Recently I met a young man who told me of his transition from a Pentecostal Baptist Church into an evangelical Presbyterian Church. He grew to love the Presbyterian Church, but he recalls, “initially it felt like hopping into a cold bath!” His previous church had worked hard to raise the temperature at church, to warm things up—the music was spectacular, the presence of God was earnestly sought, even invoked, and the preaching emphasised the nearness and power of God for life today.

Such conversations about corporate worship, or, if you prefer, about Christian gatherings, raise lots of good questions. COVID 19 only brings such questions to a more pressing relevance. Which things should we do and emphasise when we gather, whether online or in person? Should I try to return physically to church, or should I happily worship God from home? Should our worship be a mostly horizontal activity, where we seek to edify one another in Christ; or should it be more deliberately vertical where our focus is on God and perhaps even God alone? Of course we’ve now raised more questions than we can hope to address here, but Scripture helps us to cut through some of the peripheral questions so that we keep sight of the essentials of Christian worship.

What then does worship look like in Scripture? The answer isn’t straightforward because it requires us to notice the important developments as we move from the Old Testament to the New Testament.

As we enter the New Testament, new wine skins were needed so that all nations could worship their Creator in their time and place, and with cultural flexibility. The first thing we note is that Jesus is someone who, astonishingly, is worshiped! The Old Testament had prepared Israel to see that “God with us” (Emmanuel) was coming into the world (Isaiah 7:13; 9:1-7); Jesus was the One about whom David said, “The LORD says to my Lord” (Psalm 110). This means the wise men’s desire to worship young Jesus (Matthew 2:2) was thoroughly appropriate, and monotheistic Jews worshiped the LORD by worshiping the glorious One now dwelling among them (John 1:14,18)! God’s presence was being experienced not in a temple, but in a human—One who displays so earthily, vividly, personally, the One true God worthy of worship (Hebrews 1:1-4). Israel’s Yahweh is far better understood when recognised as triune. The spectacular ways this was revealed, such as Jesus’ baptism or transfiguration, added reason upon reason to worship the one true God.

Jesus is the same “I am” (e.g. John 8:58) made known to Abraham and Moses, and He is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11) of Psalm 23. Isaiah saw a day when nations would gather to the Temple in Zion to worship God (Isaiah 56:6-8). Now, in Christ, spiritually we do. As Jesus taught, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23).But what does this mean? In D. A. Carson’s words, it means “we must worship God by means of Christ. In him the reality has dawned and the shadows are being swept away (cf. Heb. 8:13). Christian worship is new covenant worship; it is gospel-inspired worship; it is Christ-centered worship; it is cross-focused worship.”

The breathtaking albeit enigmatic promises of the Old Testament were being wonderfully fulfilled as Jesus set about his divine work. The more we see of God, now most visible in Christ with the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, the more compelled we are to respond accordingly with our lives. How can we not worship our Great God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

What then has worshiping our triune God got to do with church gatherings? I suggest worship is to treat God as God. This is the case whether we are alone or gathered with others, and the old covenant means of worship have been superseded by new covenant means. All that we think, say and do is known to God, so our lives become our continual offering, our worship to Him (Romans 12:1-2; Hebrews 13:15-16). In the New Testament context, certain priorities shape what we could call “corporate worship”—the word of God is consistently considered vital, as is humility, love for one another, gratitude to God, and prayer. Singing also has an important role (e.g. Colossians 3:12-17). This new and more accommodating wine skin enables all nations and cultures to offer whole-of-life worship, even during a pandemic.

How then does this inform the question of whether worship is what we do at church as opposed to how we live the rest of the week? In light of past misunderstandings, some are reluctant to use the word “worship” for church gatherings—it has the potential to reduce the significance of worship that continues all day and all week.

However, to say that “all of life is worship” need not, indeed must not, exclude from our “life of worship” those times in which we (like the Psalmists, shepherds, wise men and angels before us) are filled with praise and adoration for our God. Yes, such a focus on God and response to Him is possible in the supermarket, but church gatherings are God’s way for us to enjoy conditions especially suited to this, dare we say “sacred,” purpose. This sense explains texts such as 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 where God-ward “worship” (proskuneo) leads people to recognise that “God is really among you”. Word, prayer, singing, and other activities when we gather are not an end in themselves, nor are they simply a means to be built up. For we might ask in whom are we built up? Is it not Him? Is it not … You! Put another way, would it not be a shame if we merely affirmed to one another that Jesus is worthy of worship (a potentiality expressed horizontally) but refrained from consciously worshiping him (a reality expressed both horizontally and vertically)?

Yes, God is transcendent and gloriously “other” (often well recognised in reformed churches), but if His immanence is lost to His transcendence, church might feel like a cold bath. Remembering God’s immanence is to duly recognise His nearness, His supreme relevance, His intense presence. In this way, the riches of reformed theology have tremendous potential to inspire worship that engages head and heart. New and seasoned believers learn and practice what it is to treat God as God, which centres of loving and trusting Him, and loving one another. Christian gatherings become a powerful place to invite unbelieving friends, who might find themselves unexpectedly sensing the presence of God among His captivated people.

The implications of this for the tone of our church gatherings are significant. The shift in recent decades among evangelical denominations to strengthen the horizontal, welcoming, personal and inclusive feel of church was and is a most important development, but it need not be at the cost of the vertical gravitas that comes with adoring our intensely immanent and wonderfully transcendent God. Being a church in our time and our place with cultural awareness is important, so let us do that while seeking to treat God as God.