Sometimes church feels like it can become just an organized meeting house. We meet, we greet, we eat. It’s the good Baptists-in-the-South way of doing things, and it’s always the same.
We order our worship services as meticulously as we order our business meetings, keeping them consistent and predictable. But in the midst of all of the organization and planning, I sometimes find myself struggling to truly sense the Divine, the Holy Transcendence that should be completely beyond our worship guides and liturgies, beyond our thoughts about lunch, and find us in our most vulnerable and open state before God.
I have found that good distractions are in fact some of the best times to know that God is in our worship services. A few years ago, in a former congregation, just as the choir stood to sing, a light bulb fell from the fixture above the altar and crashed to the floor. It was that moment that I realized that churches need some distraction and change from time to time.
In that moment, the congregation’s world opened up to include such mundane things as light bulbs – we finally noticed something other than the generally accepted rules of when to stand and sit. Everyone came back to reality, back to right now, including me. I began to see that the more entrenched I am in my own predictability, the less likely I am to have a surprising moment of worship. But, when I seek earnestly to find those distractions and break the chain of plannedness, I can reconnect with worship as it was meant to be – something that happens for God in the messiness and imperfection of the present moment.
Mind you, I do not mean to say that we all should do away the order of worship and sit in hope for the Spirit to move. Ordered worship guides us to a deep presence of God when it isn’t constrained by our own focus on what should be instead of what is. Liturgy offers a host of ways to sing to God, sign to God, play instruments to God, read to God, and serve others for God. Worship is activity that brings pleasure to God, and we can certainly use structure to find different ways to actively give God what God deserves from our hearts and lives.
But how do we remain in the here and now, for all its predictability as well as distraction, and still find God’s presence?
Perhaps instead of simply singing the words to the doxology, stop and notice that we do “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” Realize that we are all part of the “here below” and are seeking with all of creation to send praise to our Creator. Take time to reflect on words in the songs you don’t know as well. Re-read those songs you do know well with new eyes. When something distracting happens, let it help redirect you to the Holy that may have gotten replaced by your grocery list in your head, instead of grumbling about the loud noise or mic squeal.
Ok, so you say: “I have to be observant. But what’s the real secret? I sometimes have a hard time seeing God in distractions. I struggle to understand how to move from singing the songs to actually conversing with God. I’m just so tired and weary and hungry during the service. The older women behind me chat through the readings and the kids in front of me color and fidget all through the service. How can I find God here?”
The answer lies not in changing our circumstances during worship, but rather lies in how you approach worship beforehand.
Coming into the worship service unprepared is like going to the grocery store without money. How can I pay for groceries with empty pockets? Equally, how can I offer to God what I do not even intend to bring with me? You must ask yourself: Did I pray at all this morning (or this week)? Have I noticed the goodness of God this week and been grateful? Have I observed this world enough to know that God has been there for me? Did I take a moment, even just an instant, before the service to make the decision to join in worship today, and not just “come to church?”
Worship is not something that comes to us – it is something that comes from us. We must prepare to worship; we must seek to find moments of worship in both distractions and in order; we must be conscience of the Presence as we go about serving, teaching, leading, and generally being alive in this broken world. Then, we can meet corporately here to hand over everything we have to our Maker, gathering in one Spirit, with one Audience.