If I asked you, “What do you do at the weekly Sunday gathering with your church?” what would you say? “We drink coffee and talk, we sing for 30 minutes, we say a confession, we hear a sermon, we take communion. . . .” In other words, you would give me a description of particular actions you participate in.
But what if I were to ask you, “Why do you do what you do at the weekly Sunday gathering with your church?” In other words, what is the purpose behind the actions? Could you answer? More importantly, could you describe what God says is the purpose of the weekly rhythm of gathering with your church for corporate worship?
Like a journey without a clear destination or a habit with no real purpose, corporate worship that is not informed by knowledge of why we do what we do puts us at risk of wandering aimlessly through our services Sunday after Sunday. But knowing why we do what we do helps us not only to do the right things but to truly seek the Lord in the midst of them. It also deepens our expectation for how God is going to meet us in our worship.
God gives us at least three reasons in Scripture for the church to gather.
We Gather to Respond to His Revelation
First and foremost, we gather each Sunday because God created us as worshipers and He invites us to worship Him alone.
This gracious invitation has, at its source, the truth of who God has revealed Himself to be. We can’t rightly worship someone we do not know. Therefore, God’s revelation of Himself is vital in our gatherings.
He has revealed Himself through His Word, and His inscripturated Word reveals the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. This is why Scripture and Jesus must be preeminent in our gatherings. What we need is God’s revelation of Himself, and this revelation centers on the person and work of Jesus.
For us to come to any experience with God without a conscious and direct turn to Jesus risks reliance upon ourselves, our emotions, or our gifts to come before Him. This becomes increasingly important the more extraneous noise there is. We cannot assume that good music, the excellence of our service, or the quality of our speaking allows us to worship Him. The only way for us to be commended to God is through Jesus Christ.
These truths demand a response. We gather to behold, but this beholding should have an effect. We respond to Him not only with our songs but by offering ourselves (Rom. 12:1–2). Our response to truth is not only essential (James 1:22–25) but to be desired. God doesn’t simply want us to study Him; He wants to have a relationship with us.
We Gather to Rehearse the Story of Redemption
Throughout the Bible, God tells His people to rehearse what He has done for them. For Israel, they were to recall their deliverance from Egypt (Deut. 8). We are told in the Psalms to “forget not all his benefits” (103:2) and to “tell . . . the glorious deeds of the Lord” (78:4). The sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and baptism were given to be signs and seals that remind us of God’s promises and work.
This remembering roots us in the only story that matters, the one that makes sense of all of our lives—the story of redemption. Long ago, church leaders recognized that Christians’ rehearsing the gospel each week has a powerful effect on how they view God, how they interact with Him, and how they live their lives. Participating in gospel-shaped worship trains people to develop the discipline of thinking and living in the redemptive story. Each Sunday as we consistently walk through who God is, what He has done, and how we are to respond, we are training ourselves in how to do this in our lives as well.
We Gather to Edify One Another
One of the significant mistakes in the history of the church and its various liturgies was in terms of participation. Over time, God’s transcendence and glory became so emphasized that any thought of edifying the congregation and encouraging them to participate was lost in the weightiness of the event. The Reformers sought to bring back the picture of New Testament worship: communal, life giving, and edifying. It is the people’s worship, not a priest performing mediatorial tasks.
God calls all of us to participate to build up the body. God has given each one of us gifts, and as worshipers, we are called to use them to edify others, particularly in our Sunday gatherings (Acts 2:42–47; 1 Cor. 12:12–31; 14:3–5, 12, 17, 26; 1 Thess. 5:11; Eph. 4:11–16). The Sunday worship service is never merely a means to an end—a “fill-up” to then go out into the world where real ministry takes place. It is rather a demonstration of how we are to live our lives as Christians. God ministers to and reveals Himself to us, and we respond in that moment by ministering to each other. The church assembled, then, represents and resembles the changed community of God. Our gatherings should look distinct from the world because we are a picture of the heavenly community that God is creating.
A Grace-Filled Invitation
The details of what we do each Sunday can vary according to denomination, culture, and season. But underlying what we do are God’s grace-filled purposes for His gathered church. He invites us each and every Sunday to behold Him in His glory, to respond in worship, to rehearse all that He has accomplished through Jesus, and to participate in the work of building up His body through Spirit-empowered ministry. What an opportunity!