This weekend, around 50 million Americans will walk through the doors of a local church. Their patterns are well-established: For as long as they can remember, they have dressed in the same styles, sat in the same places, and arrived at the same times. They are pious and sincere, but they are creatures of habit.
Pastors like me see this. We know the routines. Sunday worship can drift away from the revolutionary witness that it once was and turn into something stale and familiar. So how can church attendees renew their experience of Sunday morning?
I’d like to suggest four exercises for deepening your Sunday morning worship experience. These are practices that pastors love to see members engaging in when they come to church for worship.
First, a major caveat. It hardly needs to be said, but church isn’t about pleasing your pastor. Weekend services are aimed at growing in knowledge of, love for, and commitment to the Great Commission. The gathering of the Body is for healing broken hearts and re-forming shattered souls. Congregational worship is about meeting the Risen Christ and magnifying the name of the Triune God. There’s always a lot more going on inside than what the Reverend can see.
That said, I think that there are clearly-visible leading indicators of a spiritually dialed-in churchgoer. Here’s what we love to see; let these be words of encouragement as you pull into the parking lot this weekend:
Sit like you paid for your seats. When people attend a concert, they pay a premium to be front-row center. When fans check out their favorite basketball team, they want to sit courtside.
At churches, the phenomenon flips; people contend for the back row like it’s the Pool of Bethesda when the water is stirred. All that legroom that people want from the airplane’s exit row? Evidently it’s not a factor on Sunday morning.
Regardless of whether members intend seat-choice to be a commentary on the worship service, it always says something to the pastor when there is a lateral swath of empty pews across the front of the sanctuary. Is the music too loud? Do people feel spiritually overexposed? Are there interpersonal concerns that need to be attended? We’re left guessing.
Pastors love to see sanctuaries fill front-to-back. Claiming those close-in seats conveys eagerness, intimacy, and respect. Yes, you’ll have to reach underneath your seat for your hymnal rather than grabbing it from the pew-back in front of you, but being closer to the worship band, preacher, and other leaders says “I’m invested in this experience of the Living God.” A filled front row brings everybody closer together and adds to the overall warmth and connectedness of the worshipping community.
Take notes like there will be a quiz. Most pastors work hard on their sermons. They’ve prayed, researched, and reflected long hours to bring you clear and faithful teaching of God’s Word on a Sunday morning. (My experience suggests that ratio of time spent preparing a sermon to delivering it can approach 20:1). Preachers don’t want what they’ve shared to go in one ear and out the other.
Jot some things down. In our worshipping context, one page of each week’s worship folder is dedicated to a message outline. If your congregation doesn’t provide one, buy a small Moleskin journal or a spiral-bound notebook and keep a running log of what you’ve learned. Old addages about remembering better through note-taking continue to be verified by research; this is especially true for notes that are taken by hand.
Note-taking is a signal to the preacher that you aren’t just enduring the sermon as an obligation. You are an active learner. You’re hungry for good teaching and you’re committed to applying what has been proclaimed. You’re participating in a great tradition, too: Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and John are among the spiritual giants who were commanded to write down God’s messages.
Bonus content: This feels like a good time to note how much pastors love to see churchgoers bringing their personal Bibles with them to church. Underlined, annotated, dog-eared Bibles are emblems of a life dedicated to God’s revealed Word. Five thousand bonus Pastor Points for carrying your ink-and-paper scripture with you on Sunday morning.
Sing like you’re in the shower. Look, I get it; you don’t love every congregational song. While you can find a couple of anthems each Sunday that you really like, there are also a few that might as well have come from a Weird Al Yankovic LP. You don’t like the instrumentation, the words are too repetitive, the organ was too slow, the drummer couldn’t keep 6/8 time. Whatever. The harmonicist was flat, I don’t know.
We all like different kinds of music, and we don’t have the same measure of comfort singing in public. But worship isn’t like turning the dial on your car stereo or surfing Spotify until you find your preferred jam. It’s not about you at all, really. Singing on Sunday is about giving something to God. Giving yourself wholeheartedly to magnify his greatness.
Psalm 81:1 urges worshippers to “Sing for joy to God our strength / Shout aloud to the God of Jacob.” There’s no predicate there. Nothing about “…whenever you hear your favorite song” or “…provided you can hit that F-sharp” or “…unless the worship leader has circled back to the chorus of Oceans for a eighth time.” It’s just like – Sing, people!
When pastors see their members joyfully lifting their voices, we sense that inhibition is melting away before the delight of inspiration. A spiritual connection is happening. Focus on the One you’re exalting. Who knows, perhaps singing can help you win a battle or two along the way.
Greet new folks like you’re running for mayor. Pastors love to see their members crossing the room, working the foyer, and holding doors, especially when it means that they are coming into contact with guests and new attendees.
The fellowship hall/narthex/foyer/room-where-they-set-out-coffee can be an intimidating place for those unfamiliar to the congregation. It can also be a place of stagnation for those who’ve been part of the church since John the Baptist was a youth intern. Many churchgoers have a set of allies and friends (not coincidentally, they’re generally of the same age, race, and from a similar economic bracket) and they’re comfortable hanging with this group and this group alone.
It’s on pastors, I think, to train and remind their settled members to make new relationships. (Special kudos to those leaders who have worked out a theology of invitation that members have claimed.) But making new people feel welcome – and moving in new congregational circles – is the responsibility for all church members. Seeing guests received and affirmed – and introduced to others – is one of the pastor’s greatest joys.
Churches are different and people are different. Congregational culture and personal wiring will make some of these practices easier to live out than others. But stepping outside your Sunday routine to try these exercises will bring a smile to your pastor’s face.
And go ahead, sing a little louder. Because you’re sitting near the front now, there are fewer people who can hear you 🙂