In every aspect of our corporate worship, music has become synonymous with worship. At our Baptist colleges and seminaries, getting a worship degree means being a music major and not a theology major. I will not attempt to explore why we have conflated music and worship. Instead, I would like to explore what worship actually is with the hope that we can begin to shift our perspectives. I firmly believe the biblical idea of worship is the fulfilling of God’s purpose for humanity, nothing more and nothing less.
We must define our terms before we can begin to delve into a good theology of worship. When the word “worship” is used, we often intend it to mean corporate worship. In the most narrow sense of the word, we mean the music portion of our corporate worship services. Corporate worship is a vital part of any local congregation of believers. It encompasses so much more than music. The corporate worship service is one of the few times when the local body of believers gathers together for prayer, fellowship, and mutual encouragement. The rest of the week, they are scattered to their homes, schools, and places of business. At most, the congregation gathers just a few times during the week. I believe corporate worship to be the most important purpose of the local congregation. I know the church has many purposes and they are all of greatest importance. However, all the other purposes of the church (evangelism, discipleship, missions, fellowship, etc.) are best accomplished outside of the meeting of the local church. Corporate worship is when the body gathers for the singular purpose of worshiping God together.
If we can begin to shift our thinking and subsequently our vocabulary on what corporate worship actually is, we may begin to make better use of our corporate worship times. Worship in the corporate setting is wholistic from the moment someone walks into the worship space until the final benediction and amen. Worship includes not only congregational song but also prayer, the reading of God’s word, exhortation and preaching, confession, fellowship, giving, and communion/eucharist (Acts 2:42-27).
By contrast, individual worship is what every regenerate disciple of Christ should be doing every hour of every day, in and out of corporate worship. We need to look to the Old Testament to truly understand the concept of individual worship. The early chapters of Genesis lay the foundation for what individual worship was originally intended to be. God appointed the first humans as keepers of creation and tenders of the garden where they lived. By fulfilling that purpose, they were practicing individual worship. Adam and Eve were worshipping God by simply doing their job. Anything we might perceive as an act of worship (communion and fellowship with God) was an outpouring of their ability to fulfill their God-given purpose.
Individual worship became much more difficult after the Fall since all of creation was marred by sin. The Holiness Code and Law Code, outlined in the Pentateuch, became the guideline by which men and women were to fulfill their personal duty of worshiping their creator. What we must understand is the distinctive worldview of ancient Israel compared to our modern worldview to fully grasp this. Israel held to the belief of sacred and profane things, people, and spaces. Certain animals were off limits because they were unclean. Certain life situations barred people from public worship because those situations made them unclean. Some actions led people to be considered unclean. The Tabernacle/Temple represented God’s presence among Israel and was the epitome of a sacred space. An Israelite had to be ceremonial clean before they could enter the Tabernacle/Temple space. Because of this distinction between clean and unclean (or sacred/profane and holy/unholy), any act of life that did not make one unclean could be considered an act of worship. The farmer tending his fields, the shepherd watching his flocks, and the mother lovingly caring for her children were all worshiping God by their actions. Every aspect of life that was not profane/unclean was within the realm of individual worship.
In our modern context, we have lost this view of life. We now dichotomize everything into sacred and secular. Corporate worship is sacred. Work, family, school, and every other aspect of life is secular. We wonder why people go out from corporate worship and live their lives without any sense of personal holiness and sacred devotion. I believe the distinction between secular and sacred is where the problem lies. Once corporate worship is dismissed, our church members go out into their secular world without any sense of the sacred. They have no concept of true, individual worship because worship is limited to the weekly gathering of believers. We must teach our congregations that all of life is sacred and devoted to God. Only in those areas of our lives where we are out of bounds of God’s will are we not involved in individual worship.
What is Worship – Marrying Corporate and Individual Worship
True worship goes so far beyond stylistic choices. The songs we sing are a small part of wholistic worship; but still important as far as the lyrics are concerned. The modes of corporate worship (liturgical, contemporary, blended, traditional, etc.) are all viable options for corporate worship. I would exclude Seeker Sensitive worship from the modes of true worship. A person can not worship a God they do not know. Liturgies that tailor themselves to the unregenerate are no true liturgies at all. Additionally, personal preference has no place in the corporate worship of the church. We are simply called to gather together to worship. Whatever mode/style of worship one might prefer does not matter (I’m expanding this to include more than just musical genre).
When we can truly understand and integrate individual worship into our lives, corporate worship becomes an extension of what we are already doing on a daily basis. Corporate worship is just another aspect of our lives devoted to worshiping God. In New Orleans, we would call that lagniappe. When we worship God individually, when our mindset is focused on living a life of worship, personal preference no longer matters. Our hearts and minds are ready to gather with our brothers and sisters and join them in corporate worship. Just imagine if every member of a congregation gathered together for a worship service having spent their entire week in a mindset of individual worship. What would that worship service look like? I wish that I could say. I have spent the past decade leading worship and the rest of my life before that as a congregant. I have never experienced a corporate worship setting where the majority of the people in attendance were prepared for corporate worship because of a week spent in individual worship. However, this is what our corporate worship gatherings should be.
So, what is worship? What is at the core of what we should be doing in every aspect of our lives, corporate and individual? To borrow from Robert Webber’s Worship is a Verb, the Gospel is the heart of worship. Worship has its foundation in a person and an event. That person is Jesus. That event is his birth, life, death, and resurrection. Worship is also a celebration. We celebrate the events of Jesus life to remember and to incorporate them into our own lives. Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and the rest of the seasons in the Christian year are designed to help us remember and celebrate the life of Jesus. Throughout the Christian year, we can walk with Christ. The elements of corporate worship should mirror our individual worship. Those elements should be Gospel centered. The call to worship, confession of sin, praise of God, reading of God’s word, thanksgiving/communion, offering, and prayer are elements that should be practiced both individually and corporately. These elements can take any form necessary to fulfill a particular mode of worship (liturgical, traditional, blended, etc). Corporate worship should be sensitive to the cultural setting of the local congregation. The elements are what matter, not how they are executed. Outside of corporate worship, evangelism, discipleship, fellowship, missions, charity, acts of service, and every other thing we do should be part of our individual worship of God. Much like the two greatest commandments fulfill all the other commandments (Matt. 22:34-40), worship is the umbrella under which every purpose of the church is realized. Worship is the realization of God’s original purpose for mankind.
“And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17, CSB)
Eric Reeves is an Old Testament Ph.D. student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana. He holds an M.A. in Biblical Languages from NOBTS and a B.M. in Worship from Ouachita Baptist University. He serves as the Worship Pastor for First Baptist Church, Westwego, Louisiana. He is married to Rachel and has two sweet little girls, Zoe and Sophia.