Like most of you, I love small groups. I love the “give and take” of the discussion. I love the interaction with others. I love the questions raised and the answers discovered. But as much as you and I may love small groups, corporate worship is more important.
Someone recently commented to me that pastors are the only ones who really enjoy Sunday mornings as the high point in the week. I hope not! This individual insisted that other Christians look forward to their small groups more than corporate worship. She said it is more exciting for the congregant to be in a small group where they can ask questions, pray for others, discuss their own views, and get to know one another more intimately. I understand this sentiment and appreciate the desire to connect with others, but in all humility I would say to this well-intentioned individual, “You don’t understand the distinct privilege corporate worship is. We are communing with the saints before the holy throne of a majestic God.”
Corporate Worship Is Unique
It is on the Lord’s Day, in the Lord’s house, with the Lord’s people, meeting with the Lord that the Christian should find their greatest delight. It should be the high-point of every Christian’s week. It is unlike any other assembly; no matter how enjoyable small groups or any other gathering may be. In 1 Corinthians 11:18, we read of instructions for “when you come together as a church,” indicating that there was a unique gathering “as a church” that was not the same as a few Christians hanging out and talking about Jesus. Hebrews 10:25 commands us not to neglect meeting together (literally, “do not forsake the assembly of yourselves”). The word for “meet together,” episynagogen, refers to the formal gathering of God’s people for worship, not just friends listening to sermon downloads in the same room or engaged in an inductive bible study. God’s people gather weekly for worship. Our lives are lived from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day, as each week we long to “journey to the house of the Lord” to meet with our God and with His people.
The contention that corporate worship is not as stirring as small groups usually revolves around four complaints: it is too “pastorcentric,” passive, boring, and impersonal.
It is argued that, “As congregants, we merely sit in the pew and listen to a monologue for thirty minutes. Is the preacher the only one with a meaningful word to convey? It doesn’t seem right that one man would speak and everyone else should listen.” I would suggest that such views serve more as a reflection of our own vanity, self-importance, and individualistic Western cultural mindset than anything else? There is a reason the sermon has never been exchanged for a question and answer time. We gather to hear proclamation, not discussion. The pastor is ordained to minister the truth of God’s Word and administer His sacraments. Therefore, when he enters the pulpit, he is to speak and apply the Words of Christ to His people. The service is not “pastorcentric,” it is Christocentric. We need to hear a Word from outside of us. He is the Creator, we are the creation. He is the King, we are His subjects. He is the Head, we are the body. He speaks and we listen. Like Job, it is right and good that we would put our hands over our mouths and just listen to what the Scriptures tell us about who God is and what He requires of us (Job 40:4). Fallen human beings need the weekly routine of listening, which requires a halt to the questioning, philosophizing, and speculation we so often entertain. Mary was commended by the Lord because she chose what was best. She knew that when the Lord speaks, we are to listen, absorb, and delight in hearing His voice (Luke 10:38-42). There is a time and place for discussing and asking questions about the Word of God. It serves a real purpose, but frankly, it matters more what God has to say than what we have to say.
The second complaint lodged against corporate worship usually concerns the contention that it is too passive, whereas small groups provide more opportunity for involvement. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding of what happens in worship. Corporate worship is anything but passive. The congregation not only participates when it sings, but is to engage the prayers prayed, the confessions read, and the preaching of God’s word just as actively. In fact, every element of the service should engage our persons. We are to listen not only with our ears, but our very hearts. We are to have our minds renewed (Romans 12:2), our souls pierced (Hebrews 4:12), and apply it to our lives that we might walk in truth (1 John 1:6). This occurs by attentive, edge-of-the-seat engaged, expectant and faith-filled listening. Corporate worship is not passive! If we are attending it rightly, we should not only leave the service refreshed in Christ, but expended.
The third complaint too often lodged against corporate worship is that it is boring compared to the interaction that occurs in small groups. What is boring about meeting with the living God of the universe? Ask Isaiah if it is boring to meet with a holy God(Isaiah 6). Ask John if it is boring to commune with a glorious God (Revelation 1). Ask the saints, angels, and living creatures in heaven if it is boring to be in the presence of the God of salvation (Revelation 5:6-14). Just as they are enjoying the very presence of the Lord and it fills them with delight, so it is to be with us. As real as the people are in our small group Bible studies, so as real is God’s presence with us in corporate worship. God is meeting with us by His Word and His Spirit. There is nothing boring about that!
The fourth complaint lodged against corporate worship in favor of small groups is that it is more impersonal. No doubt, we should enjoy the fellowship with others that small groups afford. Small groups serve a real purpose. As I said, I am thankful for them. Churches suffer when there is no forum for life on life discipleship, group Bible study, and a place to ask questions. Yet, our fellowship in corporate worship is no less real. When we sing, we are not only singing unto the Lord but to one another (Colossians 3:16). When prayer is offered by a pastor or elder, we are not silent spectators. Rather, we are joining our voices together as is demonstrated by our corporate “Amen” in closing. When the sacraments are taken they not only signify and seal our communion with the Lord, but with one another (1 Corinthians 11:17-12:31). We are one body, unified in one Lord, one Spirit, and one baptism (Ephesians 4:3-6). And nothing declares that louder than our partaking of the Lord’s Table together in worship. As wonderful as shared coffee cakes, hugs, and group discussions are, they do not surpass the intimacy we enjoy and are reminded of when we partake of the body and blood of the Lord with one another.
I love small groups. Don’t misunderstand me. They serve a real purpose in most churches, but their importance cannot and does not supersede our gathering together in corporate worship. We are the church. Worship is what we do. We gather together to meet with God, to hear His Word, to partake of His sacraments, to offer Him prayers and praise, to give our offerings, to confess our sins, to hear once again His assurance of pardoning grace, to dwell with Him. And we do this together every week. It becomes the very pattern of our lives. And though routine, it is the most important and glorious aspect of our lives.