[Note: This article is largely adapted from a chapter from the book, The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship by Jeffrey J. Meyers. I have only partially finished this book, yet I commend it to any Christian, especially any pastor, elder, deacon or worship leader when considering the form, content and structure of your church’s Lord’s Day gathering.]
Countless Christians across the globe wake up every Lord’s Day morning, wash up, put on their Sunday best, drive to church, sit down in their pew, sing the songs, pray the prayers, listen to the sermon and head home without having the faintest clue as to why it is exactly that they just put themselves through all of that.
There are serious disagreements among many thoughtful Christians who try to answer the question, “why do we go to church on Sunday?” Let’s examine four common answers, see how they all partially point to the truth, without fully explaining it, and then provide a fifth, hopefully better answer.
1) Worship as Evangelism
Since the ill-named “Second Great Awakening” evangelistic effectiveness has been the foremost criteria for effective worship among many churches. Why is this understanding of worship fundamentally flawed? Simply put, worship is not evangelism. Worship is one thing and evangelism is another thing. Worship is something you do before God, “Ascribe to Yahweh the glory due his Name; bring an offering and come before him; worship Yahweh in the glory of his holiness” (1 Chronicles 16:29).
This idea of worship as evangelism is the main driving force leading to the “seeker sensitive” movement in so many modern churches. A movement that utilizes techniques that are judged to be effective at attracting religious consumers to their church in order to “evangelize” them. And yet, Paul makes it clear that when a church acts properly during it’s worship, an outsider should be “convicted”, “called to account” and “fall on their face and worship God” (1 Corinthians 14:24-25).
Churches who hold evangelism as the purpose of Sunday worship often act like corporations and feel the need to produce tangible results that can be measured and touted to the present membership. They let future generations worry about the long-term consequences of this methodology that is concerned only with immediate results. And of course, all of it is baptized in the language of “soul winning”.
Of course, there is a genuine evangelistic dimension to the Lord’s Day worship, but it is not directed primarily at outsiders, but to those within the community of believers. If unbelievers visit, they WILL hear the gospel, but it will not be on their own terms.
2) Worship as Education
A different segment of the church believes that the whole purpose of Sunday worship is for the communication of truth and doctrine. This emphasis can turn sanctuaries into lecture halls and everything the leads up to the sermon as simply “pre-game ceremonies” that lead up to the main event. The service exists simply to prepare the worshiper emotionally for the sermon.
Why is this understanding of worship fundamentally flawed? The bible appears to not put the emphasis of worship on teaching, “Oh come, let us sing to Yahweh; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise” (Psalm 95:1-2).
Of course, like evangelism, we are not saying that teaching does not have a place within the corporate worship of God’s people. It is however, neither the sole, nor even the primary reason that Christians should come to church on Sunday.
3) Worship as Experience
There are also those who believe that the purpose of the gathering of the saints is a personal, inner emotional experience. Pastors smile, read poems, tell you that “God loves you just the way you are” and people leave feeling great about themselves. The problem with this is that this is an altogether man-centered form of worship.
It would be very difficult make this argument from the pages of scripture. While we certainly are meant to “taste and see that the Lord is good”, we do so, not through some praise-induced emotional ecstasy, but by doing certain things before God: offering, prostrating, confessing, kneeling, singing, and bringing gifts for example. Worship is not to be evaluated based on the effect that it has on the worshiper, but whether it is acceptable to God or not (see Cain).
4) Worship as Praise
This fourth attempt at describing the reason we go to church on Sunday comes closer than the rest, but it still doesn’t quite get there. The slogan, “We come to church to give and not to get” has become popular, but it can also be dangerously simplistic. Ascribing worth to God our Creator is obviously an integral part of our corporate worship gatherings, but the problem arises when we set worship over against receiving anything ourselves.
By very definition, Christians are people who are given and have received God’s grace, faithfulness, blessing, word, nourishment and more. It is only in response to what we have received do we give back an appropriate response of praise and adoration. We are neglecting an essential part of the worship service when we refuse to receive the gifts which God wishes to impart upon us through his work, word and sacraments.
So, what is the alternative?
5) Covenant Renewal Worship
Meyers’ argument in his book is that the apostles lay out the argument in the pages of the New Testament for the liturgy of the Christian church to reflect the sacrificial rites of the Old Testament Temple system, therefore rooted in the idea of the covenant. So, when Christians gather to worship on the Lord’s day it includes elements of evangelism, education, experience and praise, but the purpose or the reason we do it is to renew the covenant with our covenant Lord.
You may not agree with all of Meyers’ conclusions and arguments (especially if you do not consider yourself to be in a reformed circle or church), but unlike many books you might read on the subject of worship, they are thoroughly biblical and therefore can only be rejected with equally thoroughly biblical arguments. On this topic there is much to be said (Meyers himself contributes 433 pages) and much reform needed in many a church, so I’ll simply conclude with this small section from Meyers to whet your whistle and hopefully encourage you to study further.
“God invites people to church on Sunday for a meal. Eating and drinking together with the Lord caps off the service. It is the goal of the Lord’s Service… A covenantal relationship is a formal relationship between God and us. Like marriage (which is a human covenant modeled after God’s covenant with his church, Eph. 5:22-33), God’s covenant with us has a definitive form and content. Furthermore, there is a distinctive way of renewing covenantal relations in the Bible, and that is by way of sacrifice. According to the scriptures, in corporate Christian worship the people of God are engaged by the Spirit and drawn into the Father’s presence as living sacrifices in Christ (Eph. 2:18). This is how God renews His covenant with his people. He draws near to draw us near. And in drawing us near to Him we are renewed through sacrifice. Christian worship is sacrificial; when we say Christian worship is covenant renewal worship we mean that it takes the form of sacrifice and offering.”
You can order The Lord's Service from Canon Press here.
 Meyers, Jeffery J., The Lord’sService: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003), 52, 55-56.