“I bow down towards your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you exalted above all things your name and your word.” Psalm 138:2 (ESV)Last time, I noted that the focus in our corporate assemblies ought to be on God and Him alone… and when “what we do” focuses on other things, well… that’s a big problem. I also said that, as I see it, many evangelical churches, as a practical matter, exalt man over God in what they do.
I suggested also that you consider 2 questions about your local church and see where your “corporate heart” is placed. Yesterday, the question was “Who is the audience in your church’s worship service?” When the focus of your service - the “target audience” - is on someone (like seekers, people’s needs, etc.) or something else (making us feel or act better, entertainment, etc.) other than God and Him alone, the service – however good and helpful it is – is not a Christian WORSHIP service. And it does not exalt God’s Name and His Word above all other things.
Let’s consider a second question today, which raises an even more fundamental issue: What is our message?
Here’s what I see: The lack of practical confidence in the authority of the Bible is certainly the foundational problem in many of our evangelical churches, and because of this, I believe that our focus is wrongly placed – and the message that we proclaim does NOT exalt God’s Name and His Word above all things.
Look with me at this issue in 3 ways:
1. What Is Said: A church’s exclusive message is to proclaim Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. It is through the faithful, expository preaching of the Bible from men who have received a message from God that is the great call of the church, and when that is missing and we place other things above God’s Word in priority, authority and practice, we fail in our primary mission. And as many churches seek to address an audience other than God in their services, I note that many churches are providing those audiences with a message that is tragically short of the whole counsel of God: and their focus is, as a result, tragically wrong.
So, what is the message we are trying to communicate in our services? When our pastors take up “the sacred desk,” what “word from God” do they bring? I’m so grieved when I read some churches’ current sermon series: Another “5 steps to financial freedom” or “relationship hints” or “love, sex and dating” type things, chosen because they “speak to people’s needs,” I wonder if they’ve missed the point that the message is supposed to be God’s message to us, burned into the heart of a messenger who will not speak unless he speaks from God and for God, and not the wisdom of men with a little “God” sprinkled in to prove their point. And how we need to hear a word from God... so much of what we hear these these days is politically correct, therapeutic, feel-good... powerless to engage, convict or change.
There is also the problem of poor handling of the Word through bad theology, bad exegesis and bad hermeneutics. While there are many happy exceptions, the trend away from formal, seminary training for the ministry is, in my view, a dangerous one, which leads to many practical difficulties in church life.
The weakness in preaching, though, often reflects the general practical lack of interest even many in the pews have in the Bible. We all say that it is “our final authority for faith and practice” but don’t know it, don’t know how to use it, and treat the Bible as irrelevant in our day-to-day lives.
2. What Is Not Said: Maybe your church doesn’t have the type of messages that I mention above. That’s good, but you should ask whether the whole truth is being told, or whether the preacher skips the “hard parts” – for any reason. True worship loses its focus when the unfiltered, faithful preaching of the "whole counsel of God" revealed in God’s Word loses it's priority.
In most churches (and for most attendees), the Sunday morning sermon is the primary (and effectively, the exclusive) corporate opportunity for preaching and teaching God’s Word. So why do the preachers speak to the lowest common denominator? Why do so many preach the “positive” points and omit or skip over the “negative”? Why do some pastors pick a text to preach and skip over portions which, if taken in context, might require discussing a “hard” concept or requirement?
One of the benefits of true expository preaching is that it forces us to hear all that God wants to say to us… the pleasant and the unpleasant – both of which are “good, acceptable and perfect” to the true child of God. But the sad fact is, the “good” parts are acceptable to most people – regardless of whether they are converted. And many people tragically believe that they are Christian but reject (even angrily) some of the plain teaching in God’s Word… and they are enabled in their deception by preachers who – even while preaching God’s Word – don’t preach all of it.
Does your pastor preach “the whole counsel of God"... the parts we like and those that challenge us? Here are just a few indicators to help you answer:
*Does the message generally assume that all in attendance are Christians, or is there an acknowledgement of “tares” being present among the “wheat”?
*Are the requirements of God’s standards clearly articulated for non-believers, and are they warned about the immediate, urgent danger that they face by continuing in rebellion to God?
*Is repentance clearly preached as required? Are distinctions drawn between repentance for non-believers and believers?
*Is God described primarily as a loving God… always willing to forgive, deeply interested in meeting our needs, etc. without balancing those truths with the truth of God’s holiness, His demand for our holiness and absolute obedience?
*Is there mention at all of the reality – and imminent danger – of Hell for those apart from Jesus? Is eternal judgment ever preached?
*Are there warnings to the believers about the danger of falling into apostasy personally and admonitions to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling”?
It is an extremely serious thing to “subtract truth” from God’s revealed Word. (Revelation 22:19)
3. How It Is Said: The message that we hear is supposed to be God’s message to us. Think about that for a minute: The Sovereign God of the Universe, taking time to give us a personal word of direction, instruction, correction, encouragement, etc.!
Imagine how you would feel if you answered the phone today and President Bush was on the other end of the line, and he wanted to tell you something. Regardless of your political views, I’m willing to bet he would have your attention, you would tell your friends about the call and you would view the event as at least significant. How do you react to God’s Word to you each week?
It's a sad thing when people ignore God's message to them. But also, one of the reasons sermons are so frequently ignored, or merely tolerated, is the heart-condition of the messenger. Imagine that you were chosen to represent the United States of America at the United Nations. How would you feel? Most of us would be gripped by the seriousness of the task, perhaps overwhelmed by our inadequacy to fully convey the message, and would take any help at all in delivering the message. Similarly, men with a message from God feel those same things.
Too often, though, preachers have obtained their message through other means than hearing from God. The week was too busy, the crush of administrative and other matters crowd out the time necessary to be alone with God in the Word and in prayer, waiting to hear His message for the people. Last minute messages, pulled together from secondary sources and our own thoughts may have some impact on the listener, but they will not accomplish the same thing as God speaking to His people. Maybe it’s just me, but (as an example of many I could cite) I am shocked by Rick Warren’s pastor-website which offers pre-made sermons for pastors to use!
But these aren't the only hindrences possible. In addition to the time and priority problems faced, sometimes the preacher, sadly, is not interested in applying the message preached to his own life. All of us recognized, for example, the hypocrisy of Ted Haggard after his fall, particularly in the video clips of his messages talking about the importance of family, the sanctity of marriage, etc. When our own lives don’t measure up to what we preach, our preaching loses its impact, we lose our moral authority to be heard, and God’s message is hindered by the messenger (2 Timothy 2:21).
Whether it’s lack of time, interest, priority or personal integrity, all lead to a lack of passion. Men with a message from the God of the Universe are gripped by that message - as a matter of primary importance - for God's people. Too often, sermons are devoid of this from the preacher, and are filled instead with loads of information, precious little application, and no passion. If the message hasn't gripped, impacted and changed the preacher, it won't matter to the rest of us, either.
And sometimes, pastors also forget the difference between teaching and preaching... While sermons may emphasize one or the other sometimes, the two are very different functions: Teaching informs; Preaching moves, challenges, convicts, motivates – it changes people! Preaching is the foolish thing that God has appointed to be the primary vehicle for demonstrating the power of God in saving people. (1 Corinthians 1:21, Romans 10:14)
What’s the “passion level” of your church’s message?
*As a general matter, do the messages seem primarily directed to provide new information or to move the listener to specific action?
*When you leave the service, are you struck with conviction about the pressing need to conform your thinking and behavior to the message you just heard, or can you go on with your day without giving much – if any – thought to the message preached?
*When you talk to friends or family after the service, is applying the message heard your primary topic of conversation?
*Assuming that they were old enough to listen, can your children tell you what the message was about?
Listen, really listen, to the sermon you hear this weekend – pay very close attention, and ask yourself this question: What does the preacher want me to do? What exactly, practically, should I do to be more like Jesus this week in my attitude, actions or activities? And is that command or challenge from the Word, or is it the preacher’s idea?
Even more importantly, is the preacher gripped by the importance of the message? Does it really matter to him? Has he been affected, changed by the message? If not, it’s right to wonder if he’s heard the message from the God of the Universe… and a man without a message from God has no real message for God's people.
How about us? What is our responsibility – those of us in the pew - for the message? Consider this: The Bereans were judged by Scripture as “more noble” than others because they “…received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11) We should do no less with the message proclaimed in our churches. The most frightening thing I have seen about preaching is that, apparently, most people do not seem to care – period.
What an awesome, fearful responsibility your pastor bears – to be the primary messenger in your life to bring God’s Word to you! We ought to pray diligently for them to have enough time and freedom from distraction so that they can prepare themselves adequately for this task. We ought to pray for courage and boldness in telling “the good and the bad.” And we ought to be deeply concerned if, over time, the pastor is not meeting this fundamental responsibility of his office.
All of that to say this: When we focus on less than the whole counsel of God - when we dilute His Truth by wrong focus, poor methodology or a lack of passion, we end up elevating other things over God’s Word in fact.
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Maybe for those in my generation, this problem of “WHAT” – our focus - may be hard to see. But in my limited experience, my children's generation sees the issue very, very clearly. The next time one of your kids comes home from college, ask them what the focus is of your church service… the answer may surprise you. The emerging church movement is right in its questioning whether we as evangelicals have lost our God-focus… and, while I have considerable discomfort what some in the conversation are saying, their pursuit of God in worship ought to challenge us to think about who our audience is.
So how does your church do in its worship service – and what is the message proclaimed? You have to answer those questions for yourself… but this is what I see increasingly evident in our movement: When, by design or effect, the practical focus of a corporate assembly shifts from God alone to us, it is wrong, and it is sin. And it does not exalt God’s Name and His Word above ALL OTHER THINGS. And if we as evangelicals don’t seek to elevate God’s Name and His Word above ALL OTHER THINGS, we will die as a movement as surely as the mainline denominations have done before us.
But the problem is bigger than just the “WHAT” of evangelical corporate focus… it is revealed more clearly in “HOW” things get done.
Next time: “HOW" - Is Our Methodology Wrong?