It probably will not strike us that we treat Sunday worship like watching a sporting event. But we do come, sometimes, to be entertained, rather than to worship; to see what we can get out of it, rather than to bring offerings of praise. And if we are not sufficiently entertained, we would almost be bold enough to complain as some would for a refund or a rain-delay check. Instead of being the active participants in the worship, we sit back and wait for a good show. When we worship, though, we are neither spectators nor are we sporting.
On the minister’s head falls a horrible judgment if he is ill-prepared to lead God’s congregation to Jehovah’s presence in worship. His failure bears on the ability of the entire body to worship. On the other hand, even though parents’ failure affects (probably) only them and (most likely) their children, we ought to give careful and deliberate consideration to how we prepare to enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise.
Standing before the Almighty God is not a light matter. Since God is King and we are His lowly subjects (though we do have the right to approach Him), we ought to consider how we come before His presence and enter His gates. The fathers of the Westminster Confession said worship preparation was so important that without “a due preparing of their heart, and ordering of their common affairs before-hand,” Sunday could not be kept holy. Queen Esther herself feared for her life at the thought of approaching Ahasuerus without the proper conditions fulfilled. Would that we worshiped God, without fear, surely, but with such contemplation and forethought.
Preparation for worship begins already on Monday morning. We teach our children to look forward to worship. When they learn that Sunday is thebeginning of the week instead of the end; when they learn that Sunday has the power to keep us going through this desert land, where all the streams are dry; then they will begin to look forward to Sunday as a day of rest and enrichment, instead of dreading it as a day to be done with so they can be on with the “good part” of the week.
A commendable, way a Christian can begin teaching His children to prepare for Sunday already in the beginning of the week is to talk about the sermons. Fathers and husbands, discuss with your children and wife how the sermon applies to your lives. Sing with them that God’s word is a light for their path, and then put it in concrete for them. Give them plain and practical examples. If one thinks that all he need do with his children is bring them to church and teach them to sit still, he is gravely mistaken.
A timetable for discussing the sermons with children or spouse might be: the sermon of the past Sunday could be discussed for the first three days of the week, and the next Sunday’s for the last three days. Because we have sermons from the Heidelberg Catechism each week, because we have sermon texts and topics on bulletins, and because our pastors often preach series of sermons, we are not ignorant what Word will be brought next Sunday. In that way we come “primed” for worship, and able to use our full potential of strength in God’s house.
One can prepare for the next Sunday by reading. By some, Triple Knowledge—the commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism—is read with great profit before the Lord’s Day. Having our hearts and our minds on spiritual things through the week makes them more eager to hear the word on the Sabbath. Any good reformed literature will work in us an appetite for good, meaty preaching of the Word.
One of the most important times to prepare for worship, though, is Saturday night. Then, more than any other time, our hearts and minds can be brought into the proper frame of mind to worship the next day. When a student looks ahead to a major exam, he makes a concerted effort not to be out late the night before. Only in that way can he be alert and on his toes at 8 AM.
Saturday evenings ought to be spent in quiet meditation, at home. It would be a good time to have a “family night” when all are at home, sitting around God’s Word, speaking and singing of the morrow when God will be speaking. Many Saturday nights are spent by Christians in restaurants or visits till the late hours of the night, with the sorry result that they are chasing sleep instead of holiness the next morning. 0, if God’s people were only awake to the fact that not only the preacher sees .them with their heads hanging.
On Sunday morning we have good opportunity to dress our souls as well as our bodies. Waking on time and being active is a profitable way to “put on our best.” Though it is true that most people are usually active and not accustomed to sitting still first thing in the morning, one of the best remedies for that is to get a good night of sleep, wake early, eat and read, and maybe take a nice walk to enjoy the beauties of the morning.
Sitting in church before the worship also gives us a good time to prepare. That means that we ought to come to church ON TIME. Last minute rushes into church make for temptation to read the bulletin when we ought to be listening to the law or giving alms. Hasty entrance into the house of God makes for a frame of mind ill-befitting a call to praise. An early start makes for proper meditation before the consistory enters. And meditation is what the time prior to worship is for. That raises two important thoughts.
First, the organist or pianist has a wonderful opportunity (a difficult and weighty responsibility as well) to help God’s people advance their hearts to the feet of Christ. We don’t think of organists very often in that sense, nor do we appreciate their work sufficiently. But they are vital in making or breaking our preparation. In my mind, there are at least two essential criteria for a successful (in the right sense) prelude. One, the organist must give God’s people a sense of God. That might seem a bit ethereal, but that is just the idea. It means that we must be brought into humble adoration of the greatness and glory of our God. Anything less than that is insufficient.
Second, therefore, good organists do not call attention to themselves or their playing. When a worshiper enters God’s house ready to worship, he needs to think about God. And the way to that frame of mind is not by thinking about the organ or organist, but by having the piano or organ artfully lead him to meditation about worship. Pray for your organist. Second, being in the proper frame of mind, we can bring our needs to the One Who demands to be worshiped in Spirit and Truth. Pray for the worship service, that your minister might preach the Word to cut you to the quick. Pray that you might be able to sing the songs of Zion from the heart, with spiritual maturity. Seek earnestly the spirit of II Corinthians 9:7 so that your offerings might be given properly. Beseech God to give you ears, eyes, and minds big enough to take in the Word brought. Pray that He will lift from you the spirit of weariness. Ask that all your earthly concerns might be left outside of God’s house. And make it your central petition that God’s name might be praised in all your actions in church.
If the consistory desires and expects that kind of prayer from the congregation, then the elders, deacons, and minister must prepare as well. Preparation for worship also involves the consistory room. It happens that the consistory members converse of things—just minutes before they enter the worship service—at which they would be shocked if they heard them from the members in the sanctuary. Just as much as all God’s people need to be reverent and holy before the worship, so should the discussion in the consistory room be sanctified and circumspect. And not only is this necessary for the consistory as members, but the spiritual atmosphere in the consistory room can make a world of difference in the ability of the minister to lead the congregation in proper and reverent worship.
If all this sounds ideal, it only shows how far we are, or have gone, from properly keeping the Sabbath day holy, from bringing our hearts and minds into subjection to the Father of true worship.
Worship is for the praise of God. Failure to be prepared is serious for our ability to glorify Him. It is also for our spiritual benefit. And there is a directly proportional relationship between preparation and profit—between readiness and ability to receive grace. All other things being equal, the more carefully and deliberately we prepare, the greater the benefit and the richer the grace received. The less we concentrate on worship, especially from Saturday evening until the consistory enters, the more quickly the dew of heaven will run off our hard and dry hearts. “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy” means more than the 24 hours from Saturday midnight to Monday morning. It means all involved in preparing for worship.
Failure to prepare is what makes us most dissatisfied with our worship as we have it now. It more than anything else makes us cry out for change in worship, because we are tired of the same old “game.” Instead of being spectators, or coming for sport, come to church next Lord’s Day with a heart that longs and thirsts for the Water of Life. Enter into His courts with prepared thanksgiving, and into His courts ready to praise Him from Whom all blessings flow.