Thursday, October 15, 2009

Worship thoughts Pt.3: Why "Corporate" Matters

OK, sorry for the delay in getting to this. Busy busy.

I finally finished tracking the children’s record a couple of days ago. Keith is starting the mix, and hopefully we’ll be printing and releasing the sucker very soon. I’ll keep you posted.

Anyway, continuing on in my multi-part series on worship and worship leading (the other stuff I’ve written so far is here and here), today we’re going to talk about gathering together in a “corporate” (communal, group, lots-of-people-in-one-place, etc) context, and why the “corporate gathering” is important and unique in the realm of singing and God-worship.

This will probably be the least music-related of all my worship thoughts. Many of you know that I have very specific views on the Church. This will speak more to that than it will to music, specifically.

Let me be clear from the outset and say this. When I use the word “corporate,” I don’t have any particular size of form or method in mind. I am simply referring to the fact that it’s always been good and right for believers to get together and worship God, as a group, sharing the same time and space. I have opinions about “institutional church” (whatever that means) and “traditional church” (again, whatever that means), etc. But I’m not going to go into that here.

How do I know that corporate gatherings are good and right? Well, we sure have lots of scripture passages devoted to how to meet and live and be together. Aside from the rather famous passages like 1 Cor 12-14 and Romans 12, one could argue that aside from a handful of New Testament books, the entire New Testament was written to read to a large group. And by “large,” I just mean more than 2-3 folks.

And as for singing together, the word “sing” appears, as an instruction and/or command, more than any other word in the Bible. And –especially in the Psalms – you have loads and loads of text and subtext devoted to song leaders, music leaders, and worship leaders. If there are leaders, then the assumption would be that there are followers. And that adds up to a group.

So, I doubt anyone here has serious arguments against any of this basic doctrine of group-gathering-for-the-glory-of-God, but in case you do, post something in the comments or email me and we can hash that out. Despite how opinionated I sound, I really am willing to engage some disagreeing dialogue. Bring it on and maybe we'll all come out smarter.

For now, I’ll move on to the specific topic at hand. I’m a worship leader, rather than a Bible scholar or an ecclesiology expert, but today I’m going to attempt to speak outside of my normal wheelhouse a little.

Basically, here’s what I’d like to propose. Simply this: that the “just me and God” view of worship is, at best, incomplete and, at worst, a little dangerous. And because that view is inadequate, the best thing for Jesus followers to do is to continue to meet together – often and with intentionality – for worship of the Lord (which includes singing) as one body.

Make sense? I'll explain a little further, just in case.

At various times in the early years of my spiritual journey, I heard two principles over and over again.

The first was usually posed as a rather loaded question, and it went something like this:

“If you were alone on a deserted island, and all you had was your relationship with Jesus, would that be enough?”

Sometimes it was the same question, only all you had was your Bible on the deserted island.

When asked this question, you were supposed to be able to say yes. And so of course any time you felt like you weren’t at a place where you could say yes to this question, you were supposed to feel sufficiently guilty/convicted, and said guilt/conviction was supposed to compel you do some stuff that would get you to a place where you could say yes.

Let me give you some free advice before I dive into this. If anyone ever poses a question to you that is supposed to be a litmus test for your spiritual legitimacy, make sure that question has nothing to do with a deserted island. In fact, make sure it has to do with something that is actually practical and real and applicable to life. Why? Well, I have never known anyone who has ever spent significant time on a deserted island, and I would venture to guess that most of you haven’t either. And I don’t anticipate that I, or anyone else that I know, will ever spend time alone on a deserted island. If I did think this possibility was in my future, honestly, I would probably be worrying a lot more about how to make an ocean-worthy raft out of bamboo or how to start a fire with my bare hands or how to survive consuming only palm fronds and saltwater.

I’m not at all ashamed to say that the possibility of being on a deserted island compels me to learn how to be Bear Grylls more than it does to memorize Bible verses or meditate on Jesus with more intensity. Perhaps this makes me a bad Christian. If the point of being on a deserted island is to die and go very quickly from the island to heaven, then I suppose I get the logic. Otherwise…

The point I’m trying to make is that the proposition of spending life in some sort of societal vacuum is sort of ridiculous and inconceivable. It’s certainly unlikely and impractical. So why were people always asking me if I loved Jesus enough to pull it off?

I don’t really know the answer. I think it probably had something to do with the fear that all of us were simply claiming Jesus as our Savior out of some kind of peer pressure or family tradition. I understand that fear. But – and here’s a little more free advice – if I were you, I’d always be a little wary of developing a spiritual ethic around fear of what people might do. Legalism is nearly always the only fruit that that seed will bear. And in this case, I think that fear drove some folks to over-individualize the idea of conversion and sanctification.

All I’m trying to say is that the "deserted island" question – and the answer it was meant to provoke – serves to pull us toward a conclusion that has little value in the life that most of the world lives or will live or should live. Are we going to have times of solitude, some voluntary and some not, in our lives? Absolutely. Can those times be good and growth-intensive periods for us? Definitely. Will we need to have certain spiritual strengths in order to persevere thru those times? Yes. But “just me and God” is certainly not a picture of the primary way that we are to relate to and grow with God thru the course of our lives.

And I would argue that it’s not the primary way we are to express ourselves in worship either. Some of you will disagree with me on that point, and that’s okay.

Before I move on, let me quickly address the second principle that I repeatedly encountered as a young believer.

It went like this:
“If you were the only one who would ever get saved, Jesus would have still died on the cross, just for you, to get you into heaven.”

I promise I’m not trying to be controversial here, but this is, strictly speaking, not a biblical idea. Sorry. Is it absolutely wrong or heretical? I don’t think so. But it’s just not biblically supportable. Yes, Jesus died and rose again to save sinners. But just as important (if not more so) is the fact that Jesus died and rose again to establish His Church and to empower His Kingdom.

The simple fact is that the Bible never says anything like “if it was only you, He still would’ve endured the cross.” That idea can be inferred from scripture, but it’s not a clearly expressed idea in the text.

I don’t know for a fact that He wouldn’t have died to save just one person. And I’m not even saying that it’s a bad philosophical proposition. I’m just saying that we don’t know it to be true. And worse, there’s really not a lot of reason to tell people that. Again, I understand why people went around saying it. I suppose they wanted us all to know that we were specifically known and loved – as individuals – by the Lord God. I agree with that, and the Bible agrees as well. After all, we were knit together in out mothers’ wombs and fearfully made and such.

But the downside to that way of thinking is that it further drives us – like the earlier principle – into a view of our faith as some sort of purely (or at least primarily) individualized endeavor. And that’s just not the case.

You see, we were meant to see ourselves as a collective, “Chosen People.” As a royal priesthood, a holy nation, etc. I am not The Body of Christ in the world. We are. I am not the Bride of the coming Jesus. We are.

We were meant to need each other. We are actually made to need each other. Many of you have heard this before, but in the early part of Genesis, everything that God did was followed with “and it was good” or “and it was very good.” The first “not good” moment was when the Lord looked at Adam and said “it’s not good for a man to be alone.”

And that’s been true ever since. What was Jesus’ prayer in the garden before His crucifixion (John 17)? “… that they [we] be perfectly one,” as He and the Father were one. And what did Jesus, in that same prayer, say would be the most legitimizing factor of Jesus as Messiah and King? Our love for each other.

So, why does “corporate” matter? It matters because when we meet together, we are drawing upon an aspect of our relationship with the Lord that cannot be accessed without the Body. It matters because it gives us a chance to love each other and serve each other and give each other money and put others before ourselves. It matters because, when we sing together, we are saying that we all agree about who God is and who we are. It matters because it forces us to sing along even when the style of music isn’t our favorite. It matters because it challenges us to use our hands and bodies and voices in ways that aren’t the most comfortable to us.

This leads me to my final point. When we all get together to worship, it’s okay if some people stand and some people sit and some people raise hands and some people dance and some people don’t do anything. That’s okay. But it’s not the way it should always be, all the time. Sometimes we should just all do the same thing, as a way of saying “this isn’t about me, this is about us.”

And our level of expression before the Lord shouldn’t always be rooted in what is “comfortable” or “natural” to each of us. Sometimes we should do the exact opposite of what is “natural” simply because the Kingdom of God is a place where first things are last and humble things are exalted. Sometimes we should resist our urges to be “who we are,” simply because you are not your own.

We should always always always be open to the Lord calling us out of our comfort zones, privately and publicly. If you say “well, I will never lift my hands in worship because that’s just not my way,” you’re in trouble. I don’t know any other way to say it. Be careful with that kind of talk. It has no place in the Kingdom. Other than outright sins, Jesus followers aren’t allowed to have “I will never” in their vocabulary.

And that is what is so dangerous about the “just me and God” mentality. It insulates us from the differences between us and other Christ followers. We need to be around other people to remind us that the Body of Christ is made up of many parts, and all the parts need each other. We need to be around other people to see them dancing while we are standing still; to see them sitting in sober silence with their eyes closed when we are singing at the top or our lungs.

When we worship together, we do something emotional and vulnerable together. When does that happen in life? We need that. It shapes us and molds us and reminds us that other people are just as important as we are. And that they are just as messed up as we are. And if we’re open and willing, it reveals to us more of God’s power and Kingdom thru His people.

So, it’s absolutely okay for you and me to sit alone in our closets and worship in isolation with the Lord. In many ways, that taps into a hugely valuable (maybe even essential) aspect of our relationship with God and His Spirit. But if that’s the only way – or even the primary way – that we relate to God, we are missing out on the fullness of what He has for us in worship.

And if you’re a worship leader, this overarching view of the Kingdom -- and the gathering church -- is key to doing your “job” well. Singing together matters. Lifting our hands together matters. Giving our money together matters. Praying together matters. Agreeing together matters. Being emotional together matters.

Corporate matters.



freetosing said...

I think you are right about this stuff.

If you ever need some inspiration for another blog entry, perhaps you could address your thoughts on how some people use prayer to speak/teach to each other where it is not just a them-God thing. I mean the people who tend to talk almost as much or more to the group when they pray aloud. I would like to know what you think about that.

Marci said...

Good stuff. I've had people tell mebefore that they don't go to church because they believe they can worship God anywhere, just the two of them. And while that's right, I've never really thought about what it is that pulls me towards going to church, other than it's implied in scripture that we should. But we're not meant to run this race on our own, because then it gets into the thought that we're the only one running. I really liked your thoughts on how personal expression is great, but "Sometimes we should just all do the same thing, as a way of saying 'this isn’t about me, this is about us.'" It's given me some things to chew on for a few days.

Johnny! said...

I'd push it even further but you're definitely right.

Nothing makes me crazier than "just turn your seat there into your private sanctuary." I've sat on many a drum throne thinking, "No, don't do that. Please don't do that. Discern the Body."

What you're really hitting on here is the Trinitarian nature of worship. True worshippers worship the Father in Spirit (the Holy Ghost) and Truth (the Son). Communion is an inescapable concept. Unity and diversity in balance is too. These things are necessary.

LP said...

Stellar post as always, Ross...

Jesus went away "alone" to pray & fast on a number of occasions. And He (apparently) spent a lot of the rest of His time with the disciples and in crowds teaching & the like.

And I think He says to worship as a body (not exclusively but mostly) because we as people do have a tendency to isolate out of our own unhealthy processing in ways that isn't healthy for any-Body. Since there's nowhere we can go where He isn't, it seems like more of an accountability/checks & balance system deal, as well as a support & strength issue where we benefit from "corporate" (as you've defined it) worship.

I think a lot of aversion to the corporate Jesus comes from people feeling like they HAVE to believe in & worship the exact explanation in the Corporation's words of who God is as the corporate church defines. Sometimes it feels like you can't ask your own questions. That makes some people want to say, "I love being here with you guys, but ultimately I have to personally know Him with the me He made me to be & not the corporate me I feel like you want me to be."

What I am saying is: Go off on your own for a smidge when you need it, but come back & be in the Body that misses & needs the part that He created you to be. Body parts don't do well out on their own.