Four Parts of Worship: The Gathering

It has long fascinated me that when we make mistakes in life, they often are rooted in our failure to execute the basics well. We’ll let complicated details worry us and then botch what should be simple.

You see it in sports. A Major League baseball player costs his team the game by booting a routine ground ball, a simple maneuver he’s executed thousands of time since Little League. An NFL quarterback in a panic throws off balance and across his body, something a coach first told him not to do when he was 8 years old. Interception.

It happens to us at work. We’re trained in the basics of our job. We execute those basics day after day. And then one day, often for reasons even we cannot explain, we do it another way, and we’re left scratching our heads, wondering what went wrong.

It happens to us in worship, too. To worship well, there are some basics we need to keep in mind. And if we keep going back to them, we will worship very well, in a way that invigorates us and impacts every moment of our lives.

Through the rest of September, we’re going to talk about the most basic aspects of worship, the four identifiable parts of worship going back to the earliest days of Christianity. We’re going to see if we can fully understand our role in each part and how each part leads to its next part.

Worship experts use different terms for these four parts of worship, but I like these: Gathering, Word, Celebration, and Sending Forth. We’ll cover one each week. We’ll begin today with gathering, of course.

Focus

The gathering time is perhaps the most confusing of the four, simply because many Christians don’t consider it part of worship at all. Much of it happens before we’ve officially “started.” When we neglect it, however, we’re like a traveler who begins a journey by tripping in the first few steps and cracking a kneecap. The rest of the journey will be painful, and the traveler may never reach the destination.

At the latest, the gathering should begin somewhere out on the church lawn, before we ever enter the building. It begins when we gather ourselves, readying ourselves for why we have come to this place—to encounter God, and join with others seeking to do the same.

If you’ll pause outside a church building for a moment and breathe, you’ll see there is so much designed to put you in the right frame of mind. The exterior design of Cassidy and many other church buildings is intended to point you toward God, to say to you, “Lift up your eyes! Look up!” We’re granted a moment of perspective where we remember where we stand in relation to God.

If you’re blessed with a church bell, as we are, its ringing is a call to the faithful and a reminder to the lost that something special is about to happen. And we’re particularly blessed at Cassidy to have a beautiful garden with a pathway through it next to the sanctuary. I’m often able to center myself before a worship service by walking through it.

To again use a sports metaphor, the gathering is first about getting your head in the game. You may have noticed that I said the gathering begins on the church lawn “at the latest.” I’m probably stretching the concept of gathering a little, but I would argue it begins long before we cross the church property line. Are you preparing yourself for worship through encounters with God during the week? Was your Saturday night an appropriate prelude to an encounter with God, including plenty of rest?

Once inside the sanctuary, the gathering continues as the service formally begins. Our individual readiness becomes a group readiness, and when we do it right, great things begin to happen. We feel it in the singing. The prayers bind us together.

We’re Not Alone

And we should expect great things. Just look at Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:19-20, words given to us very clearly in the context of church life.

Consider Jesus’ words, and then think about what we’re doing when we gather here. God is present when we gather. Not only that, the holy decisions we make as a church align us with events in heaven.

When worship is properly understood, the question regarding church attendance should never be, “Am I going today?” Instead, it should be, “How will I ever leave?”

We also begin to realize that a mature Christian’s worship experience has little to do with matters like style of music or preaching. Jesus promised to show up when we gather in his name; he said nothing about matters of style. Our experience is tied to how fully we believe God is among us when we gather as Jesus told us to do.

Next week, I’ll tell you why I can promise you we will encounter God every week in worship, assuming we stick to our basics and walk into church ready for the encounter.

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