Why do we Worship Together?

In a time of global pandemic, it might seem strange to be thinking about why we worship together as Christians. Yet throughout history, despite times of war, pandemic and natural disaster, gathered in-person worship has continued to be the norm. Why is this the case, and what is the meaning of gathered worship for Christians?

Popular Reasons

Why do Christians come together to worship God? Ask ten different Christians and you might hear ten different answers. In a book called “The Lord’s Service” by Jeff Meyers, he considers four common reasons which Christians might give for meeting together.

The first reason which he considers is church as evangelism. The emphasis here is on church as a place where we can invite those who aren’t believers, with the hope that they might become Christians. Churches which emphasise this reason tend to want to make services as comfortable and accessible as possible, to ensure that people feel welcome.

The second reason which he considers is church as education. The emphasis here is on church as a place where we can learn from the bible more about the things of God. Churches which emphasise this reason tend to have longer, more detailed sermons and to orient the rest of the service around them.

The third reason which he considers is church as experience. The emphasis here is on church as a place where we come to have a deep encounter with God. Churches which emphasise this reason tend to have lots of emotional music and to avoid more complex themes in their services.

The fourth reason which he considers is church as exaltation (or praise). The emphasis here is on church as a place where we focus on what glorifies God and not what pleases us. Churches which emphasise this reason tend to be very strict about how worship should be done and are often very resistant to adapting worship to prevailing cultural trends.

Evaluation

All of these reasons represent good and important things in the life of the church. Yet none of them quite hit the mark, since all of them are things that you could do without actually meeting together in person. People can evangelise their friends, colleagues and family members in a number of contexts. They can read and study the Bible in a variety of ways through books, articles and online sermons. They can have profound experiences of God out on walks, in nature. They can praise God in a variety of ways in their private lives.

So none of the reasons given so far can really explain why it is that we come together to worship. Of course, we know it’s something that we should do. After all, we’re commanded to do it (Hebrews 10:24-25). But that doesn’t tell us why we do it.

To understand the answer to this question, we need to think a bit harder about what worship is and where it came from. If we go back to the old testament, we’ll see that time and again, God comes to relate to human beings by means of various covenants, or agreements between God and human beings. These covenants are the means by which God comes to draw near to human beings, to restore fellowship, to renew his presence among them and to form them together as his people. In short, the purpose of gathered worship is covenant renewal.

Covenant People

A lot of this was obvious to Christians in earlier ages. But today we are not used to thinking in terms of covenants. We tend to think of human beings as individuals accountable only to themselves. The concept of a covenant people, of a people whose divinely given identity is more important than their individual, self-chosen identities is not easy for us to comprehend.

Yet in the bible, the people of God are always defined by covenant. God calls Abraham out of Ur and establishes his covenant with him (Genesis 12, 15, 17). He calls Israel out of Egypt and establishes his covenant with them (Exodus 12, 19-24). He calls David from his father’s house and establishes his covenant with him (1 Samuel 16, 2 Samuel 7). Finally, he calls all nations, through Christ, to become members of a new and greater covenant established by his sacrificial death (Hebrews 8, 10).

What this means for us as Christians is that whenever we gather together as the church, we do so in order to renew covenant with God. And this requires us to actually be present with each other, as we call out to God, hear from his word, sing his praises and break bread together. In all of these acts, we are renewing our covenant identity as his people.

In a follow-up to this article, I’ll build on this by considering the implications for how we should worship together as a church.

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