This past Sunday I had opportunity to teach from Psalm 40 and try to explain why this prayer-song was a kind of pattern for David's spiritual life - and ebb and flow from worship in private prayer closet (in his case - fields and caves) and public worship with God's people (whether it be dancing before an Ark in his underoos or in the sanctuary). My emphasis for Sunday was upon how running back each day to the private prayer closet - alone with God - serves to re-fuel and sustain every effort of corporate worship.
However, I did make a brief comment: Public, corporate worship - hearing from God's Word together and singing it to one another and to God - protects and enlargens the prayer closet. This is the other side of the coin in developing intimacy with God. The impetus behind that brief comment largely stemmed from a sermon I read last week by David Clarkson.
David Clarkson (1622-1686) was a colleague and successor in the pulpit to the famous Puritan John Owen. His sermon is entitled: Public worship to be preferred before private from Psalm 87:2 and it contains an absurd number of Roman numerals that will cause you to either grow dizzy or begin to form a shape (various Star Wars or Lord of the Rings characters are common) if you look at them (or through them) for too long.
Ultimately I disagree David's his overall assessment in part because of the inherent dangers of vanity that accompany overindulgence in worshipping God in the midst of others, which Jesus warned us about (Matthew 6:5-6), but mostly because it begs the question: Why would you try to pit two friends against each other?!. The private re-fuels and sustains genuine, lasting public worship while the public worship protects private worship from becoming introspective, selfish, heretical while spurring on insights in to God, the Bible, life that you wouldn't have noticed yourself. Each serves the other as a good friend would. But many of his points are insightful, well-girded by Scripture and so worth taking a gander.
Without further ado, here are 8 reasons (Clarkson gives 12 but 4 of them are, in my estimate, not well-supported) to stop telling yourself: "Oh, I'll just stay out later and spend time with God by myself on the beach when I wake up" or "Must...hit...snooze...button. Sleep...better...than...preacher" or "God understands that I have ____ going on or ____kids or need to put in ____ extra hours at work" and instead enjoy the benefits promised in God's Word of gathering together to grow from and gladly respond to God's Word.
1. The Lord is more glorified by public worship than private. This first point by Clarkson should makes sense. More people means more voices singing, more gifts at the table, more testimonies of thanksgiving - but also more opportunity for the Holy Spirit, through the bond of peace (Eph. 4:1-3), to make unlikely unity out of such diversity of backgrounds, ethnicities, interests and seasons of life. For brining unity where there would otherwise be relational chaos, God receives maximum glory.
2. There is manifest more of the Lord's presence in public worship than in private. Clarkson argues for this beautifully: "The Lord has a dish for every particular soul that truly serve him; but when many particulars meet together, there is a variety, a confluence, a multitude of dishes. The presence of the Lord in public worship makes it a spiritual feast, and so it is expressed in Isaiah 25:6."
4. There is more spiritual advantage in the use of public worship. For instance, certain deeper spiritual truths which one tries to suss out on his/her own, can be apprehended more readily and precisely when he/she listens to good preaching and worships together with others. Clarkson rightly quotes Psalm 73:16-17 here. Asaph has just been querying GOd as to why the wicked and proud prosper - it all starts to make sense once he arrives to the sanctuary to worship God together with others. For one thing, you realize the true prosperity you possess in community and being a part of the church of the living God most acutely when you get there.
5. Public worship is more edifying than private. In private, you seek God merely for your own good, but in public you seek the good of both yourselves and others. Every person who trusts Jesus brings with them a gift "to serve one another" (1 Peter 4:10), "for building up the body of Christ" (Eph. 4:12), and "for the common good" (1 Cor. 12:7).
6. Public worship is a better security against apostasy than private. Heresy is a fun word, but apostasy - yikes. The former has to do with believing and espousing a false teaching or truth but often without contrarian motives. Apostasy, however, is the espousing of false teaching as an act of willful rebellion. Either way, when one locks himself or herself in the private closet without bouncing ideas about the Bible, truth, Jesus off someone else, it's easy to stray the course - often without contrarian or malicious intent. I remember years ago doing this once for the first sermon I ever preached during our preaching lab in seminary. The combination of wanting to preach something more 'original' and not really running my notes by anyone else made for an interesting teaching from II Corinthians re: how people should plant churches. There was some errant content in there. Lesson learned. "Where there is no guidance, a people fails / but in an abundance of counselors there is safety" (Proverbs 11:14).
8. Public worship is the nearest resemblance of heaven. A wedding feast, a banqueting table, a heavenly city are all descriptions that entail more than just you and J.C. over a candlelight dinner.
10. Public worship is the best means for procuring the greatest mercies, and preventing and removing the greatest judgments. So next time you hear about your church conducting a prayer meeting, a prayer vigil, etc, I would caution against the "I'll just join in from home" approach. The number of verses to support the above statement are astounding. Joel 2:15-16: "Blow the trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly, gather the people. Consecrate the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children, even the nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room and bride her chamber" (you can read Joel 2:17-18 for God's response). II Chronicles 20:3-4 & Acts 4:31 are other poignant examples of God calling His people to come together or using His people as they come together to seek Him.
12. The promises of God are given more to public worship than to private. There are more promises to public, and even the promises that seem to be made to private worship are applicable and even more powerful in the context of public worship. A great example is Revelation 3:20 - often quoted as a most encouraging verse (ie. God is knocking at the door of your heart). But really this invitation is extended not to an individual but to a church. Jesus will come in and fellowship with the church body that hears His voice and invites Him through the door.