Shaped by What We Do Together
Dinnertime is a big deal in my family. It’s the main time each day when we pause from all the work, chores, ballet practice, and crayons to focus on one another.
On the surface, our meal probably looks like the one enjoyed by millions of families. But if you watched us, you would notice a few distinct things that make us Merkers— that express our “Merkerness.” For instance, we are believers in Jesus, so we pray and thank God for the food. My wife is Italian-American, so we often eat the most amazing pasta that you’ve ever tasted. You would notice the inside jokes, the unspoken rules, the family traditions, and the silly antics that make us us.
Who we are as a family shapes what we do. Then what we do when we gather around the family table shapes who we are. Our meal flows from and reinforces our family identity.
It’s different when I eat dinner alone. If the rest of my family is sick or away on a trip, I can consume the same nutrients while watching television and listening to heavy metal. There are fewer dishes and spilled peas to clean up. But—and it’s an important “but”—I don’t come away with the same wonderful afterglow. The meal may feed my belly, but it doesn’t bind me to the people I love most. Worshiping God together as a church is like a family dinner. It’s an essentially corporate thing. Christians are called to offer God our whole individual lives as worshipful sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). But when we gather as a congregation, something unique happens: we enjoy Christ, exalt God, and edify one another together as his covenant people.
The whole is more than the sum of the parts.
The nature of the church shapes what corporate worship is. The church’s worship, in turn, forms and reinforces our corporate identity. So, in order to understand worship, we need to understand the local church. Many conversations about worship treat the how questions. How do we contextualize? What style of music should we use? Organ or rock band? How loud should the speakers be? These aren’t unimportant questions, but if they’re the main focus, we’ll miss something crucial. The more fundamental question is a who question: who is worshiping?1 Our ecclesiology (our doctrine of the church) and our doxology (our doctrine of worship) shape and reinforce one another.As with my family meals, who we are as a church shapes our gatherings, and our gatherings shape who we are.
The Corporate Nature of Salvation
God has always related to his people not only as individuals but also as a corporate body. In Genesis, he calls both Abraham and his family. In Exodus, he rescues this family, Israel, and makes them “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). What do priests do? They worship. They mediate God’s presence and consecrate what’s holy. By calling the whole people a “kingdom of priests,” God gave them a priestly commission—to be a worshiping, mediating, consecrated people.
The rest of the Old Testament is the history of this nation set apart for God’s glory. Though God would ultimately hold each Israelite responsible for his or her own sin (Ezek. 18:1–20), he dealt with them as a people knit together by his covenant.
It’s no surprise, then, that when Jesus arrives on the scene, he highlights the corporate nature of the people he came to save. “I will build my church,” he says (Matt. 16:18). He tells his followers to “gather in my name” (Matt. 18:20). Paul affirms that Jesus “died for us” (Rom. 5:8; 1 Thess. 5:10). Christ “loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25).
Ephesians 2 is one of the places where Scripture most clearly emphasizes the corporate nature of our salvation. Verses 1 to 10 famously describe how God gives new life by grace to those who trust in Jesus. He reconciles us to himself vertically. But verses 11 to 22 tell the second half of the story, which involves a horizontal reconciliation. Not only were we dead in sins and deserving of God’s righteous condemnation, we were also “strangers,” “alienated” from God’s covenant people (Eph. 2:12–13). The good news? “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” And the result in verse 19 is corporate: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
A sinner who repents and trusts in Christ isn’t only born again. He’s born into a new family. The horizontal follows the vertical.
Peter teaches us the same thing. He makes the receiving of God’s mercy parallel with becoming a people, as seen when we reset the verse in poetic format:
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Pet. 2:10)
The two things happen together.
This people, this family, becomes visible today in local churches. Though all believers in all times belong to the heavenly “assembly” of the universal church (Heb. 12:23), Jesus established the local church to show the world who his worshipers are.
A sinner who repents and trusts in Christ isn’t only born again. He’s born into a new family.
That should lead us to ask, what is a church? The early Protestant Reformers answered by pointing to a congregation gathered for the right preaching of the gospel and the proper administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The early Baptists emphasized the “mutual agreement” or covenant among those gathered. Here’s how I would summarize: A local church is an assembly of blood-bought, Spirit-filled worshipers who build one another up by God’s Word and affirm one another as citizens of Christ’s kingdom through the ordinances. This means that being a Christian—a worshiper of God—entails identifying with God’s worshiping people. You’ve been adopted into his family. So when you sit down to the dinner table of corporate worship, you don’t do so alone. Since salvation is corporate, worship is corporate.
- Of course, there is another vital who question: Whom do Christians worship? The answer is the triune God, our Creator and Redeemer, who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. To understand worship, we must know the one true God. Thankfully, many books on worship stress God-centeredness. I’m going to focus on the other who question, the question of who’s doing the worshiping, because I think it’s relatively underappreciated today. For more on the importance of theology proper (the doctrine of God) in worship, see, e.g., Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters: Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 61–87; D. A. Carson, “Worship under the Word,” in Worship By the Book, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 26–33; Michael Lawrence and Mark Dever, “Blended Worship,” in Perspectives on Christian Worship: Five Views, ed. J. Matthew Pinson (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 226–230.
Matt Merker is the author of Corporate Worship: How the Church Gathers as God’s People.
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