26 March, 2015 Richard Coekin
The New Testament consistently teaches that the purpose of meeting together as a church is to “edify” or build each other up with intelligible words of Bible teaching. Paul writes:
‘When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.’
(1 Corinthians 14:26)
Though these terms are sometimes interpreted in bizarre ways, we can see that when the church gathered and someone had written a song, another a sermon, another a fresh insight into Scripture, and yet another an explanation of ecstatic praise, everything was intended to edify the congregation in Gospel faith.
Moreover, the Gospel of the Bible is not left for evangelism, but remains central to the teaching and praises of believers, as Paul says to the Colossians:
‘Let the word of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.’
The purpose of the whole meeting is to encourage the congregation in Gospel driven godliness. The writer to the Hebrews likewise urges the congregation:
‘And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encourage one another – and all the more as you see the day approaching.’
Throughout Christian history, churches have wanted the Gospel of Scripture to shape and order their meetings as well as their sermons. The Bible does not require a particular order, but is obvious that to include prayers, songs, reading and sermon in a random collection of items will undermine the edifying encouragement of the meeting. So the Gospel might generally shape the gathering as follows:
a) Gospel doctrines celebrated by the church
• Songs adoring God’s character
• Confession of sin
• Declaration, in Creed or songs, praising Christ’s saving work and the reassurance of pardon.
b) Gospel Doctrines applied to church life
• Application of the Gospel to community life in notices, testimony, prayers and topical presentations.
Gospel doctrines amplified by fresh exposition of Scripture
• Bible reading
• Exposition of Scripture as the primary highpoint of the meeting
• Questions / Prophetic insight into the text / Applicatory prayers
• Songs and final prayer regarding a life-response of repentant faith.
These different elements can be brief or extended. Although each church will contain very different versions of the above depending upon their context, most of our churches will have something like these elements, in an order that is shaped by the general biblical aim of edifying and encouraging the faith of the church with intelligible Bible teaching.
Our Bible-shaped church gatherings will be marked, therefore, by a hunger for faithful Bible teaching, prayerful dependence on God and enthusiastic singing (even though all three may feel alien to the unbeliever or newly converted). Elsewhere in the New Testament it is evident that the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper would be normal to look back in remembrance to the Lord’s death on the cross for our sins, look up in faith to be nourished by the risen Jesus who is interceding for us in heaven, look forward in hope to the feast in the kingdom of heaven and look around with love for our brothers and sisters in our church family.
Beyond this, whether a church has a grand piano or keyboards, rich tea biscuits or jam donuts, power-point notices or choral items is a matter of wisdom and resources, bearing in mind the culture of the church. But four principles could be wisely born in mind in the conduct of our meetings.
First, we should remember that the living God is present with His people and nothing should be done that dishonours Him or trivialises the privilege of His presence or the seriousness of His Word.
Secondly, remember the passion of our Lord for the salvation of the lost; so, although church is primarily for Christians (unless it is an specifically designated outreach meeting), it should be made as intelligible and welcoming as possible for unbelievers who are present (avoiding jargon, embarrassing intimacy, assumptions about belief, inappropriate requests for money, undue emotional pressure or anything likely to repel someone from exploring the Gospel).
Thirdly, that mutual love requires the tolerance of other people’s preferences, the acceptance of the decisions of elders and of whatever will most help others in their faith in Christ.
Fourthly, that the primary and central activity of a church, by which Christ creates and nurtures his churches, is the preaching of the Scriptures; nothing should be done, or done for so long, that diminishes people’s appetite and enthusiasm for hearing God’s Word explained. There is a responsibility upon us all to prepare for the hearing of the Scriptures with prayerful, repentant hearts.
Biblical churches will proclaim the Gospel of God by teaching the Scriptures and ordering their meetings so that God alone might be glorified.