Recently we learned that the pastor of the church we used to attend was forced to resign over a personal indiscretion. The church hired this man years ago despite concerns that his preaching was very weak. In fact, several people felt so strongly about his lack of preaching skills that they left the church when he was hired.
For years he was able to manage the situation by relying heavily on the help of his wife, a much better Bible expositor. However, she came down with cancer and after years of chemotherapy, finally passed away. When left to his own resources, this pastor outsourced his preaching and teaching responsibilities. As a result, teaching and preaching became a sort of free-for-all as people with varying degrees of Bible knowledge and a variety of theological positions took to the pulpit to expound their views.
None of this bothered the leaders or membership enough to call for change until the pastor secretly married a woman with five illegitimate children. Only then did the elders call for the man to give an account of his actions. It was at that point that he chose to resign.
When Preaching Isn’t Paramount
This is an example of what happens when the faithful preaching of God’s word is not made the centerpiece of worship. It is through preaching that believers are sanctified as they study the word together under the direction of a man who has given himself diligently to the study of God’s Word (2 Tim 2:15). As people learn more about Christ, they become more Christ-like in their character and their love for one another grows (Rom 8:29). Because preaching was neglected in this church, there were divisions. Because it is a church of Chinese immigrants, there are people from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China. They get along if they don’t talk politics. But let someone suggest that Taiwan is not a part of mainland China and the mainland Chinese will say, “We could snuff you out in an instant.” Such attitudes show how the lack of sound preaching can inhibit growth in grace.
People will not abide sound doctrine if they don’t hear the word of God preached on a regular basis. The interim pastor of the the other congregation that comprises this church was a very good reformed preacher who spent long hours in sermon preparation. But most of the congregation, including the leadership, had never even heard of reformed theology. Only a few members of the congregation embraced his teaching. The others were adamantly opposed to it. When his period of service was up, his small group of followers moved to a nearby Orthodox Presbyterian Church where they were able to continue to receive sound biblical preaching and teaching, even though it was in English. For them the doctrine was more important than the language, culture and friendships.
The Fad Driven Church
Much of the evangelical church has abandoned orthodox biblical preaching in favor of modern marketing methods. In an article titled “Expository Preaching—–The Antidote to Anemic Worship,” Albert Mohler says, “Pastors these days are carefully indoctrinated with the notion that they must regard their people as consumers. Religion is carefully packaged to appeal to the consumers’ demands.”(1) This trend began with Peter Wagner and the “Church Growth Movement,” and was popularized by Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church in his best selling books, “The Purpose Driven Life” and “The Purpose Driven Church.” It was given added impetus by Bill Hybels who built the Willow Creek megachurch on a marketing model. Albert Mohler describes Hybels’ ministry this way,
“As any good marketer would, Hybels deliberately surveys his people with questionnaires in order to determine what they worry about, what their needs are, what’s important to them. . . . Then he schedules what subjects he will preach on in the coming year, and circulates the schedule to those on his team responsible for music and drama in the services.”(2)
George Barna, a pollster who makes his living surveying church trends, says, “The audience, not the message, is sovereign…our message has to be adapted to the needs of the audience.“(3)
Adapting the message to the needs of the audience has led to many church fads, among them the seeker sensitive movement, the ecumenical movement, the emergent church, Blue Like Jazz, The Shack, the Left Behind series, Forty Days of Purpose, the Prosperity Gospel, and the Word of Faith movement. The Christian publishing industry drives these fads in its constant quest to sell books. Churches snap up these books for their Sunday School classes and small group Bible studies. I attended one local megachurch that based its entire teaching curriculum on the latest best seller in Christian bookstores.
The flitting from one fad to another has set the church adrift. Rick Warren acknowledges this when he says,
“At Saddleback Church we’ve . . . tried to recognize the waves God was sending our way, and we’ve learned to catch them. We’ve learned to use the right equipment to ride those waves, and we’ve learned the importance of balance. We’ve also learned to get off dying waves whenever we sensed God wanted to do something new. The amazing thing is this: The more skilled we become in riding waves of growth, the more God sends!”(4)
Ephesians 4:14 says, “So we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes.“(5)
Mt 24:35 says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.“(6)
God’s word never changes. God doesn’t send waves. He condemns wave riding! Fads add nothing to one’s knowledge of God. They are all about the profit motive. Selling lots of books. Building a big church. Having lots of programs. Hiring lots of staff and being able to provide them all with a comfortable living.
The blessings of scripture are ample enough that Paul can say, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (9). There is enough of the wisdom and knowledge of God to occupy our minds and hearts forever without seeking thrills by resorting to fads. It just requires diligence and hard work to mine all the treasures of scripture.
What True Worship Looks Like
The Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian church says, “The preaching of the Word, the power of God unto salvation, is indispensable in the public worship of God. It is therefore a matter of supreme importance that the minister preach only the Word of God, not the wisdom of man, and that he handle the Word of God correctly, always setting forth Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith.” (10). It goes on to say that the text should not be used as a point of departure, but that each passage of scripture should be carefully expounded, using other portions of scripture to explain the text in as clear and simple a manner as possible. The OPC restricts the pulpit ministry only to those whom the leadership deems sound in doctrine and practice.
There are examples of how this is done in the Bible. One is in the book of 2 Chronicles and another is in the book of Nehemiah. In 2 Chronicles 34, King Josiah of Judah commissions the restoration of the temple after years of neglect by his predecessors. In the process of reconstruction, Hilkiah, the high priest, discovers the Book of the Law written by Moses. He brings it to the king who has him read it aloud. When Josiah hears the word of God, he realizes the gravity of Judah’s disobedience and asks the high priest to intercede with God on behalf of the people. The message that comes back is, “Behold, I will bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the curses that are written in the book that was read before the king of Judah” (11). Josiah gathered all the people and read the entire Book of the Law to them, pledging himself to obedience and making the people do the same. After that he destroyed all the idols and removed all the pagan altars from the land. Because the king had expressed genuine remorse, God promised to postpone judgment until after his death.
Some years later Nehemiah led a group of Jews back from exile to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. One of the very first things he did was to assemble the people for the reading of the same Book of the Law that Josiah had read. A tall platform was erected for Ezra the scribe so that all the people would have to look up as he read. Beside him stood the priests. Ezra began by blessing the Lord and the people responded by lifting up their hands and then bowing with their faces to the ground in worship. Ezra was assisted in the reading by other priests who were stationed among the people. Together they read the word and then interpreted it for the people. The people responded by weeping in repentance for their disobedience. But Nehemiah encouraged them to rejoice because they understood the words and responded in the right way. Notice here the actions of the worship leader and the attitude of the worshipers. The leader began by blessing the Lord and the people responded by humbly receiving the message and repenting of their sins.
The Book of Church Order affirms this pattern. Just as the worshipers in Ezra’s day lifted their hands in response to the blessing of God and then bowed in worship, so members are encouraged to, “actively… embrace the blessing of the Lord in the salutation and benediction.“(12) And in the same way the Israelites responded by respectfully listening and receiving the Word of God, so members are urged to “to confess together with all the people the faith of the church; to heed the Word of truth as the sermon is preached and to appropriate it to their lives as God, through his servant, proclaims and applies it.”(13) The Book of Church Order also specifically calls for a prayer of repentance when the Old Testament Law is read, “It is fitting that a prayer of confession of sin precede or follow any reading of the law of God to the congregation.” And just as the Old Testament priests carefully explained the word of God to the people, so the pastor is urged to, “take pains to expound the chosen text, bringing in other texts as applicable, carefully explaining the meaning, and diligently applying the particular text for the salvation and edification of his hearers.“(14)
So the two essential components to worship that pleases God is faithful exposition of the word of God on the part of the worship leader and humble submission to the preaching of the word by the congregation resulting in repentance and obedience.