Surely the aim is a good one. Yet the intended result is impossible for God’s people to do.
I speak of those leading in worship who begin the service with something along these lines:
We are here this morning to just worship God. So put all your distractions away. Leave those mental concerns at the door of the sanctuary and be free of them. Do not let them interfere with your time with God today. Just focus on the Lord alone!
First of all, picture the young mom sitting there with several little children, each one pulling on her sleeves, wondering where the animal crackers are, and wanting their crayons. She is not going to be able to just leave her kids out in the foyer!
But of course the worship leader is thinking more of the distractions of the mind that inhibit our worship experience. Certainly worrisome, fearful, sinful, or competing thoughts can prevent us from connecting with God as we worship. Yet the problem with this type of call right at the beginning of a service is that it is actually burdensome and guilt-producing rather than freeing. We are what we think according to Jesus, for thoughts come out of our hearts (Matt. 15:18-20). Like that young mom with little kids, our thoughts come with us into the sanctuary yanking on us left and right. So how does one just leave them outside or, in a sense, click his fingers and make them go away? As with the whole of the Christian life, God’s people need the help of Christ through God’s Word and Spirit.
For how does the Bible encourage God’s people to deal with distracting thoughts as they worship? And how might we invite the congregation to bring them to Jesus and experience his grace rather than feeling more shame? Consider by way of example three different types of distractions and the biblical remedy that could be encouraged in the call to worship.
The Distraction of Concerning Thoughts. Worshipers can come before the Lord burdened down with the worries of this life, be it bills to pay, the doctor’s report they just heard, an issue at work, or a concern for a child. God’s Word tells us what to do with these thoughts. “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:7). Worries are in a real sense prompts to pray, and the congregation should be encouraged in this direction. “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:5b-7). We are coming to the high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses and welcomes bringing them to him, not one who makes us feel they are unworthy of his attention (Heb 4:15).
The Distraction of Competing Thoughts. I think this may often be what pastors or elders have in mind when they tell the congregation to leave them behind. They are not wanting the congregation to be thinking about the roast in the oven, the game on the TV that afternoon, or the text or tweet with the latest news as they come before the Lord. They are close to the truth in telling us to put them away but, again, we need the Lord’s help to take our thoughts captive to his obedience.
Given that these are thoughts competing with thoughts of worshiping the Lord, we need to encourage the church to engage in the competition and defeat them. As we are to be sanctified or set apart on the Lord’s holy day, the only way we will replace these lesser thoughts of life is with greater ones of Christ. When Martha was “distracted by all the preparations that had to be made,” recall Mary sat peacefully at Jesus’ feet. Why? Because, as Jesus said, she knew “only one thing was necessary” and she had “chosen the good portion” (Luke 10:38-42). The psalms call on us to lift our souls to the Lord in this manner, and we should extol the glory and goodness of the Lord in such a way that congregants are drawn away from earthly thoughts to more heavenly ones.
The Distraction of Comparative Thoughts. Another problem with just telling worshipers to leave their distractions at the door is that we do not worship in isolation. We are there with others, and how the people we just met on the way in or see across the sanctuary can distract us! For we compare ourselves among ourselves. We get jealous if a close friend is talking with someone else. We see how another is dressed and either feel good or poorly based on how we look. We jockey for church positions and, while never actually wearing a campaign button, plot political strategies in our minds.
The great leveling ground as people come to worship is the cross. Even in the Old Testament, the first object worshipers saw as they entered into the courtyard of the temple was the altar. We are all sinners in need of the grace and forgiveness of Christ. God’s people need to hear as they come before him that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Hence, we are called to die to self, to suffer for the gospel, and to be holy like Christ. When Jesus is put before us as the only one we are to be like, the effect is to both humble hearts and seek his cleansing. Comparative thoughts then melt away in the warmth of his presence and grace.
Like a good start in a foot race, let us be sure we help God’s people truly worship as soon as the service begins.