We received a recent question from a Abounding Grace Radio listener on the lack reverence in worship Covid-19 has promoted:
We have noticed that due to the practice of internet and outdoor worship during Covid-19, and now that we have returned to our building to worship, there seems to be a loss of reverence in those who come. People come with their drinks and coffee, everyone is talking before worship as if we are at the ball game. There seems to be a loss of perspective that we are coming to worship a holy God. How can we recover a proper sense of reverence and awe in worship?
From the beginning of Covid-19, all churches faced the challenge of how to conduct worship services. In the first phase of Covid-19, most churches were conducting internet worship services. The first challenge we faced was whether we could call our internet church services, in any sense, “corporate” worship. We have always believed the corporate worship of God to be a special, public “gathering” or “assembly” (see Gen. 4:26) of God’s people, called out from the world to physically gather before the throne of grace.
Internet worship services promoted, with coffee in hand, and often people still in their pajamas, a worship of casual “observers.” That’s the point: active participation was a great challenge in the initial stage of Covid-19, and worship as mere observers proved a fatal medium as each successive Sunday the online numbers withered away. In the first phase, people were being trained, over the course of many months, albeit unintentionally, that worship is a spectator event.
In the second phase of the virus, most churches moved to some form of outdoor worship and some still remain this way. Those who attended were already beginning to think differently about coming to church than they ever had before. This had some very positive benefits, but it also supported a great problem in light of the question being asked here. The sense that in corporate worship we are coming to engage in a holy activity was easily forgotten. We approached church like we were attending the Saturday baseball game or a theater drive-in. Lawn chairs, flip flops, along with a loss of anything formal or structured, again, gave the sense that the activity was a spectator event.
It also programmed people to think the activity was common. This is not to say that a building itself “creates” true worship, or that worship cannot happen outside, but it is to say that something psychologically different was happening throughout Covid-19 in the way we understood gathering for worship. There is a historical reason we have church buildings for worship as they provide circumstances that support proper hearing of the Word, free from distraction, with certain architecture and pieces of furniture in place that communicate the separateness of the gathering. These things also help to provide proper structure in corporate worship. Outdoor worship in our highly recreational society tended to devalue the separateness of the holy gathering as distinct from any other worldly gathering.
The third phase of Covid-19 opened the opportunity for people to return to their church buildings. The challenge now is that we may have returned with the baggage we’ve have carried for well over a year. How deprogrammed are we? That depends. If we have been attending churches prior to the pandemic that showed little reverence and awe in corporate worship, then the past year has only served to support the trajectory that was already in place–and possibly made matters even worse.
If the worship service has always been built on entertainment, and the pastor has worked hard to de-church the gathering from anything churchy, to make everything feel common, and he did not conduct worship in such a way that promoted a separation from all that is worldly and profane, then it should be no surprise that people will lack any sense of what it means to offer acceptable worship with reverence and awe. And, in this case, many former churchgoers may never return.
The answer to the question of how to correct a lack of reverence and awe in worship has to begin with what the church itself believes about corporate worship. To be sure, a church can offer acceptable worship no matter the venue, but depending on the circumstances, there may be a need to retrain the people through a teaching series on corporate worship. Is there a standard in the order of worship that the church has agreed to follow? Have the church leaders abandoned that standard? How serious does the leadership take corporate worship? Is there a marked difference in the activity of Sunday worship from all other gatherings in the world? Is the worship built on entertainment? Further, does the church take seriously the offense of sin before the Lord? And does the church care to show the beauties of God’s answer in the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Such a message of law and gospel, when taken seriously (and yes, joyfully) creates a worship service of reverence and awe before the Lord (as commanded in corporate worship–see Heb. 12:28), along with an appreciation of the importance of gathering together as the body of Christ.
Further, one of the things that churchgoers may need post- Covid-19 is some retraining in how to properly prepare their hearts and the minds for corporate worship. To properly worship the Lord, there must be a good understanding of the purpose of our gathering. Worship is most beneficial to the individual and the corporate body when there has been prayerful preparation to receive the means of grace.
The best way to recover “reverence and awe” in corporate worship is by reacquainting ourselves with “who” we have come to worship, “how” we have come to worship, and “why” corporate worship is the reason that God has saved a people to himself.