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On 'Going to Church'


The number of "unchurched" people is growing in our American culture. As the "unchurched" in our culture increase, and as people become more distant to "church culture," they will lose their acquaintance with the vitality and purpose of "going to church." Indeed, it is already lost to many. Only about 20% of Americans attend a worship assembly on Sunday morning (yet better than England's 3-5%). And even some of those who attend have lost the vitality and transcendent purpose of that assembly. "Church" has become a mere social experience ("I have friends there"), a familial obligation ("Grandmom is there"), a form of entertainment ("I enjoy the choir"), a duty to be performed ("I'm obeying God's command to assemble"), or a source of security ("We feel comfortable here"). While many have not reduced their assemblies to these social conventions, unless we understand the significance of "going to church" we are never very far from some kind of reductionism.

It is not surprising, then, that "going to church" has become rather distorted in the present climate. It is sometimes difficult to discern what that phrase means for people and how they conceive this thing called "church." What does "going to church" mean? Why should we "go to church" anyway? What happens "at church" that is so important?

There is a sense in which the phrase "going to church" is unfortunate. If we mean that we go to an assembly where the people of God are gathered to worship God, then the phrase is harmless because in that sense we do "go to church," that is, we go to an assembly. However, I fear that is not how most people perceive the phrase. Instead, it has the subtle effect of segregating daily life (Monday through Saturday) from Sunday religion. It tends to promote a dichotomy between life and worship; between secular and sacred. It compartmentalizes "church" into one sphere and life into another so that there is little relationship between the two. To "go to church" on Sunday tends to imply that we are not church people on Monday through Saturday. "Church," then, becomes restricted to Sunday activities in the corporate assembly. "Worship" or "going to church" becomes exclusively identified with Sunday assemblies. Some, then, tend to think they are dedicated servants of God if they are present for their congregation's worship on most Sundays, or merely present for Easter or Christmas celebrations. In this sense the phrase "going to church" is unfortunate.

Worship is much more than the corporate assembly. Worship is the submission and sacrifice of our lives for the purpose of glorying God in everything we do. Worship is our total life response to God's creative and redemptive acts. In worship we offer our lives as a sacrifice before God in response to God's work for us. It is the orientation of our very being through the recognition of who we are as God's people whom he has created to share communion with him. Everything about our life is oriented and dedicated to the glory and honor of God. All of life is worship because all of life is devoted to God's glory.

This is a consistent theme in the New Testament. Perhpas the most significant text for this understanding is Romans 12:1-2.

Therefore, 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. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Paul parallels the Old Testament offering of a sacrificial animal--an act of worship--with the offering of our own bodies as a liturgical act. In response to what God has done, in view of his mercy, we offer ourselves--our bodies, the whole of our lives--to God as our response of worship. This involves our transformation according to the pattern of God's will as we live it out over against the pattern of the world. As God's people, we are a "spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:5).

Conversion means that everything about is us now dedicated to God. It entails our transformation into the character of God according to the pattern of his Son's image (Romans 8:29-30). Consequently, Paul is able to talk about every aspect of our lives as dedicated to God's glory and honor. "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). Paul almost repeats himself in Colossians 3:17, "Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." These texts certainly reflect that all of life is worship. Everything we say or do is offered as a sacrifice to God's glory. Paul has extended the ritualistic sacrificial language of the Old Testament to include the whole of the believer's life.

In fact, ministry (e.g., benevolent activity) is as much worship as singing praises to God or confessing Jesus with our lips. Both are sacrifices offered to God. Hebrews 13:15-16 describes both with liturgical language. Both praise and benevolence are sacrifices to God:

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise--the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for such sacrifices God is pleased.
There is no essential liturgical/sacrifical difference between praising God with our lips and sharing our possessions with others. Both are sacrifices to God. Both are worship. Whether I am singing praises to God as part of a corporate assembly or buying a homeless person a meal, I am worshipping God. Whether I am confessing the name of Jesus through song in an assembly or helping a widow pay her rent, I am worshipping God. Our life is our worshipful response to God. Religion is not merely "going to church," but rather it is living a life worthy of the gospel according to the pattern of life that God has shown us in Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:27).

Sometimes this New Testament attitude ("all of life is worship") is contrasted with the Old Testament. This is unfortunate and misleading. When Old Testament worshippers offered their sacrifices, they offered lambs, goats, doves or some other gift to God. These animals or gifts were tokens and symbols of devoted lives. They were symbols of a broken heart and a sacrificed life. The Old Testament worshippers offered their worship through the gift of sacrifice as a symbol of their own dedication to God. The animal sacrifice symbolized the sacrifice of their own lives. Without the life of worship, without a holy lifestyle, any particular act of animal sacrifice was meaningless. Even in the Old Testament, all of life was worship.

For example, Psalm 40 reflects what God really wants when his worshippers come before him. The burnt offering is not what God ultimately desires. He wants what the burnt offering symbolizes--he wants a life dedicated to do his will (40:6-8):

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
   but my ears you have pierced
burnt offerings and sin offerings
   you did not require
Then I said, "Here I am, I have come--
   it is written about me in the scroll,
I desire to do your will, O my God;
   your law is within my heart."

The important point about a sacrifice is the life one brings before God. God values pierced ears more than the sacrifice. The pierced ears were a symbol of a life-long pledge on the part of a servant to a master (cf. Exodus 21:6; Deuteronomy 15:17). In other words, God values a person's life-long service more than any particular burnt offering. God values a heart that is dedicated to doing the will of God. This is the worship that God desires.

Another example is Micah 6. God prosecutes Judah for their failure to keep the law despite God's redemptive blessings at the Red Sea and at the Jordan River ("Gilgal"). God lodges a "charge against Israel" (Micah 6:2). The people respond by asking: "With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?" (Micah 6:6). What does God want? What worship should I offer God? Does he want burnt offerings, or thousands of rams or rivers of oil (as in 2 Chronicles 30:24)? Does he want my firstborn son (as worshippers of Molech offered)? No, Micah declares, God has already told you what he wants (Micah 6:8):

He has showed you, O man, what is good.
  And what does the Lord require of you?
    To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

What does God want you to offer him? He wants a life that is dedicated to justice, mercy and faithfulness (the "weightier matters of the law," Matthew 23:23). This is the worship we offer to God, and the sacrifices we bring (the praises we offer) are meaningless unless this life lies behind our specific acts of worship.

When we "go to church" we must go as a people who have lived dedicated lives before God. We bring our lives into the corporate assembly as sacrificial offerings. Just as God did not accept the solemn assemblies of Israel because their lives did not reflect God's life (cf. Isaiah 1:10-17; Amos 5:21-27; Jeremiah 7:1-15) so also when we "go to church" God will not accept our praises if we have not reflected his character throughout the week. Our Sunday worship is unacceptable if our Monday-to-Saturday lives do not reflect the sacrificial character of our hearts. We cannot sit at the Lord's table on Sunday and then sit at the table of demons during the rest of the week (1 Corinthians 10:21-22). No dichotomy should exist between our lives and our participation in the corporate worship. God will accept our broken lives when we come to him in humility and seek his forgiveness, but he will not accept the arrogant worship of one whose life is inconsistent with his own.

The Worship Assembly

While all of life is worship, there is still a special sense in which worship is the focus of the corporate assembly of God's people. The people of God gather to worship God. This dual sense of worship--one referring to all of life and the other referring to the assembly of God's people--is present in the Old Testament. Psalm 40:6-8, as noted above, teaches that our obedient life is a sacrifice to God's honor, but it also expects that God's people will gather to praise God. The Psalmist will testify to God's grace in the assembly of God's people (40:9-10):

I proclaim righteousness in the great assembly
   I do not seal my lips, as you know, O Lord
I do not hide your righteousness in my heart
   I speak of your faithfulness and salvation
   I do not conceal your love and your truth from the great assembly.

The Psalmist expects to express his confidence in God and to praise God in an assembly of God's people. There he will testify to God's righteousness and faithfulness. There he will testify to how God has rescued him from the "slimy pit" (Psalm 40:2), and how he now has a new song of praise that he sings in the great assembly (Psalm 40:3). Psalm 40, and the Old Testament in general, holds the tension between "all of life is worship" and "the worship assembly" in wonderful balance. It is not an either/or dichotomy, but a both/and reality.

When Israel gathered as a "great assembly" they remembered the "day of assembly" (Deuteronomy 4:10; 9:10; 18:16)--the day Israel entered into covenant with God at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-24). On that day Israel became an assembly of God, a church of God (cf. Acts 7:38). In light of their covenant with God, Israel gathered regularly in "holy assemblies." Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28-29 detail the different kinds of "holy assemblies" to which Israel was called. These included the Sabbath, the Passover, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Trumpets, the Feast of Tabernacles and the Day of Atonement. Israel also gathered as an assembly at various special times or events, like the dedication of the Tabernacle (Exodus 35:1), donations for the Temple (1 Chronicles 29:1,10,20), the dedication of the Temple (2 Chronicles 5:2,3; 6:3,12,18; 7:8) and at covenant renewals (2 Chronicles 29:23-32; 30:2,4,13,17,21-25; Nehemiah 8:1,18). God created Israel as a people for himself who would glorify him and commune with him. He created a people who would share God's dwelling place as God's assembly (cf. Leviticus 26:11-12). Indeed, Israel was destined to be an "assembly of peoples" (Genesis 28:3; 35:11; 48:4) which all nations would eventually join. The prophets of Israel saw a day when all the nations would gather with Israel in Jerusalem to worship as a great assembly (cf. Isaiah 2:2-3; 30:3-5; Zechariah 14:16).

Worship assemblies, then, were integral to the life of Israel. The Psalms often presuppose a gathering of God's people. Indeed, we might envision the Psalter as the hymnbook or prayer book of the assemblies of Israel (see Psalms 22:22,25; 26:12; 35:18; 89:5; 107:32; 111:1). The Psalms call for God's people to "sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of his saints" (Psalm 149:1). Or, "Praise God in the great congregation; praise the Lord in the assembly of Israel" (Psalm 68:26). The assembly of Israel is the gathering of God's people for the purpose of honoring and praising him (cf. Psalm 50:5,23). Israel gathered to worship God. Israel gathered as God's old covenant church. There Israel entered into the presence of God, or, as the Hebrew literally says, Israel went "before the face of God" (cf. Deuteronomy 26:10; 1 Samuel 1:19; Ezekiel 46:3,9; Psalm 22:27; 86:9; 1 Chronicles 16:29; 20:18). Psalms 95-100 illustrate this emphasis. We come before the "face" of God when we gather to worship him (Psalm 95:2; 96:6,9,13; 98:6,9; 100:2). We enter the presence of God.

Worship within the corporate assembly, then, is our response to the presence of God among his gathered people. It is where God by grace makes himself present to his gathered people, and his gathered people respond through faith when they offer their gifts of praise to him which flow from their lives of submission and service to him. God is both the subject and the object of this worship. God as subject makes himself present to his people and receives their worship. "Worship," then, according to Robert Wenz [Room for God? A Worship Challenge for a Church Growth and Marketing Era (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 69], "is active communion with God in which believers by grace and through faith focus their [wills' direction (JMH)], hearts' affection and minds' attention on humbly glorifying God in response to his character, his acts and his Word" as we lift our eyes beyond the finitude and fallenness of this world to God's throne room. The gathered assembly focuses their attention on the God who sits on his throne. They enter his presence. They "go to church" to be part of God's assembly that goes before the face of God where God makes himself present to his people. Worship is that entrance into the presence of God where communion is experienced. From the worship of Israel, the nations would learn to come, fall down and worship before the face of God (Psalm 86:9). In like manner they now learn through the worship of the church. Christians invite all nations to "go to church" with them.

The New Testament concept of "church" is partly rooted in the Old Testament idea of "assembly." Hebrews 12:18-21 reminds us that on Israel's "day of assembly" it gathered at Mount Sinai in the presence of God. Analogously, when the church gathers in an assembly (Hebrews 10:22-25), it gathers in the presence of God, but the significance of the church's gathering is greater than Israel's. We come into the presence of God as his eschatological community (Hebrews 12:22-24):

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

When the people of God assemble, they assemble in God's presence. Their gathering becomes holy ground. We draw near to God by entering his heavenly dwelling place through the blood of Jesus Christ. We enter the city of the living God where thousands of angels and the spirits of the faithful are gathered around the throne of God. We enter heaven itself to worship God. So as saints around the world gather to worship God, we are all gathered at the same place, that is, we are assembled in the throne room of God. We are assembled on Mount Zion where his angels and saints serve him day and night. In our worship assemblies, as the song says, "We are standing on holy ground. And I know that there are angels all around." When we come to Mount Zion, we assemble before God with his angels, heavenly saints and earthly pilgrims. We assemble, however, for the purpose of worshipping God.

The language of Hebrews 10:19-25 is important for understanding the meaning of assembling as God's people. Through the blood of Christ we have access to the heavenly sanctuary of God's presence; we enter the Holy of Holies. Because we have this access to the heavenly sanctuary, (1) we draw near to God, (2) we hold fast our profession of faith; and (3) we keep on caring for one another as we assemble together regularly. To "draw near to God" (used also in Hebrews 4:16; 7:25; 10:1,22; 11:6; 12:18,22) is liturgical language. Its Old Testament meaning is to approach God in worship (such as at sacrifices and sacrificial meals; cf. Exodus 12:48; 16:9; Leviticus 9:5-8; 21:17-23; Numbers 16:40; 18:3-4,22; 1 Samuel 14:36). We draw near to God just as the priests of the Old Testament did (Hebrews 10:1). We enter God's presence to worship him as we offer our gifts. We draw near in a covenantal relationship which was enacted when we had our hearts sprinkled with his blood and our bodies washed in water. To "draw near" to God is to enter into his presence. It is to come before the face of God as an assembly of God's people.


The assembly of God's people means that we worship God, we confess our hope and we encourage each other (Hebrews 10:22-25). The assembly of God's people in his presence anticipates a future assembly around the throne of God when God will fully dwell with his people in the new Jerusalem on the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21:1-4). There we shall see the face of God and serve him day and night. Revelation 7 provides a picture of this eschatological gathering where "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language" stands before the throne of God (7:9). This great multitude cried in a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb" (7:10). They have had their robes washed in the blood of the Lamb (7:14), and "they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them" (7:15).

When the people of God gather, we experience the presence of God. We remember the history of God's involvement with his people and we anticipate heaven's eschatological assembly. The people of God are encouraged by God's presence and they encourage each other. The people of God worship their God, and they edify the body. Worship has both a vertical (offered to God) and an horizontal (mutual encouragement) aspect. Both are a function of the gathering of God's people. Indeed, we are mutually encouraged by being together in God's presence. That is why we "go to church."


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