Life happens in rhythms.
We wake, we sleep. We work, we rest. The sun comes up, and goes back down. Winter gives way to spring and summer (unless you live in Oregon, in which winter is followed by rain, then some more rain after that, followed by fake spring, plus some more rain for good measure, followed by real spring, and then finally, gloriously, summer).
And in a similar way, the worship life of the Christian takes place in an ongoing rhythm: we worship gathered, and we worship scattered.
“Gathered worship” refers to the type of worship that happens when the body of Christ assembles together. Ekklesia—the biblical term for the church gathered—is when the saints unite in physical proximity to one another, singing as one voice, receiving teaching from the Word, and breaking bread together to commemorate the ultimate cost of our collective salvation (Heb 10:19-22). Gathered worship is where we see those we love dearly, are reminded of those we haven’t thought about in recent days, and is as essential to the Christian life as sleep is to the body. Without a regular rhythm of gathered worship, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Christian life would be in existential danger.
“Scattered worship” is the counterpart to gathered worship. This is day-to-day worship, the life of faith lived out in surrender and sacrifice in the ordinary, mundane grind of life. Scattered worship is the type of worship we refer to when we speak of worship being a continuous outpouring of praise to God through the way we live: in our speech, our thoughts, and our actions (Rom 12:1-2). Scattered worship follows gathered worship. We gather, so we can scatter. Or, put another way, gathered worship equips us to go live as scattered worshipers. Neither of these types of worship—gathered and scattered—are any more legitimately worship than another, they are simply the different contexts in which we worship God. Worship does not begin when church starts at 10 AM on Sunday, in the same way that it doesn’t end when we leave the church building. The context where we worship simply changes. And both of these contexts are necessary and vital. If we are only “Sunday morning” worshipers—those who know what to say and how to look when we’re around other believers, but in our daily life do not reflect a posture of surrender to Jesus’ rule—we are religious hypocrites. Similarly, if we live a pious and devoted life, yet minimize or neglect the value of remaining connected to Jesus’ people, we ignore the communal reality of our faith—one that is expressed through sacrament, confession, and humble submission to godly leadership.
For the believer’s current reality, most of our life is lived as scattered worship. This is part of God’s design.
In heaven, all worship will be gathered, with the people of God dwelling together in the presence of God forever (Rev 21:1-4). Worship gathered today is a glimpse of heaven on earth. When we assemble, there’s a transcendence that hints at future glory. But we are not there yet, and – significantly, because we are not there yet – we are currently on a mission. This is why we scatter. As John Piper has famously said, “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” There are people in our world who have not yet encountered the purpose-altering, sin-shattering, worship-inducing grace of God. These are our friends who live, work, learn, and play alongside us. And the clearest picture they have of this grace is the transformed life of a scattered worshiper on display.
When our regular gathered worship rhythm is interrupted, whether it be due to a season of personal/family disruption, prolonged illness, church hurt—or something as unforeseen as a global pandemic—it can be incredibly disorienting and lonely. We miss gathered worship, and rightly so. Gathered worship is where we are reminded of our dependence on God, and scattered worship is the arena where that dependence is lived out. Scattered worship is hard without the sustaining rhythm of the gathering.
But as much as we miss the gathering now, we can take heart—we will gather again soon! In the meantime, let’s embrace our mission as worshiping evangelists. Let’s invite our shared longing for gathered worship now to shape our understanding of God’s purpose in our scattering: that others may ultimately be gathered into His presence—forever—as worshipers.
This post originally appeared at outwardchurch.com/blog.