Tuesday, July 04, 2017

The Reformation Project: A Final Word -- the Benediction

In the upcoming final section of this project a number of theses (it will be less than 95) will be presented regarding reform of the church. Before that, however, this section will close with a word about the use of the benediction at or near the close of the service.

Most of the churches visited for this project did not use a benediction, and that is not surprising, though it was perhaps a bit of a shock that Fellowship Church Grapevine concluded its service with a video of the pastor performing rap music. Nonetheless, for much of American evangelicalism, the notion of a benediction has largely been lost. Thus, the word is either no longer used at all or it is used to mean nothing more than a closing prayer. The actual definition of the word, which has to do with the pronouncement of a blessing, has largely been lost. 

It should be noted that Scripture is full of pronouncements of blessings. Perhaps the best known, the Aaronic blessing, is found in the Old Testament. It was used at the close of the service I visited at Friendship-West Baptist Church.

"The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace." [Numbers 6:24-26, ESV]

Most of the Pauline epistles conclude with a benediction.

Some years ago, when I was first learning about the significance of the various elements of worship, I heard a minister speak about the importance of the benediction, and he claimed that it was even more important than the sermon. While I am not sure I agree with that, one should not discount its value for the worship gathering. Michael Horton, in his book "A Better Way," describes it this way:

"... [T]he benediction could easily become (and too often does become) little more than a way of saying, 'The service is over, so good-bye.' But here, one last time, God addresses his people. Grace has the last word, as the people receive God's blessing through the minister with raised hands.... The covenant people leave [the church] bursting with thankful hearts because they leave with the assurance that God is on their side and that they stand under his blessing rather than his wrath."

Thus, the service ends not with law -- that is, a set of instructions for those now entering the mission field -- but rather with assurances of God's grace as his people go forth. A church that is reformed according to the word of God will appreciate the need for the minister's pronouncement of divine blessing.

"Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us[b] that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen." [Heb. 13:20, 21, ESV]


Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Reformation Project: Why Megachurch Johnny Can't Preach, Part II

In my previous post, I noted the exceptionally bad preaching that I heard at most of the megachurches visited during this project. I even said that some of the sermons fell to the level of incompetence and gave two examples representative of that.

How could that be? How can it be that so many sincere Christians attending the largest churches in what is arguably the buckle of the Bible belt listen to ministers that perform their most basic task either poorly or even incompetently?

Without attempting to delve into the particular circumstances of those churches or pastors, I want to address more generically the reasons for a dearth of good preaching in American churches today, arguing that poor preaching largely results from a cultural conditioning that warps both the training of ministers and the expectations of those that choose them. There is a match that is made between the outlook and skill set of American ministers and those who show up on Sunday. However, that match is made somewhere other than heaven.

John R.W. Stott, in his classic work on preaching "Between Two Worlds," claimed that a preacher was a man who stood with one foot in the world of the Bible and the other in the world in which he resides, having the task of bringing the former world to bear upon the latter. In order to do that, a minister must have a solid grasp on the world of the Bible (he must also understand the world in which he resides, but that will not be the focus of this post). Many ministers do not have that, and I will defend the idea that their churches really don't expect them to.

Many young men thinking about ministry arrive at that place having spent most of their church lives in youth group, along the way developing a strong moral sense, perhaps a place of leadership among their religious peers at church, and a passion for serving Jesus. Both peers and older Christians are likely to praise their zeal, valuing religious enthusiasm in a young believer to such an extent that they don't want to discourage the young Christian by suggesting how much they have to learn. Thus, the sincere young Christian may not have a good grasp on the gaps in his Bible knowledge, and he also is likely unaware of the extent to which worldly mindsets have shaped his religious outlook. That is to say, he has grown up in a world that treats the customer as king and that thinks about life in therapeutic, not theological, terms.

This therapeutic and marketing orientation skews his approach to academic preparation for ministry. Of course, many church traditions will tell the young prospective minister that seminary or other academic training is entirely unnecessary, while in other instances he will complete his classwork under the illusion that it is irrelevant to his work as a minister. Churches will often reinforce that illusion, telling the sincere young man that studying dead languages or being able to explain the wrongness of various modern approaches to theology is not as important as connecting with people and helping them find Jesus.

Of course, seminaries are imperfect institutions that can be improved upon by something else. However, most of those criticizing academic training don't have in mind a replacement; they simply think that a sincere relationship with Jesus and good communication skills are enough, and this simply is not true. The result of this is ministers who lack preparation for ministry. They are steeped in the language of our therapeutic culture, and they have some level of understanding of how the church can market itself to broaden its appeal, but they are not able to think through the way the law functions in the lives of believers and unbelievers. They don't know how to express the role of church and Christian in their culture. They lack the ability, or perhaps the desire, to understand common areas and distinctions between morality and self-improvement from the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. They don't know how to clearly distinguish between law and gospel.

And, they don't know how to relate the Bible as a single story from Genesis to Revelation while also distinguishing the interpretation of various genres of Scripture. This means that they lack the skill to model good Bible interpretation to their congregants.

Those that are tasked with teaching simply must have preparation that allows them to understand deeply. Many ministers lack this, and they sadly don't desire it. What we are talking about is mental work, but it doesn't require the minister to be an intellectual giant by any means. He only requires the preparation and the desire to think about ministry of the Word in this way.

Many don't. Their churches don't expect them to. And weakness in the church is the result.

Megachurch Johnny can't preach, and for the most part their churches don't care.

For those interested, the Table of Contents for the entire "Reformation Project" is here.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Reformation Project: Why Megachurch Johnny Can't Preach

I really do not like criticizing preachers. The task of preaching is foundational to a pastor's calling; thus, Christians frequently refer to their pastors as "preachers." Some denominations highlight the importance of preaching in the terminology that they use for ordinands, emphasizing that they are being ordained, for example, to "the ministry of the word and sacrament." Besides this, it is the most visible aspect of a senior pastor's responsibilities. Some people so associate pastoral ministry with preaching that they jokingly -- one hopes -- will say that the pastor only works one day a week.

Joking aside, it is not possible to overstate the importance of preaching to Christian worship and to worshiping Christians. "Faith comes by hearing," Paul writes in Romans 10, "and hearing by the word of Christ." He has already asked how someone can hear without a preacher. Thus, preaching is a means of grace by which God creates faith in the hearts of his people. That is important.

Yet, preaching is a difficult task. Most pastors will address their congregations more than 40 times per year, and those in churches with a second weekly service might double that. Ministers frequently have additional teaching responsibilities. Speaking so frequently to the same group of people requires great effort. Congregants don't expect to hear the same sermon portions over and over, meaning that a sound minister must each time do sound exegesis of his text, illustrate it to make it more understandable and apply it to the lives of the people. A pastor who has been at his church for 10 years will have presented over 400 sermons heard by at least some of the same people.

All pastors must be capable at each of those areas of preaching -- exegesis, illustration, and application -- though each minister will find his particular gifts more oriented toward some of these than others. A minister who is a master of illustration may struggle to come up with meaningful applications. Another may be good at applying the text, but he struggles to lay the groundwork of what is to be applied. Some pastors -- even those with seminary training -- may struggle with their skills at biblical exposition. Yet, it is a grave error not to work on that area. One can't really be said to be preaching the Word of God if the person is not doing some basic study that allows him to ground his sermon in the text. As the Romans passage quoted earlier indicates, it is the preaching of the Word that God has pledged to use to create faith in His people. He may use other things, but he has not promised to do so.

So, it is a bit painful to have to say that many (not all) of the pastors I heard preach during this project were in a very fundamental way incompetent at their most basic task. They did not display a basic ability to preach the Word; nor did they have the ability to do the most rudimentary analysis of the biblical text.

It would not seem that their members are aware of the utter incompetence. Who would want to say that they go to a big church where the pastor lacks basic competence at preaching?

Because it may seem to readers that this judgment is harsh, perhaps it is necessary to clarify what is meant. I am not suggesting that these ministers were poor orators. All were charismatic personalities with the capacity to hold the attention of large audiences Nor do I mean that I had doctrinal disagreements with their sermons -- I frequently did, but their incompetence went well beyond the idea that there are different interpretations of a text in the Bible. Rather, they used the Bible in a way that was not credible to one holding to any doctrinal position.

While I could cite numerous examples, two will suffice to convey what I am driving at. The pastor of Fellowship Church Grapevine used the Bible as a sort of Bartlett's Book of Familiar Quotations, mining the biblical text for verses that had a word or phrase that he wanted to incorporate into his sermon, even if the context of the text showed that the text could not be appropriately used in that way. Thus, he used Acts 1:8, in which Jesus said that the disciples would receive power from the Holy Spirit for world wide witness, as analogous to a power cord he used with his blender and ultimately as a proof text for God's help for blended families. This is, of course, nonsense.

In the same way, the pastor at Covenant Church read a passage that concerned the diminutive size of David and talked about it as though it concerned the large size of Goliath. It was an impossible reading to justify.

There are other examples I could cite. To be fair, some of the ministers used the Bible responsibly. However the fact of the matter is that a significant percentage of the pastors of the largest churches in the metroplex are incompetent practitioners of their most basic responsibility. And, their listeners dont seem to know it.

How can that be? I will have more to come.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Reformation Project: the Priority of Preaching?

A recent news article in Christianity Today reported on a recent Gallup Poll that found "sermons that teach about scripture" to be the top reason that Americans go to church. Over 80% identified it as a priority. The report has been linked by numerous religious blogs hopeful that it points toward a renewed emphasis on biblical preaching. Certainly, such an emphasis would be welcome in these quarters, so one might be forgiven for wishing it to be true.

I must admit I don't believe it.

I do have a bias, as the poll would contradict my premise in the study involved in this project that suggests that the trends found in the large churches I visited are reflective of the future direction of American Christianity. In the majority of those churches, biblical content was minimal, and in some of them the handling of the Bible by the ministers can only be described as incompetent (readers are welcome to refer back to prior posts which can be found in the Table of Contents, and I will defend what may seem to be this harsh assessment in a future summary post).

Of course, it may be that these churches are not representative, but the fact that roughly 150,000 people in the largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex attend churches that do not for the most part feature sermons that teach about Scripture must be accounted for. Anecdotal experience would suggest that this is not limited to these large churches.

Of course, I am left with the need to explain how the poll could be so wrong. I will offer two explanations.

First, the poll relies on self-reporting, and such polls are notoriously unreliable when an answer is considered to be the correct one. As a well-known example, Americans have over reported actual church attendance for decades -- most people think that attending church is a good thing, so a larger than true proportion have reported attending church regularly as a result. In a similar way, there is reason to think American church goers would think that sermons teaching scripture provide a right reason for going to church -- what Christian wants to admit that Bible based sermons have nothing to do with church attendance? Thus, they give the answer that they believe to be right, perhaps without reflecting on whether it is consistent with their choice of church.

Second, one might argue that biblical preaching is sufficiently rare so that many church goers do not really know what solid scriptural preaching is. A clear and passionate presentation of practical advice punctuated with Bible verses is often confused with scriptural preaching.

This week, I spoke with an old friend who told me that her family had recently left their church of many years. While several of the reasons seemed valid, she added that she doesn't like expository preaching. Telling her that expository preaching is what I've done my whole life started an interesting conversation. What became sadly clear was that this life long, intelligent Christian really did not know what expository preaching really is, though she was sure she doesn't like it (probably because she associated it with a particular pastor).

It is not my intent here to argue about the validity of other approaches to preaching besides an expository one. However, I do think that this is an indication that many people have little understanding of what clear scriptural preaching should look like.

A reformation of biblical Christianity in the United States would require a return to scriptural preaching. One might hope that a day would come when the Gallup Poll turns out to be accurate.

Monday, May 08, 2017

The Reformation Project: what about the Music?

In the previous three posts, I addressed the subject of worship while scarcely mentioning the issue of music. This may mystify many readers, as Christians often reduce discussion of worship to the matter of musical style. When people talk about "worship wars," they actually are talking about battles over music. In my own analysis of visits to the ten largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, most of my discussion of what took place in the meetings other than the sermon centered around music, with relatively little attention given to other elements other than to notice their absence; however, this was not because I accept the assumption that music equals worship. It is difficult to spend much time describing things that aren't present, and many elements of historic Christian worship were minimized or absent.

Nonetheless, music is an important element of worship, and, additionally, many of these large churches would consider their music to be a major selling point to attendees. They may be correct. Tremendous amounts of time, money, and effort go into producing music with the highest production values that these churches can generate. If quality is sometimes lacking, energy, effort, and passion are not. Nonetheless, from the standpoint of proper Christian worship, these productions leave much to be desired.

Why is that? Is modern church music really adverse to correct Christian worship, or is this aging blogger merely showing his over wrought fixation on old ways of doing things?

Watching congregations divide, often along generational lines, over questions of church music has been sad to see, and one can be excused for feeling a sense of relief when recent writers have declared those skirmishes, with their sometimes devastating impacts on local churches, largely over. That said, it is possibly even more sad that such divisions have often taken place without important and substantial questions about the place of music in worship ever being asked. Churches have divided over style with very little controversy over substance. If many of the criticisms of "traditional worship" (meaning that which dominated the middle portion of the 20th century) had merit, and I believe that they did, then it is unfortunate that so much effort went into changing musical forms without really doing anything to understand the place of music in biblical worship. For all of the energy (which is sometimes confused with the work of the Holy Spirit) that goes into making modern church music, one might argue that the church is worse off than it was 50 years ago, not because styles and instrumentation are worse (that would be open to debate), but because congregations rarely addressed the substantive questions.

Thus, one might have wished that controversies over music had begun by addressing the most fundamental question of all: what is the purpose of music in worship? If that seems too basic, one might argue that churches still should have asked it, if for no reason other than to identify common ground prior to drawing swords. However, such a foundational question may prove not to be so basic after all, as rationales for the purpose of complex and dynamic music programs in churches are all over the map. Without agreement on purpose, it is no wonder that churches lapsed into conflagrations over personal taste and recent tradition, for without a common mission for worship music that is integrated with a robust appreciation for other elements of worship, one might not ever get to the questions of biblical basis, content, congregational involvement, and so forth. In fact, the vast majority of churches never did. While recent years have seen some music leaders adopt mission statements (everything seems to require a mission statement these days), this has largely come in the aftermath of churches establishing their musical direction, meaning that the influence was retrospective, not formative.

As a result, much of the music featured in the large, pacesetting churches I visited centered around performance by musicians using fairly sophisticated production lighting and sound before an audience that behaved no differently than middle aged audiences act at a pop concert -- some in the crowd watch and listen, some make some effort at singing along, some clap their hands and bounce and sway as their spirit moves them, and others stand with their hands in their pockets and perhaps even talk with those around them. Content is for the most part minimal and repetitive, with sentimentality trumping any clear biblical content. There were exceptions, but for the most part the congregation was not expected to sing. Though the words were printed on the screen, singing was difficult and at times nearly impossible due to the volume of the band (it is hard to sing when you can't hear your own voice), the use of unfamiliar music that often included unpredictable bridges known only to the band, and the use of music difficult to sing for undirected amateurs who had not practiced it.

Thus, if part of the point of church music is for congregants to praise with their mouths, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. most of the music in these churches failed in that regard.

The biblical model of worship music is the Psalms. While some groups of Christians go so far as to say that only canonical music should be used in worship, this writer would not take that stance. Nonetheless, a look at biblical music (meaning that found in the Bible) reveals sharp contrasts and deficiencies in the modern church. For one thing, the biblical songs are substantive and God centered, qualities often lacking in modern church music, which often is thin and vague on content and centered on human experience. In addition, the emotions of modern church music are very different from its biblical counterparts -- biblical lyric is much MORE emotional. Almost all contemporary church music captures one, and only one, category of emotion -- celebration, joy, victory. As Carl Trueman has said, there is hardly any music in modern churches that can be sung by miserable Christians. In contrast, the Psalms, to borrow Calvin's phrase, carry the anatomy of the parts of the soul. Though God centered in approach, the Psalms manage to convey the entire range of human emotional experience.

Over the last half century, young Christians in particular were dissatisfied with music that seemed outdated and irrelevant to their experiences. To a large extent, their complaints were valid. However, ignoring the biblical data, they set out to make music reflective of generational experiences and tastes. For that reason, church music, like the rest of modern worship, remains in drastic need of reform.

In the next post, I will turn to the subject of preaching.

This is part of a series entitled "The Reformation Project." The table of contents for the series is here.

Monday, May 01, 2017

The Reformation Project: Who Is the Lord of Worship?

Of course, we know what the answer is supposed to be to the question as to who is the Lord of worship, but it is fair to ask whether correct answers mask a disconcerting reality.

A recent blog post aggregated at The Aquila Report argued that many modern Christians, especially millenials, doubt the importance of church attendance. This is hardly a novel realization, and all kinds of spiritual and sociological reasons for dismissive attitudes toward church, even by professing Christians, may be given; however, one might suggest that the most obvious reason is a relatively simple one: people who have spent time around churches often begin to doubt the importance of church because their church leaders have told them that it is unimportant.

And ministers feared the people weren't listening. In fact, they have taken in the lesson all to well.

Nearly everyone who has spent much time around evangelical churches has heard it said that what happens inside the church is not important: it is what Christians do when they leave that counts. Many have listened to such words before walking through church exits under signs that tell them that they are "now entering the mission field." While that may express a truth, it also underscores the idea that what happens outside the church's walls is what matters; what happens in the building doesn't really count. In fact, ministers and other Christians frequently dismiss the value of the walls and doors, insisting that the church is the people, not a place. Michael Horton has said that Christians have so often been told that the church is not a place that they have been left homeless. Further devaluing the significance of the gathered church, modern worship avoids any sense of transcendence and emphasizes an appeal to individual taste, not seeming to realize that if it is about me and my tastes, I can find that just about anywhere. One doesn't really need a church for that.

Thus, in many churches the people who are there come together and hear someone pray that God will join them. This contrasts with a more biblical approach that would claim that Christians don't gather to call upon God to join us; rather, the church has gathered because it has been summoned by its risen Lord. The risen Lord has gathered the church to a place where he distributes his gifts (see Ephesians 4 for one description of this). Through the preached word, God creates faith in the hearts of his people. Through baptism and the Lord's Supper he signifies and seals his promises he has made to us, thus reassuring our faith. With our confession of sin he assures us of his promises of pardon in Christ. In Christian fellowship he unites and encourages his people in vital, organic unity.

The preceding paragraph turns on its head the approach that many take to these elements of worship. In the thinking of many, preaching, praying, the sacraments, and singing are things that we do for God (professing our faith, for example). However, if I have explained worship biblically, it would show that the church gathers for worship because that is where God offers his gifts to us, not the other way around. If that takes the right view of things, then it reorients church members to appreciate the value of what is happening, but it also needs to reorient pastors and church leaders with regard to the nature of their task.

Some years ago, while traveling on a weekend I visited a church that I was not familiar with. At the conclusion of the service, the minister explained that church leaders were starting a process for evaluating the ministries of the church. As a step in that process they wanted to ask those present to take a survey about the church's "core values."

When I received a copy of the survey, I was stunned at the way they were going about discovering their "core values." All of the questions revolved around the notion of discerning what non-Christians that they knew would look for in a church. Now, no one of course would want to deny that there is a point to finding out what unbelievers think about the church, but is that really the place that we would look to find our "core values?"

Unfortunately, that is not really an uncommon reality, as churches increasingly are market driven, letting the desires and tastes of those apart from Christ set the agenda for the church.

Who is the Lord of our worship? The out loud answer is Christ. God knows our hearts.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Reformation Project: the Necessity of Correct Worshiping

In my previous post, I pointed out that in many of the churches I visited that many of the biblical elements of worship have disappeared or suffered from neglect. Is that important?

In Ezekiel 8, the prophet in a vision is brought into the inner court of the temple. There he records, "...at the entrance of the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the east, worshiping the sun toward the east. Then he said to me, 'Have you seen this, O son of man? Is it too light a thing for the house of Judah to commit the abominations that they commit here....'"

The vision of people gathered at the temple in Jerusalem and worshiping a pagan deity is a vivid and disturbing one, and some would argue this couldn't happen among God's people in our day. However, this presents in clear terms the danger of worship that is disconnected from its biblical moorings. Can worship being conducted in a Christian church descend into mere idolatry? Anyone who thinks not should take heed lest he fall.

Worship will always be flavored with local cultural tastes, but it must be regulated by the Word of God. Unregulated worship carried on based on personal tastes and community desires poses a danger to the worship of the true God.

This post is a part of a year long project. The Table of Contents is here.