Thursday, July 28, 2011

Refreshing your participation in corporate worship

Continuing in the series on refreshing your spiritual life. (For the rest of the series, see "Refreshing your personal Bible study practices, part 1 and part 2," and "Refreshing your personal prayer life.") Remember, this is from a book on transitioning from seminary into ministry-- so some of the content is written toward seminarians; it seems practical, however, for anyone.

Refreshing Your Participation in Corporate Worship

Are you worshiping well? Worshiping while in seminary can present one of the greatest challenges of that season of life. In fact, I knew a handful of classmates who confessed that they felt they had lost the capacity to worship, because (among other things) their seminary education had presented too many stumbling-blocks.

What were/are some of their struggles?
  • Temptation to critique. Often, our own study of things like homiletics and worship leadership will create a default-mode of critical examination for sermons, music selections, prayers, and other parts of the public liturgy. It is easy to think, “I would have preached that sermon differently” when you are not the one preaching it.
    Racing minds. Anyone who has been in seminary for a while has a mind that is in a near-constant state of high-gear. It is tempting to think about everything but the worship of God.
    Burdensome work-loads. The seemingly never-ending state of unfinished assignments presents an ongoing burden of interruption to the worshiper. This is true for everyone, and no less so the seminarian.
    Knowledge distractions. Something said (or unsaid) during worship will spark an idea that a knowledgeable mind wants to engage. We have learned so many wonderful and fascinating things! We want to allow those thoughts to mature right away— even at the cost of our worship.
I’m not listing these to suggest new ways to worsen your worship! Rather, my goal is to point out some of the things that might be preventing you from worshiping well.

What can you do about the struggles of worship?
You can start by seeking to be well-prepared for worship. This subject is worthy of a book in itself, but a few ways to better prepare for worship include approaching corporate worship prayerfully; reading the sermon text ahead of time, if possible; learning to anticipate corporate worship with eager expectation; seek forgiveness from those you have sinned against, and extend forgiveness to others; disciplining your heart and mind for focused, concentrated worship; and getting a good night’s rest. Strive for learning how to worship well as a member of a congregation, even in the face of the knowledge and experience you are gaining.

You should also spend concerted effort on seeking humility. Many of the struggles that I and others faced in seminary(that perhaps you are facing, as well) stemmed from a prideful approach to worship and the pastors/leaders who served us. Remember that they, too, struggled through the studies that you have taken up— and unlike you, they finished those studies! Your pastor(s) have experience, wisdom, and training that you do not yet have; it is nothing short of arrogance that a seminary student might criticize the leadership and/or preaching of his pastor the way that some do.

Remind yourself of the magnitude of the Gospel. We worship God because we are aware of how worthy of our praise He is; how much He has accomplished on our behalf; how dependent upon Him we are, daily; how much He loves us. If you’re struggling with worship, ask yourself how much you are remembering the Gospel during it. Have you forgotten His grace? Have you taken for granted His mercies, new every morning? Have you made little of your sin? Reclaim the place at His feet that He has secured for you.

Ask your professors [or your pastor(s)] how they have learned to worship well. One of the greatest indirect ministries that I received from my seminary professors was watching them worship with their families in our congregation. And one of the most interesting conversations I had with a professor was talking about how he worships with his family: they had arranged to have the hymns for the coming Sunday e-mailed to their house, and they practiced them with their children. They held hands during the congregational prayers, and sang harmonies together. They encouraged one another with what they had heard and learned during the sermons. Most of all, though, my professors (all of whom had been pastors themselves, at one point) came humbly and readily to sit under the leadership and teaching of a man they had helped to train for ministry, and they willingly submitted to their congregation in worship. Your professors may be the best models for you in worship.

Your private and family devotional life will also shape how you worship. If you are neglecting your personal Bible study and prayer during the week, of course you will struggle to worship on Sundays. If you and your wife have unforgiven sin between you, naturally you will not be ready of heart and mind for worshiping God. Attend to your private worship, be diligent in your family devotions, and corporate worship will come more naturally to you.

Commit yourself to set aside the time for worship. Worship and rest are inextricably connected in Scripture, and for good reasons— one of which is that you cannot ably worship with a mind that is not at rest. You must learn the discipline of putting aside the unfinished work that is before you: regardless of how many pages you have left to write, how much reading is still incomplete, or how big the pile of dishes you haven’t yet washed, you will never worship fully and devotedly without learning to turn away from the work and turn to the Lord.
Don’t neglect to pray that you would become a better worshiper! This is a prayer item that you will never exhaust. Pray that the Lord would teach you to worship in spite of yourself. Pray for the humility that you need, and the awe and wonder at Christ’s grace that would move you to worship Him fervently. Ask God to draw you to Him- self and bind you to others in your congregation as you worship together.

Why is it so vital that you worship well? First, because you were created to worship God, and to bring Him glory. You will never enjoy Him more fully than in corporate worship. Second, because our worship is a reflection of what we love— and if we struggle in worship, it means that we have either begun to idolize something else or our love for God has dulled. Third, because it will give you the nourishment and sustenance that you need to persevere through your work as a student (and other work).
And finally, because you may never again be free to worship God in the way that you are now free to do so. Most pastors have some level of responsibility during (or surrounding) the corporate worship that they engage in through their ministries. Many (like myself ) serve in a setting wherein we are leading a central part of worship almost every week. This may be your last season of worship that is unfettered by the responsibilities of ministry.6

Learn to worship well, and delight in the worship that you get to participate in during seminary.

6 Which is not to say that you won’t be engaged with the worship of God in your ministry! On the contrary, it is a privilege to worship God in the way that pastors get to worship weekly. But it won’t be the same— and those differences are significant.

Adapted from From M.Div. to Rev.: making an effective transition from seminary into pastoral ministry by J.E. Eubanks, Jr. (Oakland, TN: Doulos Resources, 2011).

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