Staying focused in church gatherings is difficult. There’s nothing like sitting down with the purpose of praising God, hearing from his word and addressing him in prayer to bring random thoughts into our heads. This might be a fact of life but even so it is definitely not something we should be content to live with. Worship, corporate or otherwise, is only worship if we are thinking about God while we are doing it. Singing praises while mentally planning a holiday brings God no glory and does your soul no favours. So what are we to do?
John Flavel (17th Century long haired preacher and writer) writes about the problem of distraction in public and private worship in his book “Keeping the Heart” 1. Here are a selection of his solutions.
1. Take some time to prepare. Rushing to church gatherings, being the last to sit down or generally only really starting to think about what you’re doing once you’re doing it doesn’t help fight distraction. Take a few moments, even a matter of a few seconds to sit and ponder what you’re doing, to talk to your heart before the event reminding it of what you’re there for and talk to God asking that he would help keep you focused.
2. Remind yourself of the holiness of the God you worship. Flavel helpfully tells us that “the presence of a grave man would compose us to seriousness how much more should the presence of a holy God”. His point is that when we gather for worship or engage in private worship with the purpose of addressing God and hearing from his word we come to a God who is holy, who sees and hears our hidden thoughts. Taking a moment or two to remember that helps focus the wandering mind.
3. Engage your emotions in what you are doing. There is a vicious cycle between unfeeling worship and distraction. Not allowing, expecting or encouraging corporate worship to affect your feelings (affections as Flavel puts it) leads to distraction, and distraction leads to worship that doesn’t affect your feelings and so on. So engage your emotions. Here’s Flavel’s advice:
If you would prevent the recurrence of distracting thoughts, if you would find your happiness in the performance of duty (i.e. duty to worship), you must not only be careful that you engage in what is your duty, but labour with patient and persevering exertion to interest your feelings in it.
4. Think about the serious consequences of distraction. Do you know a godly older Christian who is frivolous about personal or corporate worship? Ponder the benefit, especially the eternal benefits, of being fully there at church and when you open your Bible at home, The seeds we sow in the performance of our Christian duty (to use Flavel’s phrase again) are reaped in eternity, if we sow to the flesh we will reap corruption; if we sow to the Spirit, we reap everlasting life. Knowing this and reminding ourselves of this are to quote Flavel: “well calculated to dissipate vain thoughts”.