Teaching Our Children (and Helping Ourselves): A Visible Theology of Worship

Mike WillbanksCommunity News

You don’t need to be a parent to know that kids learn more from watching and imitating than they do from simply listening to what we tell them.  They watch and imitate. It’s the old “Monkey see, monkey do” thing.   Sometimes this can be funny… other times it can be frightening!  Which bad habits did you pick up by watching your parents?  If you’re a parent, you probably know the embarrassment of seeing your kids pick up your mannerisms, your bad language, your anger, etc.  Kids are watching and learning all the time – even when we’re not thinking about what we’re teaching them!

Not long ago I asked myself, what are my kids learning about the nature and importance of corporate worship?  Certainly we can give our kids verbal instruction about what the Scriptures say regarding who God is, how we worship, why we pray, etc.  But the most direct and substantive instruction they get about God and prayer and worship is not what they hear, but what they see in our lives.  If they hear me only offer a rote prayer before dinner each night, they will be led to believe that prayer is, more than anything, a ritual.  If they observe a church full of people who sing half-heartedly on Sundays, they will be led to believe that corporate worship is more about going through the motions and sitting still than it is about offering ourselves fully to God.

I want my kids to understand that God is worthy of deep and heart-felt worship and wants all of who we are.  He desires whole-hearted devotion from his children!  We all know that if kids don’t observe us living out what we profess to believe, they will conclude (rightfully) that we don’t really believe what we profess.  In the same way, children – and visitors for that matter – can observe whether what we do when we gather for corporate worship really moves us.

Of course, worship is much more than what happens on Sundays when the church gathers!  But what happens when the church family gathers is important.  It speaks to how we think of the church and the importance of corporate worship.  (If you arrive late, and leave early, what does that say about how the relational component of church life is valued?)

Worship is, first and foremost, a matter of the heart.  But it is impossible to divorce our hearts from our bodies.  (Does it ever strike you as odd to see a worship leader who never smiles while singing about our joy and hope in God?)  While our goal is not to look a certain way as we worship God, the Jewish people of the Old Testament certainly understood the close relationship our bodies have to our hearts.  So the people were not only instructed to be joyful and reverent as they came together to worship God, they were encouraged to shout and bow down and lift their hands and cry out. These physical activities in worship can not only express what is going on in our hearts, but also help put our hearts in the right place.  At the same time, it serves the community as a visual aid reminding us all of God’s worthiness of our whole-hearted and whole-bodied devotion.

Practical suggestions:

1.  During the week, set aside regular time for private worship.  The measure to which we’re able to enter into joyful, reverent worship with the church is in large part determined by how much time we’ve spent during the week setting our mind and heart on God.  Have you noticed how difficult it is to have a meaningful time of worship on Sunday if you’ve been lacking in personal time with the Lord during the week?  On the other hand, if you’ve spent Monday through Saturday feeding your mind with the Scriptures, humbling yourself before God in prayer, serving the needs of others in the name of Christ, worship with the family of God will be all the richer, enabling you to enter in more fully in both mind and body.

2. Show your kids (or your friends) how important corporate worship is by planning your day around it.  It can be difficult – both physically and mentally – to make the transition from a busy day into a worship service.  Give yourself (and any others coming with you) time to make the transition.  Do what you need to do to get there 15 minutes early.  That way you can spend time greeting people, finding a seat, checking little kids into their Sunday school rooms, and preparing yourself to mentally focus on praising God.  I fear that for many of us, the first 15 minutes of the worship service is the transition time when we’re not yet ready to give our hearts and our minds to what we’re doing.  All of us need time to change gears mentally!  Give yourself that time before the service so that you can be ready from the start.

3.  Strive to mentally engage throughout our whole time together.  This may seem obvious, yet it is so easy to indulge a wandering mind.  Keep yourself on track as far as you are able.  When you find yourself mentally wandering, come back quickly!  Train yourself to think about what you are singing.  Consider taking some notes during the sermon – talking points to be used later with your friends or family.

4.  Love God with your body!  I know that we all express ourselves in different ways.  Some of us are less emotive and expressive than others, and that’s just fine.  But I’ve noticed that I allow myself a fuller range of expression in the course of everyday life than I do during corporate worship.  Is that true of you too?  Why is this?  Could it be that I am thinking about how others may perceive me?  Or that I am just untrained in expressing my joy and reverence to God with my body?  Whatever the case, I pray that we may all gain the heart of David, a man who was not afraid to express with his body what was in his heart.  In so doing, may we become visual signs to one another of the greatness of our God, a visible theology of worship that will elicit the response, “God is really among you!”  (1 Corinthians 14:25)