Before we address what must be done to make church services more reverent, we first must address the definition of reverence, this enigmatic thing with a myriad of nuanced meanings. According to Dictionary.com, reverence is "a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe", with another definition being, "a gesture indicative of deep respect". The latter definition, while appropriate, is not the kind of reverence we need more of. It is the kind of reverence that Ellen White is always advising must be observed, and for good reason. She writes that, as the person giving the sermon is a messenger of God's, we shouldn't be chit-chatting back and forth, being disruptions and distractions for other people that are actually trying to listen to the sermon. She also cautions that if your children are wild and unruly, you would be better off staying home (as a courtesy to others, more than to God, I think) and teaching them yourself. Yes, this reverence is needed, but it is in no way a means to ridding the congregation of lukewarmness and bringing them to a holy boil.
The former definition is probably the most appropriate reverence to practice in the house of God. It is a sense of deep respect, tinged with the awe that Jesus, creator of the universe, died in our place. I think the NIV puts it best: "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8, emphasis mine). That is the sense of reverence that we should be feeling every time we step into the Sanctuary. It should not be nothing but a multipurpose room; it should be a special place where we can think about God's only Son, and His sacrifice. I mean, we are Christians, aren't we?
This is one reason that Catholic cathedrals are designed the way they are. As the worshiper enters the cathedral, before them is an image of Jesus, before which is an altar where the bread and wine is blessed (similarly to the blessing on the bread and wine given in Adventist Communion services, but we don't believe in transubstantiation and they do). To one side--I've always seen it on the left, or at "God's right hand"--is the pulpit, where the priest gives his homily. This placement is to draw attention away from the human messenger and toward Jesus, whose image is there to remind parishioners of the Crucifixion. It is not really idolatry, just symbolism (I'm not saying it's right to worship at the image of Jesus, but they aren't worshiping a false God and therefore not breaking the First Commandment). The crucifixes present in any Adventist church I've attended have been empty, pointing to Jesus's victory over death and His coming return. But other than the occasional stained glass window, those empty crucifixes are the only thing that separates our churches from ordinary auditoria.
If imagery is not present to remind us of Jesus's sacrifice, then what is left? The service content. At any part of the service, from prelude to postlude, one of the people who make the service possible can mention something that points to Christ. And if we are observing proper reverence (manners) then we can take that anecdote, song, text, or sermon, and we can use it to have more reverence (awe-inspired respect) for God.
Therein lies the problem; we have always been taught, essentially, that reverence meant manners. As a young Adventist, you probably went through the "prayer checklist", a template given you by your parents as to what you did with your eyes, hands, head, and so on. Why? It was reverent. You never ran in church (you probably did; you just won't admit it). Why? It was reverent. You didn't talk aloud during the service. Why? It was reverent. Reverence was a list of rules, not a sense of respect. It wasn't until I got to college that I really felt that sense of reverence. And still, I have found reverence in a wide spectrum of things, from the Z. Randall Stroope's loud and tumultuous Conversion of Saul to the silence of Heubach chapel when all I needed was a whisper.
Just as it is experiences that count when building any relationship, it is experiences that count when building reverence. As Adventists, we tend to become Vulcans and avoid outward displays of emotion, unless we are showing a placid happiness. I say that if anything, that practice has made us lukewarm. We are so apathetic that we don't feel anything. Throughout the Bible, what were some of the biggest events that converted people or brought them closer to God? One very notable display was the contest on Mt. Carmel. After hearing nothing from Ba'al, I would assume his followers had begun to doubt (Elijah probably didn't help with his taunts). Finally, FIRE shot down from heaven, instilling reverence into the people. This reverence, the kind that God desires, is also translated in some versions as "fear".
No, this is not a fear for one's life. It is not a worry. It is, in fact, the very essence of a relationship with God. This definition relates to a reverential awe for something or Someone. Without this reverential respect, we are lukewarm. We need to understand every time we think of God, that our Creator gave His life so that we could have life to the fullest. That alone demonstrates a selflessness that none of us is capable of. Not Ghandi, not Mother Theresa, not even you. We as humans are inherently imperfect, and a being of such perfection as God demands that respect.
We can sit here and say, "Don't chat back and forth with your friends in church; when you do, you are an instrument of the Devil," or we can tell people to take a seat and greet people instead of standing up. But none of that matters. Isaiah paints the picture of our obeisance plainly: "We are unfit to worship You; each of our good deeds is merely a filthy rag. We dry up like leaves; our sins are as storm winds, sweeping us away" (64:6). No matter how many times you refrain from talking during the sermon, kneel in submission when praying, or even try to be respectful of God, it will never be enough. No one can please God by obeying the Law (Galatians 3:11). So why should we even try?
Let's decide once and for all what it means to make our services more reverent. Instead of focusing on our actions, we should focus on the content. Yes, we should listen to the sermon; in being respectful of the speaker, we are being respectful of God and His message. But we should also realize that without your heart in the right place, you might as well stay home. Open yourself to receive Christ, and He will fill you. That's what being reverent should entail. When we're so focused on what to do and what not do do while in the Sanctuary, we inevitably lose sight of the reason Christianity exists: to praise and thank the One who made it possible for us to live.
Your Brother in Christ,