A Question of ‘Reverence and Awe’ in Worship Post Covid-19

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.

3 comments

  1. This is real good, Chris! I particularly liked how you worded the following paragraph:

    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.

    We continue to meet indoors, despite the restrictions here that limit worship to either an online event only or an outdoor event with masks and no singing.

  2. 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.

    Yep. People have seen worship as entertainment for the past several decades at least. We were out -of-town for Mother’s Day and worshipped with some relatives at a church that just left the PCUSA. Within the first 15 minutes, my 11 year-old was telling me, “This is just a concert.” There was a professional choir singing man-centric songs very well. There were none of the other elements of Christian worship. It got worse from there. A female elder got up to lead some exhortation where she explained that God was both a “mother and a father” citing a passage in Isaiah. I started to get up with the kids to leave and was told not to make a scene and wimped-out. The sermon delivered by Rev. Harvey Milktoast on Psalm 139 lasted 15 minutes and contained nothing but man-centered points on how God “thinks you’re wonderful.”

    Later my wife and I conducted a post mortem on this synagogue of Satan (WCF XXV.v). Obviously, even my 11 year-old could see that worship was nothing more than entertainment. In fact, my relatives cited this as the main reason for attending. The exhortation from the woman at the pulpit about God being both “masculine and feminine” and “a mother and a Father” has no basis in the historic Creeds, Confessions, and Scripture. If Jesus thought the Father was also a Mother, he never said so. The fact that Jesus would gather Jerusalem’s children together as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings does not mean Jesus was a mother rather than the Son. Finally, God does indeed love us because of the Son and wants to bless us, but doesn’t that need to be balanced against God’s other attributes and other doctrines? It seemed this was their full doctrine of God.

    In short, modern “worship” in many “churches” in the USA is just worship of man from the entertainment, to the conception of God all the way through the sermon. Man makes a poor god. The thing we noticed about these synagogues of Satan is that they’re very comforting. I think that’s what Satan wants: for you to be comfortably on your way to hell.

  3. Thank you for emphasizing corporate worship as a time of reverence and awe. Being brought up in a very reverent church, in a beautiful church building devoted to the worship of Almighty God, it has been troubling to me that people in my church prefer the casual jeans and T-shirt approach. It has been difficult to explain that since we meet in a school building where it certainly isn’t devoted to worship.

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