If there is one great lesson I have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that for most of us Sabbath morning worship is not a luxury but a necessity. Despite the important role of modern technology, we must admit that Zoom, Facebook Live, or other digital platforms cannot replace the physical gathering of God’s people. Getting ready, dressing up, and leaving home to meet God and fellow believers is not simply a matter of form. It is an affirmation of our belief that Jesus is Lord and that we belong to the household of God.
The act of gathering together expresses a leading characteristic regarding the nature of the church—the church as a worshipping community. It is important to remember that when God calls out a people, it is for the primary purpose of worship. God made the purpose of the exodus clear to Moses thus: “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (Ex. 3:12, NIV). He repeated the same to Pharaoh: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness” (Ex. 7:16, NIV).
Likewise, the New Testament suggests that worship is the ultimate goal of salvation. At Pentecost, for instance, apostolic preaching led to mass baptisms, which were immediately followed by regular corporate worship (Acts 2:41-47).
Faith in Christ is personal, but the Christian faith is not individualistic. New Testament believers delighted in assembling together. As the community called out by God, we, too, “declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9, NIV). Therefore, we can say that the church is the result of God’s redeeming activity with worship as its ultimate purpose.
KEY ELEMENTS OF CORPORATE WORSHIP
The question is: How does the church manifest its nature in corporate worship? Acts 2:42 is often regarded as laying down the four characteristics or four pillars of the church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (NIV). This verse encapsulates four important aspects concerning the life and worship of the early church. As such, it provides an essential model for us to follow.
The Word: Through the proclamation of the gospel, God is gathering for Himself a people from every nation, tribe, people, and tongue, to the praise of His glory (Eph. 1:3-14; Rev. 14:6, 7; 7:9-17). It is through the Bible that God most distinctly speaks to us. It is no surprise, then, that the life and worship of the church is to be shaped by the Word of God. Early disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.”
Similarly, it is essential for us today to understand God’s truth by giving keen attention to the Word. The primacy of the Word unites us in Christ, preserving us from error and discord. For this reason, the Reformers insisted that worship should be “according to Scripture.” The life and worship of the church must be thoroughly Word-centered, Christ-focused, and Spirit-led.
The Fellowship: The church is not a building but a body of believers. Similarly, worship is more than a mere social gathering. Rather, it is the special sphere of God’s action on earth. God’s presence builds, fashions, and animates the church. Ellen White pointed out that “where Christ is, even among the humble few, this is Christ’s church, for the presence of the High and Holy One who inhabiteth eternity can alone constitute a church.”*
Early Christians devoted themselves to the fellowship, and so must we. As God’s people, we now have access to the Father in one Spirit through Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:18). Our fellowship with one another is tied to our fellowship with God (1 John 1:3). This commonality must lead to mutual edification. We minister to one another through preaching, singing, a word of encouragement, or simply with a smile, a hug, or a helping hand. God is glorified when we care and share, thereby revealing His power to save and to transform.
The Table: The breaking of the bread by early Christians probably refers to regular meals they had in common; the “Lord’s Supper” was celebrated as part of that larger meal. Gathered at the Lord’s table, the church expresses something of its true self as a community. The Lord’s table is a shared experience in which the church celebrates the command to take the bread and cup as it proclaims the Lord’s death until He comes (1 Cor. 11:23-26). During the Lord’s Supper we are reminded that as God’s people, we are part of salvation history that is moving toward its glorious climax.
Yet we should not limit the sharing of a meal to the Lord’s Supper. Acts 2:46 describes how the early Christians were continually “breaking bread from house to house.” Social contact around table fellowship deeply expresses our family ties, especially in an increasingly individualistic age. In this mutual communion we are reminded and reassured that we are one in Christ. For this reason regular common meals should be a priority for church members.
The Prayer: Corporate worship is more than mutual edification. When the church assembles for communal worship, it does what it has been called to do—it turns to God. The early church was a praying church because it was fully focused and dependent upon God. Paul encouraged the church to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Eph. 6:18, NIV). Furthermore, he encouraged Timothy to lead the church in “petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 2:1, NIV). Every worship service is a declaration that God deserves all the praise and glory. It is also when we confess our sin and brokenness in front of a holy and compassionate God. This vertical dimension must always predominate when we gather; otherwise the worship service degenerates into a purely human activity.
Corporate worship embodies the nature of the church. Every gathering of believers is a true manifestation of the church on earth. Assembling together is a vital necessity. We are admonished in Hebrews 10:25 not to give up “meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing , but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (NIV). Strengthened in corporate worship, we become witnesses to the power of the gospel (Acts 2:47).
* Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1993), vol. 17, p. 81.