Lionel Richie got it wrong – Sunday mornings aren’t easy. At least they don’t tend to be easy for those of us regularly involved in church, whether leading or attending. For some of us, Sunday morning comes with children to get ready, outfits to choose, parking spots to find, people to greet, canned goods to drop off, donuts to consume, coffees to drink, and volunteer opportunities to consider. Others find themselves preoccupied on Sunday mornings with instruments to tune, songs to practice, sermons to go over, announcements to organize, leaders to coordinate, and unexpected problems to solve. No, Sunday mornings aren’t easy. In fact, they are often so hectic and eventful that in the mix of all the activity we forget why we have come to church in the first place – to encounter and delight in God. Unfortunately, though this may be common, it is not a healthy way to begin worship.
Failing to have an authentic sense of God’s abiding presence when entering worship comes with a couple of noteworthy dangers. First, if communal worship begins void of any expectation of the immediacy of encountering God’s presence, then expectation is often placed upon the music, the sermon, or some other element of worship to help congregants “get in the mood” for worship or to “feel” God’s presence in worship. Such an approach fails to base worship in an epiphany of God and instead makes personal experience – something far too erratic – the signifier and qualifier of worship.
Secondly, entering worship without proper focus on God can lead to casual treatment of God. Sure, God’s presence may somehow be acknowledged in a general and obvious sense, (isn’t God always present?), but it is not enough to garner a congregation’s full attention in awe and reverence. It is as if God is nothing more than a guest at a social gathering rather than the Almighty who beckons His children to worship in His sanctuary.
In contrast to these harmful attitudes of worship, there is a custom from ancient Israel that provides a noteworthy model for the church today. For quite a few years now, I have been fascinated by a collection of psalms known as the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134). What intrigues me about this collection is that the Psalms of Ascent were originally psalms sung in preparation for worship. Prior to each high feast in the Jewish calendar, the Israelites would journey from their homes to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem – the place where God’s presence dwelled. While making their pilgrimage to the Temple, the Israelites sang the Psalms of Ascent, priming their hearts, minds, and souls to be in the presence of God.
Such practices are not unfamiliar today, though maybe not necessarily focused on worship. For example, I often listen to a band’s album in the car while traveling to see them in concert. Similarly, my wife and I recently spent our vacation in New York City. The week before we left, we fed our anticipation by watching television shows and movies that took place in New York, looking for locations we were planning to visit while on our trip. I put together a playlist of songs about New York for us to listen to as we traveled to the city. These were acts of intentional preparation, increasing our awareness, excitement, and eagerness for the trip we were about to take.
The same was true for the Israelites as they journeyed to the Temple. The singing of psalms allowed them to come with attentiveness on God’s presence and a readiness to worship. Unfortunately, I seldom approach Sunday mornings in the same manner.
Worshipping with a sense of God’s presence takes intentionality and preparation. Perhaps for some of us, this means establishing new practices on Sunday mornings. A good place to start would be to consider the following questions: What is my normal routine in preparing for worship? What causes me to be distracted so that I do not show up to church with my heart and mind prepared for worship? How do I become aware of the presence of God that I am about to encounter in worship? From there, pastors, worship planners/leaders, and laity could begin implementing practices that begin to approach worship with the expectation of an epiphany of God.
Here are a few (meager) ideas that may help prompt some thought:
- Wake up a little earlier on Sunday mornings for scripture reading and prayer. If you find yourself stressed or hurried on Sunday mornings, perhaps setting the alarm a little earlier and starting the day off with scripture and prayer can help set your focus on worshiping God. Or if you know mornings just aren’t going to happen, try reading scripture and praying right before you go to bed on Saturday night. Perhaps reading a different psalm from the Psalms of Ascent each week would be a good place to start!
- Do a family devotion/worship time before leaving for church. This doesn’t need to be lengthy, but it could be a good way to help your whole family prepare for church. Check out some of Seedbed’s resources on family worship.
- Listen to Christian music (or any kind of music that draws you closer to God) on Sunday mornings as you travel to church. Be intentional about what songs you play. How do they prepare your heart to meet with God?
For pastors and worship planners
- Make a playlist for your community to listen to as they come to worship. Perhaps these are songs that you will be singing that morning or songs that intentionally focus on particular characteristics of God. Consider updating the playlist seasonally or with each new preaching series.
- Think about how your worship space encourages or distracts the congregation’s sense of God’s presence as they enter the church. Are there so many different items clamoring for attention that worship is an afterthought? What artistic or creative elements could be used to help draw people’s attention to God as they enter the worship space?
- Evaluate your community’s opening acts of worship. How do they reveal and help the congregation ascend to God’s presence? (See chapter two in Robert Webber’s Planning Blended Worship for some good evaluation questions and practical suggestions.)