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Gamaliel's Desk
Saturday, February 26, 2005
Primal Preaching
I had taken time to visit my sister last week thinking it would be nice to take a week off and be on the receiving end of some preaching for a change. And it probably would have been if I had. Instead, I went to church with her and her husband who claim to be good Pharisees. After last Sunday’s service, I’m convinced they are Pharisee in name only since there wasn’t any preaching that I could tell. The first thing I noticed when I went into their “church” was that the foyer was enormous and looked more like a lounge than a church entrance. Instead of a tiny vestibule with a rack of tracts, a map with missionary prayer cards and a coat rack like my church, they had an “Information Center” that looked like an airline counter. Smiling staff with name badges greeted folks as they came in. There were books, tapes and Bibles on display (most of which were in some modern per-version) and a stack of brochures about the church. Flanking the greeters at either end of the counter were huge coffee pots and trays of doughnuts, cookies and other snacks. The foyer was crowded with people chatting, drinking coffee and either standing or sitting in the plush sofas, chairs and recliners. My sister explained that since they had gone to two services, they used the time in between for people who might not otherwise see each other to mingle and fellowship. Since I was the only one in a suit and tie, I felt out of place and thought it better to head directly into the sanctuary.

From there things just got worse. The sanctuary was so dark I felt like I was in a movie theater (not that I would know what they are like since I don’t go to movies but I’ve heard what other people say about them) instead of a church. The only illumination came from candles that were shining at various “stations” as they were called. These were tables set up with large posters or other displays that highlighted some sort of devotional topic. Each station had poems or quotes on display and had books open that “worshippers” could use to jot their thoughts or prayers. There were a number of people gathered around them, writing in the journals, lighting candles, praying or reading the quotes. If you ask me, it was all a little eerie. I went with my sister and her family to sit midway between the entrance and the stage – and I do mean stage since it had no resemblance whatsoever to a church – where we listened to two guys with guitars strum some quiet tunes I didn’t recognize under dim stage lighting. After a while the place filled up and they had a “service” of some sort. I guess. I know I didn’t recognize it as anything I’ve ever experienced before.

They started with a responsive reading from the Psalms with the words projected on a big screen. This was followed by thirty minutes of singing where the words on the screen changed once. It wasn’t really thirty minutes but it seemed like we sang the same words so many times it became meaningless mumbo jumbo. Eventually the singing gave way to playing by the “Praise Team” of some additional musicians who were joined by singers. Not one single song was godly as they sang only contemporary Christian music. Eventually the musicians quit and then they had a bunch of people come up and enact some sort of drama that went completely over my head. Finally the preacher stood up after the applause (which has no place in a godly church anyway) and had what I can only call as a talk. There was no podium, no pulpit desk, no yelling or pounding so, to my way of thinking, there was no preaching. I thanked my sister for taking me with her to church but I will make sure that I am never caught there on a Sunday morning again.

My experience heightened my awareness of the decline of preaching in our churches today. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Al Mohler wrote on “The need for biblical preaching” in the BP News this past week echoing many of my very own concerns. When I shared the article with my brother-in-law by e-mail his response was a little less than charitable. “Of course you are going to defend the primacy of preaching,” he wrote. “As a paid, professional pulpiteer that’s all you do.” I take great exception to this. Preaching is not “all I do.” First of all I spend up to six hours a day in intensive study preparing for the sermons I preach. He has no idea how much work goes into preaching a sermon. I have to search all of the main preacher web sites for sermon ideas. Then I have to find sermon illustrations from the myriad topics to go with the ideas. I find outlines to go with the messages and then the hard work begins. I research all my online commentaries, Bible study sites and even news stories to keep the message relevant. Sermon preparation is grueling work and best left to professionals.

He then went on to tell me that it’s hard for him to take my defense of preaching seriously since that is how I derive my living. He equated it to asking a barber if he needed a haircut – of course the barber is going to say you need one. We then began a rather fiery exchange back and forth that may have ultimately failed to convince him of the rightness of my position. I told him that all the great Puritans emphasized the importance of preaching and he shot back that they emphasized an “experimental faith” that complemented their preaching. When I said that they were not conducting experiments in faith but knew what they were talking about, he replied that I misunderstood the word. He said that they emphasized practical application rather than mere doctrinal disputation as I did.

I shot back that expository preaching was the foundation of sound Biblical sermonizing, that sound preachers should let the text set the agenda instead of responding to “felt needs” of the listeners. He said there wasn’t a single sermon in the Bible that was based on a verse-by-verse exposition of a text. He even went so far as to say, “Show me ONE SINGLE SERMON in the Bible where this is the case – where the text set the agenda. At best, sermons and letters quote Old Testament texts, but there is not one single incidence that I can find of an "expository" sermon in the Bible. One of the most famous sermons in the Bible in Acts 17 not only cites NO BIBLICAL TEXTS AT ALL but quotes from a heathen Greek poet instead.” As you can tell, he gets rather excitable in his posts.

When I countered that sermons were our primary means of evangelism and reaching out to sinners, he got sarcastic and wrote, “Fortunately, sinners aren't your problem. They rarely come to your church and if they do, they are generally unwelcome. They dress poorly, smell funny, talk rudely or may even be GLBTs and you really don't want them there. This is my point. If the gospel is so important, then why aren't you taking it out to the lost instead of expecting them to come in and wade past a gauntlet of ‘holier-than-thous’ to get it in an environment totally alien to them? If they don't know what theirdeepest need is and we don't GO tell them, then how is your preaching going to effect any meaningful change?” He then went on to say, “One of the things we NEVER see in the Bible is an evangelistic effort that involves inviting people to "come to church" and hear a sermon. This is a thoroughly modern invention and is nowhere practiced or admonished in scripture. So you are barking up the wrong tree.”

At this point I broke off our exchange because he couldn’t see the point that I was trying to make. The single most important thing I do is preach the gospel. It doesn’t matter if I only preach it to people who are already saved or if the lost never come in to hear it or if I never take it outside the four walls of our church. The important point is, I preach it and it is available to them to come hear it any time they want. Jesus may stand outside the door and knock but they can come in and hear me preach – as long as they dress respectably, sit quietly, don’t make a fuss or draw attention to themselves and are willing to do things our way – to hear about the unconditional love of Christ.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
Their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”
Matthew 15:7-9 (NIV)

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