What is the content of corporate Christian worship?

What is the content of corporate Christian worship?  Is there a specific job description, or are there particular ingredients that should be present?  Is sincerity enough, or can one be sincerely wrong?  Whatever else may be said about corporate worship, the obvious inference is that we should do corporate things; otherwise, there is no valid reason to gather.  One can stay home and listen to the greatest preachers, hear the most inspiring music, and read the finest prayers.  The corporate worship gathering, in broad terms, should consist of corporate revelation, corporate response, and corporate reenactment.  In specific terms, it should utilize corporate declaration, corporate music, corporate prayer and corporate action.

Corporate Revelation
Revelation refers to the intentional presentation and declaration of Truth.  Corporate revelation, then, means that the gathered Believers will both participate and experience the reading and teaching of Scripture.  The retelling and teaching of God’s grand story should be done in many ways and forms, one of which includes the sermon.  Churches should encourage and facilitate additional forms of declaration if worship is to be truly corporate.  Leaders must knowingly and strategically put Truth into the mouths, minds and hearts of worshipers.

The Bible models many types of corporate revelation, which can be either imitated or adapted.  Psalm 29:1-2, for example, incites worshipers to:

Ascribe to the LORD, O sons of the mighty,
Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due to His name;
Worship the LORD in holy array.

The New Testament, too, contains various examples of corporate declaration.  1 Timothy 3:16 affirms:
By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness:
He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.

Scholar and author Ralph Martin notes that the Early Church’s confessions of faith tended to be expressed in “short, simple sentences like ‘Jesus is the Christ’, or ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’, whereas their hymns represent a longer statement of the Person and work of Christ (Phil 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20).”   Corporate declaration also occurred through something as simple as the congregational “Amen” (1 Cor 14.16).  Truth in the form of testimony is an additional corporate act for which the Apostle Paul affirms Timothy: “you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Tim 6:12).  In addition to Scripture, Church history has produced various corporate confessions such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, which are excellent ways to involve the gathered believers in declaration.  The public speaking of doctrine can be both unifying and affirming.

There are a variety of ways to orchestrate the public speaking of Truth.  The phrase-by-phrase repetition of small verses, such as Romans 12:1 or Galatians 2:20, is a great way to help people speak and identify with the Word of God.  Also, one might ask people to open their Bibles to the book of Psalms and begin reading aloud the phrases of praise.  The reading and explaining of Scripture (Neh 8:1-9; 1 Tim 4:13; Acts 20:7) is another way the gathered Believers declare the nature and goodness of God.  When not read corporately, the gathered Believers must actively and vigilantly engage in hearing Scripture, listening for the overtones of God in his spoken Word.

Symbolically (and historically), corporate revelation has also taken place through both Baptism and especially Communion.  In these acts, God’s story of atonement and redemption are retold.  Also, many Churches have discovered and utilized the Arts as a delivery system for Truth.  Additionally, incorporating the many Christian symbols, calendar and traditions history that has provided for us will help transform the corporate gathering from a concert/lecture to a truly shared expression of Scripture and Truth.

Corporate Response
What should people do when they gather for worship?  They should do corporate things, of course!  (This is not rocket science!)  Yet this is often not the case.  Evangelical corporate worship is frequently designed to be an individual experience in a crowded room.  In contrast, as has been discussed, corporate worship is distinct from individual and lifestyle worship; it has different purposes and requirements.

Music is an incredibly effective tool for corporate response.  As people sing, they enter into an alternate time, that of the song, in which mind, soul, and emotion intertwine.  Sung Truth is digested in a more wholistic way than intellect only.  Synergy happens when Truth is artistically joined to melody, wherein both are energized and effective. Music seems to function as a vehicle that delivers Truth to the heart.  At the same time, it provides an appropriate avenue of response to that Truth by combining both mind and emotion in praise to God.  Is there a spirit-truth connection here?

Grenz writes that music is effectual in that it can incorporate both the cognitive and the non-cognitive aspects of life, by giving voice to “what cannot be said through words alone.”   There are few other activities that involve body, soul, mind and emotion. Harold Best speaks of the usefulness  in church music, rather than style or variety.  Accordingly, Donald Hustad suggests the term “functional Church Music,” which he defines as music that serves both a vertical purpose (glorifying God) and a horizontal purpose (edification) .  Quality in Church music is a difficult thing to measure, in light of the function it serves in the corporate setting.  In this regard, James White warns that a church’s music repertoire must be in accordance with the congregation’s culture and context, or the choosing can become elitist .

Examples of Music are scattered throughout the New Testament record (Matt. 26:30; 1 Cor 14:26; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), and are generally a continuation many Old Testament worship practices (Exod 15:1-18).  These New Testament references to music, cited above, were employing mostly creedal material or Scripture as its lyrics.  Today, contemporary worship songs more closely resemble individual prayers, and tend to function as such, rather than theology set to music.  It is important to note the tone and function of corporate music, so that it can be placed and utilized appropriately.

Music is not worship, but is merely a means of worship.  It is, however, difficult to maintain this perspective in a society that is addicted to music, wherein many define themselves according to their preferred musical style.  While many in earlier generations chose a Church according to its theology or preaching, many in the current Christian culture choose a Church according to its musical style.  Musical style is a secondary issue; music does not deserve equal consideration with more central discussions of worship philosophy and theology. Many have been taught (by osmosis) that worship means to stand and sing, and that Church should satisfy their limited and age-identifying music and worship experiences.  Millions end-up disappointed and detached from the Body of Christ.  Alternately, Churches may feel saddled with the weekly task of reenacting a Christian Rock concert in order to attract these whom they misguided in the first place.  They effectively alienate factions of the Body who do not relate to their music “flavor of the day.”

A word of caution is in order.  Music, in the hands of a skilled leader, can be used as a tool of manipulation, rather than for glorifying God.  Hustad is convinced that church music falls short of its high purpose “when ethos is its principal meaning, or when, for persuasion purposes, it resorts to excessive invitation to manipulation.”   Manipulation of tempo, well-placed key-changes, groove, a flowing play-list, and repetition are musical tools that are sometimes employed to get people to “feel it,” or to “enter in.”  This feeling may or may not arise from the Spirit of God, necessitating discernment on the parts of the worshiper and worship leader.

Prayer and Meditation
Historically, prayer was employed to rehearse God’s attributes and actions before the congregation.  Biblically, prayers of intercession (1 Thess 5:25; 1 Tim 2:1-4), confession (Luke 11:4), praise and adoration (Matt 6:9), supplication and thanksgiving (Phil. 4:6) are all appropriate modes of addressing God.  Corporate prayer, however, can be a somewhat messy corporate action, and many churches avoid the difficulties in a variety of ways, including having one person pray (while others hopefully pray along) or by using prepared or memorized prayers.  It should be noted that much of the language in contemporary worship songs, as noted above, functions as prayer.  Though the language is not usually corporate, the group singing of this repertoire does resemble many aspects of corporate prayer.
The employment of litanies, such as Psalm 136, is another excellent way to involve the gathered worshipers, and is used in many liturgical services.  Also, the corporate employment of silence and lamentation are two biblical but sometimes underutilized instruments of corporate prayer.  The plethora of lamentation in Scripture bears witness to its importance (two-thirds of the Psalms are laments).  Saliers underscores the use of lamentation by warning that praise and thanksgiving become shallow in the absence of rage over suffering and injustice.  His warning has great bearing on the design of corporate worship.  Without the inclusion of lament, the life and worship of the Church will bear little resemblance to real life, and may possibly be interpreted as hype to outsiders.

Scriptural admonitions to use meditation are also abundant, as in Josh 1:8. In graduate school this author’s roommate was a geologist, as evidenced by the constant sound of the rock-tumbler in our closet.  The memory of that rock-tumbler has become to me a symbol of meditation: the slow and constant turning-over of a thought or idea.  White champions this use of silence, but warns that its best use is dependant upon discipline.  He suggests that silence comes to be fully corporate by being directed in such a way that all worshipers focus together “in confessing sin, reflecting on a lesson just read, or offering intercession.”  In this way, he says that even meditation can be intensely communal.  The aspiring worship leader will need to give much effort to ensure that corporate prayer, including silence, is both authentic and truly corporate.

Symbolic Action
Symbolic Acts help to anchor the worship event between the “already” and the “not yet,” and characterizes the Christian gathering as a community of both memory and hope.  Grenz believes one purpose of the Christian gathering was to “commemorate the foundational events of our spiritual existence, at the center of which is the action of God in Christ delivering humankind from the bondage of sin.”  Corporate worship, then, uses symbolic actions to both remember (I Cor 11:25) and anticipate (I Cor 11:26), thus keeping God’s story in the forefront of the believer’s experience.

As Christians endeavor to worship in both “Spirit and Truth,” they realize that there is a physical side of being spiritual.  Robert Webber states that the nature of faith “demands the transformation of supernatural concepts into visible images and symbols.”  Symbolism must be appropriated to communicate, because finite language is not capable of expressing supernatural truth.  Underhill observes that every society with a religious consciousness gives concrete expressions to their beliefs through both ritual and institutional acts.  She further explains that these concrete expressions have a social nature and a two-fold quality (visible and invisible), showing that they belong to two worlds (sense and spirit).  Human Beings naturally employ rituals, signs and symbols in order to incarnate their response to God.

A problem inherent in expressing worship to a Being Who is wholly other-than, is that Humans must use that-which-is-finite to express that-which-is-infinite.  In his essay entitled “Transposition,” C. S. Lewis describes the difference in these two realities as the difference between hearing an orchestral piece as it was intended and then hearing it in its reduced state, played as a piano reduction.  He observes “If the richer system is to be represented in the poorer at all, this can only be by giving each element in the poorer system more than one meaning.”  Lewis’ observations describe well the process of Symbolic Action.  In worship, Humans employ words, objects and elements that have an original intent or meaning, and then inject an additional fresh or representative significance into them.

Liturgy almost always employs the use of sign and symbol.  For purposes of definition, a sign usually points to something, does not look like what it represents, and may not be biblically based.  It is something that indicates or expresses the existence of something else not immediately apparent.  In other words, it points beyond itself, like the Nike stripe.  When one sees the logo, one is reminded of either the slogan (“just do it”) or of the shoes themselves.  Church history is replete with the use of signs; as marks of affiliation (the fish), prayer (hands), resurrection (the phoenix bird) and baptism (the scallop shell), among many others.  These signs referred to, or reminded people who knew the code of, a certain piece of information.

Alternately, a ‘symbol’ can be defined as something that stands in for or “represents something else, especially an object representing an abstraction.”  Leonard VanderZee maintains that while the sign bears no necessary relation to that to which it points, the “symbol participates in the reality of that for which it stands.”  One may think of a symbol like a stunt-double: it stands-in for the real thing in order to represent the presence of that thing.  Underhill believes that the importance of symbols is that they enable worshipers to “apprehend spiritual reality.”  Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann proposes that the purpose and function of the symbol is not to illustrate but rather to manifest and to communicate what is manifested.  Schmemann adds, “the symbol does not so much resemble the reality that it symbolizes as it participates in it, and therefore it is capable of communicating it in reality.”

Protestants have a natural discomfort with medieval piety, and many have little experience with the notion of symbolic acts.  Yet, some acts are regularly present in many Protestant churches today.  Biblically physical actions, like the lifting of hands (1 Tim 2:8) and the collection of alms (1 Cor 16:1,2) are utilized to various extents in many churches, as is the handshake, sometimes substituted for the passing of the peace of Christ.  Both of these symbolic actions (handshake and passing of peace) may be an adaptation of the holy kiss (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20), which originally represented the exchange of pneuma (the Spirit of Christ in me greets the Spirit of Christ in you) in the early church.
Participation in Communion is also a symbolic act, and represents participation in the New Covenant (Luke 22:19).  Additionally, the ritualistic use of water to baptize has historically referred variously to a bath (sanctifying), burial (destroying/redemption) or birth (salvation/life-giving).  Biblical categories with references are as follows:
Bath (Sanctification)
-A sign of repentance or ritual cleansing (Luke 3:3; 1 Cor 6:11)
-Preparation for the Messiah (John 1:23)
-A sign of belief (Col 2:12)
Burial (Redemption)
-Death to self (Rom 6:3-4)
-An escape from bondage (1 Cor 10:1-6)
-Unites to the death of Christ (Rom 6:3-4)
Birth (Salvation)
-New birth (John 3:5-7)
-Entrance into the new covenant (Col 2:12)
-Initiation into the Christian Community (1 Cor 12:13)

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