Wednesday, May 16, 2007

What to Watch and Listen for on Sunday

A "new" application of an "old" document

In 1645, the Scottish parliament adopted what is called A Directory for the Public Worship of God. The goal of this document was to help churches in their local congregations by giving guidelines by which they could operate. In this directory, there are several important areas covered. Here are a few of these areas:
  • Public reading of Scripture
  • Public prayer before the sermon
  • Baptism
  • The Lord's Supper
  • Sanctification of the Lord's Day
  • Singing of Psalms
  • Visitation of the Sick
  • And more...

Now, admittedly, I have not read this entire document, but I was recently introduced to one section, namely "On the Preaching of the Word". I know that not all those who read this blog are preachers, but as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be in a local church this Sunday listening to a preacher...listening to God's glorious Word proclaimed.

The questions I lay before you today are these: how do you evaluate and take in what you hear? Do you sit and listen as a sponge, taking in every word of the preacher as is? Do you cynically sit back and reject everything said from the pulpit because it is not in a style or manner you prefer? Do you judge the quality of the sermon by the number of great stories told, the amazing rhymes or alliterations used in the outline, the short- or long-windedness of the preacher, the temperature of the room, the number of laughs produced, the visual response of the congregation during a time of invitation? Do you listen carefully, examining the Scriptures as you go, insuring that all you hear and accept is biblical truth?

These are good and important questions. How is one to listen to and evaluate the preaching of God's Word? This is what the "Westminster Divines", as they were called, were trying to express in the Directory for the Public Worship of God. Their words have proven helpful to me in the last few weeks, and I hope they will help you as well.

Before I quote selected passages from this section on preaching, please know that pressing too much on one particular point of any statement on preaching can make us unbalanced and cynical. If you already have a critical heart toward your pastor or his preaching, maybe you should stop reading now...there's no sense in finding new things to complain about. Otherwise, read with care...encourage your pastor where you see faithfulness and obedience...pray for him in areas of needed growth...pray that he will be filled with the Spirit this Sunday as he preaches...pray the promise God gives in Isaiah 55:10-11, that his word will not return void.

That being said, here are some words echoing through the halls of history.

"Preaching of the word, being the power of God unto salvation, and one of the greatest and most excellent works belonging to the ministry of the gospel, should be so performed that the workman need not be ashamed, but may save himself, and those that hear him...

Ordinarily, the subject of his sermon is to be some text of scripture...Let the introduction to his text be brief and perspicuous, drawn from the text itself, or context, or some parallel place, or general sentence of scripture...

In raising doctrines from his text, his care ought to be, First, that the matter be the truth of God. Secondly, that it be a truth contained in or grounded on that text, that the hearers may discern how God teacheth it from thence. Thirdly, that he chiefly insist upon those doctrines which are principally intended, and make most for the edification of the hearers. // The doctrine is to be expressed in plain terms; or, if any thing in it need [explanation], it is to be opened...

...the servant of Christ, whatever his method be, is to perform his whole ministry:

  1. Painfully, not doing the work of the Lord negligently.
  2. Plainly, that the [man of lowest intelligence] may understand; delivering the truth not in the enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect...
  3. Faithfully, looking at the honour of Christ, the conversion, edification, and salvation of the people, not at his own gain or glory...
  4. Wisely, framing all doctrines, exhortations, and especially reproofs, in such a manner as may be most likely to prevail...and not mixing [in] his own passion or bitterness.
  5. Gravely, as becometh the Word of God; shunning all such gestures, voice, and expressions, as may occasion the corruption of men to despise him and his ministry.
  6. With loving affection, that the people may see all coming from his godly zeal, and hearty desire to do them good. And,
  7. As taught of God, and persuaded in his own heart, that all he teacheth is the truth of Christ; and walking before his flock, as an example to them in it..."

I know that's a lot, and you may need to read it again if you're not used to 17th century language, but the message of these excerpts is essentially fourfold:

  1. Preachers must work hard at the preparation and preaching of sermons.
  2. The sermon must come from the text, not independently developed and then texts found to support the preacher's ideas. The reason for this is so the people of God will not believe themselves to be helpless when it comes to Bible study. Preachers extracting truth from the text should be a model for those who study at home.
  3. Sermons ought to be plainly spoken and easily understandable...not using $5 words for the sake of eloquence, but using normal words.
  4. The manner in which this plain, biblically-driven sermon is conveyed is of utmost must be a sermon and not a soap box, and the pastor's heart must be compassionately with his congregation and not in attack mode.

Personally, I am thankful for words like these. The Westminster Divines are sharpening me as a preacher from 360 years away through these words. Amazingly enough, pastors today are not regularly challenged in their preaching ministry, but they are bombarded with ideas involving programs, events, and leadership development. These are not necessarily unimportant things, but the place where we must stay sharpest is in the pulpit. Books on church methodology and trends are published every day, but far fewer are keeping us focused on the main task of the preacher and of the Church...the proclamation of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ found in the Word of God.

It is unfortunate that a church might tolerate a nice guy, great programmer, and good leader with self-help books as his preaching text and no desire to learn or grow toward greater faithfulness. However, that same church might not tolerate leadership flaws in a man who studies hard and preaches faithfully, always seeking to grow and be more effective. Pastors should grow in their competencies for all ministry, but if something is going to take the must be preaching.

After all, what is a pastor's primary place in the church, if not to be the ambassador of God, stepping into the pulpit week after week with the message of God for the people of God to the glory of God and the salvation and edification of the congregation? Prepare your heart for this coming Sunday, my friends. Expect God's Word to speak to your heart and build your faith. Pray for your pastor, and encourage him to preach the Word in season and out of season.