Guidelines For Worship (1 Corinthians)

I don’t need to tell you that, over the past year, COVID-19 has changed life for all of us.  One of the areas that has probably changed more radically than any other is the workplace.  The abrupt closure of many offices and workplaces last year ushered in a new era of remote work for millions of Americans.

            Most workers whose job responsibilities can mainly be done from home say that, before the pandemic, they rarely or never worked from home.  Now, 71% of those workers are doing their job from home either all or most of the time. But here’s what I found especially interesting.  86% of those people who are working from home say that if they were given a choice, they would like to keep working from home all or most of the time even after the pandemic.

            Hearing those numbers made me wonder if the statistics are similar for Christians who have been worshipping from home over the past year.  Prior to the pandemic, very few people worshiped online from home.  But, in 2020, most churches were forced to develop an online presence.  It has been estimated that over 100,000 churches began streaming their worship services last year.  And of course, Cruciform was one of those churches.

            But as churches now begin to make the transition back into the church building, I wonder how many Christians are like those workers who say that they would rather stay at home and work.  How many Christians would rather stay at home and worship?  There are certainly plenty of options available, both on the Internet and television.  Why leave the comfort of your home when you can worship God without going anywhere?

            More importantly, do those of us who have come back together to worship in person understand why this is important?  James K. A. Smith made a striking comment.  He said, “People come to church and have no clue why. They sing a few songs, listen to a sermon, and go back to their lives without any change. The problem is that they have no understanding as to why they are doing what they are doing.”

            It seems to me that if the average churchgoer comes to “worship” on Sunday but doesn’t know why he or she is here, then we have a problem.  Why do we “go to church”?  And by that, I mean, why do we come together every week for our worship assembly?  Why are we here on Sunday mornings?  Or, to make it more personal, why are you here?  What’s our purpose?  What do we hope to accomplish?

            It’s a question that preachers need to think about as we prepare our lessons.  Is our worship a time when we are trying to evangelize and teach those who are not yet Christians or is this a time when we should be encouraging those who have already made a commitment to Christ?

            It’s a question that songleaders have to think about.  Is our worship mainly a vertical time when we focus our attention on praising and worshipping God?  Or is it mainly a horizontal time when we encourage one another?  What is the primary purpose of our time together in worship?

            And I would guess that if I asked for a show of hands, the most popular answer to this question would be that our worship together should primarily be for the purpose of exalting and praising God our Father.  To honor him.  To let God know how much we love him. 

            But in I Corinthians chapter 14, when Paul deals with the subject of our worship assembly, he says some things that may surprise you.  And one of the things that Paul tells us is that praising God is not the primary purpose of our time together. 

            Before we look at this passage, though, let’s take a look at this overview of the entire book of I Corinthians, and then I’ll be back to take a closer look at what Paul has to say about worship.

            Show VIDEO (I Corinthians)

            As we saw in the video, one of the issues that Paul had to deal with in Corinth involved the subject of spiritual gifts in that congregation.  Different Christians were given different gifts of the Spirit, but they were fussing and fighting because they thought that some of those gifts (like speaking in tongues) were better than others.

            And one of the places that this conflict showed up was in the worship service.  So, Paul gives them some instruction regarding their time of worship together.  And, in the process, we learn something about the spiritual gifts of the first century, especially speaking in tongues.  But, more importantly, we learn something about how our worship ought to be conducted.

I.          The reason we worship together is to edify one another

            “Desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.  For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him…But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men.  He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.  I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification.” (I Corinthians 14:1-5)

            Paul said there was nothing wrong with the Corinthians wanting spiritual gifts.  But if they wanted to have any gift at all, Paul said it should have been prophecy.  A prophet was someone who proclaimed God’s truth.  It was similar to our preaching today, except they didn’t have to study the Bible to prepare their messages. 

            But the reason that prophecy was more important than tongues was because it was able to accom­plish something that tongues didn’t.  Over and over in this passage, Paul uses the words “edify” and “edification”.  Paul says it is essential in our worship service that the church is edified, it’s strengthened, it’s built up.

            I don’t disagree at all with the idea that worship should be a time of praising and honoring God.  But if that’s the only purpose of our worship, then we might as well just stay home and worship alone.  I don’t need to be with you to praise God.  That’s why so many people say, “I can worship God just as well out in the woods or at the lake or by the beach as I can in a church building.  In fact, I can worship God even better out there because I’m surrounded by all of God’s creation.”

            And I don’t dispute any of that.  But there’s one thing you can’t do while you’re out there all alone, and that’s to encourage me.  And everyone else in this room.  And Paul says that’s an essential element of our worship together. 

            In fact, Paul says that’s a determining factor of how our worship service ought to be conducted.  If what we do during our time of worship doesn’t edify anybody, if it doesn’t encourage anyone, then we shouldn’t be doing it.  But it does edify and if it does encourage others, then that’s what we need to be spending our time doing during our worship together.

            Paul said that speaking in tongues in a worship service in Corinth had absolutely no edifying value at all.  It didn’t help anybody.  Remember that speaking in tongues meant to speak in foreign languages.  Whenever that happened, unless it was a language that somebody under­stood, it provided no instruction, no edification.  The only thing it could do was to speak to God who understands all languages. 

            But the Corinthians didn’t care that nobody could understand them.  They were more interested in something that was mysterious and amazing than doing something that was edifying.  They didn’t care that what they were doing didn’t help anyone else in the church.

            Paul said that someone who spoke in a tongue may have edified himself, he may have gone away feeling closer to God.  But someone who prophesied edified the whole church.  That Christian used his gift to minister to others, the way God intended for all the gifts to be used.  As Paul said earlier, “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other.” (I Corinthians 12:7, NLT). 

            And Paul says that’s what our time of worship together should be all about.

II.     For there to be edification, there must first be understanding

            Verse 12, “Since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel.  Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.  For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.  What is the result then?  I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding.  I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. 

            “Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uniformed say ‘Amen’ at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say?  For you indeed give thanks well but the other is not edified.  I thank my God that I speak with tongues more than you all; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (I Corinthians 14:12-19)

            Five times in this section, Paul uses the word “understanding”.  He says you can’t edify someone, you can’t build them up, if they don’t understand what you’re saying.  And that seems like it ought to be obvious, it’s just common sense.  Paul says it doesn’t do any good to say things in front of the congregation that nobody can under­stand.  But that’s exactly what was happening in Corinth.

            Without an interpreter, speaking in tongues was nothing more than making just a bunch of noise.  If I were to preach to you in Portuguese this morning, I’m sure you would all be very impressed, at least you should be, because I’ve never studied Portuguese a day in my life.  But while you might be impressed at what I’m able to do, it wouldn’t be very helpful to you.  You wouldn’t leave this morning saying, “I feel stronger and closer to God.  I intend to serve God better this week than I served him last week.” 

            But that’s the way it was in Corinth.  Unless the words spoken in tongues were interpreted, they were meaningless.  Paul uses a couple of illustrations to prove his point.

            First, he says in verse 7, “Even lifeless instruments like the flute or the harp must play the notes clearly, or no one will recognize the melody.” (I Corinthians 14:7, NLT).  And that’s true.  Have you ever heard someone play a guitar or a piano that’s out of tune?  The notes are so off that you can’t tell the difference between the Star Spangled Banner and Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.   It’s like the wife who said to her newlywed husband, “I can only make two dishes — meat loaf and apple pie.”  And he says, “Which one is this?”  I can’t tell what song is being played if I can’t understand the notes.

            Second, Paul says in verse 8, “If the bugler doesn’t sound a clear call, how will the soldiers know they are being called to battle?” (I Corinthians 14:8, NLT).  If a bugler isn’t sure whether he is calling “retreat!” or “charge!”, then none of the soldiers are going to know what to do either.  Half of them will rush forward while the other half will run back.  The call must be a clear one if it is to be understood.

            Then Paul says in verse 9, “It’s the same for you. If you speak to people in words they don’t understand, how will they know what you are saying? You might as well be talking into empty space.” (I Corinthians 14:9, NLT).  Unless you’re speaking the same language as someone else, you can’t get your point across. 

            Several years ago, there was a college girl who came to our door selling books one summer.  She was from China and she had not been in America very long.  She was taking classes at the University of Southern Mississippi.  I invited her in and we spoke for a while.  Then I said, “You speak very good English.”  She said, “Thank you, so do you.”  I said, “I should; I grew up in America.”  She said, “No, back in Mississippi, I can’t understand them.”  To her, the southern dialect was a foreign language.

            No matter how sincere a speaker may be, if I don’t understand what he’s saying, he can’t communicate with me.  So, what were they supposed to do in Corinth?  They were to ask God for someone to interpret their tongues.  In fact, in verse 28, Paul forbids the use of tongues in a situation where there was no one to translate.

            Several years ago, Sueanne and I attended the lectureship at Lips­comb University.  The keynote speaker each night was Juan Monroy whom some of you may have heard.  He’s from Spain.  Now he speaks English, but he feels more comfortable speaking in his native tongue of Spanish, so every night during the lectureship he preached his lesson in Spanish.  There was a man who stood next to him and translated his lesson into English.

            I think we can all see how absurd it would be for Juan Monroy to stand up and speak in front of a crowd of hundreds of people in Nashville, Tennessee in Spanish without an inter­preter.  Some of you (like Jorge) would have been fine, but 99 percent of us in that room would have left without having understood a thing.

            And yet that’s exactly what was taking place in Corinth!  And that’s why Paul was trying to get across to the Corinthians how foolish it was for someone to speak in tongues, in a foreign language, if there was no one to inter­pret.  Because, if we are going to edify, we have to say it in a way that people will understand.

            And that relates to more than just what language we’re speaking.  Over the years, I’ve listened to some preachers who were speaking in English, but when they were done, I’d say to Sueanne, “I didn’t understand a thing he said.”  And if you don’t understand what a speaker is saying, you can’t be edified.

            The purpose of our gathering together is not merely to praise God.  It is to edify one another.  And to do that, we have to be able to convey our message in a way that’s understood.

III.       Our worship should not hinder our work of evangelism

            Verse 23, “If the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?  But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is judged by all.  And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you.” (I Corinthians 14:23-25)

            The misuse of tongues in the church in Corinth was having an adverse effect on their evangelistic outreach.  If an unbeliever attended a worship service where tongues were being misused, it would not lead them closer to Christ.  Paul says he would be “turned off”.  In fact, Paul says that hearing all these strange languages being spoken without an interpreter may lead him to the conclusion that everybody in the church had gone crazy. 

            On the other hand, prophecy (the proclaiming of God’s word) would convict that sinner of his sinfulness and help lead him to faith in Christ.

            Now, tongues did have an important purpose as we can see in Acts 2 where the apostles spoke in various tongues on the Day of Pentecost.  The Jews were amazed because they all understood what was being spoken in their own languages (Acts 2:11).  That attracted their attention to Peter who was then able to preach to them about Jesus.

            But when tongues were used like they were at Corinth, there was only a lot of confusion.  Unbelievers were scared away and Christians went unedified.  On the other hand, prophecy edified God’s people and evangelized unbelievers.  Our desire should be that every worship service, every activity, everything we say or do in the Lord’s name will cause people to say, “God is certainly among you.”

IV.       What is the application to our worship today?

            Paul puts the topic of edification right at the center of what our worship should be all about, but I don’t think we have stressed nearly enough in the church the important role that edification plays in our worship service.  There’s another passage in the New Testament which makes the same point, and my guess is that it is very familiar to you.

            Hebrews 10, beginning with verse 24, “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works,not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, asisthe manner of some, but exhortingone another,and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

            When I grew up, this passage meant: “You must attend all the worship services of the church, even if they conflict with the NCAA basketball tournament.” But that’s not really the point of the passage.  The point is that we need to gather, because we need to encourage and exhort one another.  The writer gives us the reason in the very next verse.

            Verse 26, “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.” (Hebrews 10:26-27)

            The writer’s point here is that the Christian walk can be tough.  We are tempted to turn away from Christ.  We are tempted constantly to go back to the sins we used to commit, sins that will result in losing our salvation.  We need each other’s support to make it.  We need the encouragement to continue loving others and doing good works.  

            And so, the Hebrew writer strongly emphasizes the “horizontal” function of our assembly. We come to worship to be encouraged.  No, no, wait a minute – that’s not what the Hebrew writer said.  That’s usually what we want it to say.  “I’m here to get encouraged, and if you don’t do enough to encourage me, you’re gonna hear some complaints.” 

            No, no, no.  The writer doesn’t say we go to worship to be encouraged.  He said we go to worship to encourage others.  Now, obviously, if we are all encouraging others, we’ll all be encouraged as well.  But the Hebrew writer’s point is not that we’re here to get something out of our time together, we’re here to put something in.

            And everything we do in our worship needs to be tested by this rule in I Corinthians 14 and Hebrews 10  – are we truly edifying one another?  Are we truly encouraging one another to be more active in serving God?  Are we truly encouraging one another to live out our faith in a hostile world?  Are we encouraging one another to serve in love?  Are we encouraging one another to follow the example of Jesus Christ in our homes, in our workplace, in our neighborhood?  Are we encouraging one another to speak up for Christ?

            Does our preaching serve that goal?  It should.  And if it doesn’t, then something needs to change.  Does our singing serve that goal?  It should.  And if it doesn’t, then something needs to change. 

            But encouragement happens at other times than when I’m up here in the pulpit.  In fact, I think the deepest expressions of encouragement are found in the conversations in the aisles or in the foyer — when we’re asking people to volunteer for something, when we comfort those who are suffering a loss, when we invite someone who’s lonely to lunch, when we encourage someone to attend a small group, when we greet our visitors — that’s the stuff that reveals the true heart of a congregation.

            And I think even our announcements can be a time of encouragement.  If we’re announcing new opportunities to feed the hungry or we’re announcing an upcoming prayer campaign or we’re announcing the need for volunteers to help teach our Bible classes, that’s exactly the sort of thing that the Hebrew writer says is at the very heart of our worship.  We’re here to provoke one another to love and good works.  And if we’re doing a good job of that, it’s going to start long before the opening prayer, and it’s going to continue long after the closing prayer. 

            So, as we close, let me ask you this question, “Who are you going to encourage this morning?”  Because if the answer is “no one”, then you might as well have stayed home, because you didn’t truly come to worship.

            When Paul is asked about what is appropriate to do in the worship assembly, he asks two very pragmatic questions:

(1) Is what we are doing serving the purpose of edifying, strengthening, encouraging, and comforting other Christians who are present?  The test of a good worship service is whether God has given us the opportunity to be encouragers — not whether the preacher has tickled our funny bone or the song leader has picked out our favorite songs.   The measure of a good worship service is determined by whether or not we have encouraged anyone else to love and to do good works.

(2)  Does what we’re doing going make it clear to any non-Christians who are visiting with us that “God is present in this place”?  And if our worship is not accomplishing those two things – if visitors don’t feel and see the presence of God, and if members aren’t being edified, encouraged, strengthened, and comforted, Paul says we need to make some changes so that we do accomplish those goals because that’s what our time of worship together is all about.

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