Other Christians. Can't do corporate worship without them, and yet sometimes it feels like we can't really do corporate worship with them either.

How nice would it be if everyone would just mind their manners in weekend worship? So thinks our old self.

Let's admit it. We're tough on others, easy on ourselves. We assume others should give us the benefit of the doubt—which is the very thing we don't give to others.

She's the reason I'm distracted, the old self tells us.

If he weren't singing so loud—and so off key . . . 

If they would just get off their iPads and smart phones. I'm sure they're all doing emails, or social media, rather than looking at the Bible text or taking notes.

We love to blame our neighbor, or the worship leader, for our inability to engage in corporate worship. But the deeper problem usually belongs to the one who is distracted. Few things are more hypocritical than showing up to a worship gathering of the Friend of Sinners and bellyaching that other sinners showed up too.

Checking Our Own Souls

If there is gospel etiquette for the gathered church, it starts with evaluating my heart, not their actions. Frustration with others' distracting behavior—whether in the pew in front of me, or on the stage—is deeper and more dangerous than the nonchalance or negligence that sidetracks others.

Of course, there are rare exceptions when someone really is totally out of line. Such as the guy who brought his own tambourine one week. But even in the occasional instance where someone's worship conduct is seriously out of bounds, what if we started by asking ourselves some hard questions?

  • If love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8), might God be calling me to look past this distraction I perceive?
  • Am I really applying John 13:34-35 ("love one another") to fellow Christians in weekly corporate worship? If we can't apply John 13:34-35 when the church is gathered, are we really going to apply this elsewhere?

The principle of walking in line with the gospel (Galatians 2:14) in corporate worship looks like this: In grace consider others enough to refrain from distracting them, and extend grace to those who you find to be distracting. Here are a few suggestions for how to think well of and for others in corporate worship.

1. Arrive early.

Not only does early arrival keep you from distracting others by coming in late after the service has started, but it also enables you to greet others and extend to them a welcome as they arrive. Ain't no shame in coming early for some social time. God's happy when his children love each other.

Also, arriving early (rather than late) helps us remember that the whole service is worship, not just the sermon. Even though we'd never say it, sadly we sometimes function as if everything before the sermon is some added extra or just the warm up for the preaching. The worship really begins when the preacher ascends to his pulpit. It's fine if we miss the first few minutes of singing. No big loss.

2. Park far, sit close.

This is one practical way to count others more significant than yourselves, and look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4). Parking far leaves the better spots in the lot for those arriving after you, and sitting close leaves the seats near the doors easily accessible.

3. Participate heartily.

"Heartily" is an attempt to communicate a balanced kind of engaged participation—not being a mere spectator and not being that guy singing with the out-of-control volume. The problem of over-participating speaks for itself (quite literally), but in regard to under-participating, note that you are actually robbing others of the value of corporate worship when you don't engage. Your presence is a part, and your voice is a part as well. The experience of corporate worship is enriched when all the attendees participate.

4. Smile.

I'm not counseling you to fake it or put on airs. Corporate worship is a time for gladness and excitement, not dourness and mere duty. Try to make the most of your morning before attending corporate worship, and let your gladness be contagious. Like George Mueller, seek to get your soul happy in Jesus, and ask God for help to spill over some of your soul satisfaction on others.

5. Stay late and engage others.

Come on the look for people, transition Godward in the worship gathering, and leave on the look for others. Some of the most significant conversations in the life of the church happen immediately after worship gatherings. Relationally, this is one of the most strategic times during the week to be available and on the lookout for

  • new faces you can make feel welcomed
  • old faces you can connect with
  • hurting people you can comfort
  • happy people you can be encouraged by.

Sometimes you just gotta go after a service. We get it. That's okay. There are special events, or unusual demands, or seasons of life with small, antsy children. But if you're bouncing out the doors every week as soon as possible after the services ends (or even before it's over), you're at least not making the most of corporate worship.

6. Come to receive from God and give to others.

This is the banner over all the other charges. Come to corporate worship on the lookout for feeding on God and his grace, and on the lookout for giving grace to others. Come to be blessed by God, and to bless others. Receive from him, give to them.

We're prone to get this backwards. We come to worship thinking that we're somehow giving to God, and we subtly expect we'll be receiving from others. We desperately need to turn that pattern on its head.

The God we worship is one not "served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything" (Acts 17:25). And when he came in the flesh, he did so "not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). Beware coming to corporate worship to serve God. But by all means, come on the lookout to serve others. Worshiping God and building up others aren't mutually exclusive but come to their fullness together.

We give to one another as we together come to receive from God our soul's satisfaction. We kill both the vertical and horizontal of corporate worship when we come looking to give to God and receive from others.

David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Twin Cities, and executive editor at Desiring God. He writes regularly at www.desiringGod.org.

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