One of the paramount reasons for ancient Israel's departure from the way of the Lord was their constant inability to distinguish between the sacred and the common. On numerous occasions, such as the experience of Nadab and Abihu with the strange fire and that of Uzzah with the ark, God's punishment for a disregard of this distinction between the sacred and secular was swift and terrible. Today God's people are in danger of following a similar pattern of confusing the holy and the profane in the very worship service that should lead the minds of God's people heavenward.
The eleven o'clock hour on Sabbath morning should be forever separate from the common and mundane affairs of this life. When we as a people meet on the Sabbath, it is to worship and adore the most holy God. Let us never forget or subordinate that supreme objective. In this fast-paced age of off-the-cuff bantering, we may be inadvertently catching some of the same spirit that pervades the world. We may find ourselves carelessly coming into the presence of our Creator with the casual air of an ordinary gathering, unconsciously referring to secular matters during the hour when our minds should be dominated solely by the sacred.
A Typical Sabbath Service
All too frequently Sabbath services proceed something like this:
The organist has been playing soft music that directs our minds toward heaven and creates a worshipful atmosphere. The minister and the elders come on the platform and kneel before the congregation. This is the hour, the one hour out of the entire week, that is specifically devoted to a united worship of the Lord our God. With the singing of the doxology and offering of the invocation we feel that the divine service is under way. Our minds so far have been in the right channel and we are in a worshipful attitude. But wait—the minister has a few words of announcement. Suddenly in one fell swoop our minds, as a rule, are directed back to the realities of routine existence. It may be church work, but our thinking has suddenly shifted gears.
"Now, brethren, we need a crew of twenty strong men to help with some scrubbing next Tuesday night," the minister says with an encouraging smile.
Quickly our minds are thrust forward to Tuesday night. What are we doing on that evening? Not only does "Tuesday night" have a connotation, but "scrubbing" has several as well; and in a matter of seconds the congregation may be thinking of as many different weekday duties as there are pews in the church.
But this type of procedure on Sabbath morning never seems to stop there. It inevitably calls for a show of hands, and in the smaller churches there is almost always some sort of two-way conversation between the person behind the sacred desk and a distant member somewhere in the congregation. Sometimes this sort of thing becomes lengthy and involved and can become so absurd and ludicrous that the sacredness of the hour is forever lost down the sidetrack of common conversation.
The minister, not having checked before Sabbath, makes a request from some church officer: "Brother Jones, will you see to it that there are plenty of brushes on hand for Tuesday night?" whereupon Brother Jones arises from the rear pew and announces forcefully over the congregation's heads that on Tuesday evening he will be busy with a plastering job and cannot be responsible.
This calls for further delay and much more discussion. By now the minds of all are far, far removed from the service of God. The young folks, seeing that the eleven o'clock hour is not really going so well anyway, have begun whispering about what they will do as soon as the sun goes down, if not before.
Finally all the announcements have been "made" and the minister is seated. Then one of the local elders stands up with this usual bit of irony:
"Shall we continue our worship by the use of hymn number 588."
This sort of unnecessary talk is certainly not isolated. Not only do we often lose the spirit of true worship but the sad fact is that some of our members have never even seen a worshipful service conducted. Secular conversations in both pulpit and pews continue Sabbath after Sabbath. Instruction in the dignity of worship is greatly needed.
The Dignity of Worship
This may seem to exclude the larger churches where strict adherence to dignified form is followed, but here again is found the mixing of the sacred and the secular. Sandwiched in between the invocation and the opening hymn are the announcements, which at times actually rob God's people of the spiritual food for the hour. (The writer has witnessed on several occasions a forty-five minute promotional program with a ten-to-twelve minute preaching of the Word.) It seems almost an insult to the intelligence of the congregation to repeat items already printed in the bulletin. If they are of such vital importance as to make the bulletin in the first place, the congregation will read them. The average person has virtually devoured everything in the announcement section prior to the service anyway.
Whatever the announcement, whatever the promotion, let it be remembered that this is the hour of worship, and nothing should be allowed to detract from the spirit of worship created by the invitation of the presence of God. In the writer's opinion all such announcements that are considered necessary and appropriate to Sabbath thought should be given before the service begins, and then with great care and selection. There is usually a period between Sabbath school and the church service when, after all are seated, there is ample time to make any and all announcements. If the minister thinks that more than fifteen minutes should be allotted, let him remember the fact that by then he has already lost the effectiveness of any further explanations. He has defeated his purpose and the people are weary with the waiting. In churches where this practice of having the announcements precede the worship service is actually followed, it seems to me that there is a marked increase in reverence and respect for the divine service.
If we are to teach our children the difference between the sacred and the secular, we must be able to distinguish it ourselves. How can our children grasp the meaning of a high and holy God when they see us come into His presence with such disrespect and irreverence? We shake our heads sorrowfully as we see them leaving the church in their youth, little realizing that we have laid the groundwork for this disregard of the sacred in the very service that should have been an example to them.
Let us ever keep the Sabbath service sacred, and when the hour arrives and the ministers enter, may it be truly said that "The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him."