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.