Thursday, August 27, 2009

Thinking About Churches V: Preaching

This is the last post in a mini-series on anecdotal observations of churches. I don’t get out much, I’m in Edson most Sundays, but over the years I’ve visited several different churches in Canada and the U.S. on holiday. I’ve also had conversations with friends and family about their church experiences. In the churches I’m familiar with, preaching still takes place. That alone should be encouraging, but what is that preaching like?

As I’ve said in earlier posts, I’m disappointed in the general attitude of the service and in the music, but what makes me really sad (and sometimes mad) is the preaching. In each post I’ve said that there are notable exceptions, and I’m thankful for churches that value biblical, expositional preaching, but there is indeed a famine for hearing the Word of the Lord in the land.
The central problem, I've decided, is a rush to application. We don't hear what God is saying, we hear some “relevant” application about how this passage is really about us. Even if Jesus is mentioned, the main point is how we need to clean up our act or try harder at being good Christians. Call it "Law Lite," if you will, but the gospel is missing regardless. Sometimes, there is not even a discernable passage, just a verse or two projected on the screen behind the speaker. The sermon is usually very short, but the personal illustrations are long (some call this authenticity).

Is any of this new? No, not at all. Most of this probably describes the churches I grew up in for the most part (minus the PowerPoint), though I didn't know any different then.

The reason that I'm sad about this is that God presents us a feast and we go out of our way to serve junk food. A lot of people think that the worship stops when the music stops, but can we blame them if the message has nothing of God’s voice to recommend it as worship? If people think that preaching is a bore, they probably think that the problem is with them. I wish I could communicate to them that the problem is with the lack of biblical, gospel content in their services. God is not boring. Our sin and God's solution is not boring.

I asked earlier if this problem was new. Consider this wisdom from 2600 years ago:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. -- Jeremiah 2:12-13

Again, let me stress that there are exceptions. Some churches really celebrate God and the Gospel in biblically faithful ways, but the longer I live, the more I realize how rare churches like this really are. If you attend one, be thankful. If you don't, then make some noise!

So what do I mean specifically about his poor preaching? Let me point you to another source. As I began this post, I thought about an article that I read in Modern Reformation magazine several years ago (I just checked the date – 13 years ago!) and it is still available online. It pinpoints some common preaching problems.

If you are in a church with weak preaching, work on some constructive ways to alert your pastor to the wealth of preaching resources and examples that are available.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Thinking About Churches IV: Music in the Church

In the spirit of rushing in where angels fear to tread, I’m going to present some reflections on music that I’ve witnessed in my “anecdotes from churches I’ve visited on vacation” series. I keep repeating the qualifiers that there are some positive exceptions and that this is unscientific reporting on the state of the church, but I think what I’ve seen is pretty typical.

I've noticed that people are often bored. God is not boring, and the music leaders seem to be really into their thing, so what's the problem? I think it's the shallow content of so many of the songs.

Yes, music is subjective. There are objective standards for weighing the quality of the music we sing in church, however, beginning with the theological depth and quality of the lyrics. If you are interested in growing in your understanding of music and the broader subject of worship, pick up a copy of Bob Kauflin’s book, Worship Matters. He has some other great resource recommendations at his blog and in his book if you want to go even deeper.

What I’ve seen in the songs we sing is way too much emphasis on what we do and not enough about God. Too often, you can go through a whole service with nothing but songs about me singing about how I'm praising God. In these songs, you hear a lot about what I'm doing (or supposed to be doing), but very little content about God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What are we learning as we sing, or what great truths are we celebrating?

This “me” focus is not a matter of new songs vs. old songs. The much-loved In the Garden is an easy example of an older song with this problem.

You can get away with a so-so song in a good mix and even a "me" song can be fine as a response in a bigger package. The trouble comes when most or all of the songs fit this pattern.

Another thing I’ve observed is the "token hymn syndrome." You know, throw in a hymn to keep the traditionalists happy. Unfortunately, there are a lot of flaky hymns to choose from over the last 100 years that won't upset the me/my/I weighting of the service. Sometimes the token hymn is a good song, and I should be thankful for that.

The music chosen for a worship service should be there to serve. It should serve the congregation by directing them to God, it should serve the rest of the service by being cohesive and thoughtfully ordered, and it should serve the sermon. Worship does not end when the preaching starts – preaching should be the main event of the worship service.

If you find a church where expositional, Christ-centered preaching is central, serious, joyful, transcendent music should follow. It usually does.

Are you interested in more significant worship music? Check out Sovereign Grace Music, Indelible Grace, Getty Music and Stuart Townend. There are several others that are doing good music these days. There is a bit of a reformation of worship music going on these days, thankfully.

So then, there is no excuse for doing the shallow, flaky stuff, right?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Thinking About Churches III: The Lord's Table

In this mini-series, I'm writing about my observations of the church from simply observing churches that I've attended on holidays over the past several years. These observations are unscientific, but one reason that I'm writing about them is that I've found agreement with other believers regarding their church experiences. Today, I'm going to weigh in on the observance of Communion, or what we usually call The Lord's Table.
Bible-loving, gospel-preaching churches of different types have disagreements regarding the observance of Lord's Table. However, whether observed weekly or monthly, if it's called an ordinance or a sacrament, served with grape juice or wine, crackers or bread cubes, passed around or received at the front, Christians churches do practice this ordinance (I'll leave aside groups like the Salvation Army that do not observe for now). I'm not going to weigh in on any of these matters of practice but focus on worship and truth in the observance.

I've experienced the Lord's Table as a mere add-on to the end of the service. It comes across as, "Oh, it's the first Sunday. I guess we'd better do Communion." What is missing is any description of what we're doing, any warning that only Christians are to take part in this ordinance or time for silent prayer and reflection. This careless participation appears to be very common.

The average non-Christian probably thinks that he or she is a Christian, so it is important for the pastor to desribe what the elements of the Lord's Table represent and explain what they are for. This should happen every time we serve Communion. More than an explanation, a warning should be given. I usually read 1 Corinthians 11:23-29 and offer a brief emphasis on the warning given in this passage. If I don't read these verses, I offer a similar warning.

Participating in the Lord's Table is for Christians, but it provides a great evangelistic opportunity for visiting unbelievers. I had one woman tell me that before she came to Christ, she felt acutely that she was on the outside looking in during Communion. It was a key factor in her coming to Christ. If there are no lines drawn, no clear description of what Communion is and who it is for, will people feel their need to repent and believe?

Time should be given for people to reflect upon Christ and His suffering for us during the Communion service. I often don't leave enough time (I feel rushed by the clock, foolishly), but many churches give no time of silent reflection at all.

In one church I attended several years ago, the closest thing to a warning given was the pastor saying, "If you don't feel comfortable taking part, you don't have to." Non-believers should feel uncomfortable during communion, and they should not participate, no matter how they feel.

As a pastor, I take my role as leader of the Communion service seriously. Sometimes I have rushed things or have not been as clear as I should have been with a warning, but when I see how things work in some other churches, I have to ask, "Where is the fear of the Lord?"

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Catching Up

I've been thinking of a few different things that I wanted to post here, but I don't think a full post on each one will be necessary. Besides, I want to get back to a mini-series on my church observations soon. I'll do a post on my anecdotal reflections on the Lord's Table later today.

For today, here are some point-form mini-posts:

  • My Uncle Bob died on the 9th of August and his funeral was in Maple Creek, Saskatchewan on the 14th. I took my mom to Edmonton and then we went with my brother to the funeral. My mom is #7 of 8 children and Uncle Bob was her younger brother. Now there are two siblings left. It's not easy getting older.

  • A young woman in our church invited me to come over and meet with some LDS missionaries yesterday. It never ceases to amaze me how much vocabulary we share with the Mormons, but I pressed them on the nature of God. We can agree on a thousand things, but if we have a fundamental disagreement about who God is, there is no agreement at all. It's monotheist vs. polytheist. If true religion is about what we do, then we have a lot in common. If true religion is about who we worship, then we couldn't be farther apart. Confusing the Creator with the creation is not a small matter (Romans 1:18-21) and that's what the doctrine of the exaltation of man does.

  • A couple of phrases in Jeremiah 48 jumped out at me today: You will be like a juniper in the desert! For, because you trusted in your works and your treasures, you also shall be taken.... This is in a prophecy against Moab, but it reminded me of some of the stories I'm hearing of people that are suffering in this current economic slowdown (crisis, I believe, is too strong a word for our local situation. I don't know any hungry people that are bound in chains because of their debt).

    When we were on the coast recently, I was admiring a friend's cedar trees. He said that he had to water them like crazy to get them to look like that. The Lord's pronouncement to Moab was that they were going to be like a fruitless bush in the desert. In other words, the Lord had been watering them. He sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, but because they trusted in their works and treasures and not the Lord, they were going out on their own (with some help from the Babylonians) and would suffer deserved drought.

    When times were good, I had some concerns about people that I know. They were buying all kinds of things on time and living beyond their means. I think they are feeling rather like a bush in the desert now. I hope they learn who the Gardener really is and begin to rely on Him.

Juanita just reminded me of Spurgeon's Morning and Evening for August 13 (she said it was probably in the back of my mind as I was reading about the tree in Jeremiah, and I think she's right. I did read that entry last week). Here's an exerpt:

"The cedars of Lebanon which He hath planted" - Psalm 104:16

Lebanon's cedars are emblematic of the Christian, in that they owe their planting entirely to the Lord. This is quite true of every child of God. He is not man-planted, nor self-planted, but God-planted. // Moreover, the cedars of Lebanon are not dependent upon man for their watering; they stand on the lofty rock, unmoistened by human irrigation; and yet our heavenly Father supplieth them.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Reliability of the New Testament

Justin Taylor linked to an excellent paper on the Bible today (you'll need a up-to-date copy of the free Adobe Reader or similar .pdf reader).

Our confidence in Scripture should be strong if we simply read the Bible regularly, but there are many people who buy into myths regarding God's Word, so a paper like this can be very useful.

Thanks, Dr. Harmon, for making this available.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Wretched Radio Interview

This morning I had the privilege of recording a radio interview with Todd Friel of Wretched Radio. The interview will be aired either today or tomorrow. The programs are two hours long, but I'll try to find out where the interview is after it airs. But go ahead and listen to the programs!

If you came here because you heard the interview, welcome!

If you would like to read the posts that record our journey, the first post after Emily's death can be found at September 28, 2008 - follow this link and scroll down to the third entry and then follow October 2008 link at the bottom of the page to get to the October posts. The oldest entries are at the bottom, so read from the bottom up.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Thinking About Churches II - Where is God?

I’m no expert on the Evangelical scene, but from my anecdotal experience and from conversations I’ve had with family members and friends, I’m going to offer some observations on typical evangelical church services.

In this post, I’m going to focus on what happens in general, or, more specifically, what’s missing.

First, if you took notes of the elements of the kind of service I'm thinking about, you'd find very little in terms of historic Christian content. Call to worship, Scripture reading, pastoral prayer, a benediction (let alone a time for confession or silent prayer) are scarce if not missing entirely.

What goes out the window with this pared-down order is any sense that God has anything to say to the congregation. Even in good churches (if I am honest, sometimes even our church), a real sense of transcendence is sorely lacking. Do people leave with a sense that they have met with the One True Holy God?

I did not grow up in a liturgical tradition, but every church has an order of service – a liturgy, if you will. We continue to call the Sunday morning service a worship service, but if you ask the typical worshipper about their experience, he or she would identify the singing time as worship. I don’ t blame them. If there are not significant prayers, Scripture passages read or Christ-centered biblical preaching, then why would the people think that worship is what the whole service is designed for? More than that, why would people think that all of life is to be worship if they are not even taught how to worship at church?

Worship is a response to the worth and work of God. If the revelation of God is not the priority of the service, then real worship will not take place. Worship begins with what God does, and it continues in the truth, grace and power that God provides in the gospel.

In one church service that I attended with my family, there was an earnest attempt at cheerleading from the music leader and the pastor, but the people seemed bored and disengaged. God was not on display. His Word was treated lightly (at least there was some Scripture in this service), the songs were man-centered and the prayers were sparse. Why the boredom? There is only so much enthusiasm people can work up for hearing about, singing about and thinking about themselves.

The philosophy of many of these churches is driven by a seeker-sensitive mandate: don’t make the visitor uncomfortable. Several years ago, I read an article by Dr. Michael Horton in Modern Reformation magazine entitled, Seekers or Tourists?: Or the Difference Between Pilgrimage and Vacation. The church growth gurus don’t have a category for tourists, but they should. Christian worship services should be designed for the pilgrims and the true seekers – the ones that are being convicted and called by God in and through the gospel. It is as the cross of Christ and the glory of our Redeemer is lifted up that God will draw people to Himself.

What is lacking so often in our services is a sense of weight, gravity, seriousness – in short, a consciousness of and exaltation in the glory of God. We must get back to the basics, but first, we have to repent of our shallow individualism and rediscover what God values in Christian worship services.

What are these elements? I’ve mentioned some of them in this post, but I’ll fill in some more details in the next posts in this series.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Thinking About Churches

I just got back from a great holiday on Thursday evening (see previous post). I was back in our church yesterday. I sure am thankful for our church.

Visiting other churches, talking to friends and family about churches and then coming home to our church has me thinking.

When I graduated from seminary a dozen years ago, I was quite discouraged - cynical, even? - about the state of the evangelical church. I've mellowed out some. After some conversations and thinking about what I've seen in the churches we've visited, I'm feeling discouraged again.

Let me slip in some exceptions to the discouraging picture here, lest I slip back into cynicism.

First, we have visited some excellent churches. We have been more careful before we go on holidays. Juanita does her homework so we don't have to get all worked up by the type of service we're likely to find by just dropping into a random evangelical church.

I've also been very encouraged with some of the movements that are building strength on the conservative side of the Evanglical world - Together for the Gospel, The Gospel Coalition, Nine Marks and some excellent, influential books and blogs. If these movements were strictly parachurch, they'd be no big deal but they are making a significant difference in local congregations.

However, it seems that most professing evangelical churches require radical reformation. What am I talking about? I'm just going to mention them now, but I'll do a post on each of the four issues that really stand out in the next few days:
  • The general order of service / attitude of the usual worship service: Where is God?
  • The way the Lord's Table is observed: Where is the fear of God?
  • Music - the "me" songs, the ones that talk about me worshipping rather than about God and the gospel: Where is the worship of God?
  • Preaching, or what passes for preaching: Where is the Word of God?

I don't doubt the sincerity of the church leadership in some of the services I've cringed through, but that's not the point. Do these pastors understand what it is to feed the sheep in their care?

Monday, August 03, 2009

Summer Holidays

We finished a week of R&R at Sunnybrae Bible Camp on Saturday. That, for our family, is the best holiday. We're thankful for friends - old and new - beautiful weather (mid 30's or low 90's, depending on your scale), solid chapel messages, an excellent beach, great food, helpful staff, a trip to the falls on Wednesday, Tappan Co-op ice cream, safe travels, etc. etc.

This weekend, we've had a mini-reunion with Juanita's family in Kelowna. Now we're off to Revelstoke for some camping. I'll be home soon, but Juanita will be staying in B.C. for a bit with the girls a little longer. Petra is going to camp on Sunday for a week, Anne will be staying with Nana and Poppa in Kamloops, and Juanita will be helping in the kitchen at Sunnybrae. Josh is at camp for the summer (for the third year).

We've missed Emily this holiday. There were more "firsts," but we're thankful for God's goodness and grace.

I asked for a few minutes to talk at the beginning of camp. Everyone knows our story, and I knew that some people would feel awkward talking to us. I thought if I gave a little update, it would make for an easier week of family camp for everyone.

Thanks, once again, my readers, for your prayers and kindness to our family.