The smells that drift from the kitchen make your mouth water. The table is set with fine linens and china as the hosts had brought out their best for this meal. In the kitchen the cook clanks a pan with a whip as the gravy is prepared. Soon everything is ready. And, the noisy group that has gathered is seated with you at the table.
To your right is a child who talks incessantly about everything his little mind is taking in. Across the table a wise uncle quietly sits and waits for his beloved to join him. And, at the far side of the table an awkward cousin makes an unexpected comment that causes a few glances to be passed around the table. But, everyone gathers to enjoy a meal together: the child, the wise uncle waiting for his beloved, the awkward cousin, the hosts, various others and you.
A different scene: You and your beloved are seated at a table. Similarly, fine linens and china adorn the table. All the sounds in the room are washed away as you can’t help but gaze at your beloved… in fact, you don’t even notice if others are around you. Delightful smells tickle your nose. A candle flickers in front of you as sweet words are whispered.
These meals share both similarities and differences. Both are important meals that should be had; one is not more important than the other. But they are indeed very different experiences.
When we gather for corporate worship, we in one sense, gather around the table with all of God’s children. The Lord’s Supper is the most clear example of gathering in this way, but I think there are other elements of the gathering that lend themselves to our understanding the role of corporate worship. The necessity of the gathering has often caused me to pause: what makes corporate worship different than individual worship? There’s a trend in our culture to skip the experience of gathering corporately to worship our Lord; however, I’m quite sure this is a mistake as we are cheating ourselves and others the opportunity to be in the community.
In my first example, everyone gathers: the wise, the awkward, the child. Imagine what can be learned by this. We have opportunity to gain from those who are further along in their walk with the Lord – the wise uncle may share what God is teaching him and the awkward cousin is undoubtedly listening though she may not seem to be. Also, the child is watching. So, when the awkward cousin makes an unexpected remark, the child notices how the wise uncle responds with love and grace. I am often very surprised at what my children pick up from me simply through actions. It’s both encouraging and sobering.
As we gather in corporate worship, we all walk through the redemptive story together. In an ideal setting, as words are sung, you can hear your neighbor singing the lyrics, too, reminding you that you aren’t alone in this journey. You are at the table together. We all believe this – even when we don’t. Even when our heart is troubled, and we need to be reminded that we do indeed believe. I was recently in a gathering of believers and the intensity of the singing moved me to tears. The words of the songs were powerful, but the sheer reminder that all who were gathered believe that God is holy and good and gracious was what caused my heart to be moved.
A romantic date is a different scene entirely. Don’t get me wrong, I love being at a quiet table to engage my beloved. I love to hear what is going on in his heart without the interruptions of others. I love to be captivated by who he is and who God is making him to be. But, it’s different. On a date – or in individual worship – a person is solely focused on their beloved. They talk about what they want to talk about. They aren’t distracted by the awkward comments or actions of others. There is a depth to the intimacy which cannot be attained in a public setting.
When my husband and I were married, many, many times, seasoned husbands and wives encouraged us to set apart time for dates. Set apart time to celebrate and respond to one another. It’s critical to the relationship. These dates also look different for different couples. My husband and I enjoy riding in a tractor together as much as going to the theater – and that’s probably not true for everyone. We are able to connect in spaces that others may not. The same is true of my relationship with God. My heart worships our Lord in a variety of ways but most deeply when I’m enjoying nature, playing piano and studying Scripture. Maybe the same is true of you. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it includes singing, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it includes, nature, maybe it doesn’t. And, that’s ok, because our individual worship should look different based on who God has created us to be. There are of course aspects that individual worship should always have, but that is another blog post. ;)
Individual worship is critical in our walk with the Lord. As we grow in faith, the time we set apart for individual worship should grow in depth as well. It’s our responsibility to enjoy and celebrate God while He is kind to meet us there. Similarly, as we grow in faith it is our responsibility to engage in corporate worship. We are there not only for ourselves, but also for the encouragement of the wise uncle, the training of the awkward cousin, and the illustration for the noisy child.
Hebrews 10:23-25 says this:
"Let us hold firmly to the hope we claim to have. The God who promised is faithful. 24 Let us consider how we can stir up one another to love. Let us help one another to do good works. 25 And let us not give up meeting together. Some are in the habit of doing this. Instead, let us encourage one another with words of hope. Let us do this even more as you see Christ’s return approaching."
Yes, as the writer of Hebrews said: let us not give up meeting together. Corporate worship is an essential part of growing in faith. Let us gather with the wise uncle and his beloved, the awkward cousin and the talkative child. And let it be for both the building up of the body – the mutual encouragement of the believers – and the worship of our Lord.