Many of my blog readers know that I’ve been blessed over the years by my friendship with Charles Wood. He puts out a little daily missive called, “The Woodchuck’s Den” that I consider one of the few “must reads” in my life. I’ve tried, without success, over the years to get him to put his thoughts on a daily blog. So, from time to time, I repost one of his issues here. This one was particularly good. (If you’d like to get these in your own email box, write him at LORCHUCK@aol.com. Tell him that I recommended that you get on his list.)
From the Woodchuck’s Den — June 8, 2011
From time to time I come upon an article or lengthy quotation that doesn’t rally fit into what I am dealing with at that particular time. I usually copy such into an internet file for later use. I was going through that file recently when I came upon an article so compelling that I felt I needed to take time – right now – to deal with it. The source is self-explanatory but not really what one would expect from someone associated with that particular publication.
“It is well and good for the preacher to base his sermon on the Bible, but he better get to something relevant pretty quickly, or we start mentally to check out.” That stunningly clear sentence reflects one of the most amazing, tragic, and lamentable characteristics of contemporary Christianity — an impatience with the Word of God.
The sentence above comes from Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today in an essay entitled “Yawning at the Word.” In just a few hundred words, he captures the tragedy of a church increasingly impatient with and resistant to the reading and preaching of the Bible. We may wince when we read him relate his recent experiences, but we also recognize the ring of truth.
Galli was told to cut down on the biblical references in his sermon. “You’ll lose people,” the staff member warned. In a Bible study session on creation, the teacher was requested to come back the next Sunday prepared to take questions at the expense of reading the relevant scriptural texts on the doctrine. Cutting down on the number of Bible verses “would save time and, it was strongly implied, would better hold people’s interest.”
As Galli reflected, “Anyone who’s been in the preaching and teaching business knows these are not isolated examples but represent the larger reality.” Indeed, in many churches there is very little reading of the Bible in worship, and sermons are marked by attention to the congregation’s concerns – not by an adequate attention to the biblical text. The exposition of the Bible has given way to the concerns, real or perceived, of the listeners. The authority of the Bible is swallowed up in the imposed authority of congregational concerns.
As Mark Galli notes: It has been said to the point of boredom that we live in a narcissistic age, where we are wont to fixate on our needs, our wants, our wishes, and our hopes—at the expense of others and certainly at the expense of God. We do not like it when a teacher uses up the whole class time presenting her material, even if it is material from the Word of God. We want to be able to ask our questions about our concerns, otherwise we feel talked down to, or we feel the class is not relevant to our lives. It is well and good for the preacher to base his sermon on the Bible, but he better get to something relevant pretty quickly, or we start mentally to check out. Don’t spend a lot of time in the Bible, we tell our preachers, but be sure to get to personal illustrations, examples from daily life, and most importantly, an application that we can use.
The fixation on our own sense of need and interest looms as the most significant factor in this marginalization and silencing of the Word. Individually, each human being in the room is an amalgam of wants, needs, intuitions, interests, and distractions. Corporately, the congregation is a mass of expectations, desperate hopes, consuming fears, and impatient urges. All of this adds up, unless countered by the authentic reading and preaching of the Word of God, to a form of group therapy, entertainment, and wasted time — if not worse.
Galli has this situation clearly in his sights when he asserts that many congregations expect the preacher to start from some text in the Bible, but then quickly move on “to things that really interest us.” Like . . . ourselves.
One of the earliest examples of what we would call the preaching of the Bible may well be found in Nehemiah 8:1-8: Ezra and his companions stood on a platform before the congregation. They read the scriptural text clearly, and then explained the meaning of the Scripture to the people. The congregation received the Word humbly, while standing. The pattern is profoundly easy to understand — the Bible was read and explained and received.
As Hughes Oliphant Old comments, “This account of the reading of the Law indicates that already at the time of the writing of this text there was a considerable amount of ceremonial framing of the public reading of Scripture. This ceremonial framing is a witness to the authority of the Bible.” The reading and exposition took place in a context of worship as the people listened to the Word of God. The point of the sermon was simple — “to make clear the reading of the Scriptures.”
In many churches, there is almost no public reading of the Word of God. Worship is filled with music, but congregations seem disinterested in listening to the reading of the Bible. We are called to sing in worship, but the congregation cannot live only on the portions of Scripture that are woven into songs and hymns. Christians need the ministry of the Word as the Bible is read before the congregation and God’s people — young and old, rich and poor, married and unmarried, sick and well — hear it together. The sermon is to consist of the exposition of the Word of God, powerfully and faithfully read, explained, and applied. It is not enough that the sermon take a biblical text as its starting point.
How can so many of today’s churches demonstrate what can only be described as an impatience with the Word of God? The biblical formula is clear — the neglect of the Word can only lead to disaster, disobedience, and death. God rescues his church from error, preserves his church in truth, and propels his church in witness only by his Word — not by congregational self-study.
In the end, an impatience with the Word of God can be explained only by an impatience with God. We — both individually and congregationally — neglect God’s Word to our own ruin.
As Jesus himself declared, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Let me repeat, I didn’t write the above, although it expresses so much of my own personal thinking that I wish I had (or almost feel as if I did). We are called upon the preach the Word. What passes for obedience to that command in many conservative evangelical and fundamentalist churches hardly fills the bill. I don’t get to hear much preaching outside our local church (and I’ve expressed many times my consistent satisfaction with that), but some of what little I hear leaves me cold. A test was taken, there was a long discourse, and then there was a closing prayer. The only thing missing was a sermon based upon the Word of God.
Personal opinion, anecdotes, illustrations, the most recent findings of those who work with “human personality and its needs,” quotations from various sources and a ton of what I call “fresh fish filler” filled the time (and about bored me to death). I never considered myself to be an outstanding preacher, but I always sought to submit my finished work (before it was preached) to a three-fold test: What does the Bible say? What does the Bible mean? How does the Bible apply? When I couldn’t answer one or more of those questions, it was back to the old drawing board.
So many times over the years, I have heard even earnest, though-provoking, Biblical messages that left me flat because I could answer one simple question to my own satisfaction – so what? May God help those of us who teach and preach heed the words of Mark Galli.