Making Worship Relevant Today

Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in BC & Yukon Convention

It’s great to be with you. I’m looking forward to talking about probably what is my favorite theme, enjoying God, in our times together starting tonight. My understanding about this particular workshop is that it has to do with worship and some of the clusters of issues surrounding its nature in our contemporary society. I’m a little bit uneasy with the question, “How to make worship relevant.” It doesn’t quite suit the way I would ask the question, so let me try to tell you how I would ask the question and then I’ll talk for maybe half of this time and then we’ll take questions for the other half. I hope that’s the way it works out. If I don’t touch on what you had hoped, please make a note and then stand up and ask questions when the time comes for questions.

Audience-Oriented or God-Oriented?

I’m a little troubled at the contemporary and prevalent notion that worship is a part of the service that you do for the preaching, and that you should be audience-oriented when you plan it rather than God-oriented when you plan it. I’m sure the people who think about being audience-oriented don’t like that distinction, but that’s one of the reasons I’m uneasy with the term “relevance.” It seems to me that the question ought to be one of authenticity. Is our worship according to spirit and truth? God is seeking those who will worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). Is it engaging people with the living God? Is that happening?

Now, I suppose if it’s authentic, if it’s in spirit, if it’s according to truth, if people are really engaging with the living God, if it’s deep, if it’s profound, that what is meant by the word “relevant” will probably be happening, but maybe not. Because there are a lot of people who simply are not prepared to worship, they are not ready to worship, and they are not going to worship no matter what you do, because God hasn’t done the work in their heart yet. And to provide them with an atmosphere, or music, or a language that makes them feel good may not be the best thing for them, because that’s not necessarily worship.

That’s my orienting thought about the topic, and I think what I’d like to do is ponder a little bit with you about the relationship between contemporary worship music and preaching. I’m a preacher. I really don’t know much about music. I just know it’s big, it’s huge, and it’s relevant. It’s what everybody is warring about these days. The worship wars are out there, and how you do your Sunday morning event is a big question. So I won’t leave it behind, but I am a preacher mainly, and I frankly believe that the key to worshiping authentically, worshiping in spirit, worshiping in truth, and worshiping engaged with God deeply and profoundly will happen if the pastor is a man who worships profoundly, deeply, authentically, and in spirit and truth. If you have a worshiping pastor, the way I understand worship, it will become an authentic, spiritual, truth-driven, deep engagement with God among the people over time.

That isn’t to say the music is irrelevant or that the leader of the music is irrelevant. It’s to say that the lead pastor will over time shape that, either by transforming the people who do it, by the way he leads and preaches and worships, or by seeing to it that the right kind of person is put there so that it happens in accord with what is happening in his heart.

A Movement of Contemporary Christian Music

It seems to me, and you tell me in our question and answer time whether you see it differently, that in the last 25 years or so there has been around the Western world (including South America, North America, Europe, and maybe Asia) there has been an amazing worship awakening in terms of what you would call contemporary worship songs.

You can go to London, São Paulo, Toronto, and Minneapolis, and they’re all singing the same songs. It is amazing. I mean, it’s been long enough now, so some of the contemporary worship songs are old-fashioned. There are songs like Jack Hayford’s “Majesty,” and Graham Kendrick’s “Shine Jesus Shine,” and a whole array of songs. There are thousands of these. But I could probably begin right now any one of these songs and you could without any lyrics, sing them with me.

  • “Thou art worthy Father, I adore you”
  • “Open our eyes, Lord”
  • “We worship and adore you”
  • “Thou, O Lord, art a shield about us”
  • “You are Lord, you are Lord”
  • “Lord, you are more precious than silver”
  • “I worship you, Almighty God.”

I could probably begin any one of those, and if you heard the tune coming out of my mouth and the songs, you would join in because you’ve heard them somewhere and you’ve picked them up. They’re simple. There are hundreds of good ones. There are thousands of bad ones. In fact, some of the grammatical, poetical, musical efforts are deplorable. A fact, which those of us who grew up on the likes of “Do Lord,” should not exploit. Don’t measure the worst of contemporary music over against the best of hymnology and close the case that you should do away with contemporary worship music.

Here’s what’s remarkable about these, and there are many things that are remarkable about this worship awakening around the world. All of those songs that I just mentioned — and that’s the tip of the iceberg — are remarkably Godward, are they not? Every one of the ones that I mentioned there are addressed directly to God. They’re not sung in the third person about God. They are sung to God. And therefore there is something in the lyrics of contemporary worship music, most of them, that force an issue — namely, the issue of engagement right now in the singing with the living God.

Addressing God Directly

I remember growing up in a Southern Baptist church in Greenville, South Carolina where I never really felt like the issue was being forced, “John Piper, are you now in this moment engaging in living communion with the living God? Is your heart addressing him and feeling certain things toward him, him addressing you in a word, and the two of you having a living dynamic transaction?” I just don’t remember that issue being forced. Now, that may have been my fault as much as anybody else’s. But in these worship songs, we say, “You are Lord.” You’re forced to either be a hypocrite or talk to God. You can’t have it any other way. You can be a hypocrite or you can be authentically engaging with the living God.

Whereas many hymns can be sort of like lectures. They’re just sung about God and the issue isn’t forced on you that this ought to be sung also to God, at least in your spirit, if not in the grammatical phrasing of the hymn itself. So I think that it is a remarkably good thing that the issue is being forced.

Add to this that the tunes, the melodies, and the music of most contemporary worship music is very emotional. That is, it is designed to awaken, quicken, carry, and sustain affections. They are not very intellectual and they’re not very demanding musically. They’re fairly simple, but they have a certain kind of emotional framework to them that is intentional, and that moves people’s affections or emotions.

Now that creates two things in contemporary worship music, it seems to me. First, the mind, by the lyrics in the best of them, is brought to focus on God. They are remarkably biblical. Many of the best of them are just straight texts from the Bible. Or if you take the song “Shine, Jesus shine,” tell me what passage of Scripture that is exegeting. Does anybody remember? It’s Philippians 3, straight and simple. It’s simply a paraphrase and an exposition, and a very good one, of Philippians chapter three. So there are many of them. So the first thing that happens is that they are biblical, the best ones, the ones you ought to be using.

Stirring Heart Affections

The second thing that I have noticed is that, by the music, the heart is stirred. A certain kind of tenderness, devotion, enjoyment, and camaraderie in battle are stirred up in millions of God’s average people, if not in the classicists among us. The classicists don’t care for them and don’t really like music that tends to be heavily emotional. Bach is not heavily emotional. He’s very intellectual, and therefore very profound, and he touches the heart in a way that you have to work at intellectually to experience, and that’s good. There is a place for that kind of demanding, high-cultural Christian music. But woe to us if we despise the more immediate access to the heart through simpler music that gets at the heart more directly. It can be abused, but it can be used in wonderful ways.

So as we look at this worship awakening in contemporary worship songs around the world, it stands out that the content of this is very largely God-centered and God-exalting. In those songs that I mentioned at the beginning, he is Lord, he has risen, he is majestic, he is mighty, he is holy, he has conquered the power of death, he is a shield, he is our glory, he is the lifter of our heads, he is the King of Kings, he is the Lord of Lords, he is Emmanuel, he is great, he is wonderful, he is a rock, he is a fortress, he is a deliverer, he is a coming king, he is a redeemer, he is the name of all names, he is the Lamb of God, Messiah, he is the Holy One, and he is our God and our God reigns.

You cannot miss unless you’re absolutely prejudiced that this music awakening is radically God-centered in the best event. It is unmistakable. Whatever you think of the drums, and whatever you think of the bass and the amplification and the T-shirts and the blue jeans and the wires and microphones strewn everywhere, you have to admit, this music by and large is very Godward. It is very Godward. It speaks of the character of God, the power of God, the mercy of God, the authority of God, and especially, the intimacy of God as Father is struck over and over again in contemporary worship music at its best.

So the hoped-for effect through music and lyrics is an authentic engagement with God — genuine, real spiritual engagement. It’s very hard for some of us in our generation. I’m the oldest baby boomer in the world. Baby boomers are from 1946 and 1965. I was born January 11, 1946. Tell me in this room if you were born between January 1 and January 11, 1946. Raise your hand. So I’m the 4th oldest baby boomer in the room.

Troubles with Contemporary Music

We baby boomers, I think, are people with a foot in two worlds — at least I am. They say if you remember what happened in the 1960s, you weren’t there, which means your brain is not fried on drugs. I do remember what happened in the 1960s, and so I wasn’t there. That is, I was a believer and didn’t get sucked into a lot of the sexual craziness and so on. But that means I really do have a foot planted in the historic, glorious hymnology of the church and won’t give it up for anything at my church. And I am a child of my culture and a child of my musical age and a child of the ethos of North America, and therefore I find most contemporary music very attractive, frankly. I am very moved by it. I’m 53 years old and I unashamedly lift my hands in worship and sing to the best of it with the best of the young people.

So I think that it’s not bad to be that way, but I feel for those who don’t have a foot in the contemporary world because it’s very hard for a person over 55 to emotionally engage with God through certain mediums of music. And I simply empathize very easily with that because there is some of it that I just can’t connect with either. The hard-rock contemporary Christian music I don’t listen to it, and I don’t have it on Sunday morning in my church. It’s just way out on the periphery. I don’t go on a crusade against it like some do because my guess is that at the level of evangelism, it could be different.

If you go to Tokyo today as a missionary who wants to see God break loose in Japan. We have a wonderful movement of God in our churches in Japan, I think. Nevertheless, these churches are all fairly small and very traditional and the worship is very low-key. If you go to the center of Tokyo on a night when they’re having a concert and look on the side of a building that’s about 20 stories tall with a blank side, and see the bands being laser-projected on the side of the building, and you see a hundred thousand young people driving to the loudest and most amazingly gut-wrenching music you can imagine, how are they to be reached?

Now I don’t think you do everything in evangelism in imitation of the world, but I do think that in order to get a hearing you might do things like that. Paul did that 1 Corinthians 9 for a reason. He says, “I become all things to all men that I might win some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). So I just am so eager not to be negative on issues that just might be used by God, though I find myself unable to connect with God through certain ones. I only say that to be empathetic with those who can’t connect with the music I can connect with. That’s what’s creating our problems on Sunday mornings, isn’t it? We have lots of people all over the range. How do we then create authentic worship for them?

The Disconnect in Our Worship Services

Now here’s the problem I want to raise in relation to preaching in this worship awakening. It seems to me that a remarkable fact is that while worship has been moving Godward in its lyrics in the last 25 years, and intensely affectionate toward God in its music, preaching has been going the other direction. While the worship songs have moved Godward, preaching has moved manward. While the worship songs focus our attention again and again on the character of God and his great works, preaching focuses us on contemporary issues, personal problems, and relationships. Worship songs lift us into the presence of God, but preaching tends to give advice on how to get along better on earth.

So however you say it, there is a remarkable difference. I don’t know anybody today who would say there has been a great preaching awakening in the last 25 years with most of the preaching today being Godward, God-exalting, God-magnifying, God-centered, and God-saturated. I don’t know of anybody who would assess the situation like that in the western world. If that’s true in your fellowship, you just tell me afterwards and I’ll change my tune, at least here I will.

But a great resurgence of God-centeredness and a spirit of transcendence and profound Godwardness is not what I would say about contemporary preaching alongside this music. Rather, it seems to me that what we have is preaching that is relational, anecdotal, humorous, casual, laid-back, absorbed with human need, fixed on relational dynamics, heavily saturated with psychological categories, strategic for emotional healing, and so on. That’s what is characterizing the contemporary preaching of the evangelical church.

What I want to ask is, why the difference? How do you explain this? How can this happen? They even happen in the same service. They almost always happen in the same service. You have this 20 or 30 minutes of songs that are biblical, Godward, textual, emotionally engaged — at their best anyway — and then comes a pastor who instead of doing preaching like that, does more relationally-oriented, psychology-oriented, problem-oriented, healing-oriented massaging of people to try to help them feel better when they leave in the morning than when they came in. What is the explanation for that?

Desiring to Be Relevant

Here’s a go at it. The pastor says to himself, “The lyrics of Godwardness have the great advantage of being accompanied by music. And the music is good. It’s emotionally enlivening or moving. And therefore, it makes the lyrics palatable. The lyrics themselves would not carry the emotions Godward, but with the music, the emotions are awakened and carried Godward with the lyrics that are Godward.” Now, that’s negative. The music makes God-centered lyrics palatable for churches that are not God-centered. But they like the music, so they’ll tolerate the lyrics. That’s a very negative spin on this. Let me put a different one on it altogether.

The music, as music, has always functioned at its best — I think especially in the Psalms as you read them — does something to our hearts. It awakens them, sensitizes them, tenderizes them, ennobles them, fires them, and then, the words come in and that affection that’s been awakened takes that truth and carries it Godward. So the two come together not in competition, and it’s not the music simply making the words palatable, but the music awakens us so that we can feel the real force of the lyrics. That’s happened to me often in worship.

I will come and I’m fairly flat emotionally and if you were to ask me, “Do you love God, John, with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might, and all your mind this morning?” I would say, “All of it? Maybe 40 percent.” And then the music starts and you begin to listen and something touches you. And then as you look at the overhead or on your sheet and you see some glorious statement of God’s attributes, or some tender wonderful statement out of the Bible that a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him. The song is saying, “He loves you,” and the words are saying, “He loves you,” and suddenly you feel that he loves you and the lyrics are taking you into heaven. And the music has helped. It hasn’t replaced truth, but it has given a vehicle for truth.

Good Aim, Faulty Method

Now the pastor is sitting there experiencing this and listening to it and knowing that he’s going to have his turn in about 20 minutes and there’s not going to be any music while he’s preaching. I really do believe this is a very big issue. He’s thinking, “I would love for this to happen when I preach. I want to speak truth from the Bible and I want to see people come alive to that truth. I want to see their hearts soar Godward on that truth. I want to see tears flowing down their faces when I talk about repentance. I want to see them mobilized with all power and boldness when I talk about God’s relevance for the world. And there’s not going to be any music to help me awaken their affections.”

So what does he do at this point? He wants the same thing to happen. A fateful choice is made by thousands of pastors at this point. He concludes, “If I were to just take a certain doctrine of God — his sovereignty, his grace, his love, his justice, or his wisdom — and unfold it exegetically and expositionally, I wouldn’t get the same effect in my people as when they sing.” So what does he do? I think many pastors at that point say, “I want that effect. That’s a powerful effect. So I will find the places in my people’s lives where their emotions are already running high, and I will hook into that. Maybe it’s divorce, drugs, parenting, anger, big issues in marriage and personal life, success in business, depression, tension in relationships, etc.”

Knowing this is where his people live, knowing this is their pain, knowing this is their joy, he says, “If I can plant my sermon there and water it with enough anecdotes and enough empathetic talk so they know I live there too, I can hold their attention. I can bring tears to their eyes and I can make them feel like I care about them and like there’s something relevant in the Bible for their needs — pain in marriage, anguish of wayward teenager, stress at work, the power of sexual temptation, breakdown of community, woundedness from past abuses, absence of intimacy of all kinds.” The preacher knows these things will touch people. So it isn’t primarily to accomplish something different than the first half of the service that he makes his fateful choice to be problem-oriented, pain-oriented, empathy oriented rather than God-oriented; it’s because he wants to bring about the same thing.

Unmoved by Doctrine

Now, positively, you could say (and we should say) something positive about it first. It’s good to touch people where they are. Preaching that just talks about things that don’t ever touch people where they are will not produce biblical fruit. Preaching is connecting with people. But negatively, I would say that I think the reason pastors shy away from doctrinal preaching and move toward empathetic, relational, psychologically-oriented, helpful advice, is because they themselves are not moved by doctrine. Here’s my thesis: I think that in order for preaching to do what it ought to do — which is exactly the same thing as what happened in the first half of the worship service — is that the preacher has to make his own music. I mean the music of the soul. I call it expository exultation.

That’s my name for preaching. If you said, “Give us a definition of preaching,” I would say that it’s expository exultation. Which means that the preacher, as he studies, as he meditates, as he prays over a vision of God that he sees in the text, must plead with the living God to land on him in such a way that there is a song born in his soul that makes music over this doctrine. So when he stands to speak of this glorious truth about God, there will be not a tune that you could play on a violin or on a piano, but rather a spiritual music that his people will hear. And the effect of that music in the pastor’s soul will have the same effect as the keyboard, the guitars, and the drums for the Godward lyrics of the songs. That’s my thesis.

In order for the second half of the worship service to be worship, the word has to come worshiping. The word must come out of the preacher’s mouth, worshiping. So I never talk about the worship half of the service and the preaching half of the service. There are two halves of this worship service, a music-oriented half, and a preaching-oriented half, and both of them are exultation or they’re not.

When they’re not, by and large, the preacher thinks, “Look, if I can’t make music for these people, and I can’t, I know doctrine is going to be dry as dust because it’s just going to sound like a bunch of intellectual stuff. Therefore, I’m going to go for the music that’s already being made in their lives, either the happy music or the sad music, and I’m just going to talk about the problems where they already feel deep feelings. And when I talk about what they feel are deep feelings already about their problems, they’ll at least feel like I know where they are. They’ll smile. They’ll relax. There will be tears on their faces. People will be able to connect with them, I’ll get some good feedback, and I’ll keep my job and people will be happy. The church may grow because everybody wants you to empathize with their feelings.” But that’s not worship and that’s not preaching. That’s not preaching.

Avoiding False Dichotomies

Now I know some of you’re going to right now respond negatively to this, so let me try to rescue you for a minute. You’re going to say to yourself, “Look, don’t play those off against each other. Don’t say you have to only talk about doctrine in order to do the right kind of preaching, or get down with people where they are to do bad kind of preaching. Don’t split those up.” I hear you. Here’s the way I want to put the two together. Yes, yes, yes, the preacher must take up divorce, he must take up drugs, he must take up kids, he must take up stress at work, he must take up intimacy issues, and he must take up anger. But my plea is that he takes them all the way up into God, up into Scripture, up into where God is, so that the realities of God and the realities of heaven and the realities of history and redemptive history come to bear on them.

Then the people feel like, “Yes, he began, he heard me. He knows my pain and I find myself being drawn out of this problem up into a reality and a level of being that I didn’t know when I came in here. I wouldn’t have articulated my problem the way he is now articulating my problem, namely the justice of God, the love of God, the grace of God, the wisdom of God, the promises of God, the providence of God. I didn’t see my problems in relation to all these things, but now I see my life in a totally different perspective.” That’s what preaching’s for. You don’t come down and stay down and just give the kinds of tips that they can get in the newspaper on Monday morning. They don’t need any more tips.

Preaching is to be a weighty matter, whereby the reality of God mediated through Scripture and through a man is brought to bear on all of life and then they are drawn up into God. At least, I think preaching at its best is always Godward preaching. It’s always bringing things to bear in relation to God, or bringing God to bear in relation to things.

If people took a little survey in your church and they said, “What is the most common theme? What’s the most common emphasis in your pastor’s preaching?” We won’t take a survey here, but I sure hope what my people say is, “God,” or, “The glory of God,” or, “The grace of God,” or something like that. I hope they don’t say the pain of the people, or the hurts of the people, or whatever. I hope they say the recurrent theme, like a broken record in this church, is that God is great, God is glorious, God is worthy, God is all-sufficient, and God is what we’re made for. That’s what I hope they’ll say.

Because I really believe our people are starving for the greatness of God and they don’t know that’s the diagnosis of their problem. They don’t know that’s the diagnosis. Hardly anything they look at on television (nor nothing) is communicating the real diagnosis of their problem and the real remedy of their problem.

So if you have audience-oriented preaching, you as a doctor, surrender your home medical training and let people who don’t know their disease tell you their symptoms, and you start massaging their symptoms, but they don’t even understand what their problems are. They think they’ve got a problem with a husband who doesn’t fulfill their expectations, or a wife, and really the problem is, they’ve never learned to be content in God so that they can respond with good to evil and win their spouse over after 20 years of patience and love. Until God becomes our portion — radically, profoundly, deeply unshakably our portion — we can’t have good marriages. Divorce is all about God. It’s all about God. Parenting is all about God. How are you going to survive the teenage years without God?

The Resources We Need to Show People God

I got on the plane the other day flying to Pittsburgh and I just cried because of the conversation I had with one of my kids as he took me to the airport. It was about where he is. I just wept. And I was going to go speak three times in Pittsburgh. I thought, “I don’t want to preach. I just want to cry.” If I didn’t have God at that moment to say, “I can handle this, I can do this. I’ve done this before. I can do it for you right now in the next two days. I can do it for him in the next 70 years. I can do this and I’m God,” I wouldn’t be able to go on. And then I thought through the issues that we’re talking about. I won’t get any detail, but I just thought through the issues a little bit about how hard it’s been for this boy right now to believe because he can’t see God.

The thought that landed on me was, “He can see me. I will be God for this boy.” That means I will be so satisfied with God that I will not get angry with him when he lets me down, mainly. I will come back to him again and again. I will get in his face again and again and I’ll say, “I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I will take you out to breakfast when you don’t want to go out to breakfast.” And I will say, “I’m walking through this with you. I will not let you go. I’m through this with you. I’m there with you. I will be God. I will be the grace of God for you. If you can’t see God, but you can see me. And this is the way God is.”

It’s a God issue, whether your kids make it through the teenage years and whether you make it with them or whether you just explode every time they do something crazy and off the wall, and then you drive them away and drive them into their emotions where they can no longer come to you ever again with what they’re feeling, because all they get from you is anger and explosions. That’s a God issue in your life. That’s a God issue. Are you content in God?

I had to ask the question afresh and I ask it a lot. I have five kids, four boys and a girl. If I were to lose my kids to hell, could I be content in God forever? You have to answer that question, or you cannot parent them as you ought. And believe me, that’s a gut-wrenching, tear-jerking, horrific question to answer. If I lose them all for eternity and have God loving me, will I be happy in heaven forever with God?

Once God is your portion and you don’t have to have your children, you will probably not get angry with them as quickly. Because most of our anger is flowing from the sense that they’re letting you down. You think, “You’re making life hard for me. You’re about to jeopardize my ministry. You’re making me emotionally unhappy. You’re wrecking this family.” It’s not a concern for them. You have to let them go. And then you can be God-like in your contentment and your restfulness as they say things to you, as they do things to their mom, as they do stuff that only the patience of God can come back to again and again.

Make Music Over Biblical Doctrine

Well, I didn’t mean to get off on parenting. What am I doing? I’m preaching a second sermon. But I can tell from your attentiveness that we all live in the same place, don’t we? I gave you my main point. The reason preaching has gone in another direction besides the Godwardness of worship is because the preachers are making a fateful choice in order to produce the kind of feedback they want. They do the relational thing mainly, not the doctrinal Godward thing, mainly. My antidote to that mistake is to say, yes, you can do both because if you will make music over the doctrine, the same effect will happen. And therefore, the real, bottom-line answer for the topic I was given regarding relevance and authenticity in worship is the authenticity of the pastor in his preaching.

I really believe that. If you make music over the glory of God, if you make music over substitutionary atonement, if you make music over the grace of God in the salvation of sinners, if you make music over heaven, if you make horrible dirges over hell, if tears flow because of the music in your heart, they will sing with you as you preach. And the same effect will be happening at that moment as happened in the first moment, and this whole service will start to feel like one thing, and it will be authentic and real.

Questions and Answers

I’m willing to be questioned about anything at our church or in my life or anything you’ve heard that stirs up questions.

I am so thankful, John, for this emphasis. God bless you. We need it. Thank you so very much.

You’re welcome.

I’m a homiletician teacher. I teach preachers. I have been striving for a while to encourage the kind of integration that you’re talking about between exposition and exultation, between text orientation and audience orientation, between explanation and experience. I think a lot of us have lost faith in preaching. I’ve heard people say that preaching is not where it’s really happening today, but it’s happening in small groups and it’s happening in worship. I believe it’s happening there, but I believe it can happen in preaching as well.

I think one of the problems is we have moved in worship and discovered a new method that is creative, that is contemporary, that speaks to current issues and hearts, and we haven’t done the same thing with preaching. We’re using models and methods that are 30 or 40 years old. And I know that it’s not all about form and method. I know it’s primarily about worship, but I think one thing that could help is if we learn to think more creatively about our method and form of approach.

Thank you very much. Let me just make a comment about creativity and some various things. I say amen to what you just said. But for those of you who are moving in the direction of arts in the worship service and so on, like drama and so on, you’re going to find me stodgy at that point, I’m afraid. Because I really do believe in exposition with all my heart. I have not been preaching here. This is a lecture on worship, though it is preachy. I haven’t exposited a text here. I really believe in exposition. There are a lot of different ways to do exposition, but I really believe in doing exposition. Small groups and Sunday school classes and the body life of the church hang on the health of the preaching ministry. They’re not at odds with each other.

Frankly, I am committed to speaking to my small group leaders once a month. The first Tuesday of the month, I get them together and I bring an inspirational message to all our small group leaders. There are about 70 of them in our church. And I say, “I cannot do church without you.” Preaching is not the be-all-end-all of the church. You must do one-another ministry or you’re not a New Testament church.

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day . . . (Hebrews 3:12–13).

I cannot do that in the pulpit on Sunday morning, but I can give life to it. I can continually feed it. I can continually energize it by God’s anointing in the exposition and exultation over truth, so that those groups, Sunday by Sunday, are feeding off the word of God and in corporate worship. Life happens everywhere in a church when it’s happening in the message. I’m a little bit squeamish about thinking that we should think that the main problem is finding a new method. I don’t think that’s what you were saying necessarily, like, “Let’s tell more stories or whatever.” I don’t want to be negative on either side here, because I tell stories, but I think authenticity and reality over exposition is the issue.

People always say, “What do you think is the key? What’s the key to preaching?” I just come back again and again and I say reality. You know when a man is standing before you teaching about what he has read about and what he’s appropriated profoundly in his own life with his own kids, with his own marriage, with his own God, with his own worship. It’s reality. It’s authenticity. At least for baby boomers, we hate inauthenticity. We hate hypocrisy. I think all humans do. But some of us feel more strongly about it than others.

So that’s basically the message I’m going to have. If I were teaching homiletics — and I just finished a class on preaching that I teach at my church with six guys — I would just plead with them, “Know the word, be faithful to the text, and be radically real. If you’re talking about heaven, soar; if you’re talking about hell, weep; if you’re talking about pain, feel pain; if you’re talking about joy, feel joy.” That’s supernatural. You can’t do that. Go ahead. Sorry, I got carried away.

Seven years ago when we went to where we are presently, I had to start evaluating some things. I was challenged to be open-minded about change or new things or things that were not in my comfort zone musically, or otherwise. So I tried to be open-minded to consider these things and I came to some conclusions that God was doing some things that maybe I wasn’t necessarily used to.

So in our church, we’ve had all kinds of music happen with groups coming in and different things. I’ve been very open and found it to be a blessing. But the thing that I’ve found where I’ve gone different places is not the style or the instruments, but it seems to be the volume that has turned the older generation off a bit. The young ones like it loud, but the older ones don’t like it so loud. And maybe there’s a balance to be achieved where it is more edifying to the older generation that otherwise doesn’t like it. Could you comment on that?

I’d be happy to comment on the volume issue. I have two things to say, and then we’ll wind it up. First, we have to help train people, and here it takes very sensitive pastors and worship leaders. We have to train about appropriateness of volume and intensity. Not all music should be loud, not every Psalm says, “Shout to the Lord.” So you shouldn’t shout everything you say. A preacher who shouts everything he says will soon be turned off in a hurry. So there are crescendos in reality, and at those moments we ought to reach a crescendo, and then back off. Otherwise, the crescendo loses all of its meaning. And the second thing, besides appropriateness, is this. We asked about three years ago as we were assessing who we were, “What do we want to be the defining sound on Sunday morning during the first half of the worship service?”

In those days, the issue was, do we buy a pipe organ? We do not have a pipe organ. We don’t have an organ at all, though we have the most expensive synthesizer you can get, which sounds like one to me. Should the organ be the defining sound? For many churches, if you asked what the defining sound is, do you know what many would say? The organ. Do you know what the answer of our church was? The congregation singing. That carries a very important implication for the worship band. Don’t drown us out, because the body of Christ lifting its voice in song either smells like a sweet aroma in heaven or not.

The buttons being adjusted on these machines up here don’t smell any particular way to God. But the authenticity and the energy and the reality coming out of those people’s mouths and hearts smells good to God, or not. So I think those two things would be where I would go. Consider the appropriateness and try to help them see that you need their leadership. Say, “We need you. We’re not putting you down. We need leadership and you need to be heard. But if you drown us out, something theologically amiss is happening in the room now.”