Worship for the Weary
by Tim Pauls
I’m all for hearty praise, good feelings and new insight in worship, but if these are lacking, it doesn’t mean the service is a bust.
I offer the hypothetical of a parishioner who is fighting cancer. Given his illness and the withering effects of chemotherapy, he’s low on energy of all kinds. He feels no joy and dozes during the sermon. But then he receives the Lord’s Supper, and so he goes home confident that he remains a forgiven child of God. For one near death, there’s no better assurance.
Replace that hypothetical with the grieving new widow or parents trying to teach small children to sit still in the pew. For all sorts of reasons, Christians are weary bunch. They’re tempted or prevented from focusing in worship as they should, but because of the Lord’s work in His Word and Sacraments, they can still be certain that He forgives them.
A recent article entitled “Survey: Half of churchgoer’s lives not affected by time in pews” summarized a study in which 46 percent of churchgoing Americans reported that their lives have not changed due to their church attendance. Additionally, only 44 percent feel God’s presence in church every week, and a full 60 percent could not remember a significant new insight from their last visit to church. The article describes this as “a finding sure to disappoint pastors.”
Personally, I’m more concerned about the survey. Its methodology and specific questions aren’t available, nor are its results particularly useful. Consider those who complain of little insight: It’s quite possible they are hearing poor preaching. But it’s equally possible that many don’t consider good preaching to be insightful because they’re looking for another message.
Or consider those who apparently don’t feel God’s presence every week. In many churches, a sense of God’s presence is reduced to emotional feeling, as in, “I feel Jesus in my heart.” But God isn’t present because we feel Him. He’s present because He says He’s in His means of grace, whether we feel Him or not.
Remember the hypothetical cancer patient, widow and young parents I mentioned before. Because of their circumstances, all would likely say their lives hadn’t changed because of worship; they didn’t feel God’s presence, and they derived little new insight. But all of them could also say that they were certain that God was present and that they were forgiven there. It is certain because God says so, not because they feel it. What comfort!
I remember a mother remarking, “With little kids, I don’t hear much between the Invocation and the Benediction, but thanks to the Supper, I know I’ve received forgiveness.” God grant to preachers sermons that are packed with insightful Law and Gospel, and God grant to churchgoers freedom from distractions and thirst for the pure Word. But where matters are less than ideal because of sin or circumstance, God grant faith that acknowledges His presence and grace anyway, according to His promises. There’s no better comfort for the weary.