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Ready for Church: 5 Ways to Be Present in Worship

I exercise several days a week in a downtown park with a group of men. One day, I complained to my workout partner that I didn’t get much out of it. He responded, “Well, it’s possible you didn’t get much out of it because you didn’t put much into it.”

Ouch. But he was right.

The way we experience corporate church worship can follow the same pattern. We can get so little out of it because, frankly, we put so little in. We’re physically present but spiritually disengaged.

Disengagement in worship has been a great sin among God’s people from the beginning. God said through the prophet Isaiah, “This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men” (Isa. 29:13). And 700 years later, Christ reiterated Isaiah’s words: “In vain do they worship me” (Matt. 15:9).

What more awful assessment could a person hear from the One he presumes to worship than that it was all in vain? Yet each of us is probably more guilty of this vanity than we’d like to admit. It’s easy to go through the motions of worship without engaging our hearts.

Here are five rules of engagement that can help us put more into corporate worship.

1. Prepare in advance.

Sundays may be a day of rest for believers, but I’m convinced it’s the day Satan works hardest. If he can’t stir up discord in the home, he’ll at least help you forget where you left your keys before you leave for church. He may not be able to keep your body out of church, but he’ll do his best to keep your heart anywhere else.

We can’t prevent every problem, but a little preparation goes a long way. Logistically, do what you can to minimize issues: lay out your clothes and your offering check in advance, and eat breakfast so your belly doesn’t speak louder than the preacher.

Satan may not be able to keep your body out of church, but he’ll do his best to keep your heart anywhere else.

For spiritual preparation, the more you seek the Lord through the week, the more you’ll understand and profit on Sundays. This is why our church makes Scripture passages and songs for Sunday available in advance. Review those so you’re familiar with them and ready to meet with God before you arrive at church. Our hearts are more easily set aflame in worship when the coals are already hot.

2. Remember that God is the object of our worship.

We say the reason we gather in worship is for God, but how often do our post-worship reflections betray our true mindset? Did I enjoy the sermon? Was it my style of music? Was there anyone I was glad to see? Such questions, common to most of us, reflect Martin Luther’s observation that man is “curved in on himself.”

When we’re so curved in that what matters most is our own experience, we miss the blessing of being caught up in the wonder of One infinitely greater than ourselves. When we make worship about our experience rather than God’s glory, we insert ourselves into the place of God—as if his only role is to entertain us.

We must remember the object of our worship is God. He looks beyond the outward appearance to the heart (1 Sam. 16:7).

3. Be a participant, not a spectator.

What happens every fall Saturday in college football stadiums around the country? As someone quipped, 80,000 people desperately in need of exercise stand around watching 22 people desperately in need of rest.

Churches tend to model this same approach. Prior to the Reformation, worship was vicarious: a congregation gathered to watch the clergy do the spiritual work. But even today, many churches are vicarious: we simply show up to watch a praise team or listen to a preacher.

We aren’t called to be spectators; we’re called to be participants. As we gather in worship, we’re showing up for work, and we ought to be fully engaged—heart, soul, mind, and strength—in praising the living God.

So what does a participant in worship do?

Fight distraction: Whether the potential distraction is your rumbling belly, the totally out-of-style dress the woman in front of you is wearing, or the man singing off-key behind you, worship God as you offer him your attention span.
Sing heartily: God created your voice and he’s pleased when your heart overflows through it—even if it doesn’t sound great. One day, we’ll all be able to hear one another with the same sanctified ears God receives our praises with today. In the meantime, remember the only thing that can make our voices acceptable to God is what Jesus did for us.
Engage with the sermon: Don’t be passive as the Word is preached. I pay attention most when I’ve read the passage in advance, have my Bible open the whole time, and take notes. You may have different practices, but the result must be the same: as the seed of the Word is sown, it finds soft ground in a ready and receptive heart.
Take the sermon with you: Your work isn’t done when you exit the church doors. Matthew Henry speaks with great wisdom: “Do we think when the sermon is done, the care is over? No, then the greatest of the care begins.”

Just as my workout partner challenged me to invest more so I’d get more out of the exercise, we should honestly ask ourselves, Do I come to participate in worship, or do I see myself as a spectator, standing by as others do the work?

4. Be a relentless encourager.

Hebrews 10:25 is frequently used as a reminder of the necessity of corporate worship, and that’s right, but we often neglect verse 24: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” One of the chief reasons we gather is to encourage.

What does it mean to encourage one another? It means being intentional to care for one another’s souls and point one another to Jesus. A ministry of encouragement is an unsung ministry, but as a pastor, I can’t think of a greater gift I’d urge my people to cultivate and deploy in the church.

5. Actively seek out visitors.

Most of us know how intimidating it can be to visit a new church, and the warmth of the people can make or break the visit. We’ve had many guests over the years, and the most common remark they make is how warmly they were welcomed.

Unless you’re one of those few who thrive on meeting new people, seeking out visitors can be difficult. Uncertainty and insecurity abound: Have I met him before? Will she think I’m weird if I just go strike up a conversation? Don’t let insecurities prevent you from doing what God intends and visitors need. Go, introduce yourself (even if you’ve met before and forgotten his name). Ask someone who’s alone to sit with you. Introduce a visitor to someone else.

A ministry of encouragement is an unsung ministry, but as a pastor, I can’t think of a greater gift I’d urge my people to cultivate and deploy in the church.

You may also want to set an extra place or two at the lunch table so you can invite guests. No matter your church’s shortcomings, if you feed people, they’ll keep coming back. Good food covers a multitude of weaknesses.

I realize all this can be overwhelming, especially if your pattern has been to disengage in worship. Old habits die hard. But remember, this is why Jesus came. As he told the Samaritan woman in John 4:23, the Father is seeking worshipers. Jesus didn’t come only to give us eternal life; he came to give us his Spirit to stir us from within so we could present worship that pleases his Father.

What the Father seeks, the Spirit will enable to the glory of the Son. So let’s worship God this Sunday.


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