Meeting God when the church gathers
© David Peterson (2010)
1. Contemporary hunger for spiritual experience
Although many in our world are disinterested in Christianity, and antagonistic towards organised religion, they continue to express some sort of ‘spiritual hunger’ (e.g. pursuing New Age alternatives, returning to the ‘old gods’, participating in coverns and pagan rituals).
In our jaded and self-indulgent culture, even Christians can be driven by the pursuit of what appears to be more spiritually ‘real’ and personally satisfying:
a. Through ritual, asceticism and silence
The experience of the ‘numinous’ has often been regarded as an experience of God: the aim is to achieve a supra-rational encounter with ‘the wholly other’, which is forbidding, yet fascinating and attractive.
b. Through singing, and the exercise of charismatic gifts
A new supernaturalism in Charismatic/Pentecostal circles has combined with a passion to see hearts engaged in corporate worship, so as ‘to bring people into a powerful time of relationship with our living God’.
‘People of this generation are longing to experience the genuine presence of God. And God is longing to move in and among the hearts of his people.’
So John Wimber’s five-phase model for worship had the goal of intimacy with God: as worship ascends, God comes down in a ‘visitation’ and is experienced as immanent.
Those of us from more traditional/conservative backgrounds need to recognise the reasons for this spiritual hunger and its various expressions.
We need to acknowledge that our own approach to corporate worship has often been sterile and superficial – compounding the problem and sending people on a search for something more satisfying!
At the same time, we need to return to Scripture and carefully consider what it teaches on this subject and return to our historic roots and consider what our predecessors taught and practised.
2. Engaging with God through his own words
a. Luther and the Reformation
Against the teaching of Medieval Catholicism, Luther insisted that Christians commune with God through his own words: not in a mystical, non-verbal sense (sacramental or musical), but as faith grasps and responds to his self-revelation in Scripture.
Through the reading and teaching of Scripture; and through, psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, we commune with God, receiving and responding to his words (as in human relationships).
So the Reformers taught that the reading and teaching of Scripture must dominate and control all other activities in the assembly:
‘This is the sum of the matter: that everything shall be done so that the Word prevails . . . We can spare everything except the Word. We profit nothing so much as by the Word. For the whole Scripture shows that the Word should have free course among Christians. And in Luke 10, Christ himself says: “One thing is needful” – that Mary sit at the feet of Christ and daily hear his Word . . .’
This principle governed their thinking about church services and liturgy, and transformed their view of the purpose and practice of Christian ministry (from ‘sacrificing priest’ to ‘pastor-teacher’ of God’s word).
Corporate worship came to be regarded as beneficium (‘a gracious gift of God’), rather than sacrificium (a sacrifice offered to God). The doctrine of salvation by grace alone, to be received by faith alone, altered the whole concept of worship. Christian assembly came to be regarded as the occasion for recounting the gracious acts of God in Christ and responding with confessions of faith, prayer, and praise.
There is a danger of losing this Reformation perspective in our rush to be culturally relevant and take on board Charismatic and Pentecostal ideas and practices.
Non-verbal communication is important in human relationships, but the fundamental way in which we understand and know one another is through verbal communication. So God, wishing to relate to us (person to person), chose to reveal his will and character, first in the written word of Scripture, and then, through the incarnation of his Son. The glorified Christ then poured out his Spirit, so that the New Testament could be completed and Scripture could be taught effectively. As the word is read, proclaimed, taught, sung, and applied, in a whole range of situations, God continues to speak to his people.
We can do this one-to-one or in small groups, but the benefit is usually greater when we meet as congregations and share a diversity of gifts and ministries in the process of edification.
b. God’s word and congregational ministry, according to Paul (Col. 3:16; Cf. Eph. 5:19-20; 1 Cor. 14:24-5)
The ‘word of Christ’ here is the gospel about Christ (cf. Col. 1:25-9; 4:3)—the message that climaxes and illuminates all the revelation previously given in Scripture.
This word is to ‘dwell among’ or ‘take up residence in’ every congregation of believers (en hymin most likely has a corporate meaning following on from v. 15), as the risen Lord ‘presences’ himself through his word.
‘As the Spirit of God indwells believers (Rom. 8:9, 11; 2 Tim. 1:14; cf. 1 Cor. 3:16) so “the word of Christ” should reside among them in rich abundance, producing great blessing.’
But what is the responsibility of the church in this regard? The gospel is to be faithfully taught, applied, and celebrated, as the following clauses indicate:
‘Teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom’ implies a shared activity (cf. 1 Thes. 5:12-14; Heb. 3:13; 5:12)—not just the task of leaders—directed and enabled by the Spirit who gives wisdom to the mature (cf. 1 Cor. 2:6-16).
Such mutual ministry will also take place when psalms, hymns to Christ, and gospel-rich songs are sung, ‘with gratitude in your hearts to God’ (Eph. 5:19-20). The Holy Spirit fills us as we address one another and address God.
When this happens, we should expect a corporate engagement with the Lord Christ himself, through his Spirit, as we hear him speak (even through the words we are singing to one another) and bow to his authority (= ‘worship’ him).
We should not make artificial distinctions between ‘the vertical’ and ‘the horizontal’ dimensions to our gatherings: both can be taking place at the same time.
The consequence of such congregational ministry will be the lifestyle of gratitude and obedience mentioned in Col. 3:17—the ‘worship’ of everyday life (cf. Rom. 12:1).
c. Encountering God according to Hebrews (4:14-16; 10:19-25; 12:22-9)
Two key exhortations encourage us to keep on drawing near to God, on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice and his ongoing priestly intercession for us in heaven (4:14-16; 10:19-25; cf. 7:25).
But these need to be related to the portrait of what it means to be people of the New Covenant in 12:22-9:
The heavenly Jerusalem is the context where we have already ‘come’ to God and the ultimate assembly of his people (vv. 22-24); God the judge of all and Jesus the mediator of a new covenant are at the centre of this heavenly church, and Jesus is the means by which we may approach, because of his ‘sprinkled blood’ (see Hebrews 9:11-14; 10:19-22);
As those still on earth, we must keep on listening to the voice that warns from heaven, so that we do not lose our way (12:25-7; compare Israel in the wilderness and the warnings about apostasy in Hebrews);
As those who are in the process of receiving ‘a kingdom that cannot be shaken’, we are to be grateful to God and on this basis offer him acceptable worship (12:28-9), which involves daily ‘service’ in obedient living (13:1-9).
However, we also need to keep drawing near to ‘the throne of grace’, to express our dependence of Jesus for mercy and ‘grace to help in time of need’ (4:14-16).
In 10:19-25 this drawing near is associated with gathering together to encourage one another.
3. Engaging with God through his Spirit
Consider some of the teaching of the NT about the ministry of the Holy Spirit and apply this to the Christian assembly.
a. The Spirit bears witness to the exalted Christ (Jn. 15:26-7; 16:12-15), enabling us to confess Christ and glorify him (1 Cor. 12:3): where Jesus is being glorified through preaching, testimony or song, and people are responding with faith and repentance, the Holy Spirit is truly present and working.
b. The Spirit convicts the world about sin and righteousness and judgment (Jn. 16:8-11; 1 Cor. 14:24-5): when unbelievers are converted, acknowledging their sin and guilt before God, and crying out for salvation, the Holy Spirit is truly present and working.
c. The Spirit enables us to relate to God as ‘Abba, Father’ (Rom. 8:14-16; Gal. 4:6): when we are enabled to pray to God—individually or corporately—in a way that recognizes his fatherly care and merciful provisions for us, the Holy Spirit is truly present and working.
N.B. God’s Spirit ‘bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God’ (Ro. 8:16): there is a subjective experience of assurance that the Holy Spirit brings to ‘our spirit’ through the ministry of the word that he enables us to receive (from the Scriptures, from others, from Christian songs and confessions).
d. The Spirit provides believers with spiritual illumination and wisdom (Eph. 1:17; Phil. 3:15): when new light is thrown on the meaning and application of Scripture, or wisdom is given for Christian life and witness in some new situation, the Holy Spirit is truly present and working.
e. The Spirit enables us to exercise the gifts of the exalted Christ with love for one another (1 Corinthians 12-14; Eph. 11-16): when the diversity of gifts in the congregation is appropriately recognised and exercised for the benefit of the whole, the Holy Spirit is truly present and working.
f. The Spirit renews and transforms us in the likeness of Christ (2 Cor 3:18; Tit. 3:4-6): when we see change in ourselves, individually and corporately, in our relationship with believers and unbelievers, the Holy Spirit is truly present and working.
4. Some conclusions and questions
In planning and leading corporate worship, the Spirit’s goals should be our goals, and we should pray to this end.
If the word of God is ‘the sword of the Spirit’ (Eph. 6:17), we pursue the Spirit’s goals most effectively by ‘unsheathing the sword’ and praying for it to ‘dwell richly’ among us.
How much are the Scriptures read and expounded in your church? To what extent are the Scriptures used in congregational responses and confessions of faith? How is the word of God reflected and expressed in the prayers and the singing?
Does the whole experience proclaim Christ (not just the sermon), ‘warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom’ (Col. 1:28), so as to move everyone to repentance and faith, to renewed discipleship, and to prayerful engagement with God?
If we expect to encounter God and be ministered to by his word and his Spirit in corporate worship, we need to say so regularly, and pray to that end.
The chief pastor ought to be ‘the worship leader’ of the congregation, since worship in the NT is a whole-of-life activity, which should be stimulated and encouraged by the regular gatherings of the church. The pastor should teach and train others to assist in this ministry but always retain oversight. It is passing the buck to call the song leader the ‘worship leader’!
Only gifted, mature and theologically discerning people should have oversight of what is sung in church, the way it fits into the order of service, the way new songs are taught, and the way the music ministry is conducted and developed in the church.
 R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy (1926), regarded the Holy as ultimately beyond apprehension and conceptualisation, though he thought that aesthetic experience played a part in human experience of the divine.
 J. Horness, ‘Contemporary Music-driven Worship’, in P. E. Engle & P. A. Basden (ed.), Exploring the Worship Spectrum 6 Views (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 102.
 Ibid, 104.
 D. Williams, ‘Charismatic Worship’, in P. E. Engle & P. A. Basden (ed.), Exploring the Worship Spectrum 6 Views, 143. The five phases are: a call to worship, engagement, exaltation, adoration, intimacy.
 Luther, Concerning the Ordering of Divine Worship in the Congregation, 1523.
 Cf. B. Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (Cleveland/New York: CollinsWorld, 1961), 98-100.
 P. T. O’Brien, Word Biblical Commentary 44 Colossians, Philemon (Waco: Word, 1982), 207.
 Cf. D. G. Peterson, Engaging with God. A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1992), 228-60.