Today, some Christians may be confused about their personal style of worshiping or will question the need for formal worship in an age where everyone's time is valuable and busy schedules are packed. To gain some fresh insights into these issues, this paper sought to answer the question, "Is worshipping together with other believers in formal worship services necessary to a healthy spiritual life?" In this context, formal worshipping means regular and planned church attendance rather than the style of the services that are provided. To this end, this paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed, scholarly and biblical literature to support the need for corporate worship. This type of worship is not to the exclusion of private worship, but the scriptures show that God wants his followers to have a corporate church to facilitate fellowship among Christians. A summary of the research and important findings concerning these issues are presented in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
There has been a great deal of controversy concerning Christian worship practices because there is no universal hermeneutical and theological framework available to develop a biblical theology of worship (Farley, 2008). According to Farley, "The hermeneutical diversity that exists goes deeper than mere disagreements over the interpretation and application of specific texts. There is also a substantial lack of agreement about which biblical texts are relevant and applicable to Christian worship at all" (p. 592). In this regard, when modern Christians say they are going to "pray," the general consensus is that this means they are going to engage in private prayer. Likewise, when people say they are going to "worship," this is typically interpreted to mean corporate worship. Biblical scholars, though, do not enjoy this level of precise understanding about meaning because the word "pray" in the Bible can refer to either activity. In this regard, Bailey (1983) emphasizes that, "A part of our problem in the West is that the English verb [pray] is almost exclusively applied to private devotions, and the verb [worship] is used for corporate worship. However, in biblical literature, the verb [pray] can mean either" (p. 145).
For modern Christians, the distinction between private prayer and corporate worship may be especially confusing. Indeed, Farley (1998) emphasizes that, "The greatest obstacle to becoming aware of the oddity of our Sunday worship, however, is our difficulty in properly defining the term. 'Worship' can, of course, be a synonym for the ritual activities of Sunday morning. To participate in these activities is, then, to worship" (p. 276). Simply attending church and "going through the motions," though, is insufficient to fully participate in corporate worship. In this regard, Farley (1998) adds that, "If we allow the referent of worship to set the definition, then we must conclude that worship is an engagement with the sacred. In corporate worship, this engagement moves through a variety of acts: confession of sin, praise, celebrative remembrance and gratitude" (p. 276). It is this aspect of public, or corporate worship, that serves to enhance individual Christians' ability to offer praise and reverence for the Almighty. As Farley points out, "If the sacred is both the ineffably mysterious (the very creativity of things) and the self-expressively gracious or loving (the redemptive power in human history), then every genuine act of worship will direct itself or open itself to this Mystery of ultimate love. So directed, worship combines awe before Mystery and deep reverence for the Good" (p. 277).
There are numerous examples of the duality of meaning of private prayer vs. corporate worship that are evident in the Bible, including:
1. In Luke 1:10 Zechariah is participating in the daily atonement sacrifice in the temple and takes his turn at burning the incense in the Holy Place. In the meantime, [The whole multitude of the people were praying outside.…]
2. Jesus quotes from Isaiah 56:7 where the temple is called 'a house of prayer' (Luke 19:46).
3. Acts 16:13, 16 describe a place of public worship as a "place of prayer" (Bailey, p. 145).
The foregoing biblical references as well as the other discussed further below clearly indicate that the context of the setting is an essential element in determining whether a particular passage refers to private prayer or corporate worship (Bailey, 1986). In some cases, the context is apparent, but in others a close reading must be made in order to make an accurate determination. For example, Bailey (1986) cites the example of Jesus going up on a mountain to pray alone which would suggest the context is private prayer; however, this parable contains a number of clues that Jesus is participating in corporate worship rather than private prayer, including the following:
1. Specifically, two people go up to a place of public worship at the same time;
2. They go down at the same time (presumably after the service is over);
3. The temple (a place of public worship) is specifically mentioned;
4. The text states that the Pharisee 'stood by himself.' The obvious assumption is that he stood apart from the other worshipers;
5. The text adds that the tax collector 'stood afar off.' This statement can mean afar off from the Pharisee, but it can also mean afar off from the rest of the worshipers. This is especially the case if it can be substantiated that there are worshipers present, apart from whom the Pharisee has also chosen to stand; and,
6. The tax collector specifically mentions the atonement in his prayer. The temple ritual provided for a morning and evening atoning sacrifice to be offered each day and a congregation was normally present. Indeed, it is always assumed in the discussions of the service (Bailey, 1986, p. 146).
In other words, the significance of including a place of public worship in the reference serves to help establish the context in which the activity is taking place. Indeed, even in those situations where there may be some confusion concerning whether the activity is private or corporate, the addition of a public place of worship makes it apparent that corporate worship is involved. In this regard, Bailey points out that, "The contemporary Middle Easterner has the same double meaning attached to the verb 'pray.' But when he, as a Christian, says, 'I am going to church to pray,' or, as a Muslim, remarks, 'I am on my way to the mosque to pray,' everyone knows that they mean corporate worship, not private devotions" (p. 146). Similarly, it is possible to discern the meaning of the term "pray" in biblical references when these other factors are present or absent. For instance, Bailey adds that, "Even so with the parable, the mention of the temple adds considerable weight to the assumption that corporate worship is intended. In summary, the verb 'pray' gives us two interpretive options. It can mean private devotions or corporate worship" (p. 146).
In other cases, though, the distinction between corporate worship from private prayer in biblical passages can be less discernible without considering the larger context in which they take place. For instance, Stoops (1926) reports that, "The emotions and ideas that went with the centralization of the nation's life on Mount Zion have their classic expression in the Psalms" (p. 40). As an example, Stoops cites Psalms 87:2 which states, "The LORD loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob" (p. 40). While modern Christians may not understand this reference, it communicates the need for corporate worship in lieu of private prayer. In this regard, an important point made by Arterbury (2005) in this context is that, "The individual laments found in the Psalms were created for and used within a context of corporate worship. These psalms remind us to provide Christians with opportunities to express their personal needs and laments to God within the context of corporate worship, where they are most appropriately expressed" (p. 290).
This point is also made by Bailey (2009) who describes the significance of corporate worship and cites its early origins: "This requirement to gather together and praise God was even required by covenant law (Exodus 23:14-17)" (p. 39). With respect to the psalms, Bailey (2009) also cites the inextricable connection to corporate worship: "It is beneficial to read this psalm and then think of corporate worship in the same way the psalmist thought of Jerusalem. Just as the pilgrims saw Jerusalem as the very place of God, so we come together in corporate worship to be in God's presence" (p. 39). "The gates of Zion," then, refer to a place where early believers could come together to offer praise which was regarded as one of the benefits of being a Christian rather than an odious duty that must be performed. In this regard, Bailey adds that, "This pilgrimage was not a chore; it was a great joy. The praise of Jerusalem as a place where all people come together in unity, as children of God, may also be the best argument ever for corporate…