The Joy of Worship – Together

Featuring Steven Fry Posted on August 20, 2008

A palpable excitement hung in the air. People were decked to the nines, and the low buzz of expectant whispers echoed throughout the concert hall. It was my first symphony concert and I was drinking it in.  One by one, the finest classical musicians in San Francisco took their seats, their instruments at the ready. What a sight! Then they began to play. I grimaced. It sounded more like rush hour on the LA freeways than a Mozart masterpiece.

The sound emanating from that stage was a cacophonous caterwauling of a hundred separate instruments, their nails-on-the-blackboard dissonance ricocheting off the walls. Each player magnificently finessing his instrument, yes, but without any coordinated reference to the others. Each playing in his own key. Oh there was energy, and they all seemed to play with skill and conviction. It just sounded bad.

Then the conductor took the stand. The instruments fell silent. A hush came over the audience as he raised his baton. And at the downbeat, an ocean of harmony cascaded over the rapt audience. Each player was playing in concert with the others. No longer the fascinating but discordant sounds of individual musicians, they were now an orchestra. By itself, the sweetest violin or the melodious melancholy of a French horn cannot compare with the exquisite sounds of a symphonic score brought to life by the hand of a seasoned conductor. It’s the unique thrill of the symphony. A sound expressed together that simply can’t be expressed individually.

Jesus has called us to be a symphony. Worshiping God together – declaring His “worth-ship” in song, in prayer, in praise. In Matt 18:19 He envisions us. “If two of you agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by My Father…For where two or three come together in My Name there I am with them.” The word for ‘agree’ is sumphoneo from which we get our word symphony.

In our culture, cultivating a sense of ‘community’ is challenging. The Word warns us not to “give up meeting together” (Heb. 10:25), yet so many distractions seem to siphon our commitment to this. We fight traffic more often, shuttle our kids to more activities, and pursue more leisurely diversions in our attempts to emotionally stay afloat. This helter-skelter pace undermines the home – reducing it, in many cases, to nothing more than a boarding house where each family member snatches a few hours of restless sleep, and grabs a quick bite before racing out the door, ear perma-glued to the cell phone, to fit more and more commitments in an already bulging 24-hour day.

If this lifestyle threatens the quality of our personal families, how much more does it erode our passion for our church family? Time was when we gathered as a congregation two or three times a week. Now, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to maintain consistent church attendance on Sunday morning. When we do find time to attend, it can seem to us more a filling station at which we personally refuel our souls, than a community in which we mutually invest. A commissary, in the words of Vernard Eller, where goods and services are dispensed rather than a caravan of spiritual pilgrims celebrating their common life in Christ.

I am not suggesting we turn back the clock to a simpler time when options were few, and Wednesday night services were the highlight of everyone’s schedule. But being together in worship ought to be one of our primary priorities. There is something about worshiping together with God’s people that is central to our growth as believers. 
As the budding Israelite nation prepared to possess its promised land, Moses reminded them that they were not to worship as other nations – offering sacrifice wherever they wanted. Everyone was not to do as he saw fit, but go to the place God was to designate (Deut.12). Eventually, that place was Jerusalem. The entire nation was commanded to come together three times a year to worship the Lord. Imagine the inconvenience. For most, it meant a significant disruption in their schedules, weeks away from home as they made the trek. Why? Because they brought joy to God together in a way they could not by themselves; because there was a joy they would know together in a way they would never know alone.

King David understood this joy. He leapt at the opportunities to join “the tribes of Yahweh” as they worshiped together in Jerusalem (Ps.122:1). For it was there in Jerusalem that justice and wisdom was dispensed (v3), there that peace was nurtured (v8,9). We can know these same blessings when we worship together. Pearls of wisdom that the Spirit drops in our hearts, renewed peace that comes to the weary soul pillaged by life’s pressures, a sense of joyous camaraderie knowing that we are joined in our journey by like-minded pilgrims.

It was there too, David knew, that God’s heart was gladdened (Ps. 133). In generations to come, the prophet Zephaniah would capture the holy joy that pulses through the heart of God when He dwells amidst a grateful, praising people:

“Shout for joy, daughter of Zion, rejoice with all your heart…
Yahweh is in your midst, exulting with joy over you
Dancing with shouts of joy for you.”  (Zeph.3:14-17, NJB)
God calls us to worship together. When we neglect this priority, we are shutting ourselves off from one of the richest sources of satisfaction.

But there is a knottier problem that impedes us in our journey toward community. Ours is a culture that places a high premium on independence and self-reliance. Recently, my family and I vacationed at Disney World. I’ve always been intrigued with American history so I took in the, "American Adventure" attraction, a stirring presentation of our nation’s story. As I entered the auditorium I noticed ten statues, five on each side of the hall. Each represented some aspect of our way of life – our values. One statue portrayed a sturdy pioneer woman cradling a baby to her bosom, another a rough-hewn aviator looking toward a distant sunset, and so on. On the pedestals of each were words describing what that statue was intended to depict.

I read those words. Some reflected godly traits, like compassion. But most didn’t quite square with Biblical ideals: independence, individuality, self-reliance. I wondered, was I looking at accouterments of a Disney attraction or idols of our worship? Such values tend to push community to the periphery. To cultivate an appetite to worship together, we must first understand why being together is not an option, but a necessity.

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