Why DO We Go To Church?

This article appeared in Evangelicals Now, May, 1998. It is written by Barry Seagren.

At the Evangelical Ministry Assembly in 1994, Mark Ashton and David Peterson put a mental grenade in my head which has been going off ever since. This article is my attempt to gather up some of the pieces.

The word 'worship' has taken on a new meaning. 20 years ago, if the guy up front said: 'Now we're going to have a time of worship,' no one would have known what to expect. No one ever 'had a time of worship' back then. Now we all know the drill. We are going to stand up for quite a long time and sing contemporary Christian songs, perhaps interspersed with brief prayers or short readings from the Bible, often with hands in the air. That's a 'worship time'. Now, I quite like a lot of the new music and I have no objection to raising hands. But I do want to examine the idea that this is what 'worship' means. The Old Testament practice is clear. There was an elaborate system of public worship: the Temple with its rituals, the religious festivals with their ceremonies, the priests with their liturgical duties, and the singers and musicians who supported the celebrations. All of this was a system given by God, prescribed in Scripture. This was worship.

Something striking

Most Christians, explicitly or implicitly, assume that this gives us the pattern for today: worship is a corporate activity directed towards God and is primarily for his benefit. It is a performance for an audience of One. Yet when we examine the New Testament to see how the teachings of the Old Testament are to be applied today, we find something quite striking. There is a rich language of worship drawn from the OT system, but those worship terms are almost never applied by the NT to Christian gatherings. Instead, the vocabulary of worship is applied to all of life. Worship, according to the NT, is what goes on seven days a week, rather than what goes on in church. Consider an example: 'I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship' (Romans 12.1). This verse is full of OT sacrificial language, but applied in a revolutionary way. We are a priestly people, offering our own bodies to God as living sacrifices. Paul calls that spiritual worship. This particular word (latreia) was used in the OT to describe the service of the people in the Temple worship, as opposed to the service of the priests. Worship goes on, no longer in the temple, not even in church, but in the home, in the workplace, in the community, and in the marketplace, as we offer our whole selves in service to God.

Today's liturgy?

'...the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit' (Romans 15.16). Again, we have Old Testament worship language. Paul says he has been called to be a minister (leitourgos) of Christ Jesus. This word, from which we get our word 'liturgy', is used in the Old Testament exclusively for religious and ritual services. So the apostle Paul is a liturgist. Furthermore, he has a priestly duty. It was proclaiming the gospel, and the offering he brings to God was nothing less than the Gentile believers. What then is priestly liturgical work today? Standing in a holy building performing a religious ceremony? Not at all. When we tell the gospel to our neighbours with the hope of bringing them as living sacrifices to God, that is a NT liturgy; that is priestly work. 'Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world' (James 1.27). Here is yet another word with its roots in the worship of the Old Testament. It means religion (threskeia), in the particular sense of outward ceremonies of worship, religious services. The kind of religious services that God wants us to perform are looking after those in need and keeping ourselves free from sin. Do you see the point? The OT vocabulary of worship is used by the NT to describe the daily life of Christians. We could almost say that worship is what happens when we leave church: full-time devotion to God - the telling of the gospel, the caring for the needy, the striving against sin, the bringing of our lives as living sacrifices to God. If the apostles had said: 'Now we are going to have a time of worship,' their congregations would have headed for the door to honour Christ with their daily lives. If we don't 'go to church' to worship, why do we go to church? It is not wrong to say that the church service too is worship. We do gather as a people to bring our praises to God. But when we look at the words used to describe the purpose for which the NT Christians gathered, we find a different focus. There are two words used repeatedly to describe what happened when they came together. The first is encouragement (parakaleo, paraklysis). This word has both a positive sense (to encourage) and a slightly negative one (to urge or exhort). The carrot and the stick. The one rebuke in the NT for not 'going to church' is on precisely this ground: 'Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching' (Hebrews 10.25).


The second word is edification (oikodomeo, oikodome). This is a construction term. It means to build up, to strengthen, to establish. When the early church met, they were not trying to compete with the ceremonies of their religious neighbours. They were not putting on a holy performance for God's benefit. In fact, they were not in the religious business at all; they were in the construction business. The sole reference to the use of spiritual gifts in the church services gives edification as the guide for all that we do 'in church': 'When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church' (1 Corinthians 14.26). Thus the NT purpose of Christian gatherings is best described by three e's: edification, encouragement, exhortation. This gives us a better understanding of some of the components of our services. Consider teaching, high on the list of the spiritual gifts, a basic qualification for elders and a regular part of the work of the apostles. If we meet on Sunday for worship, i.e. the praise and adoration of God, why do we spend so much time on the sermon? How can a lengthy time of Bible teaching function as 'worship'? Did that ever bother you? Now it makes sense. Teaching is crucial because on Sunday morning we are in the construction business, not the religion business. Paul made this the priority for Timothy, his deputy and his successor in the ministry: 'Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.' (1 Timothy 4.13).

One another

The word that is translated 'preaching' is actually our word 'encouraging' or 'exhorting' (paraklesis). The heart of Timothy's work was to be the encouraging of the people through the teaching of Scripture. When God's word is preached, God's voice is heard and God's people are built up. Another example is singing. We usually think of singing as a means of bringing our praises to God. It certainly is that, but Paul tells us in Ephesians 5.19 to: 'Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.' It seems that singing has both a horizontal and a vertical dimension. But how is it that we speak to one another when we sing? Browse through any good hymnbook, traditional or contemporary (or God's inspired hymnbook, the Psalms), and you will see that many of the hymns are actually exhortations to one another, for example all the 'let us' hymns. Singing together is not only a means of giving praise to God. It is also wonderfully encouraging and uplifting. Singing is edifying too. Many Christians have learned far more theology through hymns than they have ever learned through sermons (which is why the theology of our hymnals is nearly as important as the theology of our church. What about the Lord's Supper? How does it function in our meetings? It is not magic, nor is it simply a memorial. It is the meal that God spreads out before his people, and the purpose of any meal is to nourish. When we come to the Lord's table in faith, our souls feed upon Christ as truly as our bodies feed upon the bread and the wine.

Keep believing

I'm not campaigning for a new name for our Sunday services, but rather for a paradigm shift in the way we think about them. The old saying that we gather for worship and scatter for witness needs to be rethought. We gather for edification - to take part in the building up of the body of Christ; then we scatter for worship - the honouring of God with the whole of our lives. Mark Ashton's words have stuck in my mind: we want to build one another up to go on believing God's Word for one more week, to go on living God's way for one more week, and to go on worshipping God in the whole of our lives for one more week.

(Copyright Evangelicals Now)