When I write for the Carroll blog, I am usually writing for Christian leaders. I am usually trying to help pastors, church staff members, educated lay leaders, denominational officials, and others who hold positions of responsibility to think through difficult questions in light of a biblical worldview.
For the next few weeks, however, I want to do something different. I want to speak directly to the average follower of Jesus. I want to help people without any special training or special responsibility for the care of God’s people to know how they ought to prepare for the major events in the life of a practicing Christian. These include worship, preaching, and service.
Preparing for Worship by Doing Our Homework
So, let’s get started, and let’s do so by talking a little bit about what we need to do in order to prepare for worship. The first thing that we must do in order to prepare for worship is also probably the most important. We must do our spiritual homework.
What do I mean by this? Simply put, we must do the daily tasks of a disciple. Prayer, Bible study, fasting, silence, and other spiritual disciplines must shape the daily rhythms of our lives.
Perhaps an example will help us understand why this work is so important. A few weeks ago, I was engaged in a time of prayer, worship, and solitude. As I reflected upon a few lines from a popular worship song, I realized that the words had become profoundly meaningful to me. They captured, in summary form, all that I had come to believe about God, and, in so doing, they served as a conduit for God to pour out His peace and joy in my life.
But I also realized something else. These lines, which I found to be so meaningful, could well be seen as intellectually vacuous and emotionally shallow by someone else. It was only because I had done the hard work of learning about who God is and walking with God through challenging circumstances that I was able to perceive their beauty and benefit from their power.
Indeed, that is how all expressions of worship are. The songs, dances, paintings, etc. that we use in worship are not theological treatises, and they are not supposed to be such. Rather, they are reminders, presented to us in evocative forms, of all that we know about God and of all that we have experienced of God’s goodness.
Preparing for Worship through Self-Awareness
The second thing that we need to do in order to prepare for worship may seem somewhat counter-intuitive. Nevertheless, it is a vitally important task if we are to worship God well. We need to cultivate a clear and accurate awareness of our own spiritual and emotional status.
Many people have the idea that worship is all about God, and so the suggestion that we need to be self-aware seems out of place. It is important to remember, however, that the Psalms are as much about communicating the spiritual and emotional state of the worshiper as they are about extolling the greatness of God. Indeed, worship (especially in its corporate expression but also in its private manifestation) is about connecting with God in a way that facilitates both our devotion to Him and His presence in our lives. That cannot happen if we are unaware of the joys that rightly motivate our praise and the sorrows that might impede it.
And this observation leads us to a further point. Distraction is always a temptation when we come to worship, and the best way to combat distraction is to confess to God those things that might distract us from focusing on Him. Ironically, when we try to ignore “the elephant in the room,” we give it the space to crowd out our devotion to God. It quietly sucks away our spiritual and emotional energy, thereby limiting our capacity to experience God and receive joy from that experience.
Preparing for Worship by Intentionally Shifting Our Focus
The third thing that we need to do as we prepare for worship is shift our focus from all of the things that could distract us (the pleasures as well as the pains) and to the One whom we are worshiping. It is not that we are ignoring the things in our lives that are important to us. Rather, it is that we are choosing to move those things to the background of our minds so that we can bring something else—particularly, God—to the forefront.
It is sort of like changing our spiritual radio station. Some stations are run by the world. They constantly remind us of all the demands that life has placed on us and all the ways that we are not enough. Some stations are run by the flesh. They remind us of all the things that we want, particularly the things that are contrary to God’s will. Some stations are run by the Enemy. They are direct conduits for his lies and seek to promote his propaganda at all times. Our task is to ignore these stations and tune in to the one that reminds us of who God is. And when we tune in to that station, all of our joys and pains, all of our problems and questions, come into clearer focus.
We see this process on dramatic display in Psalm 73 and Isaiah 6. In both cases, the worshipper entered the sanctuary with a lot on his mind. In Psalm 73, it is the act of worship that helps the worshiper reframe his understanding of reality. In Isaiah 6, by contrast, it is the worshiper’s experience of God that allows him to see things (including himself) as they really are.
Preparing for Worship Is a Daily Task
The thoughtful follower of Jesus might have read the preceding paragraphs and thought, “These ideas are not really new. Shouldn’t we be doing these things every day? Aren’t they really just part and parcel of what it means to be a Christian?”
My answer to such a potential objection would be to say, “Yes, you are right.” The habits I prescribe above are, indeed, the building blocks of a spiritually healthy life. But they are also the building blocks for a healthy life of worship. We cannot be all that we ought to be for our Lord and Savior if we do not do the hard work of relating to Him on a daily basis, of carefully and accurately analyzing our own spiritual and emotional health, and of constantly refocusing our attention on Him. And, although worship is ultimately not about us, we cannot get out of worship what we need unless we also do these things.