Someone once observed that church had become so focused on the performance of the preacher and worship leaders that the people attending had actually begun to believe that they were the audience in a worship service. Could that describe some church services that you have attended? Does it describe almost all of them? Well, that observation was made by Soren Kierkegaard in the 1850’s. I guess not much has changed in 150 years. Kierkegarrd believed that in corporate worship God was the audience, the congregation were the performers, and the service leaders were merely the prompters.I wrote last week about the need to prepare ourselves for corporate worship, but what about the actual performance of it?
Performance is not a word that we like to use in conjunction with worship. In fact, it is a word that is often used to critique worship. We talk of people performing in order to imply that something is inauthentic, incongruent, and ingenuous. I think that we do have a problem with people performing at times, and that it often reflects and leads to a lack of spiritual sincerity. However, we can also have another problem that often gets overlooked. That is, we can show up for corporate worship with more of a desire to passively observe worship rather than actively participate in it. Perhaps a bigger problem for us now is not so much a performance based mentality as an entertainment based mentality.
I do not point this out in an overly critical way. I do not want to do anything that is inauthentic any more than the next person. It is not uncommon for me to find myself sitting in a worship service not feeling like participating in worship. Depending on your faith tradition that situation may put more of a decision before you than others. Some liturgical styles require more participation than others. And some liturgical styles require more expression than others. But in the context of my faith tradition this normally requires a decision on my part. Do I sort of set aside my feelings and attitude and enter into the liturgy? Or do I go through the motions without any spiritual engagement? Or do I choose not to participate at all?
In Psalm 100:4 we are instructed to “enter his gates with thanksgiving.” Of course, this was in reference to the Temple. We can apply that instruction today to church. But whether we are speaking of Solomon’s Temple thousands of years ago or a local congregation today, there is a second, invisible reality at work as well. That is, we are being instructed on how to enter into the presence of God. So, how do we enter into his presence?
First, we have to decide that we are going to enter his gates. That might sound like I am stating the obvious, but I am not so sure that we always make the decision to enter in the first place. If I am standing on one side of a doorway there are only a few ways for me to get to the other side. Someone could come along and throw me through. Someone could reach out from the otherside and pull me through. But neither of those are likely to happen. Most likely I simply need to decide that I want to go through and then I need to do it. Again, that seems so obvious. Yet, I often find myself waiting around for someone else to push or pull me into the presence of God, rather than entering in myself.
Second, once I have determined to enter into the presence of God I need to start with thanksgiving. This is just as true in private worship as it is in corporate worship. When I sit down to pray I do not always feel much compulsion and energy to do so. In those moments I find it helpful to step back and meditate on what types of things for which I have to be thankful. Despite the number of times that I have done this I am always surprised how frequently I will begin to think about things that I have never thought about. Soon I am remembering how good God is and how much I take Him for granted. And at that point it does not take long for my self-focused thanksgiving to give way to some God-focused praise, which leads to the third aspect of entering His gates.
While we enter into His gates with thanksgiving, we enter into His courts with praise (Psalm 100:4). At some point our focus has to become Him, and not merely His benefits. As we are captured by the beauty of His character we suddenly find ourselves caught up into His very presence. At that point we cannot help but to proclaim His goodness and praise His name. That is why Psalm 100 crescendos and ends with a declaration about God’s unending goodness, love, and faithfulness (Psalm 100:5).
We are finite creatures who are subject to a wide range of thoughts, feelings and circumstances. That is not a bad thing. It is simply reality. God, on the otherhand, is eternal and unchanging. His reality is the same even when our reality seems to be constantly changing. So, whether you are in private or corporate worship, do not let your temporal reality keep you from worshiping. Once you decide to worship you might feel like more of a worship performer than a true worshiper (John 4:23). But do not let that discourage you either. If you have determined to enter into His gates then your performance is only the first step that will ultimately take you into His presence. And where else would you rather be?