I have to confess that I may not actually be the best person to be writing about what people do as worship participants because my attendance at worship as anything but a worship leader is relatively rare. It is an occupational hazard for clergy that we attend a of worship but because we are leading the worship both our preparation and our worship experience are different from that of people who attend as participants.
However, I do think I have something to offer to the topic drawing partly on my limited attendance as a non-leading participant and my study and observation of worship. Some of what I write will certainly be biased by my expectations of what the people I lead in worship “should” do but I hope that I am not being too out of touch.
Since worship is about recognizing and acknowledging and praising God, good worship probably begins before the actual service begins. The worshipped needs to prepare for worship. When I was just beginning to attend worship, that preparation was normally seen as entering the sanctuary and sitting quietly. We were supposed to be praying and meditating as we opened our hearts and minds to God. Reading the Bible at this time was worth extra points.
A more modern approach to worship involves the worshippers talking and laughing together before the appointed time. People gather in groups, discuss the latest news, make social plans, hold informal church business meetings, look at baby pictures of grandchildren (my congregations are older) and generally make lots of noise. I occasionally jokingly tell people that the purpose of the call to worship is to subtly tell the congregation to shut up and sit down so we can start.
I am not going to play these options off against each other or reject them in favour of some other option such as worship music or videos or whatever else happens somewhere before worship. Silence and meditation can help us become open to God. Talking with fellow believers can do the same thing. Both can also help us avoid becoming open to God. The real issue is the attitude that the worshipper brings to worship.
On some of the few occasions that I have attended worship as a worshipper, I have come with depression, frustration and/or fatigue prominent in my mind. I was at worship because I am a pastor and should be there, even if I wasn’t leading. But because of my feelings and attitude, I didn’t really come to encounter God–in fact, a few times, I was there in spite of God. I didn’t want to encounter him because I was somewhat upset with God because of what was going on in my life that he wasn’t fixing fast enough.
The worship leader lead a well prepared and worshipful service. The choir and organist provided wonderful music that was designed to enable the worshipper to engage their emotional response to the presence of God. The other participants sang, listened, responded, prayed and hopefully recognized the presence of God. But me? Well, I sat there when I was supposed to sit, I stood and made noise when I was supposed to sing, I closed my eyes when I was supposed to pray–I did all the right stuff at the right times but I didn’t worship because my heart and mind were focused on my own stuff, stuff which I wasn’t willing at the time to let God be a part of.
And so I didn’t worship. And because I didn’t worship, I didn’t get the reminder of the presence and power of God that I needed to help me deal with the stuff that was getting in the way in the first place. I was not prepared for worship. I was not willing to look beyond myself to discover the real context of life, a context that always includes the presence and power of God.
When we worship, we need to be willing to let ourselves become aware of the reality of God’s presence. We are not letting God in–he is already there. We are not asking God to come to us–he is already there. We are, in the end, seeking to let ourselves recognize the presence of God so that we can not only praise and thank him for his presence and power but also receive the blessing of remembering that we are never alone. That remembrance is both the reason for worship and the blessing of worship.
May the peace of God be with you.