During a sermon on the presence of God I sensed something was missing. Around me that morning people flitted in an out like butterflies searching for the mother lode of nectar. I feared a shrinking-bladder epidemic had infested the congregation as evidenced by the steady stream of pilgrims searching for the exit. (Note: expectant mothers are excluded from this observation.)
Are we teaching the next generations that attending church means seeking the presence of God or has that awareness been moth-balled along with the hymnals? Is there, or at least should there be, a different spirit and attitude in the church service beyond that found at a Saturday afternoon picnic?”
I heard one speaker comment that his church was not big on attracting and retaining “churchy people”. While I can’t give an authoritative definition to explain that position the context in which it was shared communicated much. “We don’t do church like other churches. We have our own ways of doing things. Tradition doesn’t apply here. Our worship is relaxed.”
I can understand the speaker’s point. Church meetings can be too formal and stifling with traditions and rules to guide every moment. As long as the proprieties are observed and the announcements come before the prayer requests as they did in the days of Moses, we go home feeling like it was good to be in the house of the Lord.
I recall the trauma of outgrowing Junior Church as a young boy and moving to Big Church which met in the sanctuary. Dad was in the choir and Mom taught Toddler’s Church, the precursor to Junior Church, so I was on my own with a host of adults watching me like hawks ready to pounce on a mouse. No cookies and juice in Big Church. No break to get up and shake the sillies out. Rowdiness and tom foolery ceased at the double doors which were guarded by some of the sternest looking men I had ever met. Their immaculate three-piece suits oozed age and wisdom, and I was certain at least one had golfed regularly with Abraham.
Big Church sported oak benches with no padding, and the haunting tones of the organ music cast a somber mood across the assembly. I learned quickly that I must visit the bathroom before the opening hymn because adults expected that a child-sized bladder could hold out for a forty-five minute sermon followed by three passes through all the verses of “Just as I Am.” A situation designated an emergency by the child better be a real emergency. I think somehow a child slogging down the aisle during the service raised everyone’s eyebrows and cast negativity on his upbringing. Embarrassing one’s parents was a felony not a misdemeanor.
Big Church included bulletins, one per customer. With an ink pen or pencil I could color in the circles poking through the rounded characters. I usually started with a’s and worked down through the alphabet. The margins offered space to create cosmic exploration adventures with unique rockets, or to draw great naval battles with ships of every size, or to conquer enemy positions with an army of newly-drawn tanks supported by strafing fighter jets. As long as I was deathly quiet and refrained from shading too loudly I could entertain myself.
Osmosis is a reality, though. My uncomfortable body adjusted to Big Church, and eventually the words bouncing around the sanctuary absorbed into my heart. I wanted to go to church because I heard new things each week. I advanced from scribbled pictures to note-taking. Some speakers kept me on the edge of my seat, like the missionary who unfurled the thirty foot snake skin across the front pew and explained how he had killed the beast with a single shot to free his wife from certain death. His sermon seemed only a few seconds in length, and I couldn’t wait to get back that evening for part two.
I had begun to grasp what the generation of my parents and grandparents already knew. Feeling God’s presence at church requires preparing for the encounter. The clothes I wear do not necessarily add to or detract from the moment, but the attitude I carry in and the purpose I determine for the visit make all the difference.
Pop open a copy of the Scriptures and look at the reaction of guys who came face-to-face with God.
- Abraham (Genesis 17:1-6)
- Moses (Exodus 3:1-6)
- Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15)
- Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-8)
- A Samaritan leper (Luke 17:11-19)
- John (Revelation 1:17-18)
Do we catch the sense of awe and reverence? Is it wrong to teach my children to fear God and to help them understand that meeting Him in church is a special moment? What is my personal belief and practice about coming into God’s presence?
We can meet God anywhere. I have some of my closest times with Him in the deep woods away from all the distractions. Think of the church service as a mini-greenhouse with all the right ingredients to allow the Word of God to germinate and take root in our hearts. We come voluntarily. We come expectantly. We participate. We have leaders prepared to guide us on the journey. And God promises:
For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst. Matthew 18:20
What happens to the person seated near me who came to meet God but found the service to be like worshiping in a bus station as I enter and exit four to five times? The only thing missing for that seeker is the disembodied voice announcing the loading of the buses and the gate numbers for departure.
What happens to his desire to meet with God when I’m having my own conversation with a neighbor when I should be praising the Lord with the congregation? What do these actions on my part say about my vision of God and my expectation of meeting with Him in that place?
Learning some churchiness is not always a bad thing.