Getting the most out of church attendance
I imagine all practicing, church-attending Christians have had the experience of coming out of a worship service thinking to themselves, “I really didn’t get anything out of that service.” Maybe you, dear reader, can relate to this on a personal level. Have there not been times when you have felt as you came home from church that your church attendance experience that day was a waste of time? What are some things we as believers in Christ can do to get the most benefit out of our church attendance, and thus to reduce the number of occasions when we feel like church has been a waste of time? Here are some suggestions.
(1) Make sure you are attending a church where the good news of Christ is central.
I believe that one of the reasons why many today find churchgoing an empty or meaningless experience is because many churches are dominated by either sentimentalism or moralism, or a combination of the two. For example, many liberal churches and many evangelical churches taking a “church growth” marketing approach to church ministry have all but emptied the Christian faith of its doctrinal and theological foundations, emphasizing instead a moralizing “deeds, not creeds” philosophy of church. The problem with this is it reduces the church’s message to basically this: “God loves you no matter what” and “Do more, try harder.” To those who are self-righteous and need to be challenged to repentance, the shallow, bumper-sticker-style message “God loves you no matter what” is spiritually dangerous and only confirms them in their impenitence and self-sufficiency. (Plus, it tends to lead such persons to figure that “Hey, If God loves me no matter what I do or how I live, then why bother going to church? I already know that God loves me, so why do I need to sit through a worship service to hear again what I already know?”) To those who know themselves to be sinful and inadequate before God, and who desperately need the good news of grace and forgiveness in Christ, the moralistic emphasis on “do more, try harder” which is so prevalent in many American churches today only adds burdens to their already sin-burdened souls, and often ends up driving them away from the church and from the Christ who freely offers full forgiveness to those who are weary and heavy-laden by their sins (Matthew 11:28-30).
Could it be that one of the reasons you don’t get anything out of your church attendance is that your church doesn’t really or clearly proclaim the gospel (“good news”) of forgiveness and sure hope through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (or, if it does, it doesn’t keep that message central in its proclamation and liturgy)? Could it be that your church preaches either a syruppy, sentimental message of “God loves you no matter what” or a moralistic “do more, try harder” message (both of which are ultimately spiritually-empty), instead of proclaiming through its worship, preaching and church-life the soul-satisfying good news of full and free redemption in Christ? If so, then it’s time to find a new church. Find a biblical church that will feed your soul by its ministry of Word and sacraments, week in and week out, with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Find a church which will focus more on what Jesus has done for us sinners, and less on what we sinners should be doing for Jesus.
(2) Before church reflect on the significance of what takes place in Divine worship.
Attending a biblically-ordered Christian worship service is not simply an occasion to gather together and “hang out” with fellow believers. It is not merely a social event involving the corporate gathering of Christians. Rather, it is actually a meeting between Almighty God and His covenant people. In Divine corporate worship, when the Lord’s people are gathered together in the Name of Christ to worship the Triune God, a supernatural event takes place (though this event is only perceived by faith in the hearts of those who believe). By faith, and through the Holy Spirit, in corporate worship Christians come to the heavenly Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, and are joined together in this supernatural occasion with angelic beings and the spirits of just men made perfect (see Hebrews 12:18-29). By faith and through the Holy Spirit we come before God’s heavenly throne of grace with boldness and confidence, all of which was made possible by Christ’s atonement for sin (Hebrews 4:14-16).
In Divine worship a real dialogue takes place between God and His covenant people. Not only do we serve God through our prayers, singing and offerings (the parts of the service from us to God). He condescends to serve us by feeding our souls through the Word (read and preached) and the sacraments (which seal the Word), those parts of the service where God speaks to us His Word of judgment and grace. In corporate worship God through Christ condescends to commune with and serve us His people, as we gather in Christ’s Name to serve and glorify Him.
Spend some time in prayer and reflection prior to the worship service reflecting upon the supernatural significance of what is about to take place in the worship service. Come to church prepared to encounter the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who offers Himself to you in the Word and Sacraments. If you come to church with such a mindset, you are much more likely to get more out of the service.
(3) Make necessary practical preparations prior to worship, so that you can enter fully into the worship experience without distraction.
We’ve all had the experience of rushing to get ready for church. A family member takes too long in the shower, and everybody is rushing about like chickens with their heads cut off because they are worried about being late for church. Here is where some practical planning ahead is needed.
I would encourage you and your family to plan to do things like: Get a good night’s sleep on Saturday night (and don’t make staying up late on Saturday night a habit). Set aside the entirety of Sunday (the “Lord’s Day” – Revelation 1:10) as a day of rest and cessation from your ordinary daily activities and employments, so that you will not be distracted during the worship service by the other things you might have planned to do later in the day. Get up early enough on Sunday morning so you can have time for personal devotions prior to church, to prepare your own heart for worship, and possibly also to spend some time with your family in family devotions. In the words of the OPC’s Directory for the Public Worship of God: “It is advisable for each individual and family to prepare for communion with God in his public ordinances. Therefore, they ought to do this by reading the Scriptures, by holy meditation, and by prayer, especially for God’s blessing on the ministry of the Word and sacraments.” (Directory for Worship I.A.3.b., p. 124, 2015 Edition)
Oftentimes the main reasons why we don’t get as much out of our church attendance as we might like is that we either have a low view of the importance of such attendance; or we have not properly set our affairs in order prior to worship and properly prepared our hearts beforehand for worship; or a combination of both. So I would encourage you, dear reader, to view corporate worship at church on the Lord’s Day to be the central event of your week, and to prepare both your personal affairs and your heart accordingly. But even if you happen to stay up too late on a Saturday night, or sleep through your alarm on a Sunday morning (causing you to rush about to get ready on time for church), remember that Christ’s grace and forgiveness are still there for you in the worship service, in spite of your poor planning or lack of preparation!