The Beginning of Worship: Preparation
The first section of the Westminster Directory of Public Worship is entitled, "Of the Assembling of the Congregation, and Their Behaviour in the Publique Worship of God." Our Puritan ancestors began at the beginning. What should characterize the Christian community as it gathers for worship?
The first concern of the Directory was for preparation. The Directory — just in a parenthesis — comments that hearts are to be prepared before we assemble for worship. And this is surely a sobering word today. Do we prepare for worship? I fear too many of us are so rushed Sunday mornings that we are just satisfied to get to church on time. Time for prayer and meditation Saturday night is an old ideal that has largely passed away. It is one of the greatest ironies of modern life that with more "time-saving" devices than any other generation, we have less time for the things that are important.
What are the consequences of going to worship unprepared? The great consequence is that we do not enter into fellowship with God and our fellow Christians as fully as we might. The blessing of meeting with God is diminished. We are not as ready for praise, as involved in prayer or as attentive to the preaching of the Word as we ought to be.
Is it also possible that churches of unprepared people will gradually see the character of their worship change? We see all around us worship services where entertainment seems to be a factor of growing importance. Is the desire for entertainment a reflection of hearts that are unprepared for worship?
The Directory next admonishes God's people that they are not to miss worship due to negligence or to attend private meetings. (The "good old days" had many of the same problems we do). Negligence of the worship of God says either that God is not important or that His worship is not or both. No Christian can say that God is not important. Nor should a Christian ever say the worship that God has established and called us to is insignificant. We need worship as a source of grace and strength in our lives.
But negligence is not the only danger the Christian faces. Equally dangerous is the notion that a private meeting can replace worship. The Puritans were not thinking of golf or brunch with friends when they mentioned private meetings. They had in mind private meetings for prayer or Bible study or fellowship. They were concerned about Christians who might think that regular worship was too dull or formal or profitless and so would gather for more meaningful spiritual growth with more serious Christians than one finds in church services. The Puritans wanted to warn against the arrogance and foolishness of such notions. We must not be so proud as to despise the institutions that God has established by His Word or so unwise as to miss the blessing of public worship where God has promised His presence and grace.
Next the Directory cautions that we are not to enter the place of worship irreverently, but rather "in grave and seemly manner." This caution raises very interesting issues for the modern church. Today reverence and gravity do not seem to be high priorities in worship. Joyful, loving and Spirit-filled worship is what most pastors and worshipers seem to be seeking. Deadness, dullness and formalism are the enemies of modern worship. Many seem to feel that the pursuit of reverence is what has produced the dull and flat worship that many criticize today.
But reverence in worship is required in the Bible.
Hebrews 12:28, 29 states: "Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire."
Worship must not be dull and flat because we are in the presence of a totally awesome God. The reality of God's power and majesty should take our breath away. The cost of His love and salvation as we see it in the cross of Jesus should overwhelm us. Certainly an awe-inspired silence is one of the proper reactions to God's presence.
Perhaps our failure to recognize God's presence among us and to remember His character and great acts of redemption lead us first to feel that worship is dull and then to turn worship into entertainment. And perhaps our failure is due to a lack of preparation in prayer and meditation before we come to worship. We recognize God's presence in worship only by faith. We cannot see Him when we enter church. We remember His great mercies to us best as meditation on the Word fills our minds and hearts. We must recommit ourselves to beginning our worship with hearts prepared. That will help solve many worship problems that we face today.