By Eric Kampen
On a recent pulpit exchange in a neighboring United Reformed Church, I noticed these words printed above the liturgy section of their bulletin, “As you enter the sanctuary, let your conversation with men cease, and commence to commune with your God.” A quick search for the origin of those words did not turn up the source, although it was evident that other churches use the same words in their bulletins. These words did strike me as very appropriate, bringing out what is going on in worship, namely, meeting our gracious God. This is such an amazing event, it calls for our full and undivided attention the moment you enter the place of worship.
But is not all of life worship?
Before elaborating, it is good to address an objection that can arise when we single out worship as meeting with God. Is not our whole life lived in the presence of God? This is sometimes expressed in the words “Coram Deo,” meaning, “in the presence of God.” Is the Lord not always near to us through his Holy Spirit? Don’t we derive a great deal of comfort that our God is always near?
We can’t deny that truth. This does not take away, however, that worship constitutes a special encounter with God. The LORD even indicates that in the way he has called one day in seven special, as is expressed in the Sabbath command. He has decreed a day of rest from our regular work to have time to approach him in worship. We can be thankful for that pattern of one day of rest for the sake of worship. In the busyness of life, we do not always have time to focus on our relationship with him. During the day, we need to be on full alert as we attend to our many tasks in this world, be it in the workplace or at home. When you operate big machinery, that needs your full attention. You will be a danger to all those around you as well as yourself if that concentration is not there. When a mother is busy with her children, that calls for her undivided attention. Of course, there are many opportunities throughout the week to commune with our heavenly Father in prayer, but a worship service is special. Here God is pleased to meet with his people in a special way. In our worship on Sunday, we have the opportunity to join the holy angels in worship around the throne of God, along with all the saints who have gone before us. In worship, heaven and earth connect for a while.
Getting in “the zone”
When we realize we are about to be engaged in an encounter with our holy, gracious God, we will realize that this calls for the preparation of our minds and hearts. We hear of it in the world of sports, where athletes will have their pre-game routines to get focussed on the game. They need to be in “the zone.” This means you must get rid of distractions. No athlete is going to give an interview a minute before the game starts. That would break his concentration.
When it comes to worship, we are speaking of something far more significant, for we as sinners may come into the presence of the holy God, who will soon greet us with the word, “Grace and peace….” Soon, we will hear his gospel of salvation proclaimed to us. We need to get ready for this. Anyone who has experienced unexpected delays on the way to church and has had to rush in at the last minute will know that such a rush prevents proper preparation. It is good to sit down for some time, to decompress, to get in the “worship zone.” It is also hard to focus when your mind is still ringing from the chatter and friendly banter of conversation only seconds before. We may know of those who make a point of always being in church at least twenty minutes before the start of a service. It could be that they want their favourite spot, but for many they sit and think in anticipation of the worship service. The communing with God has begun the moment they sit down.
It would seem to me that if we would take these words to heart, and the moment we enter the sanctuary we would let our conversation with men cease, and commence to commune with our God, we would see the redundancy of some liturgical practices. I think of the call to worship. Worshippers have heard that call. In response to that call, they have come to church. It is a little late at 10 a.m. to call to worship. If one has been sitting in holy expectation of meeting God, taking the time to pray silently if one so desires, one’s mind should be prepared.
When we work with the thought that, as we enter the place of worship, our conversation with men should cease, and we should commence to commune with our God, we may want to reflect on some practices that are distracting. We can think of the common practice of handing out bulletins as people enter for worship. It seems like a good idea to catch up on the congregational news. Yet, bulletins are often filled with announcements for many activities and requests for funds for many causes. This does not enable one to begin to commune with God. It fills the mind with things that need to be done. It can be unsettling rather than relaxing.
The other distraction can be a variety of announcements. As one has come to worship God and one’s mind has begun to focus on that, a variety of announcements about all sorts of mundane matters is like throwing a bucket of cold water over a person. Why, in an age with printed bulletins, and many congregations sending them around electronically on Friday or Saturday already, is there a need to break the flow of communing with God that began the moment we sat down? We are always bombarded with information and news flashes. Why do we allow that to happen as we are at the very point of beginning our worship of God?
Perhaps to truly impress upon ourselves that we are about to engage in worshipping our God, and to help our communing with him, we need to give some thought to the use of silence. Currently, organists are expected to play right up till the time the consistory walks in. One wonders why this is so. We know the powerful effect of silence in terms of concentrating your thoughts. We experience it when we attend annual Remembrance Day ceremonies and, in the minute of silence, we reflect on those who gave their lives in wars. We even may see it at various occasions where the lights dim and silence sets in as people anticipate what is about to happen. In worship, we will soon have opportunity to make a lot of joyful noise as we sing our praises to our God, but, in the meantime, there is room for growing in holy anticipation and preparation. Sometimes we speak of situations where you can hear a pin drop. When we remember what is happening in worship, anticipating it should create an atmosphere where you can hear a pin drop.
While we are touching on the time leading up to the actual worship service, the aspect of communing with God is important to carry through for the whole worship service. A point where the holy concentration is easily lost is when it comes time for the collection. In most congregations, this takes place towards the end of the service. It is hard to maintain the focus on what we are doing. The offering, though, is also part of our worship of God. It will be a good time to reflect on the worship service and, in a sense, prepare to get back to the realities of life that will soon be there after the benediction.
Idealistic but not realistic?
Does all this sound rather idealistic? How are a young father and mother with several young children sitting beside them ever going to manage this? What will a visitor think when the place of worship is marked by a silence on the part of those sitting there? No doubt there will be challenges. Young parents, however, having trained their children to sit still, may actually cherish those minutes leading up to the beginning of the service, finally having the time to get in the zone for worship. As for visitors, we should not hide from them that, in a way, worship is so different from anything they experience in this busy, noisy, self-centred world. In worship we draw near to our holy, awesome, gracious God. We tune out in order to tune in to commune with our God.
So, make it a point on Sunday that, as you enter the sanctuary, you let your conversation with men cease and you commence to commune with your God.