The communion of which I am a member has from time to time experienced a lively debate between those who want to advance a more contemporary, “seeker friendly” worship style on the Lord’s Day and those who want to uphold the more formal, liturgical forms of traditional Protestant worship. It is a complicated discussion, and opposing camps often form too readily; thus, further strife over the subject seems almost inevitable.
But perhaps most disturbing to me is the apparent assumption that those who support the “seeker friendly” style are more clearly on the side of grace than those who do not. The argument goes something like this:
The gospel is about grace, and grace is about meeting people where they are. Therefore, in order to meet people where they are, we must remove all extrabiblical obstacles from their path to Jesus. Traditional worship forms and language are extrabiblical obstacles for most people in our culture. Therefore, they must be replaced with cultural forms that are familiar to people today so that the gospel might become clear to visitors. Likewise, the entire atmosphere of the church must be welcoming and comfortable, and the teaching must be accessible to first-time visitors and clearly applicable to the everyday problems of modern man. Those who insist on traditional worship forms seek to bring people to law rather than grace, and they will become increasingly ingrown, irrelevant, and, consequently, foul-tempered.
That is, as I see it, the basic argument attempting to link the doctrine of grace with the compulsion to alter one’s worship style to mirror the current culture. And before I state my thesis, it must be said that there is much truth to this reasoning and these observations. Far too many traditional Protestant churches are ingrown, irrelevant, and, yes, foul-tempered. Far too many are unwilling to alter the least jot or tittle from the way they have done things for years, though the item in question may be a relatively recent innovation only fifty years old or so. Far too many traditional churches think well of themselves such that for them it is no quandary to emphasize law to the exclusion of grace. In this sense, the advocates of “seeker friendly” worship are quite correct: there are few churches less effective in communicating the gospel to our time than a church that is both traditional and ungracious.
But a contemporary worship format does not guarantee a gracious church any more than a traditional service will guarantee a moralistic church. For the purpose of this article, I would like to focus on different approaches to preaching. I want to show, first, that this argument is not as simple we might think, and, second, that, in the long run, traditional Protestant preaching, properly done, is far better suited to carry the message of grace to our time than its contemporary, “seeker friendly” rival, which often is, ironically, in far greater danger of producing a works-based religion.
One of the common denominators of the seeker-friendly/seeker-driven worship services I have attended these past few years has been the style of preaching. The intent of this preaching—which is more like teaching—is to give the hearer a very clear, practical message from the Bible on daily living. Explicitly religious and mysterious terminology is eschewed in favor of everyday, concrete expressions. The message is outlined in the bulletin, often with significant words left blank for the hearer to fill in as the preacher gets to them. The use of an overhead or PowerPoint presentation of the main points is almost mandatory. Great passion is neither emoted nor invoked; these are reasonable, civil men representing a reasonable, civil God, after all. Sometimes the preacher will sit on a tall stool, as if he is hosting a talk show. I knew one who preached in jeans and a gas-station-attendant shirt with his first name written in cursive on a patch over his pocket. I do not mention these details to ridicule but to paint a picture. Given what he was trying to do, I thought it rather a nice touch. Gone from every one of these sermons, of course, were all semblances of pulpit, robe, mystery, and urgency.
Now I cannot gripe too much with the loss of pulpit or robe, for they are, in fact, clearly extrabiblical and not necessary for preaching the gospel. (Although I find a music stand or my own memory to be a poor substitute for holding notes.) I do not use a pulpit or robe when I go to a nearby retirement home to lead a Bible study, for instance, though I still expect the Word of God to be made effective by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the Word, and not the instrument or means by which the Word is delivered, that is authoritative. The loss of these props is not fatal. But the loss of mystery and urgency in our preaching is fatal. Replacing the mystery and urgency of preaching with sermons driven by accessibility and practicality eventually leads to a commonplace works-based religion.
Here is what I mean. First, the loss of mystery in favor of accessibility makes God and His salvation so familiar as to devalue the very gospel of grace it is purporting to promote. Many of the statements of the New Testament Epistles are so vague, spiritual, and, well, otherworldly, that on first reading I have to admit that I have little idea what the author is getting at, much less what sort of immediate application I should derive from them. And if this is so with the Epistles, mind you, how much more so with the prophets, poets, and our own Lord, who spoke in parables, in part, that those outside the kingdom “may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand” (Mark 4:12)?
Now, the good news is this: when through effort, exasperation, and prayer the Holy Spirit begins to show us the glory and the beauty and the truth in these passages, we find their meaning and import to be far greater than we could have ever imagined at a first reading. This is grace. And it cannot be had at a glance or through terms that communicate easily to our world, for heaven is a foreign land with a foreign language. If first-time visitors are able to easily apprehend the storehouses of our faith on a single Sunday, I am not sure that we can wait until Wednesday night to feed them more; I rather doubt that there was enough there to begin with. But when we represent a prize so precious that only words such as “redemption,” “atonement,” “sinner,” “justification,” and “glorification” can describe it, we present a prize worth pursuing, a prize worth the value of all that we own. A sermon diet whose primary purpose is to be palatable to the uninitiated cannot serve anything so nutritious as to merit being called “growth in grace” (2 Peter 3:18). But preaching that retains a mystery about it, that holds the prize a little beyond reach, can only be accessed by one means—faith in the good news of Jesus Christ. That is how real, heart-rending, and life-changing grace is made accessible.
But this is still not the real danger to gracious religion. The real danger is the second characteristic of “seeker friendly” preaching—its practicality. How so? The loss of urgency to practicality in preaching makes preaching more man-centered than God-centered, which, in turn, leads to our trying to please God by our own efforts—the death knell to the doctrine of grace. This is not to say that urgent preaching is not ultimately practical, but it starts where it should: the desperate plight of people given over entirely to their own sin, people who have no hope but in the rich, mysterious grace of God. Add to that a God who does what pleases Him without being bound to any machinations of man, and that creates a sense of urgent need for the grace of God to grant us the faith necessary to produce any sort of helpful activity in our lives. And so the urgent preacher exegetes Scripture as it is given, with the hope that his hearers’ hearts will be worked upon by the Holy Spirit, who comes and goes like the wind. Sometimes we cannot give specific application from the text, but must trust that God, in His sovereign ways, will be at work the rest of the week.
But if you start with the premise that all messages should be ready-made to take home and apply right away, the urgent dependence upon God is replaced by the hearer’s ability to put the lesson into practice. This inevitably leads one to rely upon oneself to fulfill the very practical and specific applications from the message. And self-reliance ultimately leads to one of only two results: self-condemnation or self-commendation. And this is the kind of religion we call moralism or legalism—that the basis of our relationship with God is dependent upon our own behavior. It may not seem like moralism because it is not stern and does not come from a high pulpit, but that is exactly what this kind of “practical tips” preaching is in danger of becoming. Moralism in blue jeans is still moralism. Legalism made comfortable is still legalism.
This is our chief complaint with liberal Christianity—not that it engages in empty rituals or the support of homosexual rights or any number of other things—but that it has abandoned the gospel of grace, replacing it with nothing except moralism. And as liberal aberrations have always been driven by apologetic concerns—to make the gospel relevant to the present age—so the “seeker” movement is likewise driven. And like liberal Christianity, its chief problem is not innovation but unbelief—unbelief that God saves people through sincere, rich, sin-and-grace-based preaching. It would rather believe that God needs our help through new and creative methods. And since its methods are essentially man-centered and works-based, its disciples will be the same. I do not doubt that “seeker driven” churches will thrive in the next few decades. What I doubt is that these same churches will remain Christian.