God’s Word regulates all aspects of his people’s lives. This idea is often referred to as the regulative principle in theological circles. This principal not only affects individual lives, but the activity of churches. According to Scripture, local churches are meant to gather and worship. Overseers and church members are directed by scriptural commands and broader principles in regards to what to do in those gatherings. The examples recorded in the New Testament are also instructional guides, of sorts.
Biblical Direction Transcends Culture
Scripture doesn’t give a specific checklist of activities for church gatherings. Nor does it provide culturally appropriate application of scriptural worship activities for every cultural context in the world. The Bible does, however, provide all that church planters and leaders need to know about ordering local church gatherings in any context, at any time, in any place. Clear direction is the result of leadership that faithfully teaches and emphasizes the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture for determining what a church does when it gathers for worship.
The Bible provides all we need to know about ordering local church gatherings in any context, at any time, in any place.
Biblical Direction Encourages Right Worship
Church planters should understand and teach what is unacceptable worship according to scriptural teaching. They should also show what to aim for in Christian worship gatherings.
Prior to Christ’s ascension, God’s people gathered for worship with prescribed sacrifices, types, and symbols that were ultimately fulfilled in Christ, the true tabernacle, temple, and sacrifice (Heb. 1–10). So, though Christians don’t follow Old Testament commands for gathered worship, they do apply broader principles related to worshiping God acceptably (idolatry is still wrong, for example.)
Throughout the Bible, we find plenty of broad or general commands related to the life of believers and how they are to live, including how they are to worship together. Just as idolatry is prohibited, so are prideful displays of self-righteousness and expressions of worship that don’t reflect heart motives.
Thankfulness, humility, sincerity, God-glorifying and Christ-exalting activities and expressions that are consistent with God’s Word are to characterize all the gathered worship of God’s people in a local church. Furthermore, Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, who were church planters in pioneer contexts, include instructions relevant to oversight and gatherings in local churches. These brief but important letters cannot be ignored.
Worship should be Christ-centered and Word-centered.
Biblical Direction Encourages Christ-Centered Worship
We can be certain that local church worship gatherings should be Christ-centered and Word-centered. Since God’s Word should regulate the entire life of the believer, and since Christ is the life-giver in the local church, all specific worship gatherings should have Christ and his Word at the center.
It seems wise for a church planter in any culture to explain, encourage, and instruct a local church to order worship gatherings so that the following five activities are included. Each can be done in manners consistent with cultural context and with the broader scriptural teachings on worship.
- Read the Bible
Read, recite, or even listen to audio of the Bible, and explain its meaning with simple, clear application to all the various life situations represented, both individual and corporate.
- Sing the Bible
Psalms and other Scripture may be put to simple, culturally appropriate tunes or sung or chanted a Capella without musical accompaniment.
- Pray the Bible
Psalms is the prayer book of the church. Also, search all the New Testament instructions about how and what to pray for and do that when you gather.
- Show the Bible
Regularly celebrate the Lord’s Supper and baptize in a corporate setting whenever possible (see note below).
- Live out the Bible
Gather as a church to carry out the many one-another interactions and ministries as expressions of love for God and one another.
Examples of Biblically-Directed Worship
In Acts, we find a variety of local church gatherings as well as different activities in some of those gatherings. Those patterns and examples are instructive but are not to be understood as indicating required activities for every church gathering. (See this document for representative examples of what local New Testament churches did when gathered together.)
First Corinthians 14 also addressed problems in Corinth related to their corporate gatherings, which leads us to draw two clear conclusions about corporate worship. First, whatever the believers do and say should be intelligible and understandable to those in that local church gathering. Second, the local believers act and speak with the goal of edifying others and honoring Christ.
Worship should be intelligible to those in that local church gathering. Local believers should act and speak with the goal of edifying others and honoring Christ.
Gathered worship builds up the believers. When the local church gathers for worship, it’s not about one’s self and what the individual consumes in worship. It’s about Christ and building up others.
The church gathered in different ways for different purposes, including prayer and fasting (Acts 13). Several New Testament examples indicate that gatherings were participatory in nature, and so at least some local church gatherings should facilitate orderly, intelligible, edifying participation.
Biblical Direction Allows Room for Appropriate, Culturally Adaptable Flexibility
Even if Scripture doesn’t answer every specific question about worship gatherings in cross-cultural contexts, it does provide plenty of general direction. In a cross-cultural context, it is wisest to explain faithfully and patiently what the New Testament says that specifically relates to church worship gatherings. It is also necessary to teach how the broad principles apply to church worship gatherings just as they apply to the life of each Christ follower. With that biblical understanding, the church and its overseers will prayerfully determine what that local church does in its gatherings for worship and order their gatherings according to the Word.
R. E. Cline helps train mobilized Christians headed to cities overseas. Find him on Twitter @RobertAndRona.
A note on the Lord’s Supper in worship:
In First Corinthians 11, we find instructions about how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. When the local church gathers for worship, bread is broken and a cup with fruit of the vine is drunk in remembrance of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice for sinners and also as a proclamation of the gospel until he returns. We show-and-tell the gospel when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Church planters will want to explain and instruct the meaning of the Lord’s Supper clearly from Scripture and encourage regular observance of that ordinance.