When the Early Church met together, what did they do? It wasn’t just to chat to each other. It wasn’t just to enjoy singing. It wasn’t particularly to proclaim the gospel to folk who were not yet believers.
Acts 2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
The First Christians met to hear from God through the apostle’s teaching. To respond to God in praise and worship and prayers. To encounter the Risen Christ in bread and wine. To meet with God.
And surely that is our greatest purpose in coming to church on Sundays. To meet with God. “God created us to be worshippers first and workers second!” Church services are amongst the most important hours of the week. They offer us a very special opportunity to meet with God. One definition of worship says that “Worship is a dynamic confrontation with the living God.” It is dynamic because God’s power is experienced. It is a confrontation because worship brings us face to face with God. When we come to church what we should be looking for is “a dynamic confrontation with the living God”!
God is always ready to meet us. But we are not always ready to meet with God. It is sadly possible to come to church and go away again without having encountered the living God. So, this week I want to remind us of 10 practical things we can all do week by week which will help us meet with God in our worship.
And here is something which I believe is very important. These ways of preparing to meet with God are not just for people who are physically present in the building with us on a Sunday. They may well be even more valuable if you are joining in our worship online over Zoom or Facebook or YouTube. When Christians meet in the church building, we have already left our sofas and our warm homes and had to walk or drive or take a bus to a different place. We have already marked out our time in worship as somehow different from what we have left behind at home and what we will return to. But if you are joining online, you are probably still at home in familiar surroundings. You may be watching on a tablet or laptop or on a television screen which you also use for all kinds of leisure activities or even for work. If so, you may find the things I am going to say particularly beneficial to your times of worship.
1 Prepare before you set off for church
You could begin with a prayer on Saturday asking God to bless the services on Sunday. Pray for the preacher. Pray for the worship leader and the musicians. I believe you would be amazed how much better the sermons would be on Sundays if the whole church prayed for the preacher in the week before! Then you could pray for the services on Sunday morning before you set out, or as you are on your way. Ask God to prepare your heart so that you can meet with Him. Most Church of England services include a prayer of confession and repentance early on in the service, like this prayer for purity.
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy holy spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.
It is very good to pray a prayer like that as we come to worship God. But there is no reason why any of us have to wait to arrive at church to be led in such a prayer. We could all pray that kind of prayer before we even arrive at the building so that our hearts are ready to meet with God and the whole of our time here can be blessed. And if you are one of our many friends who are watching online, you could certainly pray before you switch on or press the link.
2 Greet God as you enter the building
Worshippers in some church traditions acknowledge the presence of God by bowing towards an altar as they enter the sanctuary. Others make a sign of the cross as they enter their church buildings. I do not particularly recommend, but neither would I criticise practices like that. Because such actions help those worshippers recognise that church buildings are special places. It is not that the building is special – but God’s people are special! And when Christians gather together to meet with God, that place becomes special because God is especially present. In Matthew 18:20 Jesus promises for where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
So, when we come together to worship God it is a good thing to acknowledge the presence of God in some way just as we arrive. We are welcomed at the door and greet the welcomers. We greet our friends as we take our seats. It is surely appropriate that in some way we greet our Lord and our God as we prepare to worship Him. Perhaps a short silent prayer, before we start talking to other people. Or a few moments gazing on the cross and recognising that the Christ who died for us is in our midst. Or looking at the banners or an image on the screen. Greeting God as we enter His house.
3 Prepare your heart before worship begins
Think of Moses at the Burning Bush. “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5, NIV) Worship is first and foremost an encounter with the living and holy God. At God’s command, Moses removed his sandals and covered his face. Taking off his shoes was an act of reverence, conveying his own unworthiness before God. God is our friend, but he is also our sovereign Lord. To approach him lightly shows a lack of respect and sincerity. When we come to God in worship, do we approach him casually, or do we come as though we are invited guests before a king? We need to adjust our attitudes because we are approaching a holy God. One thing missing from so much worship in churches today is AWE! Where is “the fear of the Lord” in churches today?
Old Testament worship consisted of all kinds of complicated rituals. These all took time and effort, and this gave the people the opportunity to prepare their hearts for worship. Unless our heart is ready, worship is meaningless. Whatever the form of worship, it is the heart attitude of the worshipper that matters to God. So, it is good to spend some time before the service preparing to meet with God. And again, this is something we can do just as easily if we are going to be watching online at home.
There used to be a very interesting sign on the door of St Thomas’s Church in Brentwood. It said simply: Please talk to God before the Mass and talk to each other after the Mass. Of course, we may wish to greet our fellow-worshippers. And we want to be welcoming to guests and visitors. But there will be plenty time for such conversations later on. The few minutes before our worship are a very precious opportunity to centre our minds and hearts on God. They give us time to put aside the cares of the world and the burdens of the day and focus on Jesus.
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in His wonderful face.
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim. In the light of his glory and grace.”
To focus on Jesus, we need to put to one side all the other things in life which occupy our thoughts or worry us. Very deliberately we need to choose to forget those things! To ignore those things. That will require a conscious effort and it may be hard work. We should use the few minutes before the service begins for that holy purpose.
4 Concentrate on God
I read a very challenging piece entitled “The Danger of Being AT Church but Not IN Church” The problems of being at a church service but not participating properly in what is happening because your mind or your heart are somewhere else. Perhaps that happens to you sometimes “The Danger of Being AT Church but Not IN Church”. We need to recognise that that is often an even bigger danger if we are joining in online, surrounded with all the distractions of home.
During our worship we can all be so easily distracted by other people. Instead, we should be giving God our sole attention. Concentrate on HIM!
Worship is meant to be joyful! Full of joy! Our worship is not just allowed to be joyful. Our worship is supposed to be joyful! In the Bible worship is vibrant and vigorous and exuberant and expressive and exhilarating! Sometimes our worship is not joyful because we don’t have much joy in our hearts. But perhaps the biggest reason why many of us are inhibited in our worship is that we feel held back by the people around us. What will they think? What will they say? We don’t dare express the joy we feel because we are self-conscious. That’s why many people find it much easier to worship in the Big Top at Spring Harvest or New Wine where we are surrounded by strangers.
However we may express it, true heartfelt adoration is always pleasing to God. When we come to worship, we need to forget about the people around us and forget our inhibitions. As we worship, we must learn to shut out the other people around us and concentrate on God alone. Give God the whole of our attention. Forget about being self-conscious! What God thinks is all that matters. Concentrate on God!
5 Think about the words of what you are singing
In worship we aren’t spectators. We are all the performers. Our worship is a performance –but a performance for the audience of one. Worship is for God’s benefit! Not for ours! Mike Pilavachi of Soul Survivor wrote, we are “Created to worship, called to praise – playing to an audience of one.” Our true audience is God and no one else. Leaders and musicians and congregation join together to offer worship for the audience of One. We are not here to entertain or impress people, but to worship God. No-one should be allowed to become more important than God when the church gathers for worship.
True worship comes from the heart, not just the voice. God wants worshippers who worship in Spirit and in Truth. And that’s why it is vitally important to think about the words of songs you are singing. If they are empty words, they are not worship. We each have to “own for ourselves” the songs we sing. So, if there are lines in a hymn or a song which you cannot mean with your heart, don’t sing them! If the song is about joy, and for some reason you are filled with sadness, don’t sing words you don’t mean! Be honest with God! If the song expresses confession or repentance and you are not ready in your heart to confess or repent, don’t just sing words you don’t mean. If the song talks about a deep love for God and you are not in a place where you have that deep love for God, don’t sing it!
Think about the words you are singing! If God uses some words to speak to you, if a phrase or a line leaps out of the page at you, STOP SINGING and let those words speak to you until you are sure you have grasped what God is saying. Don’t lose the moment! Stay in the moment and hear God’s voice!!
6 Offer your own prayers
Just as we have to “own for ourselves” the words we sing, we also have to own the prayers as well. So as prayers are offered in a service, do add your AMEN if you agree with what has been prayed. But equally, let the led prayers be just the starting point for prayers you offer yourself. God is listening to your prayers from your heart just as much as he is listening to what the person at the front is saying. Do make the most of opportunities for personal prayer and times of silence in the service. Especially at the end of a service, it is good to take some moments for silent reflection and prayer before we begin to greet our neighbours. And I hope that if our neighbour is wishing to continue in prayer at the end of the service, even for a few minutes, we will always be sensitive and allow them to pray in peace.
7 Follow the reading and the sermon with an open Bible
I know I am getting old when I find myself saying, “in the good old days”. But one of the things I can’t help but see when I am preaching is what you the congregation are doing as I speak. And what I have noticed is how few people bring their own Bibles to church any more, and how few follow the Scripture reading either in the church Bibles in their own Bibles. Even fewer sit with open Bibles during the sermons. And nowadays it is almost unheard of for Christians to sit with notebooks jotting down the points of a sermon so they can think back and reflect later, which I always did before I was a minister. The higher the place Scripture has in our lives then the more we will hear God speaking through his Word.
8 Listen to God speaking to YOU through the sermon
Many people don’t hear God speaking to them through sermons very often. Lots of people habitually criticise preachers and sermons. They aren’t relevant enough. They aren’t well enough prepared. They aren’t deep enough. They aren’t inspiring enough. But while it is easy to blame the preacher, the reality is that the people who hear God speak through sermons are the people who expect Him to speak. They go with minds ready to listen. They go with hearts ready to obey.
People can become “sermon tasters”. Some people sit in judgement on the preacher, giving him or her marks out of ten for presentation and soundness and entertainment value. It is no wonder that such people can’t hear God speaking to them in sermons! If we really want to hear God speaking to us then we need to start with the assumption that the preacher is sound and resolve to listen and obey what is said, instead of waiting to criticise. Some people listen to sermons and ask, “did I enjoy that sermon?” or “was the preacher sound today”. Instead, they should be asking, “what is God saying to me today?” and “how does God want my life to be different?”
9 Talk about the sermon or about God at the end of the service
When many Christians come to chat at the end of service, God doesn’t get a mention! Of course, we care about other people. We want to hear what God has been doing in their lives, and to share what God has been doing in our lives too! We want to hear about the challenges they are facing so that we can pray for them. We could always pray for each other there and then and sometimes we do. There are so many aspects of our faith which we could talk to each other about – but very often, we don’t!
The Early Church in Acts 2 devoted themselves to “the fellowship”. The word simply means sharing together. And I guarantee that what those early Christians talked and shared with each other about whenever they met together was God! The apostles’ teaching! Answered prayers! So, here’s a challenge for us all after the service this morning. Talk about God. This summer’s heatwave and drought have been dramatic. But don’t chat about the weather. Talk about God. Talk about the sermon and what God has said to you through it today. Share with other people an answer to prayer you have received. Talk about the blessings God has poured upon you this past week.
10 Think back on the service in the week ahead
I often wonder what people remember of our Sunday Services the following week, or even the next day. It doesn’t worry or surprise me if people can’t remember months later every word of a sermon. But I do believe we would all get more benefit from our Sunday Services if we were to do one simple thing. Make a deliberate effort to look back on the service later in the week. Perhaps on our way to work on Monday morning, to pause and reflect on the Sunday sermon. Or later in the week in our daily prayer time to pray again for the topics which we prayed for on the Sunday. Bring to mind the topic of the sermon and read the Bible passage again. And here would be a novel idea – to look for an opportunity during the week to talk about the sermon with somebody. With a Christian friend who also heard it – or a friend who missed it that week for some reason. Or maybe even with a friend who isn’t a Christian. Share with them what God said to you from that Sunday service! If God blessed you on the Sunday, enjoy the blessing again later in the week!
“Worship is a dynamic confrontation with the living God.” We come to church to meet with God! So here again are 10 simple things we can all do which will help us meet with God as we worship!