What Is So Special About Worshipping Together

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve refused to wear my pajamas to watch my church’s livestream. Every week, I get dressed in my usual Sunday best. I fix my hair. I even put on makeup. I don’t do this out of vanity or pharisaism (I hope), but out of a desire to set apart the activity of worship. It just feels more like church if I’m wearing a dress.

Like my clothing, many other aspects of my Sundays haven’t changed. My church streams its regular morning and evening worship services, and I tune in to both. We even have a Zoom congregational fellowship time in the afternoon, and members drink coffee and swap stories. Instead of being spiritually stranded by stay-at-home orders, I’ve actually enjoyed both teaching and fellowship.

In some ways, my spiritual well-being may even seem better because of quarantine. From the comfort of my home, sermons preached by widely respected pastors, global prayer meetings, weekly family worship with professional musicians, and countless online communities of theologically astute and deeply thoughtful Christians can be instantly streamed to my nearest device. I’ve benefited from all of them.

But now the time has come to think about regathering with the local church, and it’s easy to wonder if it’s worth it. I haven’t been deprived of content or community in this season, and sitting in my living room is certainly more convenient than wrangling four children out the door to church. Also, I haven’t forgotten that the local church gathering is often unremarkable and ordinary—the same people doing the same things with little visible fruit, week after week.

When I can easily listen to an outstanding sermon, or sing hymns with concert musicians, or receive immediate encouragement from likeminded friends, why bother to leave the house? When I can get (almost) all the goods of worship in my living room, why show up on Sunday?

When I can get (almost) all the goods of worship in my living room, why show up on Sunday?

What’s so special about church?

Robust Answer to an Old Question
This is not a new question. And in the 17th century, Puritan David Clarkson offered a robust answer. His sermon “Public Worship to Be Preferred Before Private” helpfully and biblically establishes the priority of church worship.

For context, Clarkson was John Owen’s associate pastor and, later, successor. I first encountered this particular sermon while researching for a book about corporate prayer, and I returned to it for my new book about the local church. But I’m not alone in my discovery; Clarkson’s work has been commended by eminent theologians from Richard Baxter to J. I. Packer.

Like most other Puritans, Clarkson understood that Christians should regularly worship in private (what we might call “personal devotions”), in their families (our “family worship” or “family devotions”), and in public (worship with the gathered, local church). Of those three categories, he identifies public worship as the most important.

Although this sermon is characteristically Puritan in format—the single-verse, 13-word text gives rise to eight introductory points, followed by 12 main points and multiple sub-points (!!)—it contains riches to help modern-day saints get off the couch and back to church.

Church Worship Is the Best Worship
Clarkson argues for the importance of public worship on multiple fronts. For example: it imitates the priorities of God’s people in all ages, it guards us against apostasy, and it brings us close to heaven. You can’t achieve those with a tablet and a WiFi connection.

Three of Clarkson’s points are particularly helpful for our present moment.

  1. ‘The Lord is more glorified by public worship than private.’
    Worship, ultimately, is not about us. It’s about God. We worship at his invitation, according to his command, and for his glory. And while we can—and should!—worship God in our homes, public worship uniquely magnifies him.

“In a multitude of people is the glory of a king,” says Proverbs 14:28—and so it is with our God. We proclaim him to be a king by assembling as his visible kingdom. We loudly declare him to be worthy by gathering to sing his praises. We affirm the goodness of his rule by together submitting to his Word as it’s read and preached.

In public worship, we testify to these truths before the Lord, and we testify to them before the world. We may sing hymns daily in every room of our house, but that worship will always be secret and hidden. On the other hand, an overflowing church building on Sunday morning is not something our unbelieving neighbors can entirely ignore. It stands as a testimony: Jesus is Lord. And it stands as an invitation: Come, and see.

  1. ‘There is more of the Lord’s presence in public worship than in private.’
    It can be natural to feel close to God in private. Far from the rustling bulletins and wiggling children, away from the off-pitch singing and frequent throat-clearing, beyond the constraints of a prescribed order of worship or an awkward Old Testament reading, private worship has a freedom and ease that can give a sense of intimacy with God. And, truly, God does meet with us wherever we call on his name in faith.

But he particularly attaches his promised presence to public worship. Referring to the church, Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20). If we want to experience more of Christ’s presence, we must go to church.

If we want to experience more of Christ’s presence, we must go to church.

There, he is with us by his Spirit. There, he ministers to us by his appointed pastors and elders (Eph. 4:11–13). There, he displays his gifts and graces in his body (1 Cor. 12:12–31). There, he brings us into the loving circle of his family (Matt. 12:49). There, he welcomes us at his table and nourishes us with his own body (1 Cor. 11:24). There, in the church—and only in the church!—we experience all the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13).

  1. ‘Public worship is more edifying than private. In private you provide for your own good, but in public you do good both to yourselves and others.’
    When it’s just me and my playlist, I tend to choose worship songs I enjoy singing. I pray for the needs most pressing on my heart. I search for sermons that address the topics on my mind. I do everything in my power to make sure I’m spiritually satisfied.

Private worship builds me up. Public worship is a chance to build others up.

Private worship builds me up. Public worship is a chance to build others up.

My voice, adding its praises to the congregational chorus, edifies and encourages the people next to me (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). My prayers, joined to the prayers of all the saints, bears the burdens of my Christians brothers and sisters all the way to the throne of God. And when I receive the Word preached—even on a topic I’d never have selected—I’m equipped to serve and love others in all the diverse circumstances of our individual lives.

In the gathering of the local church, we glorify God most, experience him best, and do the greatest good to our neighbors. Is church worth it?

Absolutely.

Megan Hill

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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