the Church shall praise the Father who conceived her in his wondrous love, and the Son who purchased her with his precious blood, and the Spirit who established her by his quickening power. That is why we sing:
“Unnumbered choirs before the shining throne
Their joyful anthems raise
Till heaven’s glad halls are echoing with the tone
Of that great hymn of praise.
And all its host rejoices,
And all its blessed throng
Unite their myriad voices
In one eternal song.”
Corporate worship is the ultimate function of the church of Jesus Christ.
The most eventful hour of every week is that of public worship, when Christians across the world gather in the earthly sanctuaries of the Most High God. As ministers of the Lord, we have a solemn responsibility to make our services as spiritually rich and meaningful as possible. And as true believers, we need to make the sanctuary our Sabbath home.
Richard Allen Bodey is Minister of Third Presbyterian Church, North Tonawanda, New York. He holds the A.B. degree from Lafayette College and the B.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Books are his special interest; in his library of 2,200 works are many volumes bearing the autographs of giants from the past such as Liddon, Stalker, and Alexander.
DECLINE OF THEOLOGY—“Liberalism dealt much more drastically with the corpus of Christian theology than any movement since the Reformation. Indeed it was several times more violent a rupture than the Reformation. It threw orthodox theology into such disorder, and replaced its formulae with such irrelevant truisms or distortions, that theology as a reputable body of knowledge threatened to disappear. It is this destruction of organized theology that made the inter-denominational cooperation of the ecumenical movement possible. The integration of Reformed and Congregational theologies was unthinkable in any other generation. It is only the death of theological formulations in both denominations that makes such a union as the present Congregational-Reformed merger feasible.”
—PAUL B. DENLINGER, Professor, Tunghai University, Taichung, Taiwan.
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