Covenant Renewal Worship: The Steady Work of Formation

Christians no longer agree that Sunday worship is centrally important to the Christian life. This was proven when worship services were cashiered in favor of “online worship” in response to COVID. But the dye was cast before COVID when it was argued that the church’s mid-week community groups, not Sunday worship,[1] were the thing that mattered the most.

While we agree that fellowship is an important part of the church, we can’t go along with the trendy downgrade of Sunday worship. Worship ought to be more than a few songs, a video, and a sermon that is forgotten by 2 pm.[2] Lord’s Day Worship should be a matter of covenant renewal, where God’s people are shaped through affirming their covenant vows.

Covenant Renewal Worship is how Christian formation happens. The more we hear the truth, the more we respond to it. The more we respond to it, the more it satisfies. The more it satisfies, the more we believe. So we must commit ourselves to joyful worship of the Lord. We must not devalue it. We must not ignore it. We must not close our eyes to it. Lasting formation is not quick and easy. It’s a work of creation that is slow and steady.

The church must retain the high calling of worshipping the Lord on Sunday. In the case of those who treat the Lord’s Day Service like a side dish, it needs to be recovered. Whether you are retaining or recovering, consider three encouragements for why Covenant Renewal Worship ought to be a central part of your family’s life.

  1. During Covenant Renewal Worship, Christians inhabit a sacred space

There is holy ground in the Old Testament, for example, the burning bush (Ex. 3:5) and the tabernacle (Ex. 25:8, 29:42; Numbers 9:15; Josh. 6:24; 2 Sam. 6:17; 2 Chron. 1:3-4; Mic. 4:1-2). But these concepts didn’t abscond when Christ came to earth. In the New Testament, Christians are holy space. Paul says “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God” (1 Cor. 6:19). But it’s not just that each individual Christian is an individual temple. Paul tells the church, “You are God’s temple” (1 Cor. 3:16). “You are” is plural. The church collectively is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Paul reinforces the point in Ephesians 2:19-22, “You are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Again, the language is plural, not singular.

There is no longer one physical structure—a tabernacle or temple—where God resides. Jesus told the Jews, “Destroy the temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). He “was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21). Jesus is the new temple. He dwells, by his Spirit, within the church (2 Cor. 6:16).

The church is the temple of God (1 Pt. 2:4-9)—the tent of God (2 Cor. 5:1). For Paul, this is not an abstraction. Consider the practical application of this concept. When a member of the “household of faith” (Gal. 6:10) committed grievous, unrepentant sin, Paul commanded the church to “Purge the evil person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:13) and “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor. 5:5). In other words, the person was removed from the church. That is, the unrepentant sinner was removed from the temple of God—the sacred space of God. This mirrors the Old Testament understanding of holy ground. Michael Heiser explains “that the Israelites viewed their land as holy ground and the territory of the non-Israelite nations as controlled by demonic gods. Israel was holy ground because that was where the presence of Yahweh resided. The opposite was true everywhere else.”[3] Just as God’s presence was in the Jerusalem temple, now it is in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 3:16f). The church is holy ground. To be put outside the church is to be on unholy ground, indeed, Paul says it is to be delivered “to Satan” (1 Cor. 5:5).[4]

Jesus said that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Mt. 18:20). Wherever the church is gathered, whether it be for church discipline or not, they occupy sacred space. When the church gathers to worship on the Lord’s Day, they inhabit a sacred space and engage in a sacred activity. It isn’t flippant. It isn’t secondary. It is no more “take it or leave it” as was for Jews going to the temple. Christ demands that we worship him (Jn. 5:23), which means worship is a joyful duty, not just for humans, but for angels (Heb. 1:6). Lord’s Day worship is preparation for the day all will bow before the name of Jesus (Phil. 2:10) and worship the Lord for all eternity, singing hymns to Christ (Rev. 5:11f; 7:10) because of the salvation he accomplished (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Every local church physically gathered for worship is a holy celebration and a holy pledge of allegiance within a sacred space.

The Christian ambition is to make all the world sacred space. That doesn’t start with international missionaries. It starts with the weekly gathering of the holy assembly.

2. During Covenant Renewal Worship, Christians train their children how to worship

Our children learn how to worship the Lord based on what we teach them. If children are separated from corporate worship, what does that teach them? It teaches them something untrue, namely, that they are separate from the people of God. When God commands his people to return to him, he says, “Gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber” (Joel 2:16). During the covenant renewal service at Moab, Moses said, “You are standing today, all of you, before the Lord your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, 11 your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water” (Dt. 29:10f). During the reign of Jehoshaphat, the king assembled the sacred assembly to stand before the Lord, including “their little ones, their wives, and their children” (2 Chron. 20:13).

Children are more than a begrudged addition to the assembly. They are supposed to be there with their parents, gathered to worship the Lord. Since they are part of the gathering, their role is more than just watching the adults participate. The best learning comes through doing. The children are to participate as much as able. This is part of how children learn to desire the pure milk of the word (1 Pt. 2:1ff), receive nourishment through the sacraments (1 Cor. 10:16), and sing vigorously to the Lord (Ps. 30:11f).

The most destructive pandemic currently affront is the wimpy singing from males on Sunday mornings. This is a sickness of the churches making. Churches have willingly separated their children from the sacred assembly. Think about the insanity. People are at their most exuberant when they are children. People are also most impressionable when they are children. Christian parents should be directing that impressionable exuberance to belt out songs, hymns, and spiritual songs to the Lord. Before the first hymn, Dad should say to his son, “Watch me. Do it like this.” By keeping kids in the nursery, we’ve taught them all the wrong things. Could it be that the pandemic of wimpy singing started when we put our kids in the nursery? And could it be that to revive the stentorian alacrity of hymn singing, we must reinstate the exuberant children to their rightful place in the assembly? How else will they learn to sing to the Lord?

3. During Covenant Renewal Worship, Christians practice activity rather than passivity

The average church service today puts the congregation in a fundamentally passive role. The audience watches the band perform, then watches the videos, then watches the speaker. It’s training for how to be a passive husband, a passive citizen, and a passive church member. What do passive people do? Complain. So on the drive home from a passive worship service, people complain about the length of the service, the song choices, and Mrs. Tuffin’s outfit.

Passivity is inactivity. Most people today work indoors, in a cubical or home office, behind a desk, in front of a computer screen, sitting for eight hours a day. Passiveness hopes to add together temporary things into a sum of permanent things. But it doesn’t work that way. Passiveness doesn’t produce the permanence of eternity. It’s sluggishness that leads to nowhere, going from one situation to another, one relationship to another, and one location to another until you end up in oblivion.

That’s why Covenant Renewal Worship requires purposeful activity from the congregation. We sing hymns congregationally, followed by hearty amens. We confess our sins on our knees before God. We rise to our feet and confess our common faith in the Apostle’s Creed. We lean into the sermon. We feast on Christ by taking the bread and the wine. We raise our hands to sing the doxology and then put our hands out to receive the benediction.

Passivity is all around us. But it must not be that way in the Christian life. To those who would make us passive, we must not submit for a moment. Covenant Renewal Worship is the weekly repudiation of the passive life. A vibrant Christian life starts with how you worship on Sundays.

Other articles about covenant renewal worship

[1] Jeff Vanderstelt, Saturate Field Guide (Bellevue, WA: 2016), 4f, 45.

[2] I recently heard a pastor explain that sermons weren’t important because they were forgotten by 2pm.

[3] Michael Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 342.

[4] Why is the unrepentant person purged from the church and delivered to Satan? Paul says, “for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). The destruction of the flesh refers not to the destruction of the physical body, but to the destruction of the ungodly behavior. The person is being put out of the church so they can live in the consequences of their sin, which may destroy the self-destructive sinful behavior.

Published by Jason Cherry

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call and The Making of Evangelical Spirituality (Wipf and Stock).