What time does your worship service start? That’s a typical question for church visitors. But for longtime members, this question might be better stated: when should I start preparing for worship?
At one level the answer is as simple as looking at a church’s bulletin or website. We could quibble over whether the service starts at the prelude, with the words of welcome or with a formal “call to worship.” But we can normally define a specific time when our worship service starts. For that matter, we typically also know when the worship service ends.
But that’s not my question.
My question is: When Does Worship REALLY Start?
Saving the discussion of lifestyle worship for another day, I’d like to discuss:
Preparing for Worship: 7 Thoughts on Getting Ready to Worship
These thoughts could change the way you prepare for corporate worship.
#1: On Saturday night at home
In Jewish culture, the Sabbath is celebrated from sundown to sundown. Based on Christ’s resurrection, the Christian worship clock now has a sunrise orientation. But the Hebrew worship mindset can our worship preparation.
For example, I’ve learned that what I do and think about on Saturday night invades my mind and heart Sunday morning. Here are a few things I do on Saturday to prepare for Sunday:
- I proactively avoid temptation and situations that invite heart idolatry.
- I also prepare physically for worship. This means going to bed at a decent time, having my clothes ready and even preparing my gifts in advance. Note how the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians to have their gifts ready for his arrival (2 Cor. 8-9). For Old Testament sacrifices, families had to prepare their offerings in advance before making the trip to Jerusalem. You couldn’t decide to make a sacrifice at the last minute. The same is true for our worship.
- Jesus told the disciples to deal with broken relationships before coming to worship (Mt. 5:24). As I prepare for worship, I desire to be in right fellowship with my brothers and sisters. Advice: take time to inspect your relationships and seek restoration wherever possible.
- Cultivate an expectant mindset. Answering this question can alter your expectations and the priority you place on corporate worship: What would happen if Jesus walked into our church tomorrow?
- Reading scripture and examining my heart also helps put me in a mindset of expectancy. One of the best ways I’ve found for doing that is through journaling.
IDEA: What if a church regularly studied the passage on which the pastor would preach, learned the songs that would be sung and prayed expectantly that God would show His power and grace?
#2: Through the watches of the night
Psalm 130:6 says: “My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning.”
If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter or worked the night shift, you know what its like to wait for sunrise on a long night. Those living in places like Alaska understand this better than most when you endure the “endless nights.”
The psalmist reminds us to expectantly await God’s merciful movement just like the watchman who waits for first light. Yes, the night holds much darkness, but morning is coming and with the morning comes our hope: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” (Lam. 3:22-23)
As I grow older, I find myself waking in the middle of the night more frequently. Often God is giving me a chance to pray and think about things I don’t have time for during the day. On Saturday nights, he is giving me a chance to pray more specifically for worship.
My temptation is to watch Sports Center on ESPN instead. What is yours?
#3: When we rise on Sunday morning
Psalm 5:3 says “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.”
If you were meeting with a famous person tomorrow, I imagine you would set your alarm clock extra early, lay out your clothes in advance, prepare a healthy breakfast and think about what you would say and do.
Why do we treat worship like it’s just another appointment on the calendar?
Granted. We are God’s children and so we can rightfully approach Him with a childlike playfulness and informality. But God is also our King, Lord and Commander in Chief. Even children are taught to approach leaders with respect and dignity. In our worship, I fear we often err toward being too formal or too informal.
Theologians call this transcendence versus immanence. God is “above us” vs. “God is with us.”
If you know your Bible, you recognize that both are true and these create a proper tension in our minds and hearts.
I’m privileged to lead worship in a beautiful church with majestic stained glass windows and high ceilings that remind me of God’s transcendent power and glory. But our church is blessed with authentic people who love each other and care for our neighborhood and world. Through those relationships, our worship and our lives, we understand that God is also “right here” with us.
I wrote this song based on Psalm 5:3 a few years ago: In the Morning
#4: On the car ride to church
What music do you play as you ride or walk to church?
I don’t just mean what radio station or musical playlist you play. What’s going through your head? What are you talking about with the family?
Pastors often joke about the fights we have during that proverbial car ride to church. But it’s not a laughing matter. Those fights really happen and they may be in your car. Sometimes that car ride can change a cheery morning into a drudgery—or worse.
Pray ahead of time about how to respond in that moment. Think about the source of those conflicts and how you can minimize those issues.
Perhaps you can proactively guide the conversation and help your family share in your enthusiasm for worship. Our family will often pray and sing worship songs on the drive.
Psalm 122:1 says,
“I rejoiced with those who said to me,
‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
Psalm 84 also calls us to reflect on the beauty and goodness of God’s house.
May our families rejoice at the thought of going to God’s house.
#5: In the church parking lot
I like to remind churches that worship begins for visitors in the parking lot. The way they experience your church will effect how they view God and His people. To this end, many churches have greeters stationed in the parking lot to not only help with traffic flow, but to also be a warm friendly face.
Worship is a communal activity. The way we help each other and especially those visiting our church will impact how we see God’s movement in our midst.
I’m a big advocate of prayer walks through our neighborhoods and cities. When we walk and pray God often shows us his heart for people and our community. Taking time to regularly prayer walk around the church and in the church will help build excitement for and awareness of God’s work in our corporate worship.
In fact, I wrote the song In This Place after many months of praying through the pews at Lake Oconee Presbyterian Church.
#6: In our fellowship
Before, during and after the worship service we have time to connect with our friends, family and those visiting our church. It’s in these times we can often see God’s tangible ministry happening.
Counselors often talk about “being present” when they notice our tendency to let our minds wander to other places. Christians need to practice this ministry of presence in every conversation. You never know when God will use you to encourage someone, provide godly counsel, offer a prayer or just be a friend.
A mindset of expectancy attunes us to these opportunities that we might otherwise miss.
#7: During the prelude
Many churches have done away with the “prelude” because it feels like a showcase of talent. It can certainly become that, but that’s between the musician and God.
The true purpose of a prelude is to provide a place for people to prepare their minds and hearts for worship. Some like to do this in quiet prayer. Others enjoy connecting in conversation. Still others appreciate having thought-provoking quotes to stimulate their minds and hearts toward the day’s service. Some of us like all three. The point is to purposefully prepare for worship, even if its only during these last few minutes before the service formally starts.
So when does worship REALLY start?
As I hope you can see, it depends. I’ve attempted to provide some thoughts to help us rethink how we prepare for the start of worship. No one can consider all these things every week—it would become burdensome and make worship seem like a chore, not a grace.
I pray the Holy Spirit will take one or two of these ideas to change the way you prepare for worship this Sunday.
When do you start preparing for worship?
Please share your thoughts below…