Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Announcing the Sermon in Advance and Larger Issues

Every day I ride by churches that have message board signs out front. We have one here at Immanuel. Typically, our sign carries one message: "A Church for All People". There are times throughout the year that we might put something on the sign to announce a coming event, or to recognize a particular season. For instance, during Christmas, we might list special services; during Easter, we might have "Christ the Lord is Risen," and when the area colleges start their fall semesters, we might post "Welcome Students," or "Welcome Back Students." Two things we do not list on our signs are idiotic little slogans and the title of the upcoming Sunday's sermon. My friend Bryan Rhoden has published a book on the problem with idiotic little slogans (Signs of the Times: The False Messages, Half-Truths, and Poor Theology of Church Marquees), and I would commend that book to anyone in a church that is fond of these mindless and sometimes blasphemous one-liners. But I have often wondered as I drove by those churches which post the upcoming Sunday sermon title, "Does anyone show up because they are interested in that subject?" Is it my own laziness that prevents me from doing that? Is it my rather unorthodox study habits? After all, sometimes on Friday morning, when the bulletin is printed, I am still at a loss for what I am going to call the message.

I was skimming through D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' excellent book, Preaching and Preachers, today, and was reminded of his thoughts on this subject in the chapter entitled "What to Avoid." He recognizes that "it seems quite clear that most people seem to like this," but then confesses that "this is a practice of which I disapprove and which I have never followed." He proceeds to detail the reasons:

1. "People should come to the house of God to worship God, and to listen to an exposition of the Word of His Truth, whatever it may be, whatever aspect, whatever portion is being considered." Lloyd-Jones considers this to be "the first and overriding reason" for his opposition to announcing the sermon in advance because it "encourages a pseudo-intellectualism." He describes how, in the middle of the 1800s, "people began to regard themselves as now educated and intellectual and felt that they must have 'subjects.'"

2. Lloyd-Jones also says that this encourages a "too-theoretical approach to the Truth" which is bad for both the preacher and the people. He expounds on this elsewhere in the book.

3. "It has the tendency to isolate subjects from their context in the Scriptures; indeed ultimately it regards the Scriptures as but a collection of statements about particular subjects." The result of this is that "one loses the sense of the wholeness of the biblical message and becomes interested in particular subjects and questions."

4. According to Lloyd-Jones, the reason why people are interested in particular subjects and not others is "that they think they know what they need, and they only want to hear about the things in which they say they are 'tremendously interested.'" Lloyd-Jones contends that "they are not in a position, ultimately, to know what they need," and "so often their idea as to what they need is quite wrong." Rather, "they should be interested in the whole of truth and every aspect of it, and we must show them their need of this."

5. A related but distinct concern is that of developing 'lop-sided" believers who "lust after particular subjects." Therefore, he concludes that if we "announce our subjects we tend to increase this danger of a lop-sided, imbalanced Christian life."

On the whole, Lloyd-Jones concludes that announcing the subjects in advance was one of many developments to arise during the Victorian era of the mid-1800s. He suggests that "we are now experiencing a kind of hangover from this." Therefore, he says, "the urgent need today is to break free from these bad habits, this false respectability and intellectualism." He acknowledges that he feels that "they detract from the preaching of the Gospel and the centrality of the preaching of the gospel." "How different," he says, "the state of our churches would be if we were all as concerned to be orthodox in our beliefs as we are to be orthodox in our conformity to 'the thing to do' and "the done thing' in the churches."

Now, why, on a busy Wednesday afternoon, am I devoting this time to re-read, and then to blog, about announcing sermons in advance? Because all of Lloyd-Jones' critiques of this rather silly practice could be just as well applied to the widespread practice of topical preaching in general. By picking and choosing selected topics for one-off sermons or even brief, eight to twelve week series, we cater to the same sentiments that Lloyd-Jones was addressing. We are better served by, and of greater service to the church by, returning to the ancient form of Lectio Continua, the systematic exposition of entire books of Scripture, verse-by-verse, considering both the whole and the constituent parts.

Secondly, in his summary of the matter, he touches on a trend that has never died and likely never will. This is the trend of being trendy, the false-orthodoxy of methodology that consists of keeping up with the Ecclesiastical Joneses. If a well-known pastor or large church does one thing, then the expectation arises that all churches and all pastors must do those same things. Lloyd-Jones called it an orthodoxy of "conformity to 'the thing to do' and 'the done thing.' He is right when he says that we must be more concerned with the orthodoxy of beliefs, and such orthodoxy is developed only under the preaching of the whole counsel of God. So, let us come into the place of worship with our fellow believers hungry for the Truth of God. If the topic of that day's exposition is not of interest to us, the problem is most likely to be found in the depravity of our interests. After all, if God considered the matter worthy of canonization in His inspired Book, then we must not consider the matter unimportant or of no interest. And, let us be content that we are being fed this milk and meat, even if it is disagreeable to our tastebuds. The best foods we can eat are those which usually require an "acquired taste." Over time, the regular, systematic exposition of Scripture will produce an appetite for the same. If you aren't fed what you prefer, be thankful that you were fed what is good for you, namely the Word of God. Then finally, let us not tolerate any sort of preaching in our midst that does not exposit God's truth, regardless of how interesting we may find the topic under consideration.

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