Practicing for the Team: Private Devotion and Corporate Worship

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Many churches, either explicitly or implicitly, define church as an assembled group of individual Christians. The goal for many churches is to feed, encourage, and equip various individuals for a week of serving Jesus in the world. Craig Groeschel, pastor of the well-known and enormous Life Church based in Kansas, says this: “Our mission is to lead people to become fully devoted followers of Christ. That’s it.” I think it’s definitely the purpose and goal of being a Christian to become a fully devoted follower of Christ. We are called to transform into the image of our Savior. So what’s wrong with this being a church’s mission statement? In my opinion, something is missing, or maybe just turned around.

Here are some questions: how can a gathering of individuals be transformed into the image of the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—without embodying the inherent relationality therein? If we are so focused on churning out followers of Jesus, do we miss the ways in which our faith is communal? At its heart, Christianity worships a community of being, the three-in-one God. Another question: if church exists just to make people better followers of Jesus, is it replaceable? Can a Youtube sermon, or a thought-provoking coffeehouse conversation, be as edifying and fruitful as showing up on a Sunday morning, in a particular place, with a particular people, to worship? Many might say “Yes!,” and perhaps the current decline in church attendance is the obvious answer to this question.

Here’s a radical re-definition of church for you: Let’s take that mission statement and flip it on its head. Let’s think of it this way: followers of Jesus exist to be the church together. We are meant to fully find our place and meaning as part of the people of God. 4th century church father St. John Chrysostom saw this as critical: “Spiritual beauty cannot be developed perfectly anywhere else except in this marvelous and divine stronghold of the church…” As it relates to spiritual formation, we note that there is no formation, no “spiritual beauty” as Chrysostom puts it, which can be fulfilled completely individually and exclusive of the congregation. Rather, the nature of formation must be interdependent and communal.

In the sacrament of baptism, we are initiated into this community, and “our baptismal promises attest to the fact that ‘the church is our first family.’”[1] As a family, we have obligations to each other in spiritual matters. In contrast to the “me-first” culture that sees community as meeting my needs, a radical reversal occurs: we come to church for other people. We might be there in worship to encourage someone else in their spiritual journey, regardless of what we “get out of the sermon.” Spiritual formation, in the worshipping community, sees the whole body as one organic, interdependent unit, growing together into its Head (Eph. 4:15).

So if this is true – if the gathered community of the Church is actually the goal of Christian formation – then how does our private, individual devotion and growth come into play? Consider two examples of communities in modern culture: the symphony orchestra and the professional football team. Each organization, like the Church, is made up of individuals. These individuals practice their craft endlessly, personally perfecting their skills and drilling them into habits by ruthless repetition. No one would look at these daily regimens of practice and conclude that these people were lacking in commitment to individual excellence. If that were true, they might end up looking for a new profession.

Yet what is the goal of the flautist’s individual, strenuous formation? It is to contribute her part to the public performance within the gathered assembly of the orchestra. The football player puts in hours and hours of training for the express purpose of playing one publicly televised game a week, in which he is asked to play a specific part, large or small, to help the team win. These examples wonderfully illustrate the way in which the liturgy of the Church is fundamentally integrated with the individual, personal growth in Christlikeness of the believer. We are called to the life of Christian discipleship individually, as Jesus called his disciples by name. We are accountable to God for our growth in prayer, reading the Scriptures, and virtuous living that reflects the indwelling of the spirit of Christ in our lives. But I would argue that the goal of this personal, individual vocation is realized in the weekly, public performance of the liturgy, in which we gather up our lives into one unified expression of praise to God. As an interdependent community, I must realize that others are counting on me to be faithful in my prayers and habits, in order that I might be used by God to speak into their lives, and vice versa. And just as a win for the team or a thrilling musical performance will inspire the professionals to get back to work at honing their craft, our participation in worship refreshes and renews us as we see the goal of our efforts realized in joyful Christian community. We are continually motivated by and drawn back to the source and purpose of our lives: communing with God in the midst of his people. And as we grow and mature, the sacraments bear their purposes out in our daily lives. We see that our personal growth is not only making us better, but is serving those around us. As one liturgical scholar explains: “The meaning of baptism will be elucidated when one lives a regenerate life, of Eucharist when one becomes a eucharistos (thankful one), of liturgy when the rite becomes a joyful summons home to God.”[2]

[1] From Desiring the Kingdom, by James K.A. Smith

[2] From Theologia Prima: What is Liturgical Theology?, by David Fagerberg, p. 142

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for these words Patrick. My wife and I have been in discussion over this topic for several weeks now. Our individual worship plays such a key role in our corporate worship, and that concept got lost somewhere… If we aren’t striving to follow Christ in our day to day lives, then its going to show up on Sunday morning. As worship leaders, we really need to work through this relationship and implement it into the life of the church. Thanks again for your words and the affirmation that others are struggling with the same things we are.

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