Worship III: The gathering-thinking afresh about church

In this third and final essay in the series, Tony Payne looks at how the Bible describes our Christian gatherings, and what practical difference it might make.

If not ‘worship’, then what?

That is the question we left ourselves with at the conclusion of the first two essays in this series (in Briefings #299 and #301). If ‘worship’ is neither the most biblical nor the most pragmatically helpful terminology to apply to our church meetings, what is? And what difference do these sorts of distinctions make in practice?

It is customary at this point for me to say something like: “Now let us turn to the Bible to find answers to these questions”, and indeed that is what we will soon do. But it is important to remember that we turn to God’s word on these matters not merely out of instinct or habit, or because it is the accepted thing to do in our circles, but because on this subject (as much as any other), our thinking is likely to be distorted, mistaken and ruined by our fallen humanity and by the worldly ideas that infiltrate our thinking. In the first essay of our series, we saw how the early church quite quickly lost touch with some key elements of the New Testament’s teaching about church and ministry. “How incredible”, we might think, “hardly a generation passed, and they’re already going off the rails”. But it is quite credible, as the New Testament itself shows repeatedly. It took the Galatians hardly any time at all to earn Paul’s rebuke (“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”—Gal 3:1). Or for the Corinthians to be in danger of being led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ (2 Cor 11:3). Or for the churches of Revelation 1-3 to earn the rebuke of the risen Christ for their compromise and apostasy.

As we approach the Bible, then, we should do so humbly, aware of our limitations, and ready to allow God’s word to correct us.

The God who gathers

Needless to say, surveying the Bible’s teaching on this important subject is an ambitious exercise, and one which cannot be done adequately, or at least in sufficient detail, in this short space. It is not simply a matter of looking up everywhere that the word ‘church’ appears (although that would keep us occupied well enough), because the concept of God’s people getting together or being ‘gathered’ obviously occurs in many places in the Bible where the word ‘church’ is not used. Nor is the Bible the kind of book that summarizes its teaching for us under neat headings (‘church, purpose and nature of, see p. 465’).

The place to start is with God himself and what he is like. The Christian God is himself a ‘church’, in one sense, an eternal relationship of three persons in one God. When we affirm that God is love, we are saying not only that God loves us, and the world he has made, but that he is love within his own being. The Father, Son and Spirit dwell with and in each other, in an eternal relationship of love.

It is no surprise, then, that in creating mankind in his image, God creates us to be relational—to be the kind of creatures that love, and are most fully human when we are loving God and our neighbour.

Both in creating humanity, and in redeeming it, God’s purposes have always had this relational and corporate shape to them. His judgement upon humanity at the Tower of Babel was to scatter them, and his salvation, as promised to Abraham, was to form for himself a people, a great nation, who would be a blessing to all the families of the earth.

Thereafter, throughout the Old Testament, we often see God saving by gathering, and judging by scattering. To be brought together around God, and in relationship with his people—that was salvation—the classic example being the gathering of Israel around God at Mt Sinai.1

Conversely, the essence of judgment was to be scattered abroad amongst the godless, to be cut off from his people and his presence. Just as the Exodus gathering at Mt Sinai was the classic Old Testament picture of salvation, so the dispersion of Israel among the nations (the ‘Exile’) was the ultimate expression of God’s judgement of his people.

Correspondingly, the hope of the prophets was that God would one day re-assemble the remnant of Israel. Isaiah prophesies:

He will raise a signal for the nations and will assemble the banished of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth (Isa 11:12).

And along with redeemed Israel, he will also gather the nations:

The Lord God who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered” (Isa 56:8).

These themes and expectations are gloriously fulfilled in the New Testament, as Christ comes to “build my church” (Matt 16:18), to “purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). He comes to draw together a great throng of people from every nation and tongue who, through his atoning death, will stand together before the throne and before the Lamb and cry out, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:10). This great gathering, this ‘church’,2 consists of those who have been united spiritually with Christ, who have been raised up to sit with him in the heavenly places (Eph 2:6; Col 3:1), and who will one day experience the full reality of that gathering in the resurrection. In both parallel and contrast with the Exodus church in the desert at Mt Sinai, Christians have already drawn near to God in the joyful church of the firstborn in the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb 12:18-24).

We are called into membership of this heavenly and spiritual gathering through the gospel. And it is on the basis of our membership of this spiritual gathering in Christ that we gather locally and at particular times and places.3 We do this naturally and spontaneously, as the Spirit draws us together. However, we also need to be exhorted to continue to meet together (as in Heb 10:25), because of our ongoing sinfulness and stubbornness.

What is important to realize, however, is that the basic ‘why’ of our local, visible gatherings is our logically prior membership of the spiritual gathering which Christ is building. We get together locally, here and now, because we are already together spiritually in Christ. We belong to each other because we all belong to Christ. And so we come together now because it would be unthinkable for us not to—like a choir that never assembled to sing, or a sporting team that never met to play, or a family that never got together to eat and talk and share news.

This also fits with God’s very nature, and his purpose for us as relational creatures. He made us to be creatures of love, to relate to him in love as our Father, and to relate to each other in love as his children. Having become members of Christ’s assembly, his church that he is building by drawing people throughout the world to himself in salvation, we now get together to relate to one another in love and to Christ who draws us together.

The rationale, then, for our earthly, local Christian gatherings (or ‘churches’), whenever they might meet and however they might be arranged, is simply to gather together in love around Christ, to share and speak with each other and him, to love each other and him, to engage in common activities that help each other.

Our gatherings then are not purely pragmatic exercises, mere edification clubs that exist for a practical purpose (because we all are sinful and need encouragement). Nor are they aggregations of individualistic Christians, who get together because they’re told to and because there are some benefits, but who would be just as happy on their own. Christianity is profoundly anti-individualistic. Christians get together because we belong together, now and eternally, in a loving fellowship with God in Christ by his Spirit. As we do so, we seek to love each other by ensuring that what we do together is helpful and edifying—whether eating together, or praying together, or listening to God together, or whatever it might be. But the reality of our union with Christ through the gospel, our membership of his heavenly gathering, is the ‘reason’ for going to church on Sunday. As D. B. Knox puts it:

We come to church because we are already in fellowship and we wish to give actuality to it, so that having come together, we do together the things we would otherwise be doing separately, e.g. praying, praising and listening to God’s word …4

The things we do together will flow from the nature of the fellowship that we share, with God and each other. There will be a variety of activities, some addressed to God, some addressed to one another, for we are together in relationship—God and us. In 1 Corinthians, for example, we see the Christians eating together (described as the Lord’s Dinner or Supper), praying and prophesying together, giving thanks, teaching one another, and sharing with each other hymns, lessons, revelations, tongues and interpretations. The criterion for evaluating and conducting these activities is ‘edification’. As Paul says to the Corinthians: “Since you are so eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up (‘edifying’) the church” (1 Cor 14:12).

The New Testament doesn’t provide any one definitive word or metaphor to summarize its teaching about Christian gatherings. In fact, the apostles’ writings are notable for the wide range of images and metaphors used to describe different facets of our corporate life (e.g. a household, a temple, a building, a field, the body of Christ, vine and branches, one new man, and so on). Some have called the view we have articulated a ‘fellowship’ model, or an ‘edification’ model, or a ‘congregational’ model of thinking about church. As cover-all descriptions, all of these have strengths as well as inadequacies.5 For the purposes of this essay (and until a better suggestion is made), I will refer to the position outlined above simply as a ‘gathered in heaven’ model of church—that church is a loving gathering with God and each other here on earth, on the basis that, through his Son and in fulfilment of his promise, God has gathered his elect to himself from the four winds, to be a spiritual assembly around his throne in heaven. We gather here because we’re gathered around Christ. Both aspects are essential.6 We have a common life together, and meet together, and share in activities with one another because of the fellowship we have with the Father through the Son in the Spirit. To use another important New Testament metaphor, our gatherings are to the heavenly Christ as a body is to its head.

What difference does it make?

Let us assume, for the sake of the argument, that in this essay (and the previous two) I have proved the point: that we should stop calling church ‘worship’, and thinking about it under that category, and that we would do better to adopt a ‘gathered in heaven’ model to think about our church meetings.

The next and pressing question is: What difference does it make? If it is all semantics, a word game—akin to finally determining whether tomatoes should be labelled as vegetables or fruit—then we would be justified in proclaiming the whole exercise a royal waste of time. We’re going to eat them just the same, aren’t we?

But names and definitions are often important, especially in so far as they shape our thinking about something, and thus our actions. As we’ve already argued, maintaining the language and categories of worship has serious consequences.

Most significantly, it characterizes our meetings as basically man-to-God occasions, for that is what worship is: it is offering something to God (whether honour or submission or a sacrifice). Every time we speak of church in terms of ‘worship’, or of the ‘service’ that we are attending (for ‘service’ is just another name for ‘worship’), we orient our meetings in a certain direction—from the assembled worshippers to God via a mediator of some kind, whether a priest or a singer. This is simply not the way the Bible thinks about church, as I hope we’ve seen.

And this is hardly a peripheral or non-existent issue. With the ever-present Catholic error on one side (of seeing church primarily as a private mystical worship experience) and the burgeoning charismatic error on the other (of seeing church as a corporate ecstatic worship experience), evangelicals need clear teaching and example on this subject. They need a way of thinking and talking about church that expresses clearly what the New Testament teaches.

The ‘gathered in heaven’ model provides this. It avoids the negative consequences of the ‘worship’ model, while promoting the central emphases of the New Testament’s teaching about church—that God has gathered his people to himself in Christ, and that we gather together here and now on this basis, with Christ in our midst, to fellowship with him and with one another, with the practical effect of stirring one another up to love and good works.

What are the positive, practical consequences of this way of thinking? I would like to consider two in some detail, and then mention two others briefly.

Firstly, it liberates us with regard to form. One of the historical consequences of the ‘worship’ model has been the development of certain acceptable forms of public worship. These differ from denomination to denomination, but the impetus for them has largely been the same—that if we are going to worship God together, we had better make good and sure that we are doing it right, that the appropriate steps are followed, and that everything is done with a suitable degree of formality.

Thus, the ‘worship’ service, in most of our denominations, is a formal public religious event, at which we approach God and relate to him through a certain set form of activities, usually consisting of some combination of songs, Bible readings, prayers, a sermon, and the Lord’s Supper, conducted over a period of an hour to an hour and a half, followed by light refreshments.

Even in evangelical churches where the ‘worship’ language is consciously avoided, we very often continue to run ‘services’ of this kind, if not in name then in structure. Unfortunately, these ‘non-worship services’ (if I can call them that) have a habit of being somewhat flat and predictable. And no wonder. We have stripped away the baubles of Catholic churchmanship, and we have consciously avoided the cheap thrills of emotionalism. Yet what are we left with? The structure of a ‘worship service’, minus the colour and movement, that neither feels like we have ascended to the heights of heaven (which a good ‘worship meeting’ aims to do) nor gives a very great sense of connection and participation with each other.

Were we to embrace a more New Testament way of thinking about church, it would free us to do all manner of things in our meetings that we currently do not even consider possible—things which few would consider fitting in a ‘service of worship’, but which would be entirely appropriate for a group of people who were gathering with one another and their Lord because he has in his person and work already gathered us to himself by faith. (See box below for some examples.)

We could consider, for example, why we have an ‘order of service’ at all. Why have a ‘formal’ part of the meeting, followed by an ‘informal’? Why not just get together for two or three hours over a meal, or over morning tea, and have people bring their words and ideas and revelations and testimonies to contribute, which are put together on the morning at the discretion of leaders/teachers? Why have one sermon? Why not have two or three, of different length and nature, with a range of instruction, exhortation, encouragement and dialogue? Why is this sort of gathering simply not a possibility in our thinking (even though it bears more than a passing resemblance to church meetings described in the New Testament)?

Do not mishear me: informality is not inherently better than ‘formality’; spontaneity is not more blessed than preparedness; and leadership and good order are necessary in all things. But I cannot help wondering, given the enormous human creativity and variety we bring to our gatherings in other contexts (think how many different ways people run parties), why we only ever ‘do church’ in the same way. Given that there are a hundred different forms and ways in which a bunch of redeemed humans could get together, to share, to fellowship, to speak the truth in love to one another, to commune with each other and God—why is the way we do it so limited in range?

My suspicion is that it is because we have never escaped the mental model of church as ‘worship’, in which the meeting is a public religious worship-event of set form.

Secondly, a ‘gathered in heaven’ model liberates us to experience genuine emotion in our gatherings. This may seem a strange thing to say. But one of the inherent problems of the ‘worship’ model is that emotion becomes a loaded category. Because the purpose of the meeting is to approach God and to worship him, the presence or absence of emotion becomes crucial. This is because a heightened emotional state is usually seen (wrongly) as an indication that we have been in God’s presence to worship him, that we have experienced the ‘touch of God’. It is no wonder that, given this context, evangelicals have become wary of emotional expression in our meetings. We do not wish to promote the idea that a sense of euphoria, whether engendered by exhilarating singing to a 10-piece band or by an achingly beautiful canticle sung by a cathedral choir, is the means by which we encounter God. And so we keep the lid on fairly tight.

However, where God is already present in Christ through his Spirit, and we are with each other to relate to him and to one another, emotional expressions of various kinds are normal and appropriate, as they are in any gathering of humans. There will doubtless be moments of high emotion—it would be strange if there weren’t—and they will usually come unbidden and unexpected, such as happened in our congregation a few weeks ago when one of our missionaries was returning overseas, and we were saying goodbye. It was heart-wrenching, because by the tears in their eyes, and the words that they spoke, we all knew that they wanted to go back to Africa to keep preaching the gospel, but were desperately sad to leave us and Australia. As when Paul said goodbye to the Ephesian elders at Miletus, there was much weeping. And they were good tears.

These moments of genuine emotion, of tears and laughter and joy and love, will arise as we gather together, with God and each other. They do not need to be engineered, but neither should they be avoided. The more ‘normal’ our meetings are, in the sense of being a gathering of redeemed friends around their Lord, rather than a formal religious worship-event, the more likely we are to experience quite naturally the genuine emotions of Christian experience together.

There are two other practical advantages to a ‘gathered in heaven’ model of church that I will mention only briefly:

  • It liberates us with regard to buildings and layout. A worship event needs a certain kind of facility, one which promotes a worship experience, whether the numenal mysticism of the cathedral, with its vaulted ceilings and awesome silence; or the pumped up emotion of the charismatic mega-church, with its state-of-the-art sound and lighting. The Christian ‘gathering’ does not need to create any sort of atmosphere or experience, apart from that required for a group of people to be together, to be able to speak to each other and hear each other. Nor is it restricted in the layout of the space. The seating does not all have to face the front in rows. Depending on the size of the meeting, and the space available, it could be more ‘in the round’, or at tables.
  • It also allows us to give proper emphasis to all the relationships in our meetings: from God to us in Christ, from us to God, and from us to each other. It quite naturally promotes contribution and participation by those who are gathered, without removing the ‘God-ness’ of what we are doing, since he is fully present in our gathering. Indeed, because of what he has done for us in Jesus Christ, we are already ‘gathered’, in relationship with him and each other before we arrive at the meeting. It provides a way of thinking about church that may allow us to recapture that element of New Testament gatherings that is so absent from so many of ours, the sense that people came to church with something to contribute (a word, a revelation, a prophecy), and shared it for the common good.

Concluding thoughts

There is a great deal else we could discuss, of course, in relation to church, and the implications of the Bible’s teaching about it. And even the ground we have covered doubtless requires further discussion and thought. We have not touched upon how one local gathering ought to relate to others (the question of denominations), nor have we talked about how our local gatherings might be structured and organized (as all groups of humans tend to be). We haven’t explored how the view of church expounded above relates to other views, nor interacted with those who have criticized it. These must wait for another time.7

What is important for our purposes here is to affirm what the New Testament affirms: that churches are ‘gatherings’ which we attend not only for practical reasons, to do certain things (such as edify one another), but more profoundly because there is a unity between us, a shared spiritual reality between us in Christ, that makes it untenable for us to remain apart. And once gathered, what we do together will be shaped by the heavenly fellowship we have with God in Christ, as he is present with us in his Word by his Spirit.

Different ways to be together

Have you ever pondered, in those moments in church when your mind starts to wander, that almost all of the hundreds or thousands of church ‘services’ you have attended have been almost exactly the same? I don’t mean in the topics addressed, or in the effect upon you personally. I mean in form. This is curious, is it not? Why are we not capable of more creativity?

Let’s allow our minds to imagine some other possibilities; a blank sheet of paper. If a group of 120 Christians were going to assemble together each week, to gather around Christ, what different things might they do that would pass the edification test? And how might they do them? There are no doubt countless answers, but here are five that quickly came to my mind:

  1. The meal-based meeting. The congregation gathers together around tables for a meal, and breaks bread in remembrance of Christ’s death. They talk about life in the past week, and about how things are going. After main course, they pause for a Bible reading, followed by a 10-minute introduction by the pastor to the main issues in the passage, followed by discussion at the tables about these issues, followed by a sharing of insights and questions arising from the discussion, and then a 15-minute wrap-up and exhortation by the pastor. There’s time then for individuals to share their thoughts and reactions with the group, before a time of extended prayer at the tables. Then there’s dessert and coffee, and more discussion.
  2. The in-depth study meeting. The focus of this gathering is on coming to grips with a difficult or complex topic or Bible passage. The passage is handed out on a piece of paper, along with paper for notes, and the outline of a sermon. There’s time given to reading the passage, to marking it and scribbling down questions, to some teaching from the pastor, to discussion in informal buzz groups, as well as to asking questions, and discussing the implications. Other elements are included (songs, prayer, morning tea), but the focus, for that meeting, is on coming to grips with mind-stretching Bible teaching.
  3. The training meeting. This meeting focuses on some practical issue of Christian godliness or ministry. It opens with a song and an open prayer time (using microphones stationed at a few places in the meeting space). Then Speaker 1 speaks from a relevant passage, and Speaker 2 addresses in detail some practical, real-life applications. The group then breaks for coffee and muffins, and an informal discussion of the issues, before coming back together to question the two speakers. There is a concluding prayer time, and a song.
  4. The family meeting. The congregation arrives around 9:30 am for a kid-friendly morning tea. At 10, they do something all together: sing some songs, learn a Bible verse together, play a game, have a short talk, the kids do a presentation, and so on—focused on a particular Bible passage. At 10:50, there’s a short break while the kids move to a separate building. Then between 11 and 12, the adults focus on the Bible passage for the day—discuss it together, hear a sermon on it, pray about it, sing about it—while the kids do the same in their own format. Then at 12, there’s a family sausage sizzle, with cricket in the pastor’s backyard.
  5. The missionary meeting. This gathering focuses on a particular country where congregational missionaries are working—for example, a ‘Tanzanian’ morning, where we sing a Tanzanian song, eat some Tanzanian food together, work through a day in the life of our missionaries, hear a talk from the Bible on mission and God’s work in the world, pray for the missionaries, and get them on the phone during the meeting.

I am not suggesting for a minute that these should become a new set of standard ‘services’, or that they would work equally well for every congregation, or that there aren’t many other possibilities that I haven’t the wit to think of. My point is that these five ideas—as preliminary as they are—would not be considered valid or possible, as forms for meeting together, by the vast majority of evangelical churches today. The very possibility of meeting in these ways would not be considered.

My question is: Why not? I suspect the answer is that we are locked into a ‘worship’ model of thinking about our gatherings from which we have yet to escape. If we were whole-heartedly to embrace a ‘gathering around Christ’ model, with edification as the criterion for assessing our activities, it would free us to do all manner of helpful and encouraging things that we currently exclude from our thinking. Certain things, such as preaching and teaching, would still need to be central—but the form in which the teaching was delivered, and by whom it was delivered, is surely capable of being done in a great variety of ways which we currently ignore.


1 Described by Moses as the “day of the assembly” or ‘church’, in Deut 18:16, and referred to by Stephen as the “church in the wilderness” in Acts 7:38.

2 The basic meaning of the Greek word ekklesia, usually translated in our Bibles as ‘church’, is ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly’. It is an ordinary, rather than special religious word, and was used in this way by the New Testament authors (e.g. Acts 19:32; Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 14:19). The overwhelming majority of New Testament references to ‘church’ thus speak of a particular gathering or assembly of people in a particular place, whether in Jerusalem or in Priscilla and Aquila’s house or in heaven around God’s throne. For further discussion on this point,see our online web extras.

3 The idea of a heavenly or spiritual church, which is universal and invisible, and which is manifested with appropriate limitations in the local and visible gatherings of Christians, is an idea with an ancient pedigree in Christian thought. Augustine first spoke of it, and it was developed in various ways in the Reformation by Luther and Calvin as a way of denying what Roman Catholicism taught, namely that the visible, institutional Church of Rome was to be identified as the true, universal, church of Christ.

4 Church and ministry: Selected words of D. B. Knox, Vol II, Sydney: Matthias Media, 2003, pp. 218-9.

5 ‘Fellowship’ is a very strong candidate conceptually, but has the disadvantage of never being applied in the New Testament to Christian gatherings. Given that this is one of the criticisms levelled at the modern use of ‘worship’ language, ‘fellowship’ can hardly be a suitable replacement. ‘Edification’ is a good summary of the practical purpose of our gatherings, but lacks the strong connection that the New Testament makes between our earthly gatherings and our spiritual communion with Christ. ‘Congregational’ has similar problems, combined with an historical connection with a certain form of church polity.

6 If we over-emphasize the heavenly, eschatological gathering, the earthly gathering loses significance, and becomes marginal, even optional. Conversely, if we allow the earthly gathering to be too closely identified with the heavenly, we end up with the triumphalist earthly church of Roman Catholicism. The earthly church reflects and anticipates the heavenly church, but its true nature is not revealed until the Day of the Lord. Until then, our earthly gatherings remain mixed, imperfect and marked by suffering.

7 See this month’s web extras for some additional resources and discussion about some of these issues: ‘ More on the meaning of “church”’.

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