It may seem to be an odd time to be talking about the necessity of community worship when we have not been meeting together in person for several months. But then again, perhaps at no other time have we felt the importance of gathering together with fellow followers of Jesus more than right now. Sometimes you don’t miss something until it’s gone.
That was certainly how Dietrich Bonhoeffer felt as he wrote the lines of his spiritual classic, Life Together, while sitting in a prison. “It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians.” For Bonhoeffer, it was an impossibility. Like Christ on the cross, he was utterly alone. This is what caused him to say this about our worship gatherings:
“So between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament (communion). Not all Christians receive this blessing.” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 18).”
I remember how startled I was to read these lines for the first time. I saw gathering with other Christians as something I did for God, not something that he did for me. Going to church was more of a religious chore than a blessing from God. Our perspective has completely changed since our church buildings closed in March, has it not? I think that is a good thing. I no longer have to convince anyone of the value of gathering together for worship. The question for us is this: how can we experience community worship without church buildings and Sunday morning worship services?
The reason this is a difficult question is because we have confused the tools that enhance the church’s community worship with the church itself. Church buildings are a valuable resource enabling the church community to gather as a large group, but the church existed for well over one hundred years before the first church building was constructed. The ability to worship with fifty, seventy-five, or even hundreds of people can be an exhilarating experience, but Jesus says, “where two or three come together in my name, there am I in your midst.”
We have taken buildings and large community worship gatherings for granted for so long that we can’t imagine worship without them. But all we need is one other believer and a desire to worship God together. We don’t need a bulletin, an overhead projector, a worship team, a pastor, pews, nor an hour-long gathering on Sunday morning.
When we look through the New Testament looking for instructions on how to do community worship, we might be surprised to find very little specific information. This is not like the Old Testament where temple worship was explained in extremely fine detail with everything from how the temple was to be constructed to the clothing of the priests to the rituals that were to be performed. Nothing was left to chance in the Old Testament. God spelled everything out in black and white and he expected his instructions to be carried out to the letter.
The New Testament is very different. What we have are instructions like these:
Colossians 3:15-17 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish each other with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Here’s what we see:
- Worship. The key ingredient to worship is gratitude. We are to express thanksgiving to God through prayer, through the singing of songs that the church has created, and through the psalms.
- Prayer. We are encouraged to pray at all times and in all circumstances. We pray for our needs; we pray for God’s kingdom to come to earth; we surrender to God and we worship Him. [See more on our blog post on the Lord’s Prayer]
- The Word of God. We are encouraged to teach each other the word of God. We are encouraged to “admonish” which is more like applying the Scripture to someone’s life in a one-on-one session, like discipleship or even counseling.
Here’s what we don’t see: we don’t see specifics on the style of music or the use of instruments when it comes to worship. We don’t see instructions to teach the church through a sermon, just a command to teach each other the Word of God. We are simply commanded to worship, learn the word of God, and to pray. The specifics are left out and that is by design. God did it this way, so that the church could adapt to whatever situation they find themselves in.
No doubt, our uncertain world contains enormous challenges for the church, but God has given us the tools to persevere and even to continue community worship while our church buildings are closed.
How have you experienced community worship away from the church building? What questions or concerns do you have? Feel free to leave a comment and continue the conversation.