Thursday, June 28, 2007

On Preaching Narrative

Unfortunately, though, preaching from Old Testament narratives resembles playing the saxophone: it is easy to do poorly.
Stephen D. Mathewson, “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming Old Testament Narratives,” BSac (154:410). He says, “This analogy comes from Haddon W. Robinson, who originally applied it to expounding parables” (Biblical Sermons [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989], 168).

I am currrently reading David Larsen's book Telling the Old Old Story: The Art of Narrative Preaching. This article is a good, though brief, companion to the book.

While I am on the topic, if almost half the Bible is narrative (think most of Genesis-Esther, Matthew-Acts), why aren't narrative texts more prominent in our preaching?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Conversation of Worship - We Respond to God Through Giving

We respond to God through giving.

An equally important part of the worship service is the time of corporate offering. The offering is giving back to God from what he has given to us. Its roots are found in the Old Testament worship of God as well as in the New Testament life of the church. 1 Chronicles 16:29 is an example of the Scriptures that show giving as a part of worship:

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due His name;

Bring an offering, and come before Him;

Worship the LORD in holy array.

2 Corinthians 9:5-14 lays out some of the New Testament teaching on giving. While the offering described in 2 Corinthians 9 was a specific offering the needs of others saints, the general principles of giving can be derived from this passage. In this passage, Paul encourages the believers to give generously (vv. 2-6, 10-14), according to their personal pledge (v. 7), depending on God (v. 8), and from the heart because God loves a cheerful giver (v. 7). This giving then results in the needs of the saints being met and thanksgiving and glory to God (vv. 12-13). These principles, and others found in the New Testament, guide our worship of giving.

The offering should not be regarded as simply a time to raise the money needed to run the church, nor should it should become a time of brow-beating and manipulation. It is a time of worship during which the church body responds to God by giving to the body of Christ. The offering is taken, not with great fanfare, but with a sense of humble and thankful worship.

Many churches today have stopped taking a public offering, choosing instead to place offering boxes in various locations around the place where the church meets.[1] This has the potential of robbing the people of God of the corporate worship of giving in unison. A church would be wise to consider ways in which they can make it clear that the offering is not for visitors, but for the people of the church, while stressing that participation in the offering is an act of grateful and obedient worship.

[1] Some have done this in order to not offend visitors who believe that “Churches just want your money.” Others have done this to maintain secrecy in giving, claiming Matthews 6:3-4 as a basis. Neither of these reasons seem convincing to this author.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Conversation of Worship - We Speak to God Through Prayer

Prayer is an obvious part of our conversation with God. But often, to the person in the pew, it is an undervalued part. It is perhaps even something to be endured rather than participated in. Prayer should be the time of the service where we bind our hearts together corporately to implore God for his blessing and help on our behalf. Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple goes on for 29 verses in 1 Chronicles 6. Many of the Psalms are prayers set to music. The early church was devoted to prayer as seen both in the book of Acts and the epistles.[1] Prayer is a necessary part of corporate worship.

It would be wise to consider times of both corporate, or public prayer, as well as times of private prayer in the service. Giving time for silence of heart and imploring people to call on God privately to use the light of his truth proclaimed to change to their own lives and the lives of others is a vital part in leading the church in prayer and in teaching the church to pray. It would be wise for the worship leader not to be afraid of silence in corporate worship, but rather to encourage directed silence—silence of personal prayer directed towards a specific request of God for the service.

Pastoral prayers are important in not only calling on God for his mercy and truth, but in teaching others to pray. Pastors might do well to consider resisting the urge to extemporize their entire prayer choosing rather to plan their prayers according to a general outline.[2] The use of Scripture in prayer can also help to form our thoughts and direct our requests.

Prayer, like music, should be intelligible. The “catch phrases” of church life may be confusing to a church of newer believers, and may be blasé or trite to a church of mature believers. Thanking God for the “finished cross work of Christ” is an appropriate prayer, but may prove confusing to those who do not know what it means. While are prayers are not directed to people, but to God, our prayers are for people and thus should be intelligible to them so that they know what we are praying for and so that they can participate along with the person leading in prayer. Our wording should also be varied, so as to prevent vain repetition and to engage thoughtful participation.

Public prayer should be characterized by both reverence and boldness, rather than presumption, and should likely take a different nature than private prayer. The heart immersed in constant prayer throughout the day may breathe a sentence or two of “colloquial prayer” during a moment of thought. A corporate prayer should be less colloquial and personal, and in keeping with the corporate gathering of the church.

We may speak boldly with God, but still He is in heaven and we are upon earth, and we are to avoid presumption. In supplication we are peculiarly before the throne of the Infinite, and as the courtier in the king’s palace puts on another mien and another manner than that which he exhibits to his fellows courtiers, so should it be with us.[3]

[1] E.g., Acts 1:14, 24; 2:42, 4:24-31; 6:4; 6:6; 8:14; 12:5-12; 13:3; 14:23; 21:5; Rom 12:12; 15:30; 2 Cor 9:14; Eph 1:16; 6:18-20; Phil 1:4, 9, 19; 4:6; Col 4:2; 1 Thess 3:10; 5:17; 2 Thess 1:11; 3:1; 1 Tim 2:1; 8; 1 Tim 5:5; Jam 5:13-18; 1 Peter 4:7; Jude 1:20.

[2] See Derek Prime and Alistair Begg, On Being a Pastor (Chicago: Moody Press, 2004), pp. 211-216. On p. 214, Prime presents his own approach to outlining prayers.

[3] Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, p. 55

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Conversation of Worship - Response Through Singing

We have now concluded the first half of this article on worship. We now turn our attention to our response in worship. Previous sections can be found in the archives, locating in the side bar to your right. The article in its entirety can be found here.

The speaking of God is only half of worship, however. The voice of God comes in revelation in order to call the hearer to a response. This inward response is also an indispensable part of worship. There are five primary ways in which the church responds to God in corporate worship.

We respond to God through singing

In discussing music above, we asserted that music is both vertical (directed to God) and horizontal (directed to others in teaching about God). There, we addressed the horizontal role of music in proclaiming the truth of God and about God to one another in song. The use of music discussed in this section is primarily the vertical use of music—to God—particularly in light of the truth of God that we know or that has been communicated to us. In Ephesians 5, such singing is in the context of Spirit filling (v. 18) and giving thanks (v. 20). In Colossians 3, it is in the context of the changed life and letting the word of God dwell in us richly. These texts indicate that music should flow from the heart that is being changed, and should be directed to God in praise for this change of heart.

The response in music can be an expression of direct worship and praise, an expression of submission or prayer, or an expression of a testimony. Songs should be carefully chosen to reflect right sentiments and right responses. It may take the form of expressly biblical phraseology, such as metrical Psalms. It may also take more modern forms. Today, many churches use hymns that date from the first millennia of church history right up through the present generation. The choice of music in planning the response of singing should take note of the same concerns delineated above of doctrinal fidelity, intelligibility, and propriety. A response is not true biblical worship if it is not an appropriate sentiment called forth from the Scripture that is understood by the worshipper.

The congregation should be encouraged to sing to God, even though it may be an uncomfortable mental transition for some. In this respect, singing should be considered no different than prayer. It is the expression of the heart directed to God himself.

In most services, it seems customary to begin with singing and end with preaching. Such an order, while traditional, puts us in the position of worshipping God on the basis of remembered truth (which is fine), rather than freshly presented truth (which may be better). For this reason, many churches use a “Call to Worship” consisting of a passage of Scripture to set the theme for corporate worship. An alternative may be to move the preaching of the Word to an earlier place in the service, and close with a carefully planned response of music following the message that consists of more than one song.

Friday, June 08, 2007

In Case You Did Not Know Already

TV Viewing Hazardous to Moral Health, CMI Study Finds

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia, June 7, 2007 ( - Heavy television watching parallels a decline in moral values and a sense of personal responsibility, a new study by the Culture and Media Institute of the Media Research Center has found.

In a new Special Report entitled “The Media Assault on American Values,” released by the CMI June 6, a clear correlation was shown to exist between an increase in the number of hours a viewer spent watching TV and a decline in the strength of personal moral values. The report explored the findings of the National Cultural Values Survey, a major study of American cultural and moral values conducted in December 2006.

Among the areas affected by TV viewing habits were attitudes towards abortion, charitable giving, sexual morality, financial self-sufficiency on healthcare and retirement, and church attendance.

In other news, scientists today realized that the sky is above us, joining the multiplied millions who already figured that out but did not have the money to spend on a study.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Conversation of Worship - Ordinances

The fourth way that God speaks to us is through the ordinances. The ordinances are symbols of God’s saving truth, and are ways in which the church proclaims the message of God to others. Baptism, the initial confession of Christ as Lord and Savior, and Communion, the remembrance of Christ’s death and our participation in it are acts of proclamation of the gospel through signs. In carrying these out, we instruct hearers and participants of the saving truths of the gospel and the implications that it has for life.


These four practices—public reading of Scripture, preaching, singing, and the ordinances—are the ways that God speaks to us and they are necessary for biblical worship since biblical worship can never take place until the worshipper has heard from God. While the musical forms or the preaching styles may vary, the voice of God is heard where the truth of Scripture is properly handled and proclaimed with the goal of giving hearers greater understanding and calling them to submission to the lordship of Christ.

Horton points to the historical record that revival of proclamation in teaching and preaching leads to a revival of genuine worship.

Every great revival of worship, including the creation of new hymns and more faithful as well as understandable liturgies, has come on the heels of a great reformation of church proclamation and teaching. When God’s people understand who God is, who they are in his presence, and what is happening to them when they come into his presence, not only their minds but their hearts are transformed. These great periods always involve two things that seem contradictory at first: a massive clash with the world and a worldly church, and a renewed sense of the immense relevance of forgotten truths and practices in a new setting.[1]

This speaking from God has to take the primary or foundational role in biblical worship. It is absolutely indispensable for a vibrant, healthy, and challenging worship service.

[1] Horton, A Better Way, p. 14. Incidentally, Horton’s comments seem to intimate a distinction between worship and preaching.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Conversation of Worship - Singing the Truth of God

A third way that God speaks is through the singing of his truth. The Psalms, the worship texts of ancient Israel, were filled with truth about God in his person and work on behalf of his people. The titles of many psalms reflect their use in temple worship. They were likely not read, as we normally handle them today, but rather were sung corporately or by a choir as the expression of the heart in response to the greatness of God. The New Testament contains texts that were possibly hymns of the early church (cf. Phil 2:5-11; 1 Tim 3:16).

The role of singing in worship is two-fold. Singing is first directed to God as praise. These are songs not sung about God so much as they are sung to God.[1] Songs are also directed to others as teaching. Ephesians 5:17 and Colossians 3:16 both speak of the teaching and admonishing aspect directed to one another in the music of the church.[2] As such, singing in the church fulfills a didactic purpose as the congregation rehearses the truth about God corporately so that all assembled are both teaching and being taught. Thus singing is a proclamation of truth.

Because music teaches and proclaims truth about God, it supplements the pulpit ministry.[3] What is sung is just as important as what is said. Therefore, the foremost requirement for worship music is doctrinal fidelity. A song that communicates doctrinal error must be rejected. A song may be acceptable if it is imprecise, or incomplete. It is not acceptable if it inaccurate.

In evaluating songs, we must also evaluate the intelligibility of a song. Wording that engenders confusion or obfuscation are little better than songs that communicate error. In some cases, the lack of clarity stems from obtuse poetry or stilted syntax driven by the need to conform to a poetic form rather than the need to clearly communicate. Such lack of clarity can be minimized by explanation, but perhaps should be used sparingly. In other cases, lack of clarity stems from unfamiliar words, some of which should be explained and others that should be abandoned. If people do not understand what they are singing, they are not worshipping.[4]

A song should also be appropriate in its presentation, both textually and musically. It must correspond to the God whom we worship. Since it is possible to say right things but in a wrong way for the occasion or the person we are talking to, the style of the words as well as the style of the music must be carefully evaluated for its suitability and appropriateness in worship.

[1] See discussion of this below.

[2] While there is a technical distinction between a hymn, an anthem, a song, etc., these distinctions are not useful for this discussion, though they are not without merit.

[3] There is too often an unfortunate distinction between “worship” and “preaching.” I would suggest this distinction may arise from the (false) idea that worship is an emotional response, and since music most easily draws forth that emotional response (often without respect to the song text), it is most closely associated with worship. The argument here is that preaching is as much worship as music.

[4] I would suggest that the first priority of a hymnwriter be doctrinal accuracy in intelligible form. Rhyme and meter should be secondary.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Conversation of Worship - The Preaching of the Word

God is also heard when Scripture is taught or preached.[1] With the accurate handling of the Word of God, the preacher becomes the voice of God to the gathered congregation. Therefore, when a preacher or teacher stands up with God’s word, he is bound to communicate the truth of the text to his audience. When the preacher accurately communicates that truth, it is not the word of man but the word of God. Sidney Greidanus says,

Contemporary preaching of the gospel … is an indispensable link in the chain of God’s redemptive activity … This high view of preaching can never be the boast of preachers, of course; it can only underscore their responsibility. For with the prophets we noticed that their authority did not reside, ultimately, in their calling or office but in the words they spoke, whether they were from the Lord. So it is with preachers today: they have a word from the Lord, but only if they speak the Lord’s word. The only norm we have for judging whether preachers speak the word of the Lord is the Bible.[2]

Both the Old and New Testaments are filled with references to the communication of the message of God in preaching. Two notable passages are found in Nehemiah and 2 Timothy. In Nehemiah, at the restoration of the people to the land, a number of men “explained the law to the people while the people remained in their place. They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:7-8). Here, preaching is seen to involve the explanation of Scripture in order to give people understanding of it with its commands and demands of God on their lives. In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul commands Timothy to “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.” Here, preaching is seen to be the heralding or proclaiming of the Word, in all circumstances, with the goal of bringing the hearer under the power of the commands and demands of God. In essence, these two passages communicate the same basic idea of preaching: Tell people exactly what God has said and what they should do in light of what God has said.

The Bible places great emphasis placed on preaching and teaching the word in the corporate life of the church[3] and double honor to be given to elders who do it well (1 Tim 5:17).[4] Today, that emphasis too often takes a back seat to good administrators or executives, or even good communicators who do not handle the truth faithfully. The pastor is too often judged by his ability to communicate rather than his ability to faithfully exposit the Word. It is also lost in the midst of activities that a church pursues: the socials, the exercise clubs, the concerts, the programs, or the band. The contemporary church has too easily dispensed with solid, expositional preaching.

Paul warned of a day when people would not endure sound doctrine, choosing to turn away to other kinds of teachers (2 Tim 4:3-4). The word translated doctrine is from the same word translated just a line later as teacher. Implicit is the idea of rejecting sound doctrine is the rejection of the preacher who proclaims such doctrine. At the same time, these itching ears will not endure silence. They will gather for themselves a different kind of preacher with a different kind of message—myth instead of truth. At the heart of this warning is the implication that people are driving the pulpit. A people driven pulpit will always tends towards myth, while a Bible driven pulpit will tend towards truth.

It is hard to conceive of a more accurate description of the modern day than what is found in 2 Timothy 2:3-4. Many compelling, winsome, and gifted communicators gather a crowd, not because of the biblical content, but because they scratch the itch. Too often the Scriptures are called on to support the worldly way of doing things rather than offering a divine and radical substitute. The pastor becomes a group counselor rather than a prophetic voice. Preaching has been relegated to moralistic lessons rather than divine mandates. This is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions.

In some cases, the preaching is driven not by the desires or the hearer but rather by the pet issues of the preacher. This is equally bad. The pulpit cannot become a soap box for the preacher’s pet issues—his theological, psychological, social, or political speculations. Biblical preaching must be driven by the text being brought to bear on the lives of the hearers. Preachers must ask the question, Is the Bible necessary to preach this sermon? If it is not, then he must question whether or not he is speaking for God or for himself. A preacher is to be the voice of God to people, and therefore, must call on the Word of God to change the people of God through the communication of the truth of God applied to life, calling people to submission to the lordship of Christ.

Cotton Mather said, “The great design and intention of the office of a Christian preacher [is] to restore the throne and dominion of God in the souls of men.”[5] While we might take issue with the eschatological implications of that statement, it is undeniable preaching should be done with the goal of calling all humanity to submission to the lordship of Christ. Worship can never take place so long as man’s heart is ruled by anyone or anything other than Christ. Preaching is therefore part of worship, in that it lays the truth about God and from God before the hearer and calls him to a glad and necessary response of submission.

Biblical preaching must address the thought processes from which our actions derive and then address the behavior itself. Wrong behavior is no accident. It is the outgrowth of wrong beliefs about God and the gospel. The preacher must bring the Bible to bear on the thinking of the hearers, so that their view of God is radically changed by the Scriptures thereby producing godliness in their lives.

Preaching must handle the text accurately if it is to be worship and to draw forth worship. Drawing forth a response to falsehood is not biblical worship, no matter how well intentioned or persuasive the speaker might be. True preaching must take the text and, in the words of Nehemiah, “translate it to give the sense so that they understand the reading.” To fail to “give the sense” is to fail to worship God. It is, in fact, to erect a substitute god and call people to worship that.

When a text is distorted, it is to the detriment both of the preacher and the hearer. Peter warned of those who, as “untaught and unstable” would distort the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:15-16). Paul exhorted Timothy to “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you. (1 Timothy 4:16). Care must be taken because of the fact that preaching is the voice of God and there is the expectation of authority in it.

Today, many are trying to “dumb down” Christianity to make it appealing to the world. For many, preaching is an attempt to be funny, clever, and relevant. However, the true relevance of Christianity is found in its dissonance from the world and all its values. We are not bringing Christ down to the world. Our call is to bring the world up to Christ. God is seeking worshippers, not people who feel better about themselves. God is seeking people who will be “addressed, undressed, and redressed” before him each week.[6] He is seeking people who will fall before him in submission to his word. Showing the relevance of the word of the Lord to a world steeped in ungodliness does not require compromise. In fact, it demands clarity without compromise.

When the truth of God’s word is clearly preached, God is worshipped with the result that people are rightly taught the true meaning and implications of the text, and thereby are called into a response of submission to the lordship of Christ. Only when this has happened, can biblical worship take place. Preaching is not an add-on to worship, or something that the church does after worship (i.e., music). It is a part of worship and it draws forth biblical worship through its call to submission.

[1] It is doubtful to this author that there is a great difference between teaching and preaching. Every teaching session should include some “preaching” in the form of a call to change something in our lives to conform it to God’s word. Every preaching session should include in it the teaching of truth so that there is something to which the listen should respond. The bottom line is that when the word of God is rightly handled, God is speaking.

[2] Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), p. 9.

[3] Cf. Matt 28:19-20; Luke 24:46-47; Acts 1:8; 2:42; 6:2-4; 8:4-5; 1 Tim 4:11-15; Titus 1:9. Consider also that of the qualifications for pastor, only two are related to skill sets: able to teach and able to manage (1 Tim 3:2, 4-5). The other qualifications all deal with character.

[4] Double honor here probably include honor of all kinds, including monetary remuneration.

[5] Cotton Mather, “Student and Preacher, or Directions for a Candidate of the Ministry (London: Hindmarsh, 1726), v, cited in John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), p. 22.

[6] Michael Horton, A Better Way (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), p. 180.