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Maybe Timeliness is Next to Godliness

Tardiness to worship is like the common cold. Every church deals with it. It’s not the most serious malady facing us, yet it distracts us and drains us. And we have yet to find the cure.

I feel safe telling you all that my church family struggles to get to worship on time–because it’s like telling you that my children are sinners. No surprise, right? Every church has been there…every Sunday, probably. So here’s a shot at examining the problem from a Spiritual, Biblical perspective.

Preliminary #1–I’m not mad. Please know that I’m not writing this article out of frustration or to demean my lovely and committed church family but out of a sincere desire to think through this problem with you.

Preliminary #2–I realize that some will say the importance of being on time is culturally determined and not Biblically determined, that churches in Africa don’t worry about this at all. This is somewhat true, but realize this: we live in this Western civilization and can’t escape the strictures of our culture just by pointing at them. Being on time is culturally important, so we who live in this culture must value it as well.

Preliminary #3–Life is messy and things happen. This is about patterns of tardiness or promptness, not just that one time you had a flat tire on the way to worship. Or the time I hit my car with my van while backing out of the garage, fifteen minutes from the start of service.

The Problem: Why lateness to worship is a problem serious enough to address

Being on time communicates respect. If you and I have a regular meeting and you are always five or ten minutes late, I will eventually take it personally. Perhaps it won’t be the first or second time (everyone has bad hair days) but maybe the third time. Tardiness communicates a lack of sincere interest in the meeting or the person. Can it be any less so with God?

If the heart of worship is exalting God’s worth-ship, we’ve almost lost before we’ve begun when we show up late, communicating with our lateness the opposite of what we sing with our songs.

Being late to worship can only hurt your worship. Worshiping well is hard work. Rewarding, to be sure, but difficult nonetheless. It requires concentration, willfully opening our ears, minds and hearts to God and His Word, and exercising faith to shake off the cobwebs of worldliness in order to focus on Jesus. Singing Psalms well sometimes means a few different mental processes at the same time!

For most of us, being late causes stress and distraction. If we’re with family or in a group, it often causes disunity–even if that disunity is well-masked by years of practice. These are forces that actively work against us doing worship well. As if Satan needed an ally in that battle. Conversely, we can pray and act with John Calvin, who prayed, “My heart I offer you, Lord, sincerely and promptly.”

Being late to worship can’t help anyone else’s worship. A final reason to take this issue seriously is our Biblical call to care deeply for one another (Jn. 13:34-35). If worshiping well is a challenge for you, it is no less so for your brothers and sisters in the church. Many of them purposefully arrive early to have time to collect themselves, gather their children into the pew and take a few minutes of much needed preparation. And although not everyone is distracted or discouraged by latecomers, some are. Keeping yourself from being a speed bump to others’ worship is reason enough to tackle the problem.

The Solutions: Spiritual truths and practical help

Realize the issue is a Spiritual one before it is a practical one. Have you ever wondered just why it is that your family has a hard time getting to worship on time but not getting to the school bus on time? Why are Sunday mornings so difficult? Isn’t it because we have an enemy, a prowling lion seeking to devour us any way he can, including keeping us from engaging in worship fully?

Make no mistake, Satan has a vested interest in your tardiness to worship. If he can’t keep you from worship, he can at least spoil your delight in God. He can do this by tempting you to anger at your family or self-centeredness in your worship. If we admit this is a Spiritual battle, we’ll begin in the right place by picking up the right weapons: prayerful reliance on Jesus through His Spirit.

Commit to the conviction. If you haven’t committed yourself and your family to valuing corporate worship as the most important part of your week, it has to be the starting point (Ps. 122 is a great place to start). If you haven’t wrestled with God’s call for you to honor the Lord’s Day, it needs to be the second place you go. Without these convictions, any attempts at promptness are likely either based in pride or doomed to fail (or both).

Toward this end, if you do struggle with tardiness and want to build or buttress your convictions, I suggest reading good books and getting counsel from your elders and others who do better than you in this area.

Discern your own (and your family’s) stumbling point. Each individual and family is unique. No one is going to have the exact same challenge on Sunday mornings (or Saturday nights). Take the time to figure out the problem before the problem. What causes you to be late? Is it lack of sleep? Is it too much sleeping in on Sunday morning? Is tardiness a problem at other times for you or not? Once you see what the stumbling blocks, begin to go on the offensive! Take steps to overcome the problems.

As an aside, we should realize that the these speed bumps could also point to idols in our life. If your lack of sleep on Saturday nights is due to watching movies or playing video games, consider which god your heart is really worshipping.

Be a team. First, be a team in your household. You’re in this together. You’ll all get to worship late or on time together. Fathers especially, work to cultivate the mindset of unity toward the goal. It’s easy to make it all about us, about not wanting to be embarrassed by tardiness. How can your family or household work together on Sunday mornings to make the whole Sabbath a delight to each person in the home?

Second, be a team in your congregation. Again, you’re in this together. Find someone you respect who can hold you accountable, pray for you and encourage you. We’re not in a competition to be the earliest or have the best behaved kids. We’re a family and, to a large degree, our worship will sink or swim together.

Finally, late is better than not at all. Every single pastor and every single church family I know would much rather worship with you late than not at all!

—–

So that’s it. Again, I realize this isn’t the most important problem facing Jesus’ bride. But it is a problem and one that, for His sake, should be dealt with honestly and lovingly. I would love to hear your thoughts, especially any practical tips you have for being on time to worship.

23 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mark Sampson #

    Prep work is very helpful. Keeping a “church bag” for the family or individuals in the family can help. Need to take something on Sunday? Put it in the church bag. No more searching for bibles or note books. Even things as simple as laying out clothing for kids (or for those of us who think checks and plaid go together) can save time in the morning.

    Fellowship meals can cause challenges too. Plan something that is simple and will not require tons of time on Mom’s part. Make the dish the night before so all you have to do is grab and go.

    December 8, 2011
  2. Rose #

    I am a “ten minutes early is on time” sort of person, but I have learned over the years that this is an issue of pride for me. I have been learning to let it go and to give up arguments like “this is an issue of respect.” I think people have problems with time management for a wide variety of reasons, and lack of respect barely shows on the radar. I think the most important one is that we were made for eternity and the time-bound temporal nature of this earth is alien to us. There are things folks can do to manage time better, but there are also things folks can do to redeem the time while they are waiting and to minimize distractions from late arrivals. The stress I feel when my family and I arrive late is mainly embarrassment about failing to meet the expectations of others combined with fear of incurring their judgement. We do not need to go along with our culture on this one, especially in our interaction with one another. This is an area where I need to be more concerned with the plank in my own eye than the speck in my brother’s eye. Learning to delight in the Sabbath and, specifically, in congregational worship, is not the same as learning to be on time. The two have only the flimsiest of connections.

    December 8, 2011
    • Jared Olivetti #

      Hi Rose,

      Thanks for your comment! I especially appreciate your first note about pride–especially for those who have no problem with tardiness. This is definitely something that could have been included in the article. I also agree that people who are early should work to minimize distractions to themselves and their family.

      Respectfully, I’d like to point out a couple differences I have with a few other things you said.

      The first is the issue of respect. I assume that folks who are late to church don’t have hatred or disrespect in their hearts toward their church family or God. But respect isn’t just what I feel, it’s also what you receive. I might not feel disrespect but if I act disrespectfully toward you, then it’s still disrespect. Intention is only part of the picture.

      Secondly, I don’t think I can agree that we were made to be outside of time (if I’m reading you right). Time and creation are inseparable, even time and the new creation. And though God is not bound by time, I will always be bound by time to some degree or another.

      As I noted in the article, I do think we need to go along with our culture on this one, especially because to do so involves showing respect and love to people in a way they can receive it.

      Also, I believe there is a connection between delighting in the Sabbath and worship and training ourselves for timeliness. It isn’t the most important connection, but it is simply a practical way we put our love for worship into practice.

      Finally, I so appreciate your note about taking the plank out of our own eyes. Amen! I sincerely hope this article is read by all in that light. It’s so easy to read something like this and think about the other people you wish would read it–rather than meditating on how each of us can improve ourselves by God’s grace in this area.

      Again, thank you for taking the time to comment. I hope my additional thoughts help to clarify and encourage.

      In Christ,
      Jared

      December 8, 2011
  3. Ram Rao #

    When we were vacationing in India in 2005, on the first Lord’s day, we found a small start-up reformed church in the city to worship with. On the second Lord’s day, we had a minor fender-bender on the way to church, and as a result were going to be at least 20 minutes late. We called the Pastor and told him we would be late. When we arrived at church, we learned they had delayed the start of the service 30 min on our account. Of course, when the church is small, and our family doubled the size of gathered worshippers, it is easy to do :)

    December 8, 2011
  4. It’s so true! and we humbly admit we are the worst in our congregation for prompt arrival. When we are harried and frustrated just getting into the car, we are not prepared to worship. Thank God we have 10 minutes to get our attitudes in check, but it is often not enough. On days like that I jokingly comment, “OUT OF OUR WAY, WE’RE TRYING TO GET TO CHURCH!” But in reality, this becomes our attitude when having to rush through the morning routine, then rush through traffic. Not so funny. I desperately try to salvage the day and turn our hearts toward God by praying and then we all sing Psalms or recite our memory verses. While this may be only an outward fix on some days, the Holy Spirit has used it to prepare us on other days. Unfortunately, our tardiness is not limited to church. Being a mother with delusions of grandeur and with several children who struggle with developmental and cognitive difficulties and behavioral issues when working with “deadlines”, it is a daily occurrence that I just deal with, albeit begrudgingly. And a habit that, in trying to overcome, causes great stress between me and the special needs children. We just haven’t yet adjusted to do what it takes to get us places with all the intricacies that have to happen to make it happen. Please pray for me, that I would lead the family by example and help my children understand the importance and joy of all aspects of preparation. We will take this to heart and are making a point to rectify this deficit of ours.

    December 8, 2011
    • Jared Olivetti #

      Hi Valerie!

      Thanks so much for your honest comment. God’s providence in your life certainly has given you more challenges than most face for timeliness. As a former special education teacher, my heart goes out to you for the daily, very hard work you put in just to get places. I hope this article was an encouragement and not a discouragement to you. I can only assume that your church family understands your situation and is glad to pray with you and be patiently loving toward your family. I will definitely pray for you in this.

      Thanks again for writing. I hope it will be an encouragement to others as well.

      Peace,
      Jared

      December 9, 2011
  5. As a pastor, my heart resonates with not only the content, but the tone expressed here.

    Rose, I appreciated your comment because I, like you, struggle with the pride of “always” being on time. I was raised with a father who always thought he could squeeze two more tasks into the time it took to do half-a-task, thus arriving late was almost a refined art for him. Since then, I’ve made it a discipline to leave plenty of time (ten-minutes early is on time is pretty much my rule of thumb as well). However, I pride myself on that ability… and this is sin.

    I’ll be seeking wisdom in knowing how to use this to address a shoddy sin (if I may describe it that way). My mother’s advice was always, “Start on time and show them you’ll not wait for the late-comers.” That’s easy with the worship service; not so easy with a Bible study or a Sunday School class––it’s hard to start when you’re the only one sitting there!

    Again, thanks for the words.

    December 9, 2011
  6. Rose #

    What do you think is meant, then, when it is said, “He has put eternity in our hearts”? I had figured that part of the struggle we all have with time, whether it “rushes by” or “drags on” has to do with the temporary condition we experience during the hairsbreadth of our lifetimes. We don’t know all that much about heaven, but is there anything that suggests eternity future will be delimited by deadlines and appointments?

    I agree that respect isn’t just what I feel; it is also what you receive. However, I think we all need to restrain ourselves from searching out evil, and taking offense when none has been given, and from insisting on what we believe belongs to us in order to serve our brothers. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Perhaps the elders, who typically have set the time for the meeting, might show more respect for the members of the congregation by choosing a time that works better for more families. I find it works well to have any “Sabbath school” scheduled before the congregational worship. It allows a “gathering time” during which the required focus is not so intense and the transition between home and public is eased. Usually the argument for having congregational worship earlier involves wanting to “get it done” so that members can make other plans for the rest of the day. I am more concerned about the lack of regard those with such attitudes show toward worship than the attitudes of those who “make a plan, but God directs (their) way.” Is our preoccupation with timeliness a subtle way that Satan tempts us to believe our lives belong to us and we are in control? That is what I see expressed in our culture. Schedules quickly become much more important and loved than people.

    I love the example Ram Rao shared.

    December 9, 2011
    • Jared Olivetti #

      Hi Rose,

      Thanks again for writing in; I really appreciate your thoughts and the opportunity to clarify my own.

      Here’s what I think about eternity, time and heaven: God has put eternity in our hearts, which I take (especially in the context of Ecclesiastes) to mean that mankind has an innate pull toward the heavenly, toward things that are Spiritual. I believe the souls (and heavenly bodies) of believers are eternal, in that they will have no ending point. But I also believe that time is a part of creation, both in the Garden of Eden and in the garden city of the New Jerusalem. Having said that, I gladly admit there is so much we don’t and can’t yet know about heaven! And I certainly don’t think our perfected life in heaven will be defined by deadlines and appointments, regardless of whether or not we have a schedule. Certainly it will be defined by God himself!

      And I absolutely agree with your main thoughts in the second paragraph. The elders doing everything they can to make sure worship timing is helpful and convenient for the people as a whole–amen! And certainly Satan can tempt us to pride or self-reliance when it comes to keeping a schedule. But also the Spirit given to us is a Spirit of love and self-control. The answer to such pride shouldn’t be getting rid of our schedule, but submitting it to God while repenting of our independent spirit. God’s plan is for us to be disciplined in our living–which, properly understood, should compliment a deep love for people, not contradict it.

      Again, thank you for taking the time to write.

      In Christ,
      Jared

      December 9, 2011
      • My wife is a Sabbath School teacher and with all the work she puts into preparation, she finds it very disrespectful when children come in late and parents pull them out early with no prior discussion with her. It’s disruptive, and undermines the learning experience. So I have much concern with the perspective that it’s acceptable to treat a Sabbath School period before the service as just more regrouping time.

        If I’m a “weaker brother” because I still get distracted by people coming in late, then the Scriptures are clear on the duty of the mature brothers to the weaker, so maybe seats should be reserved at the back of sanctuaries for those who come in late (which includes us sometimes).

        The Western commitment to respecting time reflects Christendom and the Christian transformation of culture. It is not a morally inconsequential matter such that other socieities that don’t care about time can be treated as morally equivalent on this point. They need to be redeemed on this point as Christian reformation impacts every area of life.

        Great original article, Jared.

        December 12, 2011
      • I would add that there is quite a detailed presentation of the expectations for Sabbath School in our tertiary standards – more detailed than I would like since I have problems with the Sabbath School model and the normalization of age-segregated ministry, but the fact is they are there, and it’s not our place as individual laymen or pastors to treat this ministry however we want because we’re a Presbyterian denomination, not a congregationalist operation, so if we’re really Presbyterian, we should hold our church standards in high regard in practise as well as in word – and if we don’t like them, we have an orderly process for pursuing change.

        December 12, 2011
      • This illlustrates how our belief in one area can impact our belief in other areas and, therefore, the importance for each of us of pursuing an logically consistent Biblical worldview, where what we think is Biblical in one area doesn’t contradict or undermine what we know to be Biblical in another area. If it does, that’s a red flag that may help us detect a blind spot.

        December 12, 2011
  7. Very nice article and thoughts about timeliness. I have, within this past year, come to “fall in love with the Lord’s Day”. When I made this transition in my heart, getting to church on time became much less of a problem. I usually start preparing my heart toward the end of the week to worship with the saints. I think of each one and where they sit so I can lift them up in prayer. I think of the building and the children and the Psalm singing and I look into the Word prior to coming to church because we get the bulletin on Saturday. This has been a real blessing as I can look over the outline and the verses and listen to the tunes on psalter.org. I think about the food that I need to have in the house for Sunday so I am not distracted on the Lord’s Day. By the time the Lord’s Day rolls around, there is very little else on my mind Sunday morning but getting to church.

    Of course, not every weekend goes perfectly and I am occasionally late – I have trouble getting to evening worship on time.
    One thing that I need to mention is that I am an empty nester and have great empathy for those who still have children to get ready.

    December 9, 2011
    • Jared Olivetti #

      Hi Jude,

      Thank you for your uplifting comments! What a great testimony about the power of prayerful love (and loving prayer) to help us prepare to meet God alongside his people.

      And-absolutely-may we all have great empathy or sympathy for those who really do face challenges every Sunday morning!

      Thanks for writing in!

      Jared

      December 10, 2011
  8. Andrew Schep #

    I hope every pastor and elder, every churchgoer, reads Rose’s comments. I have found that people who are chronically late are already painfully aware of that fact. Telling them that showing up to church on time is a matter of respecting others will in most cases do little more than add, to the shame they already feel, a sense that they are under the judgement of others in the church. Practical pointers are fine, and figuring out ways of offering help in a loving way that doesn’t induce shame are good. But my experience (not in my current congregation) is that this issue of tardiness is often raised by a person (an elder?) who has the promptness pride thing, and that making it an issue feeds that ugly beast. The comment at the end of the article, “of course everyone prefers you come late than not at all” needs to be at the top. Perhaps it could stand alone. If someone is chronically late and is never successful at changing that, they should feel nothing but the love of church leaders and members who are just thrilled they are there (church members who would laugh that this is even an issue compared to the issues they struggle with in their own hearts). One way to show this is by not raising the tardiness issue, just… letting it go! At the very least, Jared, you might write another article on promtpness pride and the sin of contempt that would balance this one.

    December 10, 2011
    • Jared Olivetti #

      Hi Andrew,

      Your note is very helpful. From your comments (and Rose’s), I realize the issue could have been framed more in grace from the start of the article. Certainly my goal is not to give anyone ammunition against another brother in Christ; and if anyone is frustrated with others late to church, certainly letting it go (covering it in love, I suppose) is probably the best response.

      The article is really intended to help those who are often late to worship–to convince them this is something worth working on and to give them some counsel in achieving the objective. If it serves to fuel embarrassment or pride in others, it really hasn’t achieved what I meant for it. I will do my best to follow up with the article you suggested.

      Again, thank you for the thoughtful and very pastoral note.

      Jared

      December 10, 2011
      • I thought Jared’s article was excellent, though I question that last line. It might sound spiritual to say that, but I’d like to see the Biblical defense of it, because I’m not convinced that, as an absolute statement, it reflects a Biblically faithful position. Does that position stand as Biblical whether they come in 5 minutes late or 5 minutes before the end of the service, whether there are 2 of them or 13, whether they sit at the front or the back, etc. Does that statement stand as a libertarian or libertine position without any other principles of order to frame it? If we’re reformed and believe in the reformation of all of life rather than Pentecostalist or some other form of antinomianism, then these are legitimate questions. I think the article was very gracious because it dealt with the issue as a matter of the heart, not as a legalistic idea.

        December 12, 2011
  9. I was just thinking back about a church I used to go to years ago. The schedule was for church to start at 9:30. People would arrive and there would always be coffee in the basement and people would always wander down to grab a quick cup before church. Then they would get involved in conversations and the kids would be running around and then about 10:00 the worship team would start playing and singing and then everyone would wander in to the sanctuary. It was a little different and then at some point the frustration must have gotten to someone – (I don’t know for sure) but then we started having a bell that someone would walk around ringing to get the flock into church. There was a running joke about it for quite some time.

    December 10, 2011
  10. Joel Hart #

    In considering our growth in grace, we must be ready and willing to confront issues of both heart and hands. Consider Jared’s post from just last week: the heart of Sabbath-keeping (and by extension, worship) is not our doing but our true ability to be “resting in God, trusting him… turning our hearts and eyes (not just our schedules) to heaven, where Jesus is”. All believers, regardless of the time they arrive at worship on Sunday morning, must long for this and realize that only Christ’s grace can cover their inability to rest in that grace. And so, yes, we must confront pride and other concerns that may beset early-arrivers, and we must find the answer in Christ’s grace.

    That being said, we also often need practical instruction of how to apply the gospel, “heart”-truths with our hands. Is this not the form of so many of Paul’s letters? To inform believers of who they are and how they need Christ, and then, quite practically, to inform them of ways it out to look? Even Christ moved from the heart to the hand, proceeding from the Beatitudes to instructions of optimal prayer locations for his disciples. Thus, believers need practical instruction on how to grow in dwelling in Christ for all of worship. As we grow in our understanding of what it is to be called to worship by our Savior, or to invoke His presence in that worship, we must be saints that lovingly work so that all saints enjoy that blessing. Sometimes that means pointing ourselves and others to the heart of worship and Sabbath-keeping. Sometimes it means practically helping us do it.

    December 10, 2011
  11. Matt Kingswood #

    Dear Jared- There is nothing new under the sun. In his “Lectures To My Students”, Charles Spurgeon wrote in the chapter entitled ‘Earnestness: Its Marring and Maintenance’;

    “Disorder in the congregation also sadly affects sensitive speakers. The walking up the aisle of a woman with a pair of pattens, the squeak of a pair of new boots, the frequent fall of umbrellas and walking-sticks, the crying of infants, and especially the consistent lateness of half the assembly;- all these tend to irritate the mind, take it off from its object, and diminish its ardour. We hardly like to confess that our hearts are so readily affected by such trifles, but it is so, and not at all to be wondered at. As pots of the most precious ointment are more often spoilt by dead flies than dead camels, so insignificant matters will destroy earnestness more readily than greater annoyances.”

    December 12, 2011
    • Jared Olivetti #

      Matt–that quote is gold! I’m sure everyone who has ever been distracted wishes they weren’t. This really is an “insignificant matter” in the grand scheme of things, but one that can still spoil the ointment. Thanks for the quote.

      December 12, 2011
  12. Rose #

    I know a couple who fasts every Lord’s Day, so that they don’t have to be distracted or weighed down by food preparation. I believe this practice started while their children were still in the home. And they never participate in “fellowship meals” in order not to break their fast, though they do participate in the Lord’s Table.

    December 13, 2011

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