What did you do to prepare for church last week? You may think this is an irrelevant question if you’re not a pastor or service leader, but church shouldn’t be just another leisure activity on our calendar. God has given us a crucial mandate: to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19). We can be better disciples—and disciple-makers—if we give careful thought to how we meet together.
Paul’s letters to various first-century churches help us understand the purpose of gathering together as God’s people. He describes what our communal life should look like: we come to worship God, to hear his Word preached, and to love his family. How can we prepare well for each of these duties?
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. (Col 3:16-17)
Paul urges us to consider our whole lives as worship—and our weekly gathering is a unique opportunity to do this communally. If my mind has been far from God all day, I can’t expect to suddenly switch to ‘worship mode’ when I walk through the church doors. Our hearts aren’t wired that way.
I’ve found it beneficial to set aside Sunday as a Sabbath. This keeps my mind free from the unfinished to-do list and creeping deadlines. I also avoid vegging out in front of the television—I can’t ponder eternity when the capacity of my mind has shrunk to the size of a screen. My Sundays are for reading, prayer and praise, rest, long baths, and seeing friends and family. Of course there are occasional weeks where this doesn’t happen, but making it the norm has trained me to get essential work finished before Sunday rolls around.
The most important thing you can do to prepare for church is to spend time with God through Bible reading and prayer. Meeting corporately doesn’t mean we should neglect our personal devotions. On Sundays, I can devote more time to this discipline than on any other day—and then come to church with a heart already oriented towards worship.
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:14-17)
There’s a good reason why sermons should be the centrepiece of our church services: the whole congregation is built up in faith together by listening to God’s word preached. My pastor often encourages us to read the sermon passage ahead of time; the text for the next week is printed in our news bulletin. If the sermon is part of a series, you might also look over your previous notes to remind you of what has come before.
Clearing my mind of lingering tasks is essential for me to focus during the sermon. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re trying to remember to check in with your Bible study co-leader after the service, say hi to your friend who hasn’t been at church for a few weeks, and grab the youth group forms from the office. Write it all down so it’s not stealing your attention from what’s important.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Phil 2:3-4)
Spend some time before the service thinking and praying about where you’re going to sit. If this seems excessive, read the excellent little book How to Walk into Church by Tony Payne. He challenges every church member to consider why they are there and how they can best build up the body of Christ.
As a sacrifice of love, be willing to give up your favourite spot in order to sit with someone else. You may not firmly decide who to sit with before arriving, but you can make a plan—will you sit with someone new each week, go straight for the unfamiliar face, or support a friend who’s going through a hard time?
Do whatever you can to be at church on time. If you’re slipping in late it’s much harder to make a loving decision about where to sit—you’re likely to go for the nearest seat to avoid drawing attention to yourself. Think also about who you’ll talk to after the service. I share the temptation to talk to my friends straight away, but there’s probably someone in your congregation who could use encouragement, prayer or just a friendly chat.
Your preparation for Sunday may not look exactly (or anything) like this. I go to an evening service and don’t have kids; whatever our circumstances are, we should think through how we can spend time truly loving and serving each other and God at church.
God’s grace is powerful. He works regardless of our distraction and selfishness and lack of preparation. However, for the sake of your brothers and sisters—and the glory of Jesus Christ—be prayerful and proactive. Church is not a spectator sport—limber up before you start. Consider yourself a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1) and kill your desire for church to be all about what makes you comfortable.