This post is part of a series looking at various elements of worship. In each post we’ll examine one element and look at biblical foundations for them.
If you’re new to the church or you grew up in a church that didn’t do corporate readings they may seem strange to you. For some they can seem like a weird, cult-like practice. For others they can seem like a boring activity that takes away from the emotional high of worship. Or perhaps just something that crushes individuality. So let’s address these issues and look at some biblical foundations for corporate readings and try to answer the question “Are corporate readings necessary?”
First, let’s define what a corporate reading is so we can make sure we’re talking about the same thing. A corporate reading is a reading that is done by the congregation (you might say a reading that is done corporately). It might be a passage from scripture, or a creed from historic christianity. Sometimes the readings are responsive, meaning that the service leader reads a portion, and the congregation replies – your hymnals probably have plenty of these. And sometimes these readings may be limited explicitly to the membership of the church – our church’s membership stands and reads our church covenant together before the Lord’s Supper.
With that in mind let’s look at a few of the ways this practice blesses the church. And how leaders can better guide the church in corporate readings.
Corporate readings reinforce orthodoxy
I can understand it when people say that corporate readings seem weird. Especially when one precedes communion. People stand up, recite words, and then eat and drink in unison. If you have no familiarity with what’s happening it can be uncomfortable, possibly even worrying.
However, corporate readings tie us to a history of faithful believers that have gone before us. Many creeds arose out of a desire to clarify what we believe and root it firmly in the Bible. So by reading passages from the Bible aloud or reading historic orthodox creeds we are corporately declaring truth and orthodoxy. And by doing so we distance ourselves from false-teaching and practice. In fact, Colossians 2:16-23 encourages us not to allow worldly concepts or judgements to influence our worship. So instead of giving in to attempts to make the church feel embarrassed about reading corporately, we should remember that when those negative similarities appear we are seeing a distortion of good things by unbelievers.
The Bible is a rich source of God-glorifying, edifying passages ready to be read corporately. From the many Psalms that were sung and read aloud by the Israelites before Christ’s arrival, to the hymns and creeds of the New Testament (Col. 1:15-20, Phil. 2:5-11, Luke 1:46-55 etc.) corporate readings have been a means of reminding ourselves of the truth and declaring it clearly.
Corporate readings enrich our worship
Public reading of scripture actually characterizes worship according to 1 Timothy 4:13. Which means our worship would be incomplete without it. We are not all poets. We are not all eloquent. Even though most of us have been speaking since around the age of 2, we still sometimes struggle to put words together coherently. When we sing together as a church we don’t just attempt to freestyle lyrics extemporaneously like we’re taking part in a rap battle. I’m thankful that brothers and sisters with a gift for poetry have written songs for us to sing corporately. They help us to express deep and profound truths in beautiful ways. I’m always moved when we sing the third verse of Philip Bliss’ It Is Well with My Soul.
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
How beautiful is that? I can feel the weight of my sin lifted every time I sing that. And the same thing is at work in corporate readings. The biggest difference between corporate readings and corporate singing is the lack of music. There are no constraints of time signature or melody. But the truth is still there. Creeds are distilled truth. Consider the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
That is truth distilled into concise and purposeful language. Every word is used to maximum effect to state the gospel clearly. And when the gospel is clear, our worship is enriched. So when you as a congregant are participating in a corporate reading, don’t just mumble the words. Take them in and think about them as you read them, the same way you are reading this now.
Corporate readings unite us
The church is a public display of the gospel at work in the world. God saves people out of every walk of life, every background, every economic bracket, every skin color, every age group. Every line the world tries to divide people over, does not divide people in the church. Rather, these differences work more like facets on a diamond and illuminate different aspects of the beauty and power of the gospel. When we read together it is a clear demonstration of our unity in Christ. And to the unsaved people in our midst it should be a very striking thing.
As christians it can be a humbling act of unity. When we confess sin together through readings, or praise God together, we are actively reminded of our own status and that of our brothers and sisters. Our sins are often, sadly, most offensive to us when we see them in others because we are often better at seeing sins in others than in ourselves. But when we corporately join with them in reading truth, we can’t help but be reminded that we are as weak, fallen, and desperately in need of a Savior as they are. This is the sort of corporate reading that goes on in Nehemiah 9 as the Israelites separate themselves from foreigners and “read from the Book of the Law of their God.”
Leading a corporate reading
So what about when you are the one leading? The way you lead can help bring out the things above and encourage people in reading. If someone stands up in front of the church and says “Let’s do the corporate reading,” they’re not really helping people understand the why of it. In fact that just paints it as a mundane task that must be completed before we finish the service.
It’s always important to keep the theme visible in the service. If you’re not the one preaching, make sure you’ve read the passage being preached ahead of time, and consider how the reading is related to it. Help the congregation to see that connection. If the main passage of the morning is dealing with confession, and your reading is a confession, point that out as you introduce it. You can say “Let’s confess our sins together through the words of …” Make the theme obvious and people will be prepared for it and be able to engage with it more easily.
And finally, read in a way that is appropriate to the mood of the text being read. Adopting a monotone droning will encourage people to disconnect their thoughts from their mouths and wait for next bit of the service that they find interesting. A leader has a duty to set the tone and lead people through the reading.
As you prepare to lead in corporate readings or to join in corporate readings, remember the rich history of Christian tradition you are joining with as the gospel unites the saints of old with the saints of today in praise and worship.
Our Implicit Witness
The effort you put into what you do is usually indicative of the value you give it. Mundane tasks are often performed with a certain lack of enthusiasm because they are …mundane. In the same respect, we tend to approach things we are passionate about with zeal and determination. In school I generally did poorly in classes that didn’t interest me, but excelled in classes that did.
This is the first post in a series looking at various elements of worship. In each post we’ll examine one element and look at biblical foundations for them.
As we start a series looking at different elements of worship it seems most appropriate to begin with looking at prayers of invocation. A prayer of invocation is often used to open a service. In them we ask for God’s presence and blessing as we gather to worship Him.
It should be no surprise that when looking at prayer we find biblical foundations in the Psalms. Many Psalms begin with an invocation. For example, look at the way David opens Psalm 4.
Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
You have given me relief when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
And then look at how he opens Psalm 5.
Give ear to my words, O LORD;
consider my groaning.
Give attention to the sound of my cry,
my King and my God,
for to you do I pray.
O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice;
in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you
It’s a common pattern that we see repeatedly in the Psalms. A pattern of asking for God to hear us, and bless us with His attention and presence.
Isn’t God already present?
Yes, He is. When we ask for God’s presence in our gatherings it is not because He has been absent. It is a demonstration of our position in our relationship with Him and an expression of our dependence on His mercy. God is already present, but we want to know His presence more fully and we only experience that by His loving attention.
So in these prayers we acknowledge our position of weakness. Note David’s words in Psalm 4 “Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!” and in Psalm 5 “Give ear to my words, O LORD; consider my groaning.” David is stating his powerlessness and humbly seeking God’s gracious aid. Because his hope is that God is with him. And if God is not with him, then his groaning will be in vain.
These invocations are also mixed with praise. In Psalm 4 David recounts how God has already given relief when he was in distress. And in Psalm 5 David says that God has heard his voice. These praises show confidence that these invocations are not merely an incantation said without hope. But they declare assurance that God has indeed been with Him in the past, and has heard him in the past, so he can be confident that God will continue to do as He already has done.
And thirdly, there is reverence for the fact that he is making his requests to God. It may seem bold that Psalm 4 starts “Answer me when I call” but it is followed immediately with “God of my righteousness!” It is indeed a bold request, but it is made in recognition that God is the source of David’s righteousness. In Psalm 5 David acknowledges that God is his King and the one that he prepares sacrifices too. He does not flippantly entreat God, but with humility and reverence and praise asks God to be present.
Now we have a framework for what a biblical prayer of invocation should be. It should humbly and reverently praise God while we ask for his presence. If prayers of invocation are a regular part of your service, ask these questions of them in your preparation and in your reviews afterwards.
- Does this prayer praise God?
- Are we humbly approaching His throne (acknowledging our insufficiency and His sufficiency)?
- Are we revering Him (recognizing His authority)?
- Have we sought God’s blessing?
Are you following the theme?
This is a key question in all aspects of service planning. From songs to readings to prayers, every element should match the theme of the main passage being preached. This helps illuminate the consistency of scripture and its one Author. It helps us to see God’s constant and unchanging nature. So if you’re preaching on Luke 15:11-32, it would probably be helpful to pray that God would open our eyes to our greed and self-righteousness.
Look to history
As we already saw, the Psalms are full of invocations. But their presence in the Bible is not limited to the Psalms alone. Many benedictions can serve as invocations if they are requested of God.
For example, consider the priestly blessing in Numbers 6:24-26.
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
We can ask God for these things (and we should!) because these are blessings available to us in His word.
Lord, as we gather together,
we ask that you would bless us and keep us;
make your face shine upon us and be gracious to us;
lift up your countenance upon us and give us peace.
There are also many saints who have gone before us and left us with helpful prayers that we can use. Read through The Book of Common Prayer, Spurgeon’s Prayers, The Valley of Vision, and the prayers in whatever hymnal your church uses – did you know there are prayers in it? We learn to pray by the Bible and by hearing, reading, and praying the prayers of more mature believers. I’ll leave you with this prayer from The Book of Common Prayer.
O Almighty God, who alone can order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men; Grant your people, that they may love the things which you command, and desire that which you promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Haven't used Swerv yet?Get organized!
Swerv helps churches plan their services from one centralized location. It can keep track of your church’s song library and liturgies as well as generate CCLI reports for you. Swerv can also ease your review process since all the information is already in one place.