Reflections On a Recent Worship Experience

Where am I?

I am sitting in a row of seats with my family members for approximately an hour and twenty minutes. Another family sits next to us. A young girl, perhaps 7, turns on an I Pad and begins playing a game. She plays with it the entire time we are there. Her father periodically checks the twitter feed on his cell phone. In front of us sits a family with a young child of about five years lying full out on the chairs. He’s reading a Dr. Seuss book off and on. His older brother turns and looks at the clock on the wall in the back of the room many times during our event. The parents offered no guidance in any of this.

Half of the people in the room are wearing fairly nice clothing, half are wearing shorts, T-shirts and flip flops. I see a couple across the room sipping Star Bucks iced coffees through straws. A steady stream of children and adults traffic in and out, presumably to go to the restroom or nursery. For fifteen minutes after the event officially began, at least twenty people came trickling in and took seats throughout the room.

Where am I?

I’m in a church service. While on vacation our family always attends worship. We knew the church we attended by reputation. We know the pastor, a fine man of God.

We sang some well-known “traditional” hymns from a hymnal, accompanied by a pianist. These were sung well by virtually all participants (except the little girl playing on her I Pad game and the little boy lying on the seats).

At one point in the service the leader announced there was to be a time of “worship and praise.” Confused, I thought to myself, “What were we just doing?” This was a time of singing some “contemporary” hymns, sung with the aid of four worship leaders, two men, two women. Accompanying them were a keyboardist and two guitarists. These praise songs were not well known to me, but presumably they were well known to the congregation. But what struck me was that only about half of the congregation sang along, while about half just watched and listened to the song leaders (the coffee couple sipped their drinks a number of times during the songs). By the way, the song leaders and accompanists were very good. They sang and played well. They didn’t draw attention to themselves. They were not boring, nor were the songs.

So why didn’t the entire congregation participate in these songs? There were four hymns. I found them somewhat difficult to sing. They were clearly written for a small group of singers or a soloist. I was particularly alarmed by the fact that many people seemed totally disengaged during this “worship and praise” time.

My concern here is not to bash the congregation. I know a number of members there and they are fine Christians. This is not meant to be a comment on the issue of traditional vs. contemporary worship.

What alarmed me was the attitude and participation of some of the people. This was supposed to be the worship of the Living God! Later in the week I attended a Twins baseball game, and couldn’t help but think that the dress and participation of those in attendance at both venues was not all that much different. At the ball game I saw women and men in nice dress clothes; I saw shorts and flip flops. I saw people engaged, and people zoned out.

Please consider some thoughts from a pastor as you approach your next Lord’s Day services.

Before you leave home, consider your dress and hygiene habits. No, worship services aren’t a fashion show. But then neither are they a ball game. Shouldn’t we dress in a way that demonstrates we understand the difference?

Preparedness for worship should include the following at the least: coffee and breakfast can be consumed at home and on the way. Be on time. In fact, be fifteen minutes early. That way last minute restroom use can ensure no one needs to leave the service under ordinary circumstances. And how much better to start worship settled into your seat/pew prepared to worship.

Cell phones and electronic tablets should be turned off. Or if you’re going to use the apps for Bible reading, at least make sure the sound is turned off. Children don’t need books to read, they are there for worship. Help them participate in the worship service by finding hymn numbers and Bible reading passages. Encourage them to use the outlines provided if there are such things prepared by the pastor. Urge them to participate according to their capacity.

Be engaged in the service. Worship is the meeting of the Triune God with His covenant people. The entire service is worship. When the scriptural call to worship is read and God’s greeting is proclaimed, God is speaking. Take it in, give it your undivided attention. Psalms and hymns are the thoughtfully prepared offerings of praise to the Triune God. Sing them like you mean it! Sing with joy. Sing with a loud voice. Sing from the heart. Sing with reverence for God.

To pastors, I urge you to sing the same way. I have seen pastors announce hymns and then while the congregation sings, busy themselves with their notes and the next part of the order of service. If God’s people are called to worship, aren’t you one of them?

If a Creed is used, speak up. Meditate on the words. An old proverb applies here: familiarity breeds contempt. Guard your heart from such familiarity. In these Creeds—Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed—the name of the triune God is being confessed as He has revealed Himself in His Word. Astounding truths of His saving work is being recounted. Savor those words and truths. Be comforted by them. Affirm them as your faith.

When prayers are offered up, they are the expressions of praise and thanksgiving and petitions of the entire congregation offered corporately through the pastor leading the service. Simply put: these are your praises, thanksgiving and petitions. Let’s face it, making these prayers your own along with the body of Christ gathered is a challenge. Pastors need to prepare themselves for the prayers. Members too are bound to listen to the prayers and should themselves pray in their hearts. This takes effort, self-control, interaction with the one praying, affirming in mind and heart what is being spoken.

Sermon time is every bit as much a part of worshiping as singing and praying. Having preached for a couple decades, I can say that a listening congregation is indispensable for the preacher. I’m not saying a preacher cannot preach with energy and passion without a good listening congregation. But an attentive audience and speaker feed off each other. Make eye contact with the one preaching. There is such a thing as boring preaching, and boring preachers. But there is also bored listening. The real issue here is the honor of God. It is His Word being proclaimed. It is His Word for you.

Finally, I urge you to stay to the end. The service concludes with God’s Word of blessing, also known as the Benediction. Why would you leave without it? This is one of the great acts of worship: to receive by faith the blessing of the triune God, who is faithful to do all He promises.

I am convinced the above concerns are founded and grounded in the following Scripture passages: Psalm 100; Psalm 96; Psalm 93; Psalm 8; Psalm 95; Habakkuk 2:20; Isaiah 6; Ezra 8:1-6; Isaiah 52:7; Romans 10:17; Luke 10:16; John 4:23, 24; Rev. 1:10-19; Deut. 6:4-9; Mark 10:13-16; Num. 6:22-27; Hebrews 12:25-29.

Jim Sawtelle

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