After the worship service one Sunday morning, a young man came up to me with a puzzled look on his face. He held in his hand our weekly bulletin, the piece of paper that details our values and beliefs, as he had a question for me about one in particular. “What is corporate worship?” As the phrase departed his lips, I already felt the disconnect of Christian lingo as acutely as he did. The word “corporation” came to my mind, the closest association in our contemporary world. Strange pictures began flitting across my mind’s eye, visions of leading worship in a cold, impersonal board room, surrounded by austere business people with briefcases and earnings reports. This was hardly the way in which I conceived worship. I thought to myself, “What in the world is corporate about worship?”
In the church, we have adopted the word “corporate” into our vocabulary to describe something that we do together, something that is altogether unique in our culture and world. In corporate worship, we sing and offer all kinds of praise expressions to the God who has redeemed our lives. It is our opportunity to express gratitude both individually and as a community, from the depths of our hearts and also from the commonality of our experiences. What a unique practice our gathered worship is in this day and age! It easily raises questions, even without introducing the word “corporate” to describe it.
The disadvantage of using the word “corporate” is that we don’t find it in Scripture, and this can cause problems when we try to isolate what exactly it means. When we coin a phrase and begin centering our theology around it-a phrase that might be pictured in Scripture but is never used-we can easily start to become a little creative, reading our own ideas into Scripture. Everyone begins to look for a passage that pictures corporate worship, and everyone ends up with a different selection and different conclusions based upon what they bring to the text. Tradition and theology begin to become intertwined, making it forever more difficult to know where Scripture ends and we begin.
Personally, I always like to try to use biblical words when I am talking about biblical concepts, especially when I am trying to isolate the values and priorities that they represent. Therefore, I think that a better and more biblical word to describe what we do together in worship is the “assembly.” Using a word like “assembly” can help us to get a better handle on what values we are actually trying to identify when we talk about the worship assembly, because they are right there in the text.
When we refer to the uniqueness of corporate worship, the primary value that we are identifying is that of mutual edification. When we join together in worship, we are not purely concerned with the vertical aspect of worship-our experience with God-but also with the horizontal aspect-our experience with our neighbors, or those around us. The author of Hebrews puts a fine point on this issue when he highlights the assembly in 10:24-25: “Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” We are there to exalt God, but also to exhort our neighbor. This is the main difference between gathered worship and private devotion. We worship together so that we can have a meaningful impact on one another’s lives through the process of praising our God.
In my opinion, some will overemphasize this horizontal aspect, however, maintaining that nothing should happen in corporate worship unless it can be explicitly shared by the whole. They will question any practice that looks like a “private communion” with God, rehearsing that we are not there for ourselves but for God and others. People of this persuasion are often the first to criticize the use of the personal pronoun “I” in the worship repertoire, as if there is no place for “I” in genuine worship. The whole focus begins to turn on what we are there to bring, and in the name of corporate worship, the personal aspect of worship begins to be misplaced.
While I agree that the worship assembly is not intended to be altogether private, I maintain that worship of every kind must be highly personal. These two adjectives, private and personal should not be confused. Something can be very personal without being private at all, and just because it is personal does not mean that it can’t be shared with the larger body assembled for worship. When something is personal, it tends to be expressed more in terms of “I”, because “I” represents what is happening within me. When I say something to God using “I”, it means that it originates from the deepest part of me, and that is the part of me that I want to engage in worship.
Moreover, I would argue that something which is personal is actually even more edifying to my neighbor, because it connects my heart with theirs. If I desire to edify or encourage my neighbor, do I go about that by being impersonal? Certainly not. The best way to do so is by exposing my heart, by being deeply personal and authentic with them. If I go about worship in the same way, lifting an honest sacrifice to God in the way that I bow and worship, then I am bound to encourage and edify others. We have every reason to be extroverted and uninhibited in our worship, letting “I” infiltrate all of our interactions. Not only is God honored by the vitality and authenticity of the offering that we bring, but our neighbors are welcomed into our thanksgiving, encouraged and uplifted by the personal nature of our offering.
Gathered worship-corporate worship-must be very personal without becoming wholly private, because that is the best way in which I can exalt God and encourage my neighbor. I believe that God much prefers worship that is personal-worship that springs from our hearts-and I think that our neighbor feels that same way. If we desire our gathered worship to transcend the corporate board room that I mentioned, looking more like a place where we are transformed by the presence of the almighty God, then we must