By David Shead
What is the “shape” of the corporate worship gathering?
Why don’t we just sing, and nothing else, when we gather for corporate worship?
We need to be careful that, in seeking to understand the importance of corporate singing, we don’t end up distorting our gatherings.
Singing is vitally important, but it isn’t everything. Just as singing has a particular and important contribution to make to our personal and corporate life, so do all the other things we do in church. Paul instructs us to pray together (1 Timothy 2:8), to read the Bible publicly, and to be formally instructed through the teaching of God’s word (1 Timothy 4:13). Singing, therefore, is one thing we do together; prayer is another; receiving God’s word is another still. All of them are given to us for our blessing and strengthening as God’s people.
From time to time, the balance of corporate worship is unfortunately distorted. Church becomes a concert with a passing nod to prayer and the word; or church becomes a Bible lecture with a passing nod to prayer and praise. So we need to understand that healthy corporate worship integrates equal but different elements; that we are doing different things at different times, all of which are necessary in themselves and mustn’t be swamped or marginalised by the other elements.
So when we come together, we come as God’s unified people in Christ to praise and honour him, to hear him speak, to submit ourselves to his will, to entrust ourselves to him, to seek his power for service, to encourage and strengthen each other, and to declare his glory to one another and to the world. Singing can’t do all of this for us, and nor can preaching or corporate prayer. So we always need to be aware that what we are doing together at any particular time is not the whole thing, but that we are engaged in an integrated whole, which I am calling “corporate worship”.
We can, of course worship God “corporately” – that is, together as his people – outside of our Sunday gatherings, e.g., when we do evangelism together or run a community welfare initiative or socialise with each other. These things are no less “worship” or “worshipful” than what we do on Sundays. But what we do on Sundays does have a particular importance and contribution in the context of the whole (especially because that is the primary opportunity we have to sit together under the public proclamation of God’s word), and in order to honour that – and for the sake of convenience! – I am referring to what we do together on Sundays as “corporate worship”.
In our “corporate worship”, we then need to consider how each of the elements and purposes fits together with all the others, and how one thing (e.g., singing) can complement and strengthen another thing (e.g., prayer or Biblical instruction).
Through the history of the church, Christians have recognised that there are a few particularly helpful ways to “shape” our corporate gatherings. For example:
- Call to worship
- Corporate confession of sin and declaration of faith
- Share in communion
- Hearing the Bible read, from Old and New Testaments
- Hearing the Bible taught
- Responding in corporate prayers
- Sending out to serve God in the world
You will notice that singing doesn’t appear on that list! That’s because the content and purpose of singing spans all of those things. It’s not that “music” is an element in its own right that we must create space for in church (as if it were a concert), but that singing is a particularly effective way of supporting and strengthening our corporate confession, declaration, instruction, prayer and gospel service. That’s why we tend to sprinkle our gatherings with singing throughout. Singing is the spice that brings out the full flavour of what we are doing at every point.
For more in this Series:
What is corporate worship? (Part 1 of 9)
Why Sing? (Part 2 of 9)
What is the ‘shape’ of the corporate worship gathering? (this one)
What makes for good and effective singing? (Part 4 of 9)
Five principles for choosing songs (Part 5 of 9)
Choosing Songs – planning (Part 6 of 9)
Choosing Songs – preparation (Part 7 of 9)
Choosing Songs – order (Part 8 of 9)
Choosing New Songs (Part 9 of 9)