Last week I listed seven components of worship that should take place when the church is gathered: fellowship, ordinances, Scripture reading, giving, corporate prayer, preaching, and singing. By itself, this list demonstrates the necessity of being part of a church. If a Christian is not part of a church, he separates himself from not only the means of grace, but the means of worship as well.
This week I want to answer this question: should all seven of them be present in every service? Or, to ask it another way, are any of these seven prioritized over the others? Is every form of corporate worship equal, or are some more equal than others?
Of the seven, fellowship stands out as being the one that cannot really be planned for (while obviously fellowship is aided by the preaching of the word, presumably it cannot be scheduled into the worship service; rather it should take place organically). With the six remaining components, it is also likely that all six cannot be represented in every service.
The reality is that as those six elements are fleshed out, there will be strategic decisions made about how often each takes place, as well as the arraignment of each of them. Hence the question—which of these should be prioritized?
The New Testament repeatedly instructs churches to be devoted to the preaching of the word and the study of the Apostle’s doctrine. For example, Paul says, “Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God” (Col 1:25). He tells the Romans that they were “established by the preaching of Jesus” (Rom 16:25, and preaching in that context is best understood as a genitive of reference—not source, as the Romans had never heard Jesus preach before).
The book of Acts ends with Paul “preaching the kingdom of God” (Acts 28:31), and when he looked back at his own ministry within the churches, it was always a ministry of “going about and preaching the kingdom” (Acts 20:25; cf. Acts 8:4, 15:35—“preaching the word of the Lord”). After being released from jail, the Apostles “Preached Jesus as the Christ” in every meeting of the church (Acts 5:4). In fact, when his time in Ephesus had come to a close, he said that his ministry was defined by the act of “declaring the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). It is in this light that it is best to see his command to Timothy to be faithful to “preach the word…both in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2).
Thus preaching rightly lies at the heart of every corporate worship service. In fact, if the gift of prophecy is understood as the proclaiming of God’s word (which is how I understand it), then Paul actually commands that it take place every time “the whole church assembles together” for corporate worship (1 Cor 14:23; cf. v. 22).
The same could be said about singing. In fact, in that same passage Paul says that along with the supernatural gifts (which have since ceased—and in fact this is a strong argument for cessationism), every time the church assembles together, there should be teaching as well as “a psalm” (1 Cor 14:26). In light of Ephesians 5:19—“psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord”—it is best to understand the design of the corporate worship service, as well as the implications of 1 Cor 14:26, to include multiple songs. In other words, every time the church gathers they should sing songs and hear the word preached.
Moreover, in 1 Timothy 2:8 Paul says that prayer should take place “in every place.” As with the rest of 1 Timothy, it is obvious that Paul is giving instructions for the congregational worship of the church. Thus, every time the church meets, it should be marked by prayer.
A similar, although not identical, command concerns giving. When the church gathers, each person “must do just as he purposed in his heart” concerning giving to the church (2 Cor 9:7). He encourages people to come “prepared” to give, so that no one is embarrassed (2 Cor 9:2-4, CSB). But taken with the admonition in 1 Corinthians 16:2, which specifies that this preparation should take place on the fist day of the week—it seems that corporate giving is modeled on a weekly basis, more than at an every service basis.
Interestingly, all four of these (singing, giving, praying, and preaching) fit with the pattern of the early church in Acts. We don’t have many glimpses into their worship services, but when Luke does pull the veil back, we see that they were singing, giving, praying and preaching.
The other elements are presented with less frequency. For example, concerning the public reading of Scripture, Paul writes that Timothy should “give attention” to it, and then also links it to “preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 4:13). In other words, the act of preaching the text seems to fulfill Paul’s command. It is still wise to do it independently of the preaching (it highlights the authority, perspicuity, and clarity of Scripture while demonstrating that the pastor is under the authority of the Word), but it does not seem to be an essential part of every week’s service.
The same can be said for the instructions on communion and baptism. While certainly you should baptize converts as soon as is practical, if there aren’t people coming to faith every week, then there won’t be baptisms at every worship service. Finally, with communion Paul makes it clear that while the church in Acts 2 celebrated it every time they gathered, that there is liberty there as well. In 1 Corinthians 11:25-26, he says “as often as” you practice it, which would be a strange phrase for him to use if it was celebrated at every corporate gathering.
Taken together, the New Testament models singing, prayer, and preaching at every corporate worship service, with the priority placed on preaching. It instructs for giving every week, regular Scripture reading, and frequent baptism/communion. In other words, our worship should look a lot like it is practiced in most evangelical churches.