Three Ingredients of Church Gatherings

Last week we began to answer the question: What does a Church do?  You might remember that I broke down that answer into two sections, the Church gathers and the Church scatters.  

We said, the Church gathers to worship God and to learn how to observe all that He’s commanded us and to encourage each other.  

But as with all sermons, there was something missing from last week’s.  What are the ingredients of Christian gatherings by which we worship and learn to obey and encourage?  Though the Scriptures suggest that in some gatherings there might be more than these, there are three main ingredients to Church gatherings.  Today we’ll list those and briefly discuss them, the first very briefly.  

The three components of Church gatherings are: Prayer, the Word, Singing.  It is by these three ingredients we worship God, we learn to observe all that God commands, and we encourage one another.  Without these ingredients our worship becomes unhinged from reality; we don’t know what to obey and wouldn’t want to even if we did; we leave the gatherings stuck in our thoughts… flat.  

We gather with prayer

In the context of Romans 12:12, Paul is not speaking about what Christians should do on their own, but what Christians should do as the body of Christ.  Collectively.  “Be constant in prayer.”   

Let’s keep praying as we gather, brothers and sisters.  Let’s sometimes gather just to pray.  

We gather with the Word.  

In Acts 2: 42 we learn that the early church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. That teaching which is now contained in the New Testament and that builds on the Old Testament.  Later it’s confirmed that gathering to hear the Scriptures is a feature.  Paul instructs Timothy that he is to “devote himself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13).  In the next letter to Timothy that we have, he directs Timothy to “preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).

It’s the Scriptures which reveal God to us, and so enable us to worship Him.  Without the Scriptures we’re left to our own guesses or instincts of who God is.  Without the Scriptures, rather than bearing the image of God by acknowledging Him and thanking the God who is actually there, we’ll make up a God after our own likeness, a malleable God who is permissive where we want license, who is strict along the lines we are prone to look down on people.  

The Scriptures detail the commandments of God, but just as importantly they motivate us to obedience by showing us why we’re to obey, by suggesting how to obey, by giving stories – positive and cautionary tales – about what happens when God is obeyed…or not.  Without the Scriptures directing and controlling our obedience, we’ll imagine God to be stricter than He is, or we’ll exchange His actual commands for whatever the current mood or ethos is.  Doesn’t that happen all the time?  “My God wouldn’t ____________”

The Scriptures contain the good news of God’s judging the earth and not turning away from it, of a free salvation through that judgment through the sufferings of the Son of God, of the ancient Spirit of God who has been unleashed on the world and is already started renewing it in the spirits of people from all nations who turn to Jesus Christ.  In short, these Scriptures encourage us!  

Without the encouragement of Scripture, there is no encouragement.  When the specter of death looms over our existence, and there is no Gospel announcing that death is overcome, any cheerfulness seems forced and ultimately fake.  

“When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within” and I sense that when I die and stand before my Creator I’ll have no response to His demands for a deep and continuous justice – and there is no Word of forgiveness ringing out, rising above the inner voices of shame and imposture syndrome… what are you going to say to me that will encourage me?  Be yourself?  You’re special?  Nothing going’s to stop you now?  

Nah, to the Word for encouragement!

Do you see how it’s the Word that our gatherings must rest upon?  In all we’re attempting when we gather, it’s the Word that’s the key.  

When you came into the auditorium where we gathered in Newton, you’d immediately notice a small marble table dominated by a big, black, old, open Bible.  King James Version.  (Though no one would notice, early Sunday mornings I’d turn that big Bible to that morning’s passage.)  So, when you gathered, you were immediately confronted with the symbolism of an open Bible.  But obviously, when we say the Word or the Scriptures are the key to our gatherings, we don’t mean that in a symbolic or magical way.  Just saying that the Bible is the key isn’t enough.  

And it’s not enough to have our services sprinkled throughout with readings from the Word.  I’ve met plenty of folks who have spent decades attending services that contained an OT reading, a NT reading, a Gospels reading… and yet these dear folks couldn’t explain what the central message of the Bible was.  

No, in order for the Bible to inform our worship and set us on the way to obedience and light a fire of encouragement in our spirits… it needs to be preached.  That is, proclaimed authoritatively and then explained and then applied to our present context.  And a good deal of that application turns out to be – as Paul told Timothy – reproof and rebuke.  The Bible should function like a prod – confronting, challenging us, calling us to account.  Change, change, it says.  REPENT AND BELIEVE.  

Yes, the Bible is a book that needs explanation.  Do you remember what the Ethiopian man with the book of Isaiah opened on his lap answered to Philip when Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading?  “How can I unless someone guides me?”  (Acts 8: 31)

In the gatherings the Word is explained to us…and then we take this understanding home with us as we open up the Bible there.  

Over the years we spent in Boston, on a few occasions Tonia and I or our whole family took a couple of nights of vacation to a Courtyard in Middlebury, VT.  Most times we would leave Sunday afternoon and drive up 89, stopping by Woodstock, VT.  

We kept seeing something when we’d drive into that charming town.  We’d be there around 5 or so Sunday afternoon, and notice people filing into this big, white, steepled, quintessential New England Congregational church.    First Congregational of Woodstock.  And we’d say: we didn’t think the Congregationalists went to church.  And certainly not on Sunday evenings.  So that was strange enough.  

But then, here was the kicker.  We noticed those folks filing into the church, and they all had these big, black books in their hand.  The Bible!  Do you know what?  I was so intrigued by that spectacle that one time while passing through, this time on a Saturday, I walked over to the church and talked with one of the deacons who was working in the yard.  And eventually I called their pastor, and I met with him, and a couple of years later Norm Koop was speaking at our church for one of fall retreats.  

The testimony of a church gathering with the Word in their hands.  They’re coming expecting to open the Word.  They’ve brought the Word from their homes – they’ve spent time in it during the week but now are gathering to hear from God as the Body of Christ.  Wonderful!  Essential! 

Jesus tells the Jews, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.  {He’s speaking of non-Jews, Gentiles.}  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd…My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10: 16, 27)  The flock – a Church composed of people from various backgrounds, walks of life, different ages – listening together to the voice of the Shepherd in the Spirit produced Word sounded through and explained by an under-shepherd.  How beautiful that is.  

The Word of God: that’s what undergirds worship, obedience, encouraging fellowship.  

Folks, I want to encourage you to bring your Bibles to church.  To turn to the verses that we’re reading from.  To learn the books of the Bible so you can get to the passages quickly. 

And I want to encourage you to pray for your pastor, that far more than his being a visionary or a nice guy or whatever else, pray that he would preach the word – and do it clearly.  I forgot where I came across this, a set of instructions for what a congregation is supposed to do with their pastor:

Fling him into his office, then tear the “Office” sign from the door, and replace it with a sign that says, “Study.”  Take him off the mailing list.  Lock him up with his books and his typewriter and his Bible. Slam him down on his knees before texts and broken hearts and the lives of a superficial flock and a holy God.

Force him to be the one man in the community who knows about God. Throw him into the ring to box with God until he learns how short his arms are. Engage him to wrestle with God all the night through, and let him come out only when he’s bruised and beaten into being a blessing.

Shut his mouth from forever spouting remarks and stop his tongue from forever tripping lightly over every non-essential. Require him to have something to say before he breaks the silence. Burn his eyes with weary study. Wreck his emotional poise with worry for the things of God. Make him exchange his pious stance for a humble walk with God and man. Make him spend and be spent for the glory of God.

Rip out his telephone. Burn up his success sheets. Put water in his gas tank. Give him a Bible and tie him to the pulpit. Test him, quiz him, examine him. Humiliate him for his ignorance of things divine. Shame him for his good comprehension of finance, batting averages and political party issues. Laugh at his frustrated effort to play psychiatrist. Form a choir, raise a chant and haunt him night and day with, “Sir, we would know God.”

When at long last he does assay the pulpit, ask him if he has a word from God. If he doesn’t, then dismiss him. Tell him you can read the paper. You can digest the television commentary. You can think through the day’s superficial problems and manage the weary drives of the community and bless the assorted baked potatoes and green beans better than he can.

And when he does speak God’s Word, listen. And when he’s burned out finally by the flaming Word, consumed by the fiery grace blazing through him, and when he’s privileged to translate the truth of God to man and finally is himself transferred from earth to heaven, bear him away gently. Blow a muted trumpet. Lay him down softly and place a two-edged sword on his coffin and raise the tune triumphant, for ere he died he had become a Man of God.

We gather with singing.

The third ingredient of our gatherings is singing.  We opened this gathering with Psalm 67.  I love the first line of v. 4: Let the nations be glad and sing for joy.  Which carries forward the opening of Psalm 66: Shout for joy to God, all the earth/ sing the glory of his name/ give to him glorious praise.

The nations are summoned to sing praises to God.  

And when we gather this is exactly what happens: the nations are worshiping God by singing.  From where I stand, I’m looking out at people from Asia and Europe and the Americas.  Are there Middle Easterners here, or at least is there middle eastern blood flowing through some of our veins?  How about Africans?  

Ok, so maybe in rural, non-cosmopolitan Somers we don’t have a large representation of the nations of the world, but I’m sure this morning in our small representation we are answering the summons of these Psalms: peoples from all over the earth are singing to God, praising the Creator for His greatness, His holy Being, especially His great mercy and power in saving them from the chokehold of sin and guilt and death. 

When you think about it, music, singing is a strange thing.  Why sing?  Why not just say the praises of God?

I’d say that music is one of those things – like the human eye – that are evidence for the supernatural realm.  All over the world, as far back in history we can go, the human creature is singing.  Not just talking.  But also, unnecessarily, singing.  Talking is the most efficient way to convey propositional truth, and yet we just keep singing!  That’s clear support that this world is enchanted!  That there’s more to reality than what’s just visible and material.    

Music/singing implies there’s more to be expressed than merely naked propositional truth.  

Music accesses those parts of us that are above and beyond logical argument and reason.  

Music pours in and out from us, not just from our minds, but the part of us that is supra-reason, beyond reason, from our emotions, from our spirits.  Whatever you want to call that deepest part of us, wherever the natural and the supernatural intersect in man the image of God, music penetrates there.  And it also emerges from there, having raked into the depth and emerged with expressions about something more than eye can see, beyond present circumstance, above reason.

And so, when we’re trying to figure out who God is, when we’re trying to acknowledge Him, we use the words found in the Word.  But when we’re trying to express His greatness, who He is, what He means to the world, what He means to us, we say, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is in me bless His holy name” (Psalm 103:1).  And just words aren’t enough for that expression.  We turn to music to say what we can’t say.   

It’s fascinating to observe someone gathering with the Church who is either still a seeker after truth or brand new to Christianity.  They might enjoy the people and get something out of the message, but the music and singing is mighty strange to them.  It feels forced, contrived – they don’t like who they are when they sing.   

But as time wears on, and the Spirit gives them another life, the birth from above, or that spiritual life sprouts up and expands – something begins to happen.  They mumble along with the singing.  And often – eventually – they grow to love to sing.  Because they’re coming to know this great God and discover music is the best conveyor to express their love of Him that they can’t fully put into words.

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Love is lord of heav’n and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

When we gather to worship, we sing.  But our songs aren’t only directed up, to God.  When Paul writes the Ephesians about their great calling as a church, he says: 

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery [and this life in Christ isn’t about being out of control], but be filled… with the Spirit [and under His control] addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5: 18, 19)

Our singing isn’t only to God, but we address one another in our songs.  The congregation sings to each other.  

In a manner that – again – goes deeper than mere speech, by singing we are encouraging one another toward truth and obedience and good works.  

Yes, through music we worship God … and we encourage one another.  Christian music gives us hope, and strengthens the eyes of faith, and carries in its text and tune a reminder of the world to come.  Perhaps more than anything else, it’s a prelude to the renewed world.  I tell you – it’s deep, man!

Music somehow carries us, or important parts of us, away from natural earth-bound-ness, lifting our eyes above our present circumstance (and thus makes life more bearable).  

Ronald Blythe was a British author who died just a month ago, in January.  His most famous work is Akenfield, a quasi-fictional account that came out of his interviewing three generations of people living from 1880-1966 in a couple of village in Suffolk, England.  These were farmers, blue-collar workers, and the land they worked was regularly unfruitful. Life was hard.  

Anyway, the book has him interviewing one guy, called Fred Mitchell, 80 years old, a horseman who plowed those oft-barren fields and had had a particularly hard life.  But in the middle of this gloomy interview, Fred stops and says: “But there was always singing; the boys in the field, the chapels were full of singing. I have had pleasure enough; I have had singing.” 

And someone read that book, and wrote a song called I Have Had Singing, with these lyrics, told as if from a departed soul:

The singing.

There was so much singing then

And this was my pleasure, too.

We all sang, the boys in the field,

The chapels were full of singing.

Here I lie:

I have had pleasure enough;

I have had singing.

Through music we worship, we encourage each other.  And we learn the will of God from one other.  Part of how the man or woman or boy or girl grows up in Christ is through being sung to as the Church gathers.  Hearing the words of truth sung from the mouths of fellow Christians makes a difference.    

Stating the same point negatively, a Christian who isn’t regularly being instructed by means of congregational singing will in some ways be atrophied.  When congregational music is done poorly or falsely, there is a consequent stunting within that congregation.    

Have you considered what an important teaching vehicle music is?  

At the end of his life, in preparation for his son Solomon building the Tabernacle, King David organized the worship of God.  He organizes the Levites, the Priests, and, as 1 Chronicles 25 records, the musicians.  Let’s turn there and observe a key word repeatedly used: in v. 1 the sons of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun prophesied with lyres, harps, and cymbals.  V. 2 the same word, v. 4 again.  In their music – including by their musical instruments! – they are prophesying, that is, were declaring who God is and how to respond to Him via music: declaring God in ways beyond the rational.

Into the New Testament, in 1 Corinthians 14 we’re given a window into what the church does as it gathers.  And, in v. 24, Paul raises the ideal of all the congregation prophesying.  And what might that look like for all to prophesy?  One possible way suggested by Chronicles: for everyone in the congregation to join in singing to one another the ways and deeds of God.  And what is a possible effect of the congregation united in speaking to one another in song? 

But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.  

Powerful!  Important!  

So, we need not only Christian propositions but Christian music.  No, we are commanded to this!  I’ll quote a theologian:

To repeat, poetry and music are not merely authorized elements of New Testament worship, but commanded elements… Church music is not merely the preliminary for the serious part of the service. It does not merely set the mood for the preaching. It is not an appendage or an option. Music is a key element that is capable of… instructing the saints. It must be taken as seriously in its own right as praying or preaching. (Bauder)

We need music that properly conveys truth to one another: in its text proclaims “true truth” about who God is, what He’s done, what His will is.  And in its musical sounds teaches us just sensibilities in responding to God.  Music teaches our minds about God and teaches our affections about how to respond to God.

God is a great King who loves His people and who sovereignly uses tragedy and loss to shepherd and perfect them.  A “severe mercy” that takes our breath away!  Musicians, give us a sound for us to express this Transcendent God!  

God in the resurrected Jesus Christ cooks a breakfast on the seashore.  Musicians, what sound do you have to give expression to this God’s warmth and kindness and friendship?  Bring on the bluegrass!

Musicians, teach us who this God is and train us how to feel about this God!

We are to rejoice in God, but what should that feel like?  And the sounds of the music help to sort that out.  A theologian helps us reflect:

Should we rejoice like the drunkard who has just discovered an unopened bottle? Like the gambler who has just won the lottery? Like the bridegroom on his wedding day? Like the mother who first holds her new infant? Like the patient who has just learned that the lump is not cancer after all? These are utterly different qualities of joy, and not all of them can rightly be directed toward God.  (Bauder)

Music directs us in what we should rejoice in and what kind our rejoicing should be.  Music: one of God’s important means of instructing His people.

Let me wrap up with just single sentences:

  1. Congregation, our singing expresses the inexpressible greatness of God to God.  And that must be!
  2. Sing loudly and with your heart behind it.
  3. Let hope fill you as you make music.  This is God’s will.  
  4. Value and thank those brothers and sisters who lead our music.
  5. Those who lead the music, thank you.
  6. Leaders: Give thought to music that the congregation can sing loudly and that will – in lyric and music – teach true truth.

Thanks be to God for prayer, the Word, and music!  May God strengthen us as we gather, and do so more and more through these three ingredients.  Amen

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