President Donald Trump pronounced churches and other houses of worship as “essential” and called on state governors nationwide to let them reopen. Many Christians hailed his announcement as heroic, while others called it irresponsible. I have no desire to enter the political fray. However, this has raised an important theological question that is worthy of consideration: Is corporate worship essential?
The Essential Church
I understand that the President’s remarks are necessarily political in nature — politically motivated with political ramifications in a contentious election year. In that sense, he is no different from every other modern-day president.
In addition, President Trump seems to have a general ignorance of religious practices, Christian or otherwise.
David L. Holmes, professor emeritus of religious studies at Virginia’s College of William and Mary and author of two books on the faiths of presidents, has called Trump “a nominal, mainline Protestant Christian.”
Not exactly a stellar resume for advising churches on what to do in a time of crisis.
The Christian should always take a political pronouncement about faith with a healthy dose of caution — no matter which side of the aisle is issuing it.
That notwithstanding, President Trump’s politically-charged announcement has raised a salient question: Is the corporate worship of God essential, and if so, why?
Before I launch into the question, allow me a few points of clarification.
1. The Church does not need weekly, public worship services to be the church.
This has been proven historically. The persecuted church throughout the ages has thrived even when not allowed to meet for public worship. This proves that corporate worship, though important, is not the only thing that defines the church. In this sense, churches have never “closed.”
2. Weekly Worship Attendance (or re-opening worship) should never be used as a badge of spiritual superiority.
Shaming others because they are not practicing Christianity the way you do is a sure sign of your own spiritual insecurities (1 Corinthians 1).
3. The Church has an over-riding mandate for soul care.
Whenever and however a church decides to reopen public worship services, it must never do so at the expense of caring for each and every soul. The church must never trample over the vulnerable on its way to worship (that was the painful point of the parable of The Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37).
That being said — is there any evidence of the essential nature of public, corporate worship?
The Popular Opinion
According to a 2019 Statista Research survey, 45% of Americans attend church or synagogue services once a month or more (and that doesn’t include those going to their mosque). That translates into, at minimum, 147 million Americans worshipping God in any given month.
That’s quite an impressive number when you consider that only 16.6 million fans attended NFL games during the entire 2019 regular season. Corporate worship attracts almost nine times more people in one month than professional football does in its entire season.
Since the same survey reports another 29% who attend worship services less frequently, bringing the annual church attendance to 69% (226 million), it stands to reason that if Americans were voting with their feet, most would say “yes” to the essential nature of corporate worship.
The Biblical Witness
… the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise” (Isaiah 43:21).
According to the biblical witness, the sole purpose of human life is to bring honor and glory to God. In other words, we were created to worship God. In that strictly theological sense, worship is not only essential, it is the only essential thing we do.
I would argue that even the 29% of Americans who say that they never go to church are still worshipping something.
A list of commonly worshipped pseud0-deities would include: money, sex, alcohol, drugs, television, golf, houses, cars, self, food … you get the point. We were built to worship, and worship we will.
But does that make public, corporate worship essential? Why can’t I just worship God in my own private space?
The short answer is, you can. However, a more in-depth examination would reveal that, although edifying, private worship is not enough.
For centuries the locus of worship life was in the home. Judaism was built on the idea that the parents were the worship leaders of the family (Deut. 6:4-9). Worship was weekly, on the Sabbath, in the home, with a series of annual festivals that brought worship into the community from time to time.
It was the crisis of exile that created the synagogue and with it a more regular communal worship expression. But that only developed a few hundred years before Jesus arrived, and wasn’t systematized until after his death.
The earliest Christians, patterning themselves after their Jewish forebearers, first worshipped in the home. House churches were all the Apostle Paul ever knew. He would probably marvel at modern-day mega-churches (and might even shake his head at some of the things we do in worship — but that’s for another blog article).
Again, it was a crisis that forged corporate worship into the Christian experience. The persecuted church began to see worship beyond the house church as a unifying experience. Eventually, they would go to any length to come together for worship (i.e., worshipping in the catacombs under the city of Rome).
The writer of Hebrews says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Obviously, the earliest Christians found essential value in gathering regularly for corporate worship.
Four Reasons Corporate Worship is Essential
Why then, is worship essential? I can think of four reasons. I’m sure you could add others to the list.
1. It’s not about you.
Worship is not about you. Don’t get me wrong — you are blessed when you worship. However, when you attend corporate worship there’s a chance you can bless another person.
A smile. A kind word. A prayer. There are so many possibilities for you to make a difference in another person’s life on any given Sunday.
2. It’s a witness to a broken and hurting world.
The light we experience in corporate worship should be a magnetic force for those struggling with life. Our joy in worship should be contagious.
3. It’s an important glue.
Worship is an intimate experience. When we do it together it creates a bond. No matter how polarizing the world gets, here’s one thing we can always agree on — God is worthy of our worship.
4. It’s an expression of love.
There is no higher good in this world than your love for God. Why would you want to hide it? In corporate worship, you make a public confession of your love for God.
The Church was birthed by God (Acts 2) and is still God’s plan to reconcile the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:18).
The Church is still the Bride of Christ (John 3:29; Rev. 19:7).
There is no other Bride. There is no Plan B.
I pray that all Christian churches in America will rise up in this era and thrive for the honor and glory of God.