Dressed in old jeans and a worn tee shirt, the pastor strolled to the front of the rented school auditorium. We were already deafened from the grunge-style band that had played warm-up songs for the service. “And now,” the scruffy pastor said, “I’d like to share some reflections on God-stuff.” Welcome to the new evangelical church.
Much about my brother’s “new generation” church in suburban Minneapolis surprised me during that 2001 visit. The music was mind-numbing. The congregation was very casual. (“You could go in your bathrobe and nobody would care,” my sister-in-law reassured me when I worried about forgetting my necktie.) It was also very large — and something of a church growth success story.
The sermon itself wasn’t bad. The pastor eventually used the Bible and the message was orthodox and practical. What struck me, however, was that instead of a sermon we got “reflections on God-stuff.” In trying to reach the post-modern culture in a non-threatening way, the pastor was reduced to sharing his feelings and personal thoughts. There was no formal reading of Scripture, followed by a deliberate exposition of the Word and an emphatic “thus saith the Lord.” And what our generation needs now, more than ever, is the faithful proclamation of God’s authoritative Word.
There is a revolution in contemporary evangelical worship and preaching.1 Church growth gurus preach new techniques of attracting crowds and growing churches. While their motives may be good, their approach to worship and preaching is a dramatic departure from what is genuinely Biblical. While my criticisms don’t apply to all churches, they are true of many of the largest churches and are, I’m afraid, indicative of the direction of modern evangelicalism.
For modern evangelicals, worship is often only a sanctified entertainment. Performers and professionals entertain a largely passive congregation. The Reformation emphasis on participatory corporate worship is vanishing. Some congregational singing remains, but worship styles vary, from campfire songs and sentimental ditties to jazzy numbers led with Las Vegas style showmanship. Frequently the music is loud. High decibel productions may be a way of pandering to the youth and generating excitement, but there may also be more manipulative motivations.2
New worship styles have even infected Reformed churches. Many have adopted contemporary or blended worship, or have employed drama and dancing. A Baptist colleague recently visited his son’s modern PCA church, and I braced myself for the worst, since my elderly friend doesn’t like any funny stuff. “They had dancing during the worship,” he reported, “ballet dancing — but I couldn’t say much because my granddaughter was the ballerina!” We commiserated about the direction of evangelicalism, and agreed that churches shouldn’t stage dance performances (unless, as in this case, the little ballerinas happened to be exceptionally cute).
Even worse is what has happened to evangelical preaching. “Seeker friendly” churches avoid being confrontational and eschew preaching God’s law, sin and judgment, and the need for repentance. Sermons are to be short and cheerful. “Short sermons —spicy slogans” could easily have been the motto of one church growth guru I recently heard. (People don’t like long messages, his argument went, but they do like and remember catchy slogans.) He said nothing about exegesis and doctrine, but stressed using alliteration and acrostics. Because they are market driven and numbers oriented, church growth pioneers invariably pitch worship and preaching to the lowest common denominator, at the expense of Biblical exposition.
When sin and judgment are preached, it is in special venues. At our home Bible study in October, a Baptist visitor requested prayer for the success of “Scaremare.” Scaremare is a Halloween season production that emphasizes the Last Judgment to bring youngsters under conviction. It is designed to scare the socks off pagans — doing for them what A Thief in the Night did for my generation. But the “Halloween gospel” is tame compared to other, historic attempts at illustrating everlasting torment. Historian Paul Johnson notes that one early Franciscan missionary to the American Indians “taught the doctrine of hell by throwing dogs and cats into an oven, and lighting a fire under it: the howls of the animals terrified the Indians.”3
Technique-driven approaches have been used in churches before. In Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750-1858, Ian Murray describes what happened in the Second Great Awakening. “Revival,” he argues, refers to a genuine Spirit-guided religious awakening, focusing on gospel preaching, the conviction of sin, and true conversion. “Revivalism,” on the other hand, refers to the manipulation of people through human techniques: the “adoption of means — to promote emotion” or, in the words Charles G. Finney (the architect of these “new measures”), to “raise an excitement.”4
Ann Douglas has described the enormous shift in Protestant churches in the 19th century. Until 1820, she argues, Calvinism was the chief theological tradition and it was the “vehicle of intellectual and cultural life in America.” Evangelical Christians were gradually transformed by the influence of Victorianism, mass culture, consumerism, sentimentality, and the Sunday school — “with its saccharine simplification of dogma.” By 1875, American Protestants simply stressed family morals and civic duties, and churches “shifted their emphasis from a primary concern with doctrinal beliefs of their members to a preoccupation with numbers.” What she describes is strikingly similar to what we see now: “In ecclesiastical and religious circles, attendance came to account for more than genuine adherence.”5
Recovering Biblical Preaching
The Protestant Reformation once brought a new emphasis on the Word of God and preaching. The Reformation, Dabney notes, “was emphatically a revival of gospel preaching.”6 Zwingli was a good example of the centrality of the Word, abandoning “the traditional lectionary in favor of a verse-by-verse exposition of the Scripture.” As Timothy George points out, “Protestant worship centered around the pulpit and open Bible with the preacher facing the congregation, not around an altar with a priest performing a semi-secret ritual.”7
The 17th century Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God is an excellent example of the primacy of the Word in worship, and its section on “the Preaching of the Word” offers excellent advice on the construction of sermons. Sermons are serious business, because preaching is “the power of God unto salvation.” Sermons must be expository — tied directly to a specific passage of scripture. Sermons must be analytical — dividing the passage into chief points.8 Sermons must be doctrinal —“pointing at the chief heads or grounds of doctrine.” They must be comparative, referring to “parallel places of scripture.” They must be hermeneutically clear, so that “the hearers may discern how God teacheth [the doctrine] from it.” And sermons must be applicatory and practical, so that it will result in the edification of the congregation. The Directory is a superlative, concise homiletical guide, still worthy of careful study.9
Robert Dabney’s Evangelical Eloquence provides an excellent 19###sup/sup### century case for the importance of preaching. Since preachers gain their authority from the Word of God, sermons must be expository. They must be faithful to the text, laboring to explain precisely what the Spirit of God intended. Preachers must be both doctrinal and practical: “It was a golden maxim of the Protestant Fathers, that ‘doctrines must be preached practically and duties doctrinally.’” And Dabney insists that preaching, by applying the Word of God to the hearts of the listeners, should move people. “If the [sermon] does not bring their wills under the direct grasp of a ‘thus saith the Lord’ it is not a sermon; it has degenerated into a speech.”10
Likewise, in The Imperative of Preaching: A Rhetoric of Sacred Theology, John Carrick argued for this vigorous and practical hortatory element of preaching.11 For Carrick, true Biblical preaching has an indicative-imperative construction. The indicative is the statement of propositional truth from the Scriptures, and the imperative is an exhortation to hear and respond to the truth of Christ. “[P]reaching has two great purposes,” William Baikie once observed, “to instruct and to persuade. Of instructive preachers there is no lack, but how seldom one [finds] any who have skill to persuade.” The imperative or persuasive function is, for Baikie, “[T]he power that gets to close quarters with men, that touches their springs of action, that lays bare their poor aims and motives till they are ashamed, and that strives to turn them from the power of Satan unto God.”12
What the Reformers and Reformed theologians have emphasized is clearly the Biblical model for proclaiming the Word. Paul’s rhetorical question in Romans 10:14 (“How shall they hear without a preacher?”) underscores the divine sanction for preaching. Paul’s advice in 1 Timothy 4:16 (“Pay close attention to yourself and your teaching…to insure salvation for yourself and those who would hear you”) underscores the vital, eternal importance of preaching. Preaching may seem “foolish” and old-fashioned, but it is the means God has ordained to bring people to Christ (1 Cor. 1:21). And Paul’s exhortation to Timothy is a great challenge to the modern church: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Many modern evangelical churches have become technique-driven and numbers-conscious. Their great goal is to fill churches, and no doubt some good comes of the techniques employed. But the real reform of the church will come through the Spirit of God, working through the faithful preaching of the Word. Preachers are not called to share “reflections on God-stuff.” They are called to formally proclaim the inerrant and infallible Word, God’s instrument to bring lost men to salvation.
1. The revolution isn’t limited to American evangelicalism. About five years ago, while visiting in predominately Catholic Bavaria, I was delighted to find a German Evangelical Church in downtown Munich. When the service started, the youth group came out to perform a couple of folk songs, and the guitar-strumming song leader was a girl dressed in bib overalls. Apparently the sloppy clothes and bad music of modern evangelicalism transcends the boundaries of place and culture and language.
2. I once complained about the loud and repetitive music of mega-churches to a friend who pastored a charismatic church, and he startled me by explaining the theory behind it. Noise and repetition were designed to break down internal barriers and reservations, and consequently render a person more receptive to the message. Praise music, then, did not have as its primary end the worship of God. Rather it had a subjective and utilitarian goal, designed to produce a change in the participating soul. It is one more example of Finneyistic behaviorism: developing new mechanisms to manipulate the person and his will.
3. Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976), 403.
4. Ian Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750-1858 (Carlisle, Pennsylavania: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 243-246.
5. Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Avon, 1977), 3-6. Douglas further argues that the churches and clergy were emasculated during the period, as vigorous Calvinistic doctrine was replaced by a generic Unitarian sentimentality and domesticity.
6. Robert Lewis Dabney, Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures on Preaching (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust,  1999), 26. Dabney distinguishes between the evangelical preaching of the Reformation, and the heavy technical and polemical preaching of the 17th century, and the moralistic preaching of the 18th century Moderates.
7. Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1988), 91, 127, 185.
8. Sometimes, in the guise of exposition, a preacher will read a passage and then drift to whatever topics pop into mind. (Samuel Davies once commented on the sermon of a Methodist minister, that it was a “mere huddle of pathetic confusion.”) The faithful pastor must stick to the Word, carefully developing, explaining and applying the meaning of the passage. An old homiletics professor used to give good advice to us preacher-boys: “Keep your finger in the text!”
9. The Directory for the Public Worship of God is included in the edition of the Westminster Standards published by the Free Church of Scotland, and is also readily available online (http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html)
10. Dabney, Evangelical Eloquence, 34, 52-58, 76, 159, 178f.
11. John Carrick, The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002).
12. William Baikie, The Preachers of Scotland (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2001), 321.