Worship Alone or in Community?

Donald: The word “corporate” carries significant connotations that make me hesitant to use it. However, it does describe what we do in many church contexts. So, allow me to rephrase: We strive to know God through worship. 

In our recent discussions, we have tried to grasp the concept of worship. Let’s turn to Acts 2:42 for guidance: “The community continuously devoted themselves to learning from the apostles, gathering for fellowship, breaking bread, and praying.” Fellowship can be defined as a gathering of believers who support and encourage one another, sharing in their joys and sorrows while strengthening their bonds as followers of Christ. 

Today, I would like to explore the value of each aspect of worship. Does God expect every form of worship from us? In Luke 2:42, it states that “Jesus was in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Those who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. When Mary and Joseph saw Him, they were astonished, and Mary asked Him, ‘Why have you stayed behind?’ Jesus replied, ‘Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?’” 

We also know that the Israelites had well-defined ways of constructing their temples, and certain individuals had unique responsibilities, such as priests and high priests. Could we infer that these practices represent a form of corporate worship or worship within fellowship?

Corporate worship involves a group of people coming together to engage in religious rituals, such as prayer, singing hymns, following liturgy, and listening to sermons or teachings. In a corporate worship setting, individuals unite to express their faith and devotion collectively. This practice is considered significant in many religions as it reinforces a sense of community and strengthens religious beliefs and values. 

Corporate worship is often led by a religious leader or clergy member who guides the participants through various rituals and practices. It takes place in diverse settings, including churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques, each varying based on specific beliefs and traditions. 

Another aspect to consider is the existence of numerous church denominations within these establishments. What leads to such diversity? In Ephesians 5:22-33, the church is referred to as the Bride of Christ. Could the church, therefore, be a community of fellow believers? 

Let’s revisit the question: What does worship mean to me? Is it an individual experience, or is it enhanced by fellow believers? Where should I seek God? Does it begin in private? As stated in Matthew, “When you pray, go to your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” Is it required of us to gather, as mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14:26? It states, “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? 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.” Knowing God is best accomplished through both individual and corporate worship.

Now, let’s address the question of whom we gather with. Many of us were born into our faith traditions, while others joined organized churches or communities of believers later in life. Worship practices can be particularly challenging within a corporate church setting. Let me reiterate: Worship practices can be particularly challenging within a corporate church setting. Unfortunately, these challenges can affect our individual faith journey and the decisions we make that impact our personal worship experiences. 

These decisions may revolve around where we personally seek God—whether it be in a secluded corner of nature or through music, and if so, what type of music. Some individuals engage in ongoing conversations with Christ throughout the day, while others contemplate and let their conscience guide their thought process. All of these questions are personal and can be answered individually without the involvement of corporate worship. However, corporate worship is a different matter altogether, much more complex.

God has asked us to set aside one day a week for a unique worship experience. What does that entail? The answer to this question is heavily influenced by religious traditions, which are in turn impacted by one’s culture. As we privately seek God, we must consider whether or not it should involve others. If it should, who are these others, and what are their faith traditions?

Over the past three years, COVID has forced us all to turn inward. It has brought a heightened focus on the individual and enforced isolation, greatly influencing our relationships. If we were asked about Zoom five years ago, most of us wouldn’t have even known what it meant, except for those in our class. The traditional way we interacted with each other was face to face, on a sidewalk, at a drinking fountain, or during a committee meeting over a cup of coffee. We chose to engage in these interactions to be neighborly, to accomplish collective goals, and to reinforce friendships. By being more connected, we can become more.

As we gather and join together, we seek each other’s company to surpass our individual limitations. So where do we corporately find God? Who writes the rules? Who defines truth? We become members. There are many organizations we can join, such as the Audubon Society, a gardening club, a sports team, or even a community of ham radio operators. Each organization has its own code of conduct, practices, and dues.

One way to approach the question is: Where do I go to seek God? Which faith group do I align with? Can God be found in all world religions? Where can I find support? A faith group can offer a sense of belonging and identity, as individuals within the community share beliefs and values. This creates solidarity and fosters a connection to something greater than oneself. Faith groups often provide a supportive community that offers emotional, spiritual, and practical assistance. Members can connect with one another, extend help during challenging times, and share in each other’s joys and successes. 

In this regard, I would suggest that this class constitutes a faith group, a community of believers on a quest to seek God. However, are we solely seeking theological answers? Or are we also understanding God through our questions? Some might find our process disconcerting—more questions than answers. Our answers take the form of further questions.

In Jeremiah 31, the New Covenant is described as emphasizing the grace of God and the power of faith, rather than focusing on the law and the works of the Old Covenant. It outlines two primary responsibilities: our relationship with God and our responsibility towards others. 

Today, I would like to hear your thoughts on the matter. How do we best encounter God? Is community necessary? Should we seek God within the cultural and traditional context of the church as a collective body? Furthermore, how should we approach generosity towards other communities? I invite you to share your thoughts.

C-J: You began by discussing worship, and I would say, without quoting it exactly, that God says those who worship Him do so in spirit and truth, in thought, word, and deed. It doesn’t really matter where we are; it’s about our intention and how God has brought people together, whether circumstantially or intentionally. Today is a specific day, and this is what I do on this day—I go to church, mosque, or synagogue. I don’t believe God is concerned about how we practice worship. I think it ultimately comes down to spirit, truth, thought, word, and deed.

Anonymous: Yes, I agree. Individual worship is essential; it’s where it all begins. We cannot connect with God without that kind of worship. Corporate worship, on the other hand, is more of a social aspect. It serves as a means of support, sharing worries, sharing joy, and supporting one another. It’s a spiritual and social experience. 

Nowadays, we see churches closing due to a lack of individual worship, and that’s a critical need. It seems like God is pushing people away from worship places to make them realize the importance of individual worship. If you don’t have a personal relationship with God, going to church means nothing. It can’t replace that need, no matter how spiritual the corporate worship may be, as people often attend out of routine without truly knowing one another or building relationships. 

This especially holds true for larger churches, where it’s difficult to know everyone and establish personal connections, like visiting each other’s homes and developing close spiritual bonds. This kind of closeness in spirit and being on good terms is what truly pleases the Lord, but it’s been lacking in our churches. By that, I don’t mean just the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, but churches in general. That’s why artificial replacements like donuts and coffee are introduced to artificially bring people together and create a sense of community. During the week, they’re like strangers who hardly know anything about each other and rarely engage in meaningful conversations. 

To me, that is artificial worship. However, it serves a different purpose—bringing the community together. Through this, a sense of love grows, caring for one another emerges, and sharing becomes possible. It creates a space where we can be there for one another, lending a listening ear or providing comfort when needed. And I believe that, in itself, is a form of worship.

C-J: I think that is crucial regarding how we are replacing time with relationships. Our lives have become more fluid, where people don’t know where they will work, if they will work, or if they will have a home. Our priorities become centered around basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter, and it takes a great deal of energy to fulfill those necessities. 

But if we go back to the time when these ancient texts were written, people lived in communities that could range from 25 to 100 individuals, and even larger cities might have had around 1,000 inhabitants. In those communities, they grew larger due to specific skill sets. As people traveled along trade routes, relationships were built based on the concept of hospitality. If a stranger entered your camp, it was an obligation to provide them with food, shelter, and protection—survival depended on it. You never knew when you might be a stranger in a foreign land.

But today, we have become isolated and independent. We even wear our independence as a badge of courage, boasting that we don’t need anyone and can do everything ourselves. We acquire skills that we might have previously hired someone for, thanks to platforms like YouTube. But with God, who is the force that animates life and brings about change and evolution on various levels, it brings us back to the sense of community. 

Community can begin at the core of a family unit. It takes time, energy, and a commitment—whether it’s convenient or not—to show up and share, even when we have limited resources ourselves. In some churches, such as the Assembly of God Church, once the congregation exceeds 500 members, they create another church because they believe they cannot effectively minister to one another in such a large group. 

I see a response to this in other churches, especially with the rise of platforms like Zoom. They are returning to the idea we see in the New Testament, where churches were gatherings of 20 to 30 people in someone’s home. They were not overly concerned with memorizing texts or proving the correctness of their beliefs or genealogy. It was more about how to interact and behave with one another, how to navigate the challenges of Roman occupation, and how to generously share resources.

Sharon: I believe that some of these observations are indeed influenced by culture. In churches here in Malawi, regardless of the denomination, people gather around 7 o’clock in the morning and stay until after sundown in the evening. This extended timeframe fosters social resiliency. Have you ever worshiped by singing to yourself? In our churches here, singing is an integral part of the community and serves as a powerful bond. There is preaching, of course, but it is complemented by the social ties created through music, rhythm, and dancing. It’s a collective experience that brings people together. 

This sense of community and social connection is something I find to be a devastating loss in developed nations, where we heavily rely on technology. Our churchgoers may bring a small offering of food to share during a communal lunch because they don’t have much individually, but together they share what they have. Throughout the week, the community continues to support one another, gathering for Bible study and training. 

There is a profound social resiliency that is often lacking in the corporate worship context of the United States and other developed nations in Europe, in particular. In contrast, developing nations have a strong sense of social richness and interconnectedness, a support system that is deeply ingrained in their worship practices. 

As a society, we often struggle with being accountable to one another. From my perspective, much of what we are discussing is culturally contextual. I observe a deep sense of vibrant worship, not necessarily in a strictly corporate sense, but rather as a communal worship experience. It seems that our church members in developing nations have tapped into a richness that we have lost in the States.

Donald: In my travels in Africa, I have observed something significant. When I’ve taken students there, we reflect on our experiences at the end of the trip and realize that while Americans may possess more tangible things, there is something invaluable that we often miss, and that is hospitality. Hospitality doesn’t cost much or anything at all, but it is a rich and meaningful aspect of our interactions with one another. So I agree with Sharon. 

Regarding the term “corporate” when applied to churches, it seems quite extreme. Churches do have doctrines and structure; there’s no question about that. We do choose a church and support each other as fellow believers. It is a social aspect, but it exists within a structured context.

David: I think we’re all on the same page on this. I absolutely agree with Anon’s point that true worship—in spirit and truth—begins as personal worship. But I wouldn’t pit personal worship against corporate worship; rather, I would ask about the benefits of both. 

The issue with corporate worship is that it tends to be based on traditions. People come together, and then rules and doctrines begin to form, becoming set in stone because we like our traditions. They serve as a convenient crutch, making worship easier for us. We prefer not to have to think all the time, so we like everything mapped out for us. We like the convenience. 

But when we look at the kind of community worship that is exalted in the Bible, it emphasizes people coming together and contributing whatever they have, regardless of who they are. 1 Corinthians 14:26 highlights the importance of order in community worship and poses the question, “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters, when you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, or a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation? Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”

Now, you know me, I often take issue with things the Bible says. I would dare to challenge that “everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” I don’t think I agree with Paul completely. Surely, we all have something to contribute, but I don’t believe that everything must be done with the sole purpose of building up the church, unless we interpret the word “church” in the sense of fellowship, common understanding, and mutual support. In that sense, yes, I agree. But it’s all too easy to take a statement like that and then feel the need to codify it, create doctrines, and make it a rigid rule. We might even come up with punishments and rituals.

Donald: What about transferring? I want to highlight something wonderful that Sharon mentioned. When I experienced corporate worship in America, we would sing and fellowship, and sometimes we even referred to the post-service gathering as a fellowship meal. However, when I attend a Seventh-Day Adventist church in Africa on Sabbath morning, even 12 hours away, there are elements that closely resemble what I experience in the States. It’s truly incredible and gives me goosebumps. So, how does this idea of transferability come into play? 

If our goal is simply to build each other up, couldn’t we achieve that over coffee? What is the purpose of gathering beyond that? Carolyn, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts as someone who has been involved in shaping and defining the church experience. Do you believe there is something to be lost by not having that experience anymore? Or perhaps that was then, and this is now. 

Carolyn: When I was a young woman, our culture tended to desire things to be done well and easily understood. We wanted inclusiveness, but at the same time, we recognized the importance of smaller groups. Small groups are wonderful because it’s impossible to minister to the entire church as a whole. But let me reflect on this a bit more, and I’ll share my thoughts later.

Donald: One of the reasons I’m asking these questions is because we’re aware that church attendance in North America is declining. One could argue that the country is becoming less spiritual, and I think that’s a valid argument. But how do we measure that? Do we measure it by the number of people going to church? Is the country less spiritual because fewer people attend church? Is that a good correlation? Connie, what are your thoughts on this?

C-J: I have a problem with using church attendance as a measuring stick for a person’s spiritual life because there have been many cases of people in churches who were not good individuals and used the church for their own agendas. I don’t think it’s appropriate to rely on church attendance alone to gauge someone’s spiritual journey.

I wanted to add that for individuals who have had a stable and predictable life, there is comfort in that familiarity. However, for those who have experienced instability, such as military families or refugees, they have no expectation of permanency or predictability. Their skill set includes flexibility and adaptability, which is necessary for their survival. 

If we look at the early stages of belief systems, when they are being defined, there is more fluidity. People are willing to take anyone and everyone and work together. But once a system is established, people prefer to do what they are accustomed to, like going into a building and feeling at home with a wonderful group of familiar people, worshiping together in agreement with the same texts. So I think it depends on personal history and personality. 

Personally, I resonate with Sharon when she mentioned that even though she appreciates eloquent messages, she also gains a boost from praise and worship music.

Donald: A woman I know had a very difficult childhood. She moved around a lot and lived in several homes, maybe seven or eight, depending on the context. I imagine it was quite challenging for her, although she does not describe it as painful. 

When she was about 17, she came into contact with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. This provided her with a sense of security that she had never experienced before, even to this day. The measurements and guidelines set by Adventism, such as dietary principles and routines, gave her a profound sense of peace. She was uncomfortable when people deviated from those guidelines, whether it was family or friends. She found comfort within the context of something well-defined. 

I am glad that she had that experience. She made it clear that all her children would be part of the Adventist educational system, and some of them ended up teaching in it. So there’s another aspect of how personality and church participation intersect. 

However, it is assumed that all of this is built upon having a personal relationship with Christ. We all agree that the church cannot replace our individual walk with Christ. 

Michael: It’s important to consider what we appreciate about different cultures, such as those in Africa. We may not want to adopt another cultures, but we recognize the positive aspects that maybe our culture has lost. 

But at the same time, the individualistic cultures of developed countries has provided more prosperity and opportunities compared to the more collective and community-based cultures. It has facilitated growth and progress. So while we may lose some good things, those cultures may face more disadvantages.

Regarding spirituality and how we measure it, you raise an interesting question. In developed countries, we see a decline in organized religion, but there is an increase in the number of people who identify as spiritual but not religious. Does this mean that spirituality is decreasing or increasing?

Reinhard: I can see that in the churches I attend, there is a sense of excitement and togetherness when worshiping and working together with other members. In some churches, the worship starts in the morning and continues until the evening, fostering a strong sense of community. 

When it comes to collective worship versus individual worship, there are several factors that influence the togetherness in different cultures. In Asian cultures, there is a strong emphasis on getting together as families and as friends, and people spend time bonding and sharing on weekends. In more modern and developed countries, the individualistic culture prevails, where people tend to be more independent and less reliant on others for support.

Economic factors also play a role. Western countries, for example, promote individualism, which can impact the sense of community in churches. I’ve noticed that even Catholic churches are closing in inner cities, indicating a decline in collective worship across different denominations. 

Missionaries who came to third world countries in the past brought a message that sparked excitement and fervor among the people. However, nowadays, the influence of missionaries may not be as significant, except in certain regions like Africa.

Technological advancements have also played a role. With the availability of live streaming and online platforms, some people prefer to stay at home and participate in worship remotely. While it’s important to stay close to God, the decline in church membership is a reality that we can observe. 

However, I still believe that corporate worship is crucial. In my experience, it provides encouragement and fellowship, and emotional support is equally important, especially during challenging times in life. The early church, as described in the Bible, had a strong sense of community, where believers sold their property and gathered together. The message of Jesus inspired them to be generous and active in their faith. 

Perhaps we need that same excitement and passion today to fuel our actions and bring us closer to God. However, individual experiences and personal understanding of how to relate to God can sometimes lead to a sense of self-sufficiency and reduce the desire to gather with others.

Donald: While I acknowledge the social aspects and the strong sense of community in churches in Africa, I believe that even senior members of the church would also value the structure and traditions of the church in the context of their faith. Do you think that over time, with the influence of technology and changing culture, the social dynamics and attendance in African churches will change? Or do you believe that the strong sense of community is ingrained in their culture and will continue to thrive?

Sharon: I think personality and genetics play a role in the social resilience and community-oriented nature of African cultures. From my experience in Kenya, the church community was incredibly supportive and socially rich. Even with the presence of online services, I haven’t seen a decline in attendance because of the deep social connections and the joy of gathering, singing, and engaging in music groups. I believe this social richness still exists in the African American community in the US as well. 

So I don’t foresee a significant change in the social dynamics of African churches. As for the corporate church, there is a sense of pride and belonging to a worldwide family. It’s amazing that I can attend any Adventist church around the world on a Sabbath morning and we are all studying the same Sabbath School lesson. Being part of the Adventist church’s social structure has opened doors and provided opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. While there may be some negative aspects, I choose to focus on the global family and the blessings it brings.

Donald: Well said. It’s truly a testimony to the power of community and the global reach of the Adventist church.

C-J: As children, we absorb beliefs and traditions without questioning them. It’s natural and expected. But as we mature, we begin to ask questions and may even separate from our faith for a while. However, we often find comfort and healing in returning to what is familiar and embracing. 

The impact of culture is also significant. In isolated cultures, like the Inuit in Alaska, traditions are preserved and interactions with others are limited. Our individual maturity, cultural influences, and how we respond to life’s ups and downs play a role in our relationship with collective worship.

David: I tend to think the grass is always greener on the other side. While some of you have experienced the benefits of being born into Adventism, I wonder if your lives could have been even richer without it? We can’t know for sure, as our assumptions are shaped by our upbringing. 

Personally, I appreciate the differences I encounter in other cultures. I enjoy hearing foreign languages and learning about customs different from my own. But this is just my perspective, and we all have our unique preferences and personalities. 

The topic of collective worship and individual experiences is indeed complex and nuanced.

Reinhard: I believe there are multiple factors contributing to the decline of active church participation in certain regions. Two aspects that come to mind are the priority placed on church gatherings by the church group or its members and personal reasons for attending. If a church community makes worship and gathering a priority, always looking forward to coming together, it can help maintain the activity and togetherness of the church. Additionally, the presence of older individuals in churches may be driven by their strong faith and the anticipation of the rewards of their belief. 

However, when the next generation grows older, the dynamics may change. There are certainly many factors at play, influencing the activity and membership of corporate churches.

Donald: Your observation about generational dynamics is interesting and worth considering. It’s another dimension of the discussion that we haven’t fully explored, but it may play a significant role in understanding the dynamics of church participation.

Carolyn: Through participating in this group, through Zoom, I have experienced a renewal and a sense of grace that is freeing. I don’t want to lose sight of that amidst discussions about demographics and the lack of freedom in some corporate churches. The freedom of grace can sometimes be lacking when everyone thinks they are right and scrutiny is present.

Donald: Well said. This group has a unique dynamic where we come together to ask questions rather than provide answers. Grace is an important aspect to consider. As churches become more structured, there can be pressure to conform rather than being open to diverse perspectives and practices. 

I’m curious about the practice in Africa. Do people tend to fall in line or are there conservatives and liberals like in other places?

Sharon: I believe there is a significant conservative element in Africa. There is a need for the grace narrative to reach the corporate church in Africa, as some still adhere strictly to the church manual and engage in disfellowshipping individuals. 

Michael: I agree with what has been shared today. Different cultures have their own way of approaching worship and fellowship, and there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to do it. It’s important to recognize the role of the family in nurturing faith and how it contributes to individual and community worship. 

Rather than solely focusing on church attendance, we should consider the spiritual growth and journey of individuals and families. How we measure that is a complex question and perhaps not necessary to measure in a strict sense. It’s a thought-provoking topic.

Donald: Indeed it is. The measurement of one’s faith and spirituality is multifaceted and cannot be solely determined by church attendance or adherence to religious rituals. It encompasses personal growth, relationship with God, and the values and principles that guide one’s life. It’s about the transformation of the heart and the embodiment of love, compassion, and grace in our interactions with others.

Rimon: I agree that faith and spirituality are deeply personal and subjective experiences. It’s about the connection we establish with our beliefs and values, and how they shape our actions and attitudes. While corporate worship and community engagement can be beneficial, they should never overshadow the importance of individual growth and personal relationship with God.

Sharon: Absolutely. I believe that the essence of spirituality lies in our personal connection with the divine, regardless of the external forms and structures. It’s about opening our hearts to God’s grace, seeking His guidance, and allowing His love to transform us from within. Whether we find that through individual worship, communal gatherings, or a combination of both, the key is to foster a genuine and deep connection with God.

Donald: The journey of faith is a personal and ongoing process. It’s about seeking truth, embracing God’s love, and living out our beliefs in our daily lives. Whether we worship individually or in a corporate setting, let us remember that our ultimate goal is to grow in our relationship with God and reflect His love and grace to others.

Carolyn: The freedom of grace is a beautiful aspect of our faith. It’s not about judgment or rigid adherence to rules, but about experiencing God’s unmerited love and forgiveness. When we embrace that freedom, it can truly transform our lives and relationships. So let’s focus on cultivating a deep personal connection with God and extending His grace to others, wherever we find ourselves on our spiritual journey.

Donald: The freedom of grace allows us to approach our faith with humility, acceptance, and compassion. It invites us to recognize our own brokenness and extend grace to others in their journey as well. This understanding can shape our worship, our interactions, and our sense of community in profound ways.

C-J: I wholeheartedly agree. The essence of our faith lies in our personal relationship with God and the transformative power of His grace. Whether we worship individually or collectively, let us always embrace the core principles of love, compassion, and understanding. May we strive to foster a sense of community that uplifts and supports one another, recognizing the diversity of our paths while celebrating our shared journey of faith.

Donald: Thank you all for sharing your insights and perspectives. It has been a meaningful and thought-provoking discussion. Let us continue to embrace the diversity of our beliefs and experiences, seeking personal growth and a deep connection with God. May His grace guide us in our individual journeys and as a community, and may we extend that grace to others. Let us go forth with open hearts and minds, ready to live out our faith in love and compassion. Until we meet again, may God bless each and every one of you.

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