Many and varied are the activities of the worshippers when they gather together in the house of God. Perhaps many of us are not even aware of all that transpires in the short span of ninety minutes spent in church. Much of what we do is done so routinely that we fail to be impressed with the significance of each step in the order of worship. Our mind and will is not always in that spiritual frame that is requisite for us to enter consciously into that exercise of “worshipping in spirit and in truth;” and, consequently, the elements of worship pass us without personal appropriation. Thus our worship leaves much to be desired, and a reemphasis upon each of its elements will not be considered out of place.
Before the church service officially begins there are two elements that may be mentioned. The first deals with the individual worshipper as he entered the house of God and awaits the beginning of the service. The second has to do with the consistory as it meets elsewhere in the building in pre-service prayer.
Just what do we do, and then again, what should we do during this time before the service? In this connection it may not be superfluous to expose some present day evils that exist in the church and ought to be corrected. There are those who insist that all who are present early in the church should just sit still and wait. The difficulty with this is that we are just not made to sit by idly. Having been very busy during the week and sometimes even for an hour or two before worship, we find it difficult suddenly to relax completely. And even if physically our bodies may seemingly be at rest, our minds continue to be very active. To devote this period to idleness is waste. We must find a more constructive and profitable purpose.
Others seem to think that this time should be utilized by talking with those that are sitting near them. They would justify this by insisting that this is part of the exercise of the communion of saints. To what this leads in many instances is nothing short of irreverence. What a Babel of confusion results when one individual tries to out-whisper the next, and both put forth an added effort to be heard above the organ prelude! How do we expect to instill proper respect for the Lord’s service in the hearts of our children when we so patently violate the rules of good conduct there ourselves?? Although there is nothing sacred, about the church building itself, we should nevertheless remember that the fact of its hallowed associations with the presence of our God ought to prohibit the desire of incessant conversation with our fellow-worshippers. If we have not seen one another all week and feel the need to converse, why not go outside or to some other part of the building or, better still, wait until after the service? It will have to be admitted that such social-visiting is not an aid to our worship and it certainly does not contribute to impressing us with a sense of God’s presence and the glory of His service. There is a time and place for all things, and let each be kept in proper perspective.
There are better ways to spend the moments before the service than indulging in idle conversation. This time should be actively devoted to the task of preparing ourselves for the service. This must not be construed to mean that this preparation begins when we enter the house of God and negates that essential preparation that must characterize our entire life every day. But those moments in which we await the arrival of the consistory and minister ought not to be wasted but utilized in the most spiritually profitable manner. With this in mind we offer a few general suggestions as to what might be done.
On the Lord’s Day God’s people come out of another busy week into His presence. They must now be freedom the thoughts of worldly things. The earthly and material must give way to an exclusive consideration of the spiritual and heavenly in their minds and hearts. This is not done without great effort. Upon entering into the Lord’s house then, let every one—young as well as old—offer up a silent prayer. The need of this will be felt when we enter God’s house in the proper attitude. We will experience a sense of need for the Bread of Life as well as feel our inability to appropriate that Bread. Our prayer will then be for ourselves and will reflect upon the many needs which we have to fit us for the worship. Though this is essentially its purpose, the prayer will not exclude altogether the needs of those who are to minister, the needs of the congregation and all who have come to worship.
The prayers having ended we are immediately aware of the sound of music that fills the sanctuary. The purpose of this musical prelude is to aid further in preparing the congregation for worship. This must be borne in mind, and it is here that the organist must also realize a very important responsibility. The task of the organist is not to give a musical concert or to demonstrate briefly what the organ is capable of producing. Neither is it possible to put a Reformed congregation in the proper disposition for worship by playing songs that unavoidably convey to the mind an Arminian message. When the music is appropriate, some may choose to relax with it and spend the moments before the worship imbibing its soothing qualities.
Others choose to be more active. Let us then prepare ourselves more directly by thinking on the nature and purpose of the services. Can we give a good account of our own presence in the Lord’s house? Do we realize the solemnity of the occasion? If the bulletin records the Scripture reading for the day, why not turn to it in these moments and familiarize ourselves with the passage? This will facilitate our following the sermon presently. Should the text be announced, ask yourself what it means to your spiritual life. Another profitable way to spend this time is by turning to the back of the Psalter and systematically, week by week, meditating on the articles of the Confession of Faith. No one can deny the value of such a practice in an age of confessional ignorance. And should there still be time, we might meditate on all the goodness which the Lord has shown us and our families during the week that has again passed. We generally take so little time to do this in the hustle and rush of our daily living. Consider that through it all the Lord has wondrously continued to lead us every step of the way and now again has brought us into His house. Give Him thanks for His kind and tender mercies. Then you will be prepared to engage actively in the praising of His holy and glorious Name. When we so engage in preparing ourselves for worship we will discover that there is so much to be done and so little time in which to do it. And when the service is ready to begin, we will find ourselves in a spiritual experience that blends itself with the tenor of worship rather than suddenly having to make an abrupt change when the organ ceases and the minister begins to speak.
During this time the consistory, the office bearers of the church by whom and under whose supervision the public worship service has been convoked, is meeting in another room. The significance of this meeting centers about the prayer that is offered here before the service. But before we consider this matter, let us ask the question whether this meeting is necessary? Is it essential to the worship of the church? Is it perhaps just an old-fashioned notion which our fathers carried along with them from the Netherlands? Would it not be better that this practice be abandoned and the elders and deacons then sit with their families before and during the service? Many advocate this, with the result that in some Reformed Churches today this practice has been discontinued. We are convinced that this is a loss of spiritual value: for when the consistory no longer meets together with the pastor before the service both the congregation and consistory lose sight of the official character of the administration of the Word and Sacraments. Visible evidence that this worship has been convoked and is supervised by the officebearers of the church is lost, to the detriment of all the congregation.
This fitting and venerable custom must be preserved. Just when this practice originated is difficult to determine. Those who are acquainted with the history of the Dutch churches assure us that there are no evidences of it before the year 1800. Thus it is not a custom which we have received from the earliest Reformed congregations, since it is only some one hundred fifty years old.
Some have suggested that this practice was begun in the days of the Secession of 1834. For more than one reason this explanation is quite plausible. At that time there was considerable popular and civil interference with the religious worship of the seceders. Often their services were disturbed and broken up. Their ministers were heavily fined and imprisoned, and other leaders threatened from time to time. Small wonder then, that the members of these small and despised groups felt so keenly their dependence on Almighty God and thus asked for His special protection during the services. This explanation would also account for the strange fact that whereas such prayers are very commonly offered up in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, one seeks them almost in vain in the State Church.
If this is so, one could argue from it in favor of abolishing the custom. We are not persecuted in our worship today. Although it is true that we always need God’s help, we do not feel the need for special protection. The State assures us that we have freedom of worship and it offers police protection if necessary to guarantee this liberty. Then too, there are already many prayers. Though it would not be wrong to add another, there ought to be good reason for doing so: for mere multiplication here tends to meaningless formalism.
Yet, this matter must be determined on its own merits. The consistory must realize its great responsibility in the matter of worship. They have called together the people of the Lord and made the necessary preparations for their worship. Upon them rests the responsibility to see that all is done in good order, so that God’s Name is glorified and the church is edified. This alone necessitates a prayer.
The minister must officiate in the ministry of the Word. What a great responsibility! The living Word of the living God is to brought by mere man? The message to be brought comes in God’s Name and must be entirely in accord with His Word. Who is sufficient unto these things? Again, a prayer is most fitting.
But let the elders not forget themselves. They are charged with feeding the flock. They must give a good account of their work of regulating and supervising the worship. Not only must they guard against heresy but they must also be able to assure themselves and others that the church has been edified. Let them discuss these matters in a spirit of love with a view to the welfare of the church and the glory of God. Such a responsibility is great, and to discharge it the elders need special wisdom and strength that can be obtained only through prayer.
Hardly, is it necessary to add that the content of this prayer should be limited. The prayer should be directed with a view to the service which is about to commence. It should, therefore, include the needs of the minister who is to lead the service; the needs of the consistory which is to supervise the service; and the needs of the congregation which is to participate actively in the service. Generalities should be omitted from this prayer. Its specific idea is that the officebearers officially invoke God’s blessing upon the church as it gathers in worship.
Thus, both congregation and officebearers, having been spiritually prepared, are ready now to engage in worship. Step by step the service will unfold, with each element serving to convey to the worshippers the choicest and indispensable blessings of divine grace.