Christian worship is a discipline, not a fun experience

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In January, I joined a gym and signed up for personal training.

My previous personal attitude to strenuous physical activity could be summed up by this awesome t-shirt slogan, “No Pain, No Pain,” but now in my mid-thirties you might say I have lost some of my fire, which honestly never burned too hot to begin with. I worked out every now and then in college, always stopping when my biceps and waistline started to show the first signs of improvement. I owe it to myself and my family to make lasting changes this time around, and as a Christian I really have no other choice. It is a sin not to take care of my body as I should, and it is a sin that I am particularly inclined to condone in myself.

I will not lie. Sometimes I really hate working out. I don’t like to wake up early. Completing each exercise puts my patience to the test. And even though it gets better over time, I still feel like I’m punishing myself.

My trainer, Ryan, is probably the nicest person in the world – seriously the guy is a real prince – but most of the time I’m not crazy about him either.

But it’s good for me. I know he is. So I keep going.

And a funny thing starts to happen. It gets better. I feel stronger. I have more energy for the people and the work that I love. My mind is also clearer and sharper. Hopefully when it comes time for my annual physical exam in a few months, there will be more evidence of positive effects on my health from the workout, combined with my other resolution to stop eating so much shit.

It’s the same with worship. We go there because we need it. The gifts that Jesus offers us in the liturgy are to our great advantage, so much so that living a healthy Christian life apart from them is impossible. Some people who call themselves Christians want you to believe otherwise. They tell you that worship is personal. Whether you need to find the style of worship that works best for you, gives you good feelings about Jesus, and allows you to express yourself. They are wrong. They tell you a lie that defies Bible teaching and 2000 years of church history. What the liturgy offers you is something you cannot get by being in nature, playing golf, or paying off your weekly sleep debt.

The fact that I even need to say that suggests it’s not that easy. If worship constantly made us feel good, entertained us, and responded directly to our felt needs, churches would be jam-packed. But that’s not how it works. It takes a lot from you to do historical and liturgical Christian worship. You have to pray about things that seem foreign. You have to sing music that is different from what you hear anywhere else. You must continually humble yourself and admit your complete trust in God.

Hopefully, as the discipline of worship is cultivated in us, things will get a little easier. The act of physically bringing your tired carcass to the church building will become a habit. The patterns of prayer practiced on Sunday will bear fruit in your personal acts of devotion and worship. By the grace of God, he will create in you an awareness of the wonderful salvation offered by his Son.

Sometimes you will find that you like the liturgy. The beauty of the refined tongue will resonate. The weekly gospel proclamation will overwhelm you. That’s fine, but be careful anyway! These feelings do not legitimize discipline and should always be subject to your will. Whatever our emotions tell us, we must always approach the liturgy with sobriety and seriousness.

This is the real danger in the entertainment, the pop-cult church. They do all they can to awaken good feelings in you through their music and their charismatic leaders so that the feelings take your will captive. But experiencing an emotional high is not worship, and you should stay away from any place that tries this approach. They probably don’t even realize it, but they are manipulating you.

Seriously! Leave them behind and go!

Find a church that is in fact historically liturgical; find one that has both the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. If your church looks like a Jesus rock concert, you’ve got to find a new one. If this is a country club atmosphere without real seriousness in the gospel and the liturgy, you must find a new one. If they are all about righteousness but never about the gospel of Jesus, you have to find a new one. If they meet your tastes with a bunch of diverse cult “styles”, you’ve got to find a new one. It is not earlier. You are not getting any younger. It won’t be any easier than it is today. Stop looking for an emotional experience and start cultivating some discipline.

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