Individual and Corporate Worship
Because human beings are social animals as well as individuals, worship has both individual and corporate components. That is, one can worship God when alone, and can also worship God as part of a group.
Worship as an individual involves offering personal prayer. Christ stressed that such prayer must studiously avoid being done for show, for the real purpose of exciting the admiration of those who might be watching. For this reason, He said that rather than pray one’s personal prayers in public under the watchful eye of those passing by, his disciples should offer their personal prayers in privacy, far from the possibility of watchful eyes and applauding hands. He instructed his disciples, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:6).
The word here rendered “room” is the Greek tameion, and means not just any room but a hidden, secret room, a storeroom in the inner recesses of the house. Christ was saying that his disciples should take care not to be seen praying their personal prayers, lest they earn the applause of others and thereby forfeit their reward from God.
The importance of such personal prayer may be gauged by the abundance of prayerbooks containing such prayers, and the Church’s expectation that the pious Orthodox Christian will pray both in the morning and the evening. Usually, such prayer is offered at one’s icon corner, a place selected and dedicated to prayer, and containing such things as one’s Bible, prayer rope, or other devotional aids. Reading the Scriptures (including chanting the Psalms) usually accompanies such prayer as part of one’s discipline and prayer rule.
Yet even when we are alone in our prayer corner, we are still members of Christ’s Body, praying the “Our Father”, not the “my Father.” The prayers we use are taught us by the Church, and we pray privately at home because we have first prayed as a body in Church. That is why the prayerbooks for personal use consist of prayers gathered from the corporate services of the Church. Both our private prayers and our corporate worship constitute a single offering of our life to God.
Worship also includes corporate prayer as part of a larger group. In Israel, God appointed set times for such corporate gatherings. Though one could come to the central shrine where the ark was situated and offer sacrifice any time, the Torah mandated that all Israelite males must gather at the shrine three times a year, for the feast of Passover, for the feast of harvest (or the Feast of Weeks/ Pentecost), and for the feast of the ingathering (or the Feast of Booths; see Lev 23:14–17). These gatherings foreshadowed the weekly gatherings of Christians on the Lord’s Day, when they would gather together for the Eucharist as the Body of Christ.
The Hebrew term for a gathering or an assembly (for whatever purpose) is qahal (compare its use in Num 22:4; Deut 9:10). It is translated in the Greek Septuagint as ekklesia, (and in English often as “church”). The word ekklesia, however, doesn’t necessarily imply the gathered community of Christians, or even a religious gathering at all. In Acts 19:41 the term denotes a gathering for civil purposes, as when many angry citizens gathered to protest the work of Paul in a kind of town-hall protest meeting. When used of Christians (e.g., Rom 16:5) it refers to the assembling of all the Christians at an agreed upon location for the purpose of prayer and (on Sunday) for the Eucharist. A “church” is by definition “a gathering, an assembly”, the result of what happens after people gather and assemble.
After becoming a convert to the Christian faith through baptism, one was expected to gather with them for worship every Sunday, to be present at the Lord’s assembly. The Lord Jesus pledged his presence there among them, even if the assembly consisted of a small group of two or three people (Matt 18:20). It is this presence of Christ that constitutes the essence of the Church, and what makes a gathering of Christians to be “church”.
From the earliest days, these Sunday gatherings consisted of listening to the apostolic teaching, mutual sharing, breaking bread (i.e., the Eucharist), and the prayers (see Acts 2:33). By the end of the first century the eucharistic sharing of the Lord’s Body and Blood had become detached from its original context as a full meal or supper, and was held in the early morning, while fasting before the first meal of the day. It was later in the day, after the workday had concluded, that the Christians were re-assemble for a love feast, the agape meal.
The structure of the Eucharist was recorded by St. Justin Martyr in his first Apology (chapters 65–67). Its main elements were,
- the reading of the Scriptures
- an instruction explaining its meaning
- intercessory prayers for all the world
- the exchange of the kiss of peace among the Christians
- the prayer over bread and wine
- the partaking of the bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Christ
Different groups of people had different assigned tasks in this gathering, with bishops and deacons, for example, each having their distinct roles. In its essential form, this is still the underlying structure of the Divine Liturgy to this day.
Weekly participation in this gathering defined a person as a part of the Christian people, “the Church”. No one who deliberately and voluntarily absented himself or herself from this gathering was considered a Christian. A Christian was defined, both by the Church and (in the early days) by the Roman state as well, not as someone who believed certain things about God or Christ, but as someone who joined in gathering for the Eucharist. A Christian was, by definition, a worshipper, someone who gathered with other Christians to worship Christ. That is why if someone betrayed the Christian faith through their behaviour and was clearly no longer a disciple of Jesus, they were excommunicated—i.e., excluded from the eucharistic gathering.
The Christian was one who centered his entire existence upon Jesus Christ and lived to worship him. This was done privately, whether at home or on the road, and in the gathered assemblies of the Christians as God’s ekklesia. It was through this constant worship of God that God poured his life and power into his redeemed creature, bringing salvation and joy.