Why the Tension Exists Between Private and Public Worship

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought4 Comments

I experienced a real “aha” moment recently when reading Jean-Jacques von Allmen’s fabulous work, Worship: Its Theology and Practice.  Sometimes I find that, in discussing the concept of worship with thoughtful folks in the church, we’re talking past each other with what we mean by “worship.”  One person is referring to whole-life worship while the other is talking about gathered, corporate worship.  And there certainly is a tension between these two realities.  On the one hand, the concept of whole-life worship reminds us that no aspect of our life is left untouched in the quest of the glory of God (Col 3:17).  People who champion this approach helpfully point out that folks who think they’ve done their “worship duty” by attending Sunday services fall short of God’s summons on their lives the other six days of the week.  On the other hand, there is something unique and irreducible about the public gathering of the people of God.  People who champion public worship rightly point out that an overemphasis on whole-life worship can often lead to downplaying the importance of coming together weekly with God’s people for the special things that God reserves for that context only (e.g. the Lord’s Supper).  

When we take a step back, though, we have to at least for a moment scratch our heads as to why we even have such discussions and emphases and why it is that we often talk past each other when we discuss worship.  When dualisms like these are exposed, it often means that there’s a tension to be maintained for a proper biblical understanding (think of other classic dualisms like God’s oneness / threeness, Jesus’ divinity / humanity, Divine sovereignty / human responsibility, etc.).  So why is there a healthy tension between private, individual, whole-life worship and public, corporate, Lord’s Day worship?  

Von Allmen says that this tension walks on the same tight rope as the theology of the Kingdom of God:

[Corporate worship] is necessary because the Kingdom of God is not yet established with power. [Corporate worship] as such is necessary because the whole of life has not yet been transformed into worship.  Thus it suggests that the Kingdom exists already, like the leaven in the dough, but is not yet established. It shows that Sunday is other than weekday, that all is not yet Sunday.1

Whoa. Did you catch that? The private / public worship divide is directly related to the already / not yet divide of the Kingdom of God.  If we’re honest, there’s a tension in all of us when we worship on the Lord’s Day and then “go out into the world” Monday through Saturday.  This rhythm is a good rhythm…a necessary rhythm, even, for now.  But it feels partial.  It feels incomplete.  It feels forward-pointing.  It feels pilgrim-ish, not home-ish.  And it makes complete sense.

Personally, I want there to be more of a unity and seamlessness between my Lord’s Day life and my weekday life.  I want the worship in one sector to more naturally feed into and feed upon the worship in the other sector.  Certainly part of this is my fault–my own sin, brokenness.  But it’s also the fault of the broken world (well, I guess I’m culpable for that, too), waiting like a pregnant woman for her due date.  The Kingdom is not yet fully realized, and we will always walk through our seven-day rhythm with a funny taste in our mouth.  Evidently, that’s the flavor of “not yet” rolling around on our tongue.


1Jean Jacques von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Practice (New York: Oxford, 1965), 116-117.

4 Comments on “Why the Tension Exists Between Private and Public Worship”

  1. Thanks for another thoughtful post, Zac. I also like von Allmen's book, but on this point, I think he has not adequately connected redemption to creation. Von Allmen's point would make weekly worship a necessity due to sin, and thus, by implication, something that will disappear when we are freed from sin in the new heavens and the new earth. But why wouldn't we gather in large assemblies for corporate worship in the new creation? In the new creation, we will still be social creatures in relationship with one another. It seems to me that our perfected relationships with God and with one another in our fully redeemed and glorified state would come to expression in regular events of perfected corporate worship as well as perfected individual worship on a daily basis. By rooting the necessity of corporate worship only in our fallenness and the absence of the fullness of the kingdom, von Allmen's point implies that the unity of the body of Christ will not come to any concrete expression in worship together in the new creation. But that seems bizarre. Corporate worship occurs not only because of the evil of our present sinful condition but also because of the goodness of our social/relational human nature that is created in the image of the Triune God. Thus, I think we need to say that coming of the fullness of kingdom of God will not abolish corporate worship but rather perfect what is now only imperfect.

    And I agree that the debates about the priority of weekly corporate worship vs. daily worship are strange and unnecessary. There are different types of worship events, and they all have a unique, indispensable role to play in the Christian life. Arguing over whether weekly vs. daily worship is more important is like arguing whether my right leg is more important than my left leg. I’d like to have both, thank you very much! 🙂 And I'm not sure that tension is exactly the right word to distinguish the different kinds of worship. There is a distinction between different types or modes of worship, but the word tension is usually used to refer to theological doctrines that are hard to reconcile conceptually. But it doesn't seem terribly hard to conceive that there are many different kinds of worship events (weekly worship with the whole church on the Lord's Day, daily worship by families and individuals, etc.) and that all have their own distinct roles to play.

  2. Really well put, Mike. Thank you for those thoughts. I'm still wrestling with the eschatological implications, here. If the perfection of corporate worship aims at true union with Christ and delight in the Triune Community, I wonder whether corporate ritualistic worship will be necessary. Would not things like sacraments, being a kind of relational mediator, cease because we've reached our end goal of perfect communion, however that looks? I'm really asking. How about Eden? I don't see much evidence of ritual, but rather more unadulterated union and communion…whole-life worship…constant. Perhaps Eden's not a good model, though, because there wasn't a very big community when it first started out. I don't know that I agree that von Allmen has not connected redemption to creation. I think perhaps the disconnect is not with creation but with corporate worship ritual. Some kind of Edenic concept seems implicit in what he's saying. But maybe I'm giving him too much credit.

    It sounds like you've thought about this, so I value your insights. Your challenge is a very fair challenge.

    And finally, you're probably right that tension is not the right word. I think there's something, though, about the Christian seeking a balance between these two things, and it's probably more an existential tension between the two that I feel (I tend to fall off to harshly on one side or the other for seasons) than a philosophical/theological tension. I notice that many high-church folks I know tend to put all their eggs in the corporate worship basket, while a lot of low-church folks I know tend to downplay corporate worship as vital to their spiritual formation but place at the top of their spirituality their personal worship and communion with God. "Tension," to me, helps me to wrap my mind around the need for existential balance, and that it will be, for many, difficult to achieve that balance…thus, tense.

  3. I see what you mean about the tension as existential balance. That's a great point.

    Re: the future, we will still have bodies in the glorified creation to come, and we will still be social beings. How else would God conduct his relationship with embodied, social creatures if not through tangible, embodied, social means? The very existence of the garden in Eden is a good example of what I'm saying. In order to establish and conduct his covenant with Adam and Eve, God planted a specific, concrete place to serve as a sanctuary in which God met with them face-to-face (in some fashion), and he placed a sacramental Tree of Life as an embodied means of relationship around food. But the garden is not a perfect example because (as you note), the scale of the future kingdom will be so vast and comparatively developed technologically and culturally.

    My basic point is that ritual and the role of physical, embodied things and events of some kind are inherently necessary for created, physical, embodied beings to exist and to engage in relationships with God and with one another. All of God's communication to us comes to us through our bodies in some way, and clearly all of our varied responses to him involve our bodies as well. This is especially true of any truly corporate action. Actions done in and by a corporate body/gathering of people necessarily require organization and some sort of structured sequence of actions, i.e., ritual of some sort. The Book of Revelation is full of descriptions of large bodies of people and angels in heaven acting together in liturgical actions that have structured (i.e., ritual) form. The new creation occurs as the reality of heaven described in that book pervades and transforms and ultimately merges with the created world (i.e., the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven to earth to transform and glorify it). So it seems quite natural to expect that something like the liturgical actions in those descriptions to be present in the fullness of the kingdom to come. Indeed, how great it will be when there are large gatherings of people who meet together to hear Jesus himself in the flesh speak to us and serve us and have the opportunity to express our responses of worship to him in corporate ways that manifest the glory of a united, harmonious humanity! You are certainly correct that communion with God will be uninterrupted in some sense, I'm asking about the form that that communion will take and whether that communion will take somewhat different forms at distinct times and places. While no one knows for sure, I can't see how communion with God could take place apart from some sort of embodied, sacramental, ritual form, at least sometimes.

    Thanks for a good discussion. Back to you.

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