Participating in Divine Service

The Rev. Ken Carlson, who was my pastor for over five years in Berkeley, has written some reflections on attending Divine Service as a ‘regular person’ week after week.

It is very easy to slip into ‘observer mode’

When I started attending church as a ‘regular person’, it was refreshing to realize that I wasn’t responsible for anything. I could just relax and enjoy the service. I could reap the benefits of the effort and preparation made by others. It was enjoyable … for a few weeks. Then I began to feel left out, like I was on the outside looking in. I wasn’t a part of any of those communities. I was just passing through.

The problem is that it is easy to slip into ‘observer mode’. Observers don’t make a commitment, they just watch, and sometimes critique, the ministry of others. But there is not a gift of ‘audience’. In the church, the Body of Christ, we are all members and therefore participants. Once things settle down, and I know where I will be living and working, I look forward to being a participant rather than an observer.

As St Peter tells us, we are a royal priesthood, a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and what the King James Bible calls ‘a peculiar people’, that we should show forth the praises of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light. That most the laity have regularly been diminished into observers is not, I think, a simple matter of lay piety, though that matters too. The fact is, the part of the congregation has largely been removed from Divine Service, and most often the centrepiece is a sermon in which the people are indeed an audience, sitting and listening, as if the point of the service is to hear the sermon. This is a natural consequence of the singing-sermon-singing sandwich that so characterizes most of today’s evangelical churches.

It takes preparation to benefit from a worship service

If you are not serving at church, then it’s easy to feel that it doesn’t make any difference whether you show up late, or even whether you show up at all. No one is counting on you for anything. But if you are a member of a spiritual family, and not merely an observer, then it does make a difference. Not to mention that the Bible tells us to “not neglect” meeting together (Heb. 10:25).

If we are not serving at church, we logically have no duty to turn up at all. But as priests who have a part in the service, even more than did the priestly nation of Israel, we are indeed bound to appear, and not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. The only ones who ought to be observers are those who have not been adopted as sons in the Lord’s house.

But being an effective church member takes more than merely showing up and filling a chair. To be a faithful participant rather than merely an observer takes effort. Do you rush in the door during the second song, with your mind focused on the cares of the week or your plans for the afternoon? Do you expect the worship team to usher you into God’s presence without any preparation of your own? Or do you get there a few minutes early and prepare your heart for worship? Or better yet, do you begin to prepare your heart on Saturday evening for worship the following morning? Just because I am not preaching and am not responsible for anything at the church does not mean that I do not need to prepare my heart for worship.

We may speak figuratively of preparing our hearts for worship, but I think we must recognize God as the one who materially prepares our hearts, the one who has the crucial power to change our hearts. All our entreaties for renewed hearts can do no good at all unless our God, unlike Baʿal, is one who can send fire from heaven to consume our hearts with his love. And this is what our God does: ‘Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire.’ The words that pray for the Holy Ghost to breathe into us and quicken our hearts are also words that implicitly praise and thank God for this gift given to the Church at Pentecost. Even in this, we see, it is God who through his word prepares us with the truth of what he has done for us. By all means we must pray, but in praying we should remember that the work of worship is, essentially, the work of Christ in us by his Spirit, and that we who worship the Father must worship him thus, in spirit and in truth.

It takes effort to build relationships

Visiting a number of different churches is frustrating because it is difficult to get to know people. Since I’m not really sure how long I will be around, it’s hard to be motivated to build relationships. On the point my wife is a good example. Within a few weeks of our attending a church in Seaside, Oregon, she started inviting different people to join us for lunch after church. Because of her efforts, we did get to know a few people at that church before we moved out of Seaside.

Christian fellowship is about relationships, and relationships take effort. It’s most obvious when you are new to a church, but even if you have been there for years, it takes effort to build and maintain relationships.

Quite so. The word of God redeems our relationships and condemns sin in our society, giving us wisdom to build relationships with confidence.

We tend to make church about us rather than about God

We often make church more about us rather than about God. At one church I visited recently, at the end of the service the worship leader said, ‘We hope you enjoyed the service.’ Well, yes, it is good to enjoy worship. But the main reason we worship God is not for our own enjoyment, but rather because He is worthy. A mature believer can experience great joy in bowing before the King of Kings in humble adoration, but I don’t think that that is what is usually meant when people talk about ‘enjoying the service’. How about ending the service with ‘I hope that God touched you powerfully in the worship service’ or ‘I hope that you are closer to God than you were when you came in’? Still related to us, but at least God is in the picture.

Better yet, more than a hope, a prayer: ‘Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.’ He who has prayed in his heart will have been heard; he who has not done so cannot be helped by hearing of someone else’s desire.

Church leaders have picked up on the fact that many church goers are in it for themselves. In recent years it has become fashionable to talk about the Sunday morning ‘worship experience’. People want a certain feeling out of going to church, and savvy church leaders set out to give them that experience. This has lead to feel-good preaching that avoids all the really challenging passages of the Bible, and worship songs that are all about our experience rather than all about God. When I hear someone speak of a ‘worship experience’ it makes me want to gag. It brings to mind some […] insipid religious form of entertainment. Yuck!

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m on my soapbox now. But really … shouldn’t worship be God-centered? Shouldn’t we bow in love and adoration before the One who died for us? Shouldn’t we freely give ourselves in surrender to our loving King? That’s the kind of worship that I long for, but I realize that I can’t rely on any worship team to get me there. We have to prepare our own hearts, and cultivate a life of worship. Then when we gather on Sundays it will be awesome.

We should indeed be worshipping God, bowing down to him, giving our selves to him, subordinating our desires to him. We do need to meditate on his word day and night, that from week to week our worshipping him may grow from glory to glory as he makes us into the creatures he meant us to be. Our biblical liturgies should remind us, every time, that our hearts, our souls, our selves, are not acceptable sacrifices except as united to Christ, except as found in Christ. In this way will his Name be glorified, for in declaring this very truth our mouths will be showing forth his everlasting glory, and with faith our obedient hearts will be set to live according to the truth. And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.

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