Plan Ahead

Ryan NealChurch, Ryan Neal, Worship

This phrase might be the most oft-repeated bit of advice that I give to students each semester. Most don’t listen to me, but I keep repeating myself. Plan ahead. Your computer will crash. Plan ahead. The electricity will go out. Plan ahead. The library will close early on the night you will visit. Plan ahead. Your book will not arrive in time. Plan ahead.

More and more I have realized that a high percentage of my life is spent planning and preparing, preparing and planning, with a little bit of “doing” to top it all off. Or stated more precisely: a lot of what I seem to do at work these days is planning. The work that I do the most of is planning.

Consider your typical week and think about how much time you spend planning for the future, or accomplishing tasks that have been previously planned for.

Here are a few mundane examples from my life:
  • Each night my family sets out their clothes for the next day.
  • Each weekday morning I follow this routine for preparing pasta (for my kids’ lunches): turn on the tap for hot water, fill up the thermos with hot water (so the thermos can be more effective), prepare the pasta, empty out the water from the thermos, add the pasta, rinse the pot.
  • Fertilize the grass and water it.

Now, to be clear, my best laid plans can smash right into a wall.

For the above examples, consider: setting out clothes the night before is great for a planner like me, but not for those more inclined to spontaneity. When four kids set out clothes the night before, invariably there are times when one (or more) decides that what they wanted to wear just 10 hours earlier is now unacceptable and they have “nothing to wear.”

Of all the steps in the “pasta preparation routine” above, the one that will save me the most time later is the last, and the easiest to miss (and sometimes I do) and then spend more time cleaning the pot than I did preparing the pasta.

To avoid an ugly lawn I fertilize and water the grass, but this spring, I should have fertilized about 6 weeks before I did and I’m confident my grass is thirstier for water than I’m prepared to give it. In addition, we sprayed it for weeds later than usual and now we have a semi-green lawn with yellow freckles. It’s pretty hideous (and will remain so for several more weeks), as a simple, glaring reminder to me why planning ahead is better than spontaneous lawn care.

Though Jesus wasn’t referencing clothes, pasta or lawncare, he certainly emphasized planning and doing things well, particularly near the end of the sermon on the mount.
Though Jesus wasn’t referencing clothes, pasta or lawncare, he certainly emphasized planning and doing things well, particularly near the end of the sermon on the mount.

More specifically, my reflections on planning ahead, have a certain bite to them when I consider my approach to worship, however. Referring back to the pasta example, I am reminded of how I – typically – do not prepare well (or at all) for Sunday worship.

While I don’t think I need to engage in an extensive warm-up routine like an Olympian who is about to compete for a medal, I wonder if I arrive at church or Bible study more like a cold thermos than one that’s been tempered, prepared for the content of praise, adoration, repentance, meditation, and instruction.

Or better yet, I wonder if – deep down – I have the same expectation of myself that I have with my grass. My grass needs some help to grow and mature. It needs sustained water, vitamins, and nutrients. What is my approach? Fertilize it and water it once and then I’m (stupidly) surprised that it doesn’t grow as I would like it to. It doesn’t mature overnight. It’s not beautiful and green. I wonder – if I’m really honest – whether my approach to worship is like my approach to lawncare. I need more sustained nutrients and then I’m surprised when I don’t mature or when my maturity is spotty and freckled, with some areas of progress and other areas of barren patches where not enough water, fertilizer or sun reaches.

I should prepare better. I should plan ahead. I should not expect 65 minutes to be sufficient. Though I don’t want my approach to worship to be equated with work, as if it’s a task to complete, there are some parallels.

Before a worship service, I’m going to be more conscientious of my thoughts and my focus. I don’t want to empty my mind before worship.
Before a worship service, I’m going to be more conscientious of my thoughts and my focus. I don’t want to empty my mind before worship. I want to fill it with scripture and reflections on God, so that when the service begins I am more inclined to pay attention. More inclined to focus.

At the very least I should be better organized and plan for contingencies, spot areas of concern, and fix them in advance. I can participate in worship more productively when I seek the mind of Christ and minimize distractions. In other words when I plan ahead.

Dr. Neal earned a BA in Political Science from Texas Tech University. He then pursued theological and ministerial training and is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDivBL), and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (MTh; PhD). He is married to Jennifer, and they have four children.

Dr. Neal’s teaching and research focuses on the relationship between biblical interpretation and theology. His Ph.D. research focused on systematic theology, specifically questions raised in contemporary German theology. He is the author of Theology As Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of Jurgen Moltmann’s Doctrine of Hope, and has published a variety of essays, articles, and chapters on theological topics. Dr. Neal has presented papers in several academic venues in England, Scotland, New Zealand, and the United States. Most recently he presented a paper on eschatology at the University of Notre Dame.