By Mark Atteberry
Recently, my wife, Marilyn, and I went to a Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ game. Shortly after we settled into our seats, four young men filed in and sat in front of us. Before the game started, one of the men turned around and struck up a conversation. He told us he was really excited because he’d never seen an NFL game in person.
He still hasn’t.
We marveled at how he got caught up in everything except the game. He must have gone to buy food and beer a dozen times, which, of course, led to several more trips to the restroom. He talked to his buddies, checked out every shapely female that passed by, and got emotionally caught up in an effort to get the “wave” started.
At one point, the crowd roared when the Bucs completed a pass down to the 3-yard line. He whipped his head around and said, “What happened?”
I hate to admit it, but I have made exactly the same mistake, not at a sporting event, but at church. I, too, have allowed myself to get so caught up in the “goings on” that I missed the whole point of being there, which is to worship. In fact, as a preacher, I find this to be a constant battle.
Good Intentions Gone Awry
Don’t get me wrong. I always go to church with the best of intentions. Because I head to the building so early on Sunday morning, I usually make the six-mile drive alone and pray the whole way. When I get to my office, the building is deserted and quiet, and I’m able to make some final adjustments to my heart and mind. At that point, I’m ready to worship.
And then the action starts.
The worship team arrives, and we do a quick run-through and sound check. Then we have a preservice meeting of all the stage personnel. We talk through the service and pray, sometimes making an on-the-fly adjustment because someone called in sick.
When I walk out of that room, I start encountering people. There are handshakes and hugs galore. I get caught up in little conversations, most of which are light and pleasant. But there’s always someone who’s in the middle of a crisis and wants to tell me all about it. As I’m trying to listen, people are walking by, saying hi, slapping me on the shoulder, or shaking my hand.
When I’m finally able to move on, I look across the auditorium and see someone who hasn’t been to church in a while. I’m excited and want to say hi. On my way, I get intercepted by someone who hands me a note. I open it and see that one of our members is scheduled to have major surgery the next morning. I fold the note and stick it in my pocket, knowing there’s only a fifty-fifty chance I’ll remember it’s in there. When I finally reach the person I want to talk to, he launches into a long explanation of why he hasn’t been to church in so long. I nod sympathetically, while keeping one eye on the countdown clock. With 30 seconds to go, I excuse myself and head for the stage.
I play sax through the first set, and then sit down. As the music continues, latecomers are still filing in. I notice a family coming in that has been in our church for years. They know what time we start, and yet they always seem to be 15 to 20 minutes late. I wonder if they can tell time. I wonder if they own a clock. I wonder if they’re always this late for work or school. I wonder how they’d like it if I showed up 20 minutes late for their daughter’s wedding.
Oops! The music is ending and now it’s time for me to preach. I jump up and do my thing. At the end, during the invitation (yes, we still invite people to accept Christ), I see two teenagers talking and laughing and have an overwhelming desire to wring their precious little necks. In the name of Jesus, of course.
When I sit down after preaching, my mind goes into “critique mode.” I fight this tooth and nail. I know I should not be critiquing my sermon delivery while the Communion meditation is being offered. But if there’s a point that didn’t come out just right or a joke that bombed, I often find myself going back over it in my mind and resolving to fix it in the second service.
Soon the speaker is wrapping up his Communion meditation. What was it he said? Something about photo albums and memories? That sounds like a cool idea, so I commit myself to listening more closely in the next service.
As the Communion trays are passed, I hear someone talking behind me, or I hear a baby cry and wonder if there’s a family that doesn’t know about our nursery, or I think about a friend who is struggling and wonder if he made it to church today. After thanking Jesus for giving his life for me, I make a mental note to call that friend on Monday if I don’t see him at one of our services.
Finally, the service is over. I say the closing prayer and head for the lobby to greet people as our jazzy worship band wails up a storm. People seem happy, some are complimentary, I meet a few first-timers, and all seems well.
But is it?
More Like Martha?
At that point, am I any different from the fellow who went to the stadium but missed the football game? Sure, I was “in” church, but did I worship?I did my job. I probably even did some good. But did I worship?
I hate to reveal this weakness in myself, but I decided it might be helpful because I suspect this is a problem for a lot of ministry professionals. Because of our responsibilities, our place at the center of what’s going on, and our tendency to focus on mechanics, we may well be the worst worshipers in the church. Like Martha, who was flustered and irritated, clanging the pots and pans in the kitchen while her sister Mary was seated at Jesus’ feet, we undoubtedly let some wonderful opportunities to connect with the Lord slip right through our fingers.
Allow me to offer a simple suggestion.
Next Sunday morning when you pray, go ahead and ask God to help you articulate your sermon or your Sunday school lesson well. Ask him to open the heart and mind of that person you’ve been counseling so that he might finally “get it.” Ask him to help you smile and say hello to the busybody who has been stabbing you in the back. Pray about whatever is on your heart. But before you say “amen” and charge out the door to be Superman or Wonder Woman, ask God to help you do the thing you would expect every other Christian to do: worship.
Recently, I offered a prayer that went something like this: “Lord, there’s a lot of stuff going on here this morning that I’m concerned about. Could you just keep an eye on things for a couple of hours so I can worship you? I don’t want my worship to be empty or robotic. I don’t want to be a person who honors you with his lips, but whose heart is far away. I love you, and I want you to see it in the way I worship you.”
That morning, I had the best worship experience I’d had in a long time.
The next time you go to church, you may be in the center of the action. You may do a lot of good. Still, when it’s all over you need to ask yourself a question: “But did I worship?”
Mark Atteberry has served as senior minister with Poinciana Christian Church, Kissimmee, Florida, since 1989. He grew up in southern Illinois, married his wife, Marilyn, in 1975, and graduated from St. Louis Christian College in 1977.
He and his wife have one daughter, Michelle, and one granddaughter, Alyssa.
He has written six books, including Free Refill, The Samson Syndrome, and The 10 Dumbest Things Christians Do. His next book, So Much More Than Sexy! (Standard Publishing), will come out this year.
In addition to writing, he enjoys reading, speaking, traveling, watching sports, and listening to music.