October 23, 2017

Mondays with Michael Spencer: March 7, 2016

Gethsemani lectern small

On Mondays we’ve been looking at several things that Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, wrote on the subject of preaching. Today, an article about the relationship of public scripture reading to preaching, and a commendation of the former.

Past posts:
• Part 1: The sermon’s too long
• Part 2: The sermon’s boring
• Part 3: The sermon — I don’t understand it
• Part 4: The sermon — it isn’t practical
• Part 5: The sermon — More stories please!
• Part 6: The sermon in the Evangelical Liturgy
Part 7: The sermon that needs no Jesus

• • •

The sermon is the servant of the scripture 

The public reading of scripture is something that is strangely absent in the worship and preaching of the vast majority of evangelicals.

If you wanted examples of preaching that completely left out the Bible and any reasonable use of it, I could keep you here all day with some stories that even I have trouble believing are true. But to be conservative, it’s become rather typical for the average evangelical worship experience to…

  • contain no actual reading of scripture as a component of the “order” of worship.
  • to use more scripture in music than in many sermons.
  • to be dependent on the preacher entirely for what amount of scripture actually winds up in the worship service, and for how that scripture is presented.
  • in most cases, that amounts to 1) short verses used to bolster points, 2) retold Biblical narratives and 3) perhaps some exegetical excursion through a selected passage in the sermon.

This is an unhistoric, pragmatic, deplorable development in evangelicalism, and it needs to be fixed.

At soli deo, we use three full scripture lessons plus a responsive or sung Psalm. It would not be unusual for 10-15 minutes or more of corporate worship time to be be used for the public reading of these lessons. We believe this kind of reading of the word of God is ancient, wise, useful, worshipful, provocative, helpful, inspiring and, above all, God honoring.

We have a phrase: “The sermon is the servant of the scripture, rather than the scripture being the servant of the sermon.

What do we mean?

Simply put, we believe the scripture lesson should precede the sermon and provide the direction and substance of the sermon, as opposed to the sermon using snippets and citations of scripture to provide legitimacy for itself.

I do not believe it is inappropriate to use topical preaching. I do it frequently. But the regular diet of any gathered group of Christians should be hearing the Word read followed by hearing the Word explained and applied. This does not always serve the agenda of a preacher or teacher, but if a preacher is constantly extracting parts of scripture to season a series on various topics, then something is wrong with the diet of that congregation.

Nor do I believe that expository preaching, per se, is the answer to the evangelical crisis. What passes for exposition today varies widely. Look at the expositional style of Mark Dever- covering whole books in a few sermons- as compared to John Piper’s most-of-a-decade journey through Romans or my own recent two years in the Gospel of John.

I do believe, however, that exposition in some form is the best way for the sermon to be the servant of the Word rather than the opposite. For all the good one can say about Spurgeon, he presumed heavily on the Biblical literacy of his audience in his career of topical preaching. Spurgeon spent little time with Biblical exposition in the pulpit, but his church did practice the public reading of large portions of scripture and weekly communion.

Gethsemani lectern portraitInteresting, our experience at soli deo has taught us that comments and discussion after each scripture lesson is welcome. At times, our gathering has several “mini-sermons,” one following each lesson and one tying them all together. In an age when “real preaching” is often a 45 minute to an hour plus lecture or comedy/motivational talk, I think we should reconsider the multiple shorter homilies/teaching segments that can be used with multiple scripture lessons.

We often associate public reading of scripture with the mainline Protestant and traditionally Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches. I have, however, discovered that many Reformed Baptist and emerging churches have public readings of entire chapters and lessons. The irony among evangelicals is that their largest church, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, is full of people carrying Bible, repeating a confession of the Bible’s power and importance, and then, strangely, hearing almost no scripture at all from Osteen.

The public reading of scripture doesn’t require the lectionary, but I cannot recommend the usefulness of the lectionary enough. The arrangement of scripture in the Revised Common Lectionary is a major contribution to the appreciation of the Christian year and a tremendous gift of unity to the Body of Christ. Many of us who have been using the lectionary have discovered that it is richly suggestive for Biblical preaching that reaches into all parts of the Bible and brings us deeply into the Biblical story. There are also incredible collections of lectionary resources available for preachers.

Often, after reading a post like this, someone will write and want to know how to promote more public reading of scripture in their church. Let me prepare you for what may be an unpleasant surprise: don’t be at all taken back when you hear that there is “no time” for that much reading, or “the congregation doesn’t like that much reading,” or “it’s boring, and the time could be better used for more music.”

Many pastors and elders are, thankfully, open and motivated to include more scripture reading and will welcome the opportunity to know there is congregational support. Public reading allows the involvement of congregation members of all ages and genders, which all churches should welcome. Projection technology can be used to enhance the reading experience.

Churches that choose to have 40 minutes of music and no public reading of scripture are making a ridiculous mistake in the formation of the members of that congregation. From spiritual infants to the most mature Christians, all of us need to see and hear a weekly reminder that, in the church and in life, we all are under the authority of the Word of God, we all belong to the Christian story and what we have to say about God is of little importance compared to what God has to say to us about himself.

Pastors, if you cannot find a place in public worship for the reading of the Bible, you have too much of something that is less than essential. There is some kind of standard in your mind that needs to be abandoned.

Comments

  1. Could we chalk this up to yet another pernicious influence of TV and “internet surfing” on our way of thinking and worshiping?

    • Definitely not internet surfing – the evangelical churches I grew up in were this way since the early 80’s.

  2. Rick Ro. says:

    I wonder if some of this preference gets back to a bit of the “evolutionary process” that was mentioned a bit yesterday. There was a time when I thought reading of scripture was necessary (early in my Christian walk), then kinda shifted toward a viewpoint that it wasn’t necessary (“people have their own Bible…let them read it themselves” sorta attitude), and now I’m back to believing it’s a good thing.

    Meanwhile, God is left face-palming my shifting beliefs…

  3. Ronald Avra says:

    Was ‘soli deo’ a congregation that Michael was involved with? I would appreciate a clarification of that.

  4. Stephen says:

    “The public reading of scripture is something that is strangely absent in the worship and preaching of the vast majority of evangelicals.”

    Yet congruent with the so-called “post-literate” (or illiterate, take your pick) culture in which we find ourselves. I’ve often wondered if there is a relationship in the decline of religious affiliation, and the rise of the so-called “nones”, and the fact our culture is no longer primarily based on literature. The Bible is nothing if not literature and the less and less people read the less and less they read scripture as well. The Bible is a hard read. And I suspect most people raised on TV find it excruciating to be read to.

    • Good point and has the ring of truth about it. And, I will admit a couple of decades with the Internet (has it really been that long? Good grief!) has definitely shortened my attention span. It takes a great deal of effort for me to sit down and read a book in large chunks now. There have been numerous studies with regard to how modern technology effects our learning and attention spans. The good news is our brains have plasticity and can relearn how to concentrate. Now, if I could just make myself do it!

    • To be honest, seminary ruined preaching for me. Having to listen to someone tortuously “exposit” a two-thousand year old passage only to magically find that the text agrees with everything the preacher already believed cured me in general of appreciating long, “scriptural” sermons.

  5. Robert F says:

    The cat is ready
    to go to sleep, the moon is
    missing from the sky.

  6. Robert F says:

    Insufficiency
    in the crying flock of geese,
    in the sinking sun.