Tardiness to worship is like the common cold. Every church deals with it. It's not the most serious malady facing us, yet it distracts us and drains us. And we have yet to find the cure.
I feel safe telling you all that my church family struggles to get to worship on time--because it's like telling you that my children are sinners. No surprise, right? Every church has been there...every Sunday, probably. So here's a shot at examining the problem from a Spiritual, Biblical perspective.
Preliminary #1--I'm not mad. Please know that I'm not writing this article out of frustration or to demean my lovely and committed church family but out of a sincere desire to think through this problem with you.
Preliminary #2--I realize that some will say the importance of being on time is culturally determined and not Biblically determined, that churches in Africa don't worry about this at all. This is somewhat true, but realize this: we live in this Western civilization and can't escape the strictures of our culture just by pointing at them. Being on time is culturally important, so we who live in this culture must value it as well.
Preliminary #3--Life is messy and things happen. This is about patterns of tardiness or promptness, not just that one time you had a flat tire on the way to worship. Or the time I hit my car with my van while backing out of the garage, fifteen minutes from the start of service.
The Problem: Why lateness to worship is a problem serious enough to address
Being on time communicates respect. If you and I have a regular meeting and you are always five or ten minutes late, I will eventually take it personally. Perhaps it won't be the first or second time (everyone has bad hair days) but maybe the third time. Tardiness communicates a lack of sincere interest in the meeting or the person. Can it be any less so with God?
If the heart of worship is exalting God's worth-ship, we've almost lost before we've begun when we show up late, communicating with our lateness the opposite of what we sing with our songs.
Being late to worship can only hurt your worship. Worshiping well is hard work. Rewarding, to be sure, but difficult nonetheless. It requires concentration, willfully opening our ears, minds and hearts to God and His Word, and exercising faith to shake off the cobwebs of worldliness in order to focus on Jesus. Singing Psalms well sometimes means a few different mental processes at the same time!
For most of us, being late causes stress and distraction. If we're with family or in a group, it often causes disunity--even if that disunity is well-masked by years of practice. These are forces that actively work against us doing worship well. As if Satan needed an ally in that battle. Conversely, we can pray and act with John Calvin, who prayed, "My heart I offer you, Lord, sincerely and promptly."
Being late to worship can't help anyone else's worship. A final reason to take this issue seriously is our Biblical call to care deeply for one another (Jn. 13:34-35). If worshiping well is a challenge for you, it is no less so for your brothers and sisters in the church. Many of them purposefully arrive early to have time to collect themselves, gather their children into the pew and take a few minutes of much needed preparation. And although not everyone is distracted or discouraged by latecomers, some are. Keeping yourself from being a speed bump to others' worship is reason enough to tackle the problem.
The Solutions: Spiritual truths and practical help
Realize the issue is a Spiritual one before it is a practical one. Have you ever wondered just why it is that your family has a hard time getting to worship on time but not getting to the school bus on time? Why are Sunday mornings so difficult? Isn't it because we have an enemy, a prowling lion seeking to devour us any way he can, including keeping us from engaging in worship fully?
Make no mistake, Satan has a vested interest in your tardiness to worship. If he can't keep you from worship, he can at least spoil your delight in God. He can do this by tempting you to anger at your family or self-centeredness in your worship. If we admit this is a Spiritual battle, we'll begin in the right place by picking up the right weapons: prayerful reliance on Jesus through His Spirit.
Commit to the conviction. If you haven't committed yourself and your family to valuing corporate worship as the most important part of your week, it has to be the starting point (Ps. 122 is a great place to start). If you haven't wrestled with God's call for you to honor the Lord's Day, it needs to be the second place you go. Without these convictions, any attempts at promptness are likely either based in pride or doomed to fail (or both).
Toward this end, if you do struggle with tardiness and want to build or buttress your convictions, I suggest reading good books and getting counsel from your elders and others who do better than you in this area.
Discern your own (and your family's) stumbling point. Each individual and family is unique. No one is going to have the exact same challenge on Sunday mornings (or Saturday nights). Take the time to figure out the problem before the problem. What causes you to be late? Is it lack of sleep? Is it too much sleeping in on Sunday morning? Is tardiness a problem at other times for you or not? Once you see what the stumbling blocks, begin to go on the offensive! Take steps to overcome the problems.
As an aside, we should realize that the these speed bumps could also point to idols in our life. If your lack of sleep on Saturday nights is due to watching movies or playing video games, consider which god your heart is really worshipping.
Be a team. First, be a team in your household. You're in this together. You'll all get to worship late or on time together. Fathers especially, work to cultivate the mindset of unity toward the goal. It's easy to make it all about us, about not wanting to be embarrassed by tardiness. How can your family or household work together on Sunday mornings to make the whole Sabbath a delight to each person in the home?
Second, be a team in your congregation. Again, you're in this together. Find someone you respect who can hold you accountable, pray for you and encourage you. We're not in a competition to be the earliest or have the best behaved kids. We're a family and, to a large degree, our worship will sink or swim together.
Finally, late is better than not at all. Every single pastor and every single church family I know would much rather worship with you late than not at all!
So that's it. Again, I realize this isn't the most important problem facing Jesus' bride. But it is a problem and one that, for His sake, should be dealt with honestly and lovingly. I would love to hear your thoughts, especially any practical tips you have for being on time to worship.