Doing some simple math, I discovered that I had been to about 1100 Sunday morning church services. As I thought back on all those services, far too many began with too little sleep, not enough enthusiasm, arguments on the way there, and little brought back that was of value for my life. I feel that even after several hundred services, for many of us things haven’t changed all that much.
The importance of the gathering of God’s people on Sunday morning has been lost us, and as a result, its benefits have been lost to us as well. Matthew Henry said that Sunday was to be a day to “receive and embrace as a privilege and a benefit, not as a task and a drudgery.” So how to we rescue Sunday? How do we bring back the incredible vitality of this special day?
I think we begin by seeing as the Lord’s day. This is what it is called in Revelation 1, how the early church identified Sunday, and we refer to it even to this day. There is a sense in which there is nothing special about it. It has 24 hours like every other day; the sun rises and sets the same; God owns it as all other days.
But there is also something special about it. It is the day Jesus chose to rise from the grave proclaiming his victory over death and sin. So while the Sabbath of the Old Testament (Saturday) proclaimed completion and rest, the Lord’s Day (Sunday) of the new covenant speaks to God-glorifying life and vitality. Every Sunday reminds us of his victory for us, of his atoning sacrifice, of his entering the heavenly temple on our behalf, so that we too might come into the presence of God. The Savior is risen and everything has changed! Now every Sunday also points forward to the day when unfettered by a corruptible body of sin, we will worship in the very presence of God himself.
Do you see how understanding Sunday in that way – as the Lord’s Day – already begins to change the way you think about coming to church? But J. I. Packer says, “We must never, therefore, let our Sundays become mere routine engagements; in that attitude of mind, we shall trifle them away by a humdrum formality. Every Sunday is meant to be a great day, and we should approach it expectantly, in full awareness of this.”
While we should love the Lord’s day, I fear that many of us dread it, are bored with it, and could take it or leave it. Looking at Colossians 3:12-17 will helps guide our thinking about loving the Lord’s Day. Col. 3:12-17, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,  bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Paul is clearly talking about the gathered worship of the church. The language reflects an emphasis on the attitude and practices of people being together. As we try to apply Paul’s teaching to our lives as a church body today, I think Paul will be helpful in re-orienting how we think our services. Are they a ritual to be observed? Or are they the means of grace that God established in the life of his people? From this passage we want to see how to love the Lord’s Day. This process involves three steps:
1. Prepare for the Lord’s Day
Think about Paul’s “put on” language. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” . . . “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
I do not think Paul is thinking here that we are to put these characteristics on at church. Now, I do think church allows you to put these on better and with greater ease, but I think the point he is making here is that the “putting on” comes before the interaction with others. Notice the “putting on” precedes: the bearing with one another and the forgiving one another (v. 13) and it precedes the teaching and the singing (v. 16) What we see is that coming to church on the Lord’s day requires preparation.
Those of us who roll out of bed 20 minutes before you get to church, who stay up late on Saturday night, who think and live like a lost person right up until you walk through the door, should not expect all that much out of these services. There is a preparation for the heart that must take place first.
Before we take a major test in school, we study. Before we have to make a presentation at work, we review our notes. Before we play sports, we have to warm-up. Why should we think that coming to church would not require any spiritual preparation? So what kinds of things should we be doing to prepare for the Lord’s Day? I’m sure you might be able to think of more than I did, but here a four practical things you can do before Sunday to help prepare you for the day:
1.1. Rest long enough Saturday night to be alert and hopeful Sunday morning.
1 Corinthians 6:12, “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything.” I am not laying down any law here. But, I am saying there are Saturday night ways that ruin Sunday morning worship. Don’t be enslaved by them. Without sufficient sleep, our minds are dull, our emotions are flat, our proneness to depression is higher, and our fuses are short. My advice (which I learned from someone else) is to decide when you must get up on Sunday in order to have time to eat, get dressed, pray and meditate on the Word, prepare the family, and travel to church, and then compute backward eight hours and be sure that you are in bed 15-20 minutes before that.
I especially exhort parents to teach teenagers that Saturday is NOT the night to stay out late with friends. If there is a special late night, make it Friday. It is a terrible thing to teach children that worship is so optional that it doesn’t matter if you are exhausted when you come.
1.2. Pray for your heart and mediate on God’s Word.
This picks up on what I just said a moment ago. In addition to the very practical advice of getting enough sleep, there is also the need to specifically prepare ourselves spiritually. Two issues to be concerned about is our heart and God’s word. The heart we need is a work of God. That’s why we pray for it. In Ezek 36:26, God promises, “I will give you a new heart.” Jer 24:7, he says, “I will give them a heart to know Me.” We should prepare our hearts for worship, at the very least, right before the service. Preferably, we should spend some time the night before as well. Regardless of when we do it, we should pray something like, “O Lord, give me a heart for you. Give me a good and honest heart. Give me a soft and receptive heart. Give me a humble and meek heart. Give me a heart that will grow the seed of the implanted Word. Give me a heart that will bear the fruit of righteousness.”
Along with being concerned for our heart, we should meditate on the Word of God. Psalm 34:8 says, “O taste and see that the LORD is good.” Sometimes when Melinda and I go out to eat, it’s been a busy day, and I haven’t eaten anything; dinner is my first meal. At first, I don’t feel that hungry, but then the appetizer or bread or whatever comes, and once I get something in my stomach, suddenly I realized now famished I am, and I’m not so indifferent when the meal comes. The Bible should stand as the centrality of the Sunday morning activities. So on Saturday night read some portion of your Bible, to help stir up a hunger for God. Let it be an appetizer for Sunday morning’s meal.
1.3. Purify your mind by turning away from worldly entertainment.
James 12:1, “Putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.” How can you expect to hear God’s word when you have filled yourself up with ideas and images shouldn’t be filling up your mind? Pastor John Piper says, “It astonishes me how many Christians watch the same banal, empty, silly, trivial, titillating, suggestive, immodest TV shows that most unbelievers watch. This makes us small and weak and worldly and inauthentic in worship. Instead, turn off the television on Saturday night and read something true and great and beautiful and pure and honorable and excellent and worthy of praise (Phil 4:8). Your heart will unshrivel and be able to feel greatness again.”
Sometimes non-sinful activities can distract us as well. I can be a news-junkie sometimes.I love listening to the news in the car, and I have to discipline myself to not listen to the radio on the way into church in the morning. Some people wake up with the newspaper. Others do housework in the morning, play video games, or watch television. Let me encourage you to lay aside all of that until after church. There is nothing wrong with those things, but they are unhelpful on Sunday morning. They cause us to be preoccupied.Instead, fill your minds with the good things of God. Remember his blessings in your life. Remember your salvation. Remember his calling on your life.
One of the Daily Bread devotionals tells the story of a Japanese emperor who lived several centuries ago. He commissioned an artist to paint a picture of a bird. A number of months passed, then several years, and still no painting was brought to the palace. Finally the emperor became so exasperated that he went to the artist’s home to demand an explanation. Instead of making excuses, the artist placed a blank canvas on the easel. In less than an hour, he completed a painting that was to become a brilliant masterpiece. When the emperor asked the reason for the delay, the artist showed him armloads of drawings of feathers, wings, heads, and feet. Then he explained that all of this research and study had been necessary before he could complete the painting. Now, coming to church does not require years of study, but it does require preparation. It is not something you just show up and do on Sunday mornings. But being prepared is not without reward. Being prepared allows us to be receptive to God’s work in our lives.
2. Participate in the Lord’s Day
Remember we saw that Paul exhorts his reads to put on “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” as well as “love.” That was the preparation, but preparation for what?verse 13, “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other.” All the while, Paul says, “let the peace of Christ dwell in you richly.” This is part of the interaction that should occur among God’s people on Sundays. When you talk with the people in your Bible Study class, or next to you in the pew, are you:
- Compassionate – are you genuinely concerned for the welfare of others, or do you just like to spread gossip in the form of a prayer request?
- Kind – kindness is connected to compassion. St. Augustine, the great church father, was not always a saint by any stretch. Much of his adult life he spent in behavior which we would hardly condone. And his friends talked him into going to Rome and then on to Milan to hear the greatest orator in the church, a man named Ambrose, who was the Bishop in the city of Milan. When Augustine first went, he said that Ambrose’s preaching really didn’t impress him that much. In fact, he said if this is the best the church has to offer, the church doesn’t have very many good orators. But he also said that Ambrose’s kindness to him was such that it overcame his lack of estimation of his preaching ability. And it was Ambrose’s kindnesses to Augustine that led Augustine to listen to his preaching, even after his friends had long gotten bored and gone back to Rome. And of course that led to Augustine’s conversion to Christ. Kindness, Paul says, is something that you are to put on.
- Humble – how much humility comes through in how you treat others?
- Meek – do you think of others before yourself, or stand up for your rights?
- Patient – do you acknowledge that some people are less mature than you? are you patient with them?
- Loving – do you love your neighbor as yourself?
More than this though, Paul also says that you should, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (3:16). Paul assumes that we will have more than a casual attitude towards the Scriptures – the word of Christ; instead, it will be our life, and that should come out in our relationships.
What we see is that our primary focus on these Sunday mornings is not fellowship, not entertainment, not the punching of a religious time card, but teaching. Yes, fellowship is important, but true, biblical fellowship will only flow from true, biblical teaching. That is, the right proclamation and application of God’s word. This is primary a time to reflect on, sing about, and be instructed by God’s Word. So, the question for us is, “how do we do that?”
2.1. Bear one another without grumbling and criticism.
It is said that the famous preacher John Wesley had to deal one lady who lived to criticize all that she could. One Sunday he noticed that she did nothing but stare at his new tie the entire time.At the end of the service, she said, “Mr. Wesley, the string on your bow are too long; they are offensive to me.” Wesley asked around the ladies if any had a pair of scissors. When a pair was produced, she told the lady to trim the streamers to a less offensive length. After she had cut them nearly to the knot, she handed the scissors back. Mr. Wesley then asked her, “are they alright now?” Yes, answered. Good, he said, “I’m sure you wouldn’t mind if I gave you a bit of correction. I don’t want to be cruel, but I must tell you, madam, that your tongue is an offense to me – it’s too long! Please stick it out; I’d like to take some off!” No one likes unjust, or nitpicky criticism. But more than, Psalm 106:25 speaks of Israel and says, “They grumbled in their tents; they did not listen to the voice of the LORD.” If you’re grumbling in your heart, you also grieving the Spirit; and if you are grieving the Spirit, you surely are not listening to him. Sunday morning grumbling and controversy and quarreling can ruin a worship service.
When there is something you are angry about or some conflict that you genuinely think needs to be talked about, bear with it. Of course if you are clearly the problem and need to apologize, do it as quickly as you can (Matthew 5:23-24). But if you are fuming because of children or spouse delinquency, forebear, that is, be slow to anger and quick to listen (James 1:19). In worship open yourself to God’s exposing the log in your own eye. It may be that all of you will be humbled and chastened so that no conflict is necessary.
2.2. Be meek and teachable when you come.
Since this is primarily a teaching time, “be meek and teachable when you come.” James says that “in meekness [we are to] receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.” Meekness and teachability are not gullibility. You have your Bible and you have your brain. Use them! But if we come with a chip on our shoulder and a suspicion of the preaching week after week, we will not hear the Word of God. Meekness is a humble openness to God’s truth with a longing to be changed by it.
2.3. Focus on God, thinking earnestly about what is sung and prayed and preached.
Don’t check your brain during the music, during the prayers, and during the preaching. Notice first that Paul says that it is during the singing that you are to teach each other. More than just taking time to learn new songs, we try to take care in what we sing. Our songs should teach us about God just as much as preaching. They’re not for our entertainment. It also means that you should sing out! Teach others about loving Christ by proclaiming him in song. More than that though, listen to the praying. When someone prays publicly, they are praying on behalf of the entire congregation. That means, they are praying on your behalf. They should not come thoughtlessly to the prayer time, neither should you. The one praying should have thought about what is to be said, not because they are trying to impress people, but because they are trying to edify people. In 1 Cor 14:20 he also says, “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” Likewise Timothy is told, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim 2:7). Anything worth hearing is worth thinking about. If you’re going to take time to listen, think about what you are listening to.
Finally, we should be aware that preaching is the most important part of the service. I say that, not because I’m a preacher; the importance of preaching has nothing to do with personality or stature of the preacher, and everything to do with the authority and power of God’s Word. When God’s word is preached to us, in a real sense, God himself is speaking to us. We cannot simply be passive observers. We must do our best to engage and hear the message being proclaimed.
Like anything else, listening to preaching is an act of worship and it must be done so accordingly. As Jesus said in Luke 8, “take care then how you hear.” bring your Bible, keep it open, jot down some notes. Listen for God’s voice and his instruction for your life. Ultimately, we are responsible for the truth we have heard regardless of whether or not it moved us emotionally. If you’re brave, you will think about that sentence this week.
3. Profit from the Lord’s Day
The point here is simple – what happens on the Lord’s Day worship service should carry over into your life. It is important that you benefit from the teaching and encouragement you receive on the Lord’s Day. Don’t just come, listen, and leave unchanged. The benefit of the Lord’s Day gathering comes in your obedient response.
James 1:22-25 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.  For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.  For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.  But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
I suggest at least two activities towards that end:
3.1. Think through personal application
This is why taking notes can be helpful. Come Monday morning, can you remember what was said so that you can review it in your mind, looking back over key scripture passages, and trying to make further application to your life? That is how we are supposed to respond to the preaching of God’s word – allowing it to take hold in our lives.
3.2. Talk about broad and specific application with your family
Many parents are looking for ways to talk about the Bible with their kids. Most families are together for the worship service. Talk about what you heard! Review the main points and think about how the family as a whole can be change by the message. Likewise, parents should help their children or teens think through how the message directly applies to them.
I frequently hear the criticism, “we can’t live how you expect and still be considered normal.” The problem with that is the definition of normal. The world isn’t normal by God’s standards. He is the creator of reality, so regardless of what society says or views as normal, we must consider what God thinks is normal. That rings true for all of life, but especially, what we do with the Lord’s Day.
I think we regularly forget what church is all about. I think we forget why we gather with God’s people on Sunday mornings. Joshua Harris helps reminds us why. Remembering his words will help us come to love the Lord’s day:
“When you walk into church, remember the eternal significance of what you’re joining. You are gathering with the people of God. You’ve come to worship God, and He will be present by His Holy Spirit. As the meeting starts, remember that you’re not here to be entertained. You’re not part of an audience – you’re part of a congregation. You stand before the Audience of One. What matters isn’t whether you have a good voice, or whether you like the song or the style of music being played. What matters isn’t even what you feel. Worshipping with song is a chance to sing truth and express praise and gratefulness to God. So don’t live by your feelings in this moment. Instead, focus your mind on the truth of what you sing and Person to whom you’re singing. God is observing and receiving your worship. In light of the wonderful, gracious God he is, give it your all!”