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You might have seen a church whose architecture was the shape of a cross. It’s called cruciform architecture. The first church buildings were modeled after the Roman basilica, a long rectangular structure. In time, two wings were added to make the shape of a cross. I recall my first impression after touring one of these historic structures. I was impressed with the care and the planning that went into these spaces.

This is the first in a series of three posts outlining how the gospel shapes our gathering at Heritage. Not in terms of our building architecture, but rather the architecture of our meeting itself. That is, what we do when we come together on the Lord’s Day. These three posts will move from the more fixed and foundational things to the more practical and flexible—from theological foundations (Part 1), to our liturgical rhythms (Part 2), to the design and preparation of a specific Sunday gathering (Part 3).

On the one hand, this little series is not necessary. You don’t need to apprehend the physics involved in the structure behind the wall to take shelter in your home. You don’t even need to think about the structure for it to do its work. Or, to shift metaphors for a moment, you don’t need think about the kitchen when you’re out for a nice dinner. The food is the nourishment. So it is with the gospel and our gatherings.

But there’s something to say for knowing what goes on behind the walls or in the kitchen. Consider this: for all the weekly, monthly, and annual patterns prescribed under the old covenant, the Lord’s Day gathering is our one new covenant family routine. Our church will be better for a little work on this topic over the next few weeks. Allow me to give you the tour.

Our Cornerstone

Where do we begin? Three words: he is risen! We begin with the new beginning that God has brought through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Since the early days of the church, local churches have gathered on a specific day, “the first day of the week” (Acts 20:7). That’s the day Jesus rose from the dead (Lk. 24:1). The Apostle John called it, “the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10). Here’s what this means: the gospel of the risen Lord Jesus is not just the reason we come together, but the very occasion on which we gather. Jesus ascended to heaven then to assemble a people. The church is this people, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:20, 21). Everything flows from the central fact of Jesus’ resurrection, from the ordinances to what we say and sing and hear when we meet.

Having established the reason we meet on the Lord’s Day, what else can we say from the Bible about our purposes for coming together? Our elders put some work into that question about a year ago and we’re eager to bring you in on it.

Our Biblical and Theological Purposes

If you’ve ever helped design a home or been a part of a building project, you’ll know that there are many factors that go into the shape and flow of a building. What is it for? Who will be in it? What resource do we have to work with?

These reflections on the resurrection above are where our elders began in shaping a document of theological foundations for our corporate gatherings. Before we shaped a job description for a Director of Worship we wanted to do our best as elders to articulate what it is we believe we’re after when we meet on Sundays. That process, which concluded in 2020, led to a nine-page theological framework we’ve titled, “How the Gospel Shapes Our Gatherings: Twelve Aims.” Here they are with abbreviated explanations:

1. We want our Lord’s Day gathering to fulfill God’s vertical and horizontal purposes for bringing us together.

God’s highest purpose is to magnify his own glory—that is, that he may be worshiped, valued, and treasured above all things (Ps. 34:3). Yet, God’s glory is manifest among us when we gather to serve one another with our gifts, to instruct one another with the Word, to stir one another up to love and good works, and to encourage one another until Christ comes (Col. 3:16; 1Cor. 12:4–6; 14:26; Heb. 10:24–25).

2. We want our gatherings to be formed and filled by the Word of God.

Word-formed worship trusts God’s means for God’s work. We trust God’s Word by devoting ourselves to the ordinary elements of praying, singing, reading, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the Word preached (1Tim. 2:1, 8; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; 1Tim. 4:13; 1Cor. 11:23–26; 2Tim. 4:2). Word-filled worship means we fill our service with a certain content—the Scriptures, and the Word of the gospel in particular.

3. We want our gatherings to unfold with movements of revelation and response.

In the Scriptures, God reveals himself in all of his Triune and transcendent glory (2Cor. 13:14; Isa. 6:1–3; Rev. 4:8). When God speaks, his people respond to him—when we’re at our best—in a way that reflects back to him his own greatness: “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised” (Ps. 48:1).

4. We want our gatherings to be individually meaningful and intentionally congregational.

Jesus had each of us on his mind as he suffered so that each of us can say, he died for me (1Tim. 1:14, 15). But it is also true that Jesus purchased for himself a people, his one bride (Tit. 2:14; Rev. 2:9). For that reason, we want our gatherings to be meaningful for every individual, and for every individual to find their meaning within the context of the family of God. This is why every element of our gathering is planned with the congregation’s participation in view.

5. We want our gatherings to renew our minds and raise our affections.

Our gatherings do not aim for only intellectual understanding or for emotional experience. We intend to engage our heads and our hearts. We value light and heat, head and heart. In fact, we want to raise our affections for Jesus as high as they can be raised, given that they are being stirred up with the truth and person of Jesus.

6. We want our gatherings to be pastorally planned and spiritually free.

Our gatherings require a certain kind of planning. Our meeting is a ministry of the Word, its design a theological task, and the church’s essential diet of truth. For this reason, our approach to the design and leadership of our services is not personality or production or performance, but pastoring. Pastorally laid plans serve the Spirit’s free work. For a larger church like ours, this also means encouraging and fostering all kinds of meaningful Spirit-filled interactions leading to and flowing from the gathering itself.

7. We want our gatherings to foster a community that is historically rooted and hungry for God’s ongoing work.

Our services should feel both old and new, rooted and relevant. Our services are historic in that they are built with and around the ancient Scriptures, but also in our periodic use of creeds and confessions. But our God is not done working in the world, and so we gather to pursue and celebrate the work of God that continues today. We want this to be apparent in our preaching, in the prayers we pray, and in our songs. Our old songs remind us that God worked in the generations before us, and our new songs remind us that he’s at work today among us (Ps. 40:3).

8. We want our gatherings to adorn the Word of God with undistracting excellence.

We believe that music is God’s gift. By highlighting truth, music impresses that truth on our hearts (Col 3:16). By it we also express that truth, making melody in our hearts to God (Eph. 5:19). Adorning the Word requires excellence that avoids distraction. We will avoid shoddy or showy leadership. Wisdom is needed to know how this looks, but we know what it sounds like: our people talking not so much about our great skill (or our great blunders!), but about God’s great grace.

9. We want our gatherings to be culturally anchored and expansive.

Around Jesus’ throne will be men and women from every tribe and language and nation, and their cultures will color our heavenly experience (Rev. 5:9–14; 21:24–26). Our meetings are centered on a Person whose redeeming love is expansive and far reaching. His love defines us, not our style of music or dress, or the like. For this reason, while we are happy for our gatherings to be culturally anchored, to be familiar, to feel like us and our home—we want that for foreign peoples too—we also want our gatherings to stretch us.

10. We want our gatherings to draw outsiders to Christ and our attention to the outermost parts of the earth.

Our gatherings involve the worship of God; they also advance it. We are a city on a hill, with our gatherings the hot spot of Jesus’ light and life in us (Matt. 5:16). From the website to parking, from signage to seating, from how we talk about Christ to how we talk about our church—in all this we want to be accessible, inviting, and clarifying in all the appropriate ways. God’s worship is advanced in yet another way: through our ever-expanding global vision of God’s work for his name.

11. We want our gatherings to embolden us and humble us.

How can believers live without fear of God’s judgment, of death, and the Devil’s tyranny? How can believers live without fear of the world’s condemnation, even threats to our very lives? The answer is one: by gathering each Lord’s Day. We are bold in God’s presence, knowing he welcomes us. We are also bold in an often-unwelcoming world. We are bold, but no less humble. We draw near “with confidence” to God because we know that he gives what we desperately need: “grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

12. We want our gatherings to stir us to rest in Christ and not rest until he returns.

Sometimes Sunday is called the Sabbath, or a day of rest. That is not quite right. The Lord’s Day is when we celebrate the arrival of Sabbath rest for all who trust in Jesus (Matt. 11:28). Rest has already come, but we know that Jesus’ work is not yet complete. We feel this already/not yet tension in our bodies, in our troubles, and on Sundays when our heart isn’t in it. We have found rest in Christ, yes, but we gather to say to one another over and again, “strive to enter that rest” (Heb. 4:11).

The twelve points would be too much to expand on here, but you should read the whole document. However, one point is especially pertinent to the shape and substance of our meeting.

Our Main Design Principle

Let’s ruminate a bit more on that second aim, “we want our gatherings to be formed and filled by the Word of God.” When you construct a building you are constrained by the laws of physics. Those constraints are not ultimately limiting but freeing. With careful attention to this authority, buildings shoot into the sky to carry all kinds of life and activity. What is the authoritative guide for the architecture of our gatherings at Heritage?

We speak at Heritage about our commitment to Sola Scriptura—a Latin phrase which means “Scripture Alone.” We believe that salvation is revealed in Scripture alone and apart from the Word of God we cannot know how we may be saved, neither is anything necessary in addition to Scripture for salvation. This principle applies not only to salvation but to the Christian life and to the church’s worship. We say at times that the Scripture regulates the church’s worship.

A commitment to the authority of Scripture doesn’t yield one rigid form of corporate worship across time and culture. But it does regulate the things we do and to a good extent how we go about them.

In the next post we’ll get into the various elements of our gathering and how they fit together. In doing so our intent is to trust God’s means for his own worship, doing what he has prescribed and in a way that fits his nature and the nature of the church.

Look out for Part 2 in the next week or so.