Corporate worship is the primary means of discipleship in the Christian life. We are forbidden from neglecting to gather (Hebrews 10:25). But when we do gather, what do we do?
Thankfully, God’s word answers this question. Although there is a degree of freedom in how corporate worship is expressed depending on factors such as geographical location, Christians do not have permission to do whatever we want when we gather. Freedom can be taken too far. Instead, time spent in corporate worship should be governed by Scriptural principles (both explicit and implicit) and examples. And perhaps there is no better example to model than the early church in Acts two.
After the church explodes from 120 to 3,000+ because of God’s work through Peter’s preaching, the famous small section in Acts two paints a picture of the kind of activity we should do when we gather. Although there are other texts to draw from, from Acts 2:42-47, we see the following five elements of corporate worship.
First, the early church devoted themselves to the Apostle’s teaching. To be classified as an Apostle in Scripture, there were specific qualifications that were modified with Paul. But you had to have been (1) An eyewitness to the resurrection of Jesus, and (2) Been with Jesus during his earthly ministry. Every once in a while on the news I’ll hear of someone claiming to be an Apostle, but their self-attestation is in vain. There are no more Apostles today. Nevertheless, during this time in the church’s life, there were some left, and when the church gathered, the Apostles taught. The teaching that the Apostles would have received would have been from Jesus, his appearances after the resurrection, and the Old Testament.
The preaching and teaching of God’s Word must be at the center of our worship services. Preaching and teaching the Word of God has always been an important aspect of the life of the church. I can’t make any guarantees or promises about the future of the health of your church, but I can guarantee that the health of your church worship services will be in direct correlation to the emphasis you place on the teaching and preaching of God’s most Holy Word. There is no substitute for preaching: no roundtable discussion, no dramas, no testimonies, no videos on YouTube. Nothing. For over 2,000 years, God has used the preaching and teaching of qualified men as a means to preserve and edify his church, and there’s no good reason to stop now.
Second, they devoted themselves to Fellowship. You may have heard the Greek word for fellowship before. If not, it’s okay. I myself am still learning about the Bible every day, and have much, much more to learn myself. That word there is Koinonia. It means “participation” or “sharing.” Fellowship is a relationship between people in which there is a mutual love for Christ.
Fellowship and friendliness are not the same things. A prerequisite for fellowship is faith in Jesus Christ. Seen this way, we can and should have friends who don’t share the faith, but interactions with them are not fellowship. Fellowship is an exclusive thing for Christians only.
What does fellowship include? The rest of the text outlines it: sharing of material goods, breaking of bread, and prayer. But more broadly we can say that fellowship is about:
• A common love for Jesus Christ, the Bible, and the Great Commission.
• Confessing sins to one another.
• Praying for one another.
• Bearing the burdens of one another.
• Meeting practical needs.
• Talking about Christ and spurring one another toward love and obedience.
And so on. Our conversations must go deeper than mere small talk and college football and the weather. We have to talk about Christ and encourage one another toward obedience.
3. Breaking of Bread.
This probably means communion or a large meal together. Many commentators take this as an expression for the Lord’s Supper, and so do I. I’m convinced there are many sectors of the church that do not have a robust theology of communion. The right use of the sacraments (or ordinances) is largely what makes a church a church.
The Apostle Paul also tells us elsewhere to devote ourselves to prayer in our worship gatherings (1 Timothy 2:2). I think it’s sad that some churches neglect prayer in worship services to be sensitive to guests. The point of the worship service is to glorify and please God, and secondarily to edify the believer. We certainly welcome any and all who would come, but we are seeking to glorify God and edify the church. So why not pray? Besides, when an invitation to a church worship service is accepted by one who is not a Christian, they expect religious activity to happen at church.
Michael Horton puts it this way.
One of the most disappointing features of contemporary worship is the absence of prayer, and one suspects that few of the youth in evangelical or mainline churches today even know the Lord’s Prayer, which covenant children have prayed — and used as a model for their prayers — for two thousand years. If corporate prayer does not play an important part in our worship, it should not be surprising that it is marginalized in the individual lives of Christians.
5. Praising God.
The disciples were “praising God” (v. 47). As I heard one pastor say, the reason we sing is that we have reasons to sing. Sometimes intellectually minded folk who are not that in tune with their emotions don’t like singing. But the remedy for this is not appreciating singing more, but knowing God more. The more you know God, despite your personality, the more you will see that he is worthy to be praised.
Seen this way, the persons who select the songs on Sunday have no small task. We must select songs that are not only artistically excellent but also theologically and biblically rich.
Teaching, fellowship, communion, prayer, and singing. There you have it: the broad structure of corporate worship from Acts 2:42-47.
To say this is the Scriptural structure of corporate worship from Acts 2:42-47 does not mean the activities cited above are the only things we can do during corporate worship. For example, we’re told to devote ourselves to publicly reading Scripture (1 Timothy 2:2). We should baptize in our worship services but there won’t be baptisms every week. Perhaps present will be a confession of sin, assurance of pardon, a responsive reading, and so forth. There are other elements we can include in our worship services and some degree of freedom in how we express that. But we must not neglect the basics: teaching, prayer, singing, etc.
I want to encourage you toward faithful corporate worship. If you ask any Christian believer who is providentially hindered from attending in-person worship because of personal sickness or physical ailment or some other reason, they will tell you one of the things they miss the most, that’s hurting them so much in this season of life, is not gathering with God’s people in-person.
Not for a second will I say that everything is always perfect and smooth in the church. The church is messy. Someone will offend you. Perhaps a person won’t text you back or will say something that’s insensitive or you may not like the direction of leadership. But unless you are providentially hindered, I want to encourage you to commit yourself to faithful church attendance. It doesn’t always feel like it, but God is working behind the scenes to build your faith.