As individual prayer enables us to experience God’s presence in our lives, worshipping together makes it possible to have this experience in a group setting. It is another way in which we can live in God’s kingdom on earth.
As there are many varieties of religious experience, so also there are different modes for worshipping together. Here we consider three main types, recognizing that there is considerable variation within each type. Each of these has a long history in the Christian tradition.
For living in God’s kingdom here and now there can be a twofold test of worshipping together. Does the worship mode enable you to feel God’s presence, to help you love God with all of your heart, being, mind and strength? Does the worship experience support you in loving your neighbors and also your adversaries?
An ancient model of worship comes from the early church where small groups of Christians gathered together for an agape meal, or love feast. They had a common belief in Jesus Christ. They were committed to one another and sometimes shared possessions (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35). They brought food to share a common meal. After eating they would pray together, sing a hymn, and then receive bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). In this way they followed the practice instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper.
This approach remains applicable in our day, carried out by small worshipping communities that share a common purpose and have mutual love and respect for one another. They can replicate the love feast of the early church or add a worship element and communion to other activities. Small churches with like-minded members are particularly in a position to worship in this manner.
Within a larger congregation an agape meal can occur in prayer groups and also as an integral activity of groups formed for study, service, and advocacy. Mission groups of religious persons functioning beyond the formal church structure can also be worshipping communities. In this manner these small groups can relate to God as they live and work together in God’s kingdom on earth.
A second model for worship developed in the early church. Many of the first Christians were converted Jews. They adapted the form of synagogue worship that included prayers, song, reading from the Law and the Prophets followed by commentary, then closing prayer. This was the pattern in the Nazareth synagogue where Jesus read from Isaiah and applied the reading to himself (Luke 4:16-21). Christians added Holy Communion.
Over centuries this developed into the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Latin Mass of the Roman Catholic Church, and then the Lutheran Deutsche Messe (1526) and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1549). Other denominations produced their own versions containing major elements of the Latin Mass but with less prescribed language.
For millions of Christians formal liturgy provides the most satisfactory way to worship God. The established order offers opportunity to
- “praise God from whom all blessings flow”,
- confess sins and forgive others,
- offer prayers of intercession and thanksgiving,
- gain enlightenment from scripture and sermon,
- affirm a creed,
- receive communion, and
- be inspired by music, architecture and stained glass.
The solemnity and majesty of the service can evoke the feeling of God’s presence. And the regularity provides stability in a world of trouble and personal turmoil.
If you are participating in a traditional service and pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”, you can conceive that you are a part of God’s kingdom on earth at that very moment. You can look around and realize that your fellow worshippers are part of God’s kingdom, too, that all together you are an outpost of this kingdom.
This can be a positive experience. It is also a test of commitment. It may be that as you seek to live in God’s kingdom, founded on love of God and love of neighbor/enemy, your quarrels and dislike for certain fellow worshippers may interfere with the full expression of such love.
Here the counsel of Jesus is relevant:
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24).
In the formal service the passing of the peace provides this opportunity. Instead of merely offering a friendly greeting to those around you, you can seek out an adversary and make your peace before receiving communion. It’s another way in which the Two Great Commandments are intertwined.
A third model for worship has evolved from the evangelical tradition that goes back to the origins of Christianity.
John the Baptist, forerunner of Christ, appeared in the desert of Judea “calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins” (Luke 3:3).
Jesus himself was an evangelist as he preached the coming of God’s kingdom. He told his listeners, “Change your hearts and lives, and trust the good news” (Mark 1:15).
On the Day of Pentecost Peter told the crowd:
Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
Thereupon, preaching salvation through belief in Jesus Christ became the mission of the apostles. Over the centuries many others have pursued this calling.
In numerous congregations evangelism is featured in worship along with highly vocal praise for God. Sermons tend to be emotional, emphasizing salvation and sometimes preaching hellfire and damnation for unrepentant sinners. Some churches have altar calls for confession of sin and conversion and also renewal of vows of those already converted.
Music is livelier than traditional four-square hymns. As they sing, choir and congregation may sway from side to side or bounce up and down. Some dance in the aisle. Some congregations call forth the Holy Spirit as at Pentecost.
In these various ways worshippers can be transported to a different level of consciousness where they experience the presence of God. It is a religious experience different than quiet worship but nonetheless authentic.
Although evangelism often emphasizes saving souls for heaven, this mode can just as well stress changing hearts for living in God’s kingdom on earth. Preachers can offer instruction on positive ways to live in this kingdom here and now, as Jesus did. If you feel that you are saved, you can have a head start for your future life in heaven. You can envision your church as an outpost of God’s kingdom.
Gifts of the Spirit
These various styles of worship call for different gifts of the spirit. As the Apostle Paul observed:
In the church, God has appointed first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, the gifts of healing, the ability to help others, leadership skills, different kinds of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:28).
But then he noted that if you have any of these gifts but have not love, you are nothing.
Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:7-8a).
In this manner love of God and love of neighbor/enemy undergird worship as well as serving as the foundation for participating in God’s kingdom as a way of life.