I want to begin by posing a question about the relationship between contemporary worship songs and preaching. I think most of us would agree that the last twenty years has seen a phenomenal explosion of “contemporary worship music.” Songs like Jack Hayford's “Majesty” and Graham Kendrick’s “Shine, Jesus, Shine” and dozens of others — many so familiar that if I started singing them now you could join me: “Thou Art Worthy,” “Father I Adore You,” “Open Our Eyes Lord,” “We Worship and Adore You,” “Thou, O Lord, Art a Shield about Me,” “You Are Lord,” and on and on. The common vocabulary of contemporary worship songs today is astonishing in evangelicalism and beyond.
Some of them are grammatically, poetically and musically deplorable — which we shouldn’t make too much of if we grew up on the likes of “Do Lord, O Do Lord.” Every explosion has its ﬂuff. But one thing is unmistakable as a trend in these songs: they are by and large, and in a new way, Godward. All the ones I mentioned address God in the second person — You, O Lord. They are sung to God directly, not merely to each other about God. Therefore they force the issue of worship as a Godward act — an engagement of the heart with the living God right now in the moment of this song.
Add to this that these contemporary tunes are emotionally moving. They are composed in such a way as to awaken and carry affections. They are not excessively complex or intellectual or demanding, but catch the heart up into their mood.
Worship Awakened in Song
So two things happen in the best contemporary worship songs: the mind is brought to focus on God with words that are usually biblical or even straight Bible (much more so than the spiritual choruses of previous generations); and the heart is moved by the music with a mood of tenderness or devotion or enjoyment — at least this is true for millions of ordinary Christians, if not for everyone.
So as we look at the “worship awakening” over the last 20 years or so, what stands out to me as astonishing is that its content is so God-centered and God-exalting. He is Lord, risen from the dead; he is majestic; he is mighty, he is holy, he has conquered the power of death; he is a shield about us, our glory, the lifter of our heads; he is King of kings. Lord of lords, Emmanuel, Great and Wonderful, our Rock, our Fortress, our Deliverer, the coming King, Redeemer, Name above all names, precious Lamb of God Messiah, Holy One; He is our God, and our God reigns.
“In the same way a melody can awaken us to the beauty of God, preaching should awaken people to the glory of God’s truth.”
It is unmistakable — whatever you think of the drums, the electric guitar and bass and ampliﬁcation and t-shirts and platforms cluttered with wires and mics and speakers — the dominant theme of these songs is God: the character of God, the power of God, the mercy of God and the authority of God and the Fatherhood of God. And the hoped-for effect of relentlessly addressing him directly in the second person is engagement — genuine, real, spiritual — of the heart with God.
Worship Deadened in Preaching
But there is another remarkable fact of the last 20 years or so, and it has to do with preaching. My observation is that the preaching that follows this music in most churches has moved in exactly the opposite direction from the musical worship awakening. 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 the great works of God, preaching focuses on contemporary issues, personal problems, and relationships. While the worship songs lift us into the presence of God, preaching gives advice on how to. get along better on earth.
I’m not sure I’m saying it the way it needs to be said. But however we say it, there seems to be a remarkable difference. I don’t know anyone who would say today the same thing about preaching that we have seen in the “worship awakening” — namely, that there has been a great resurgence of God-centeredness, or a great moving of the spirit of Godwardness in the pulpit, or a focus on God’s character and mighty acts, in the preaching of evangelicalism. Rather, I think most would agree that preaching has moved in the other direction: relational, anecdotal, humorous, casual, laid-back, absorbed in human need, fixed on relational dynamics, heavily saturated with psychological categories, wrapped up in strategies for emotional healing.
Are We Better Off Just Singing?
This very different development in singing and preaching begs for an explanation. And this is the question that I said I wanted to begin with: Why this difference? I’m sure it is more complex than I presently understand or can deal with here. But I want to suggest one possible explanation that highlights the need for my focus in these messages. Why have we preachers not followed the lead of worship music into a sustained focus on the greatness of God, and the majesty of his name, and the glory of his works? Why is the subject matter and the focus of preaching so different than the that of contemporary worship songs?
Music Moves the Heart
One aspect of the explanation goes like this: the God-centered lyrics of the worship songs have the great advantage over preaching that they are accompanied by heart-engaging music. The assumption is that the words would never in themselves hold the interest of worshipers and never release the affections for God that they do in connection with the music. Therefore, one might say, the music is what makes God-centered lyrics palatable to contemporary evangelicals, who are basically a-theological, and would not be stirred by them without the moving music.
Without the music, the words would be considered dry, irrelevant, distant, unengaging. Or we can put it more generously than that. We could say that to the degree that the tunes are pleasing and stirring and heart-engaging, the worshiper is genuinely opened to at least some of the signiﬁcance of the truth about God himself, and indeed brought to experience the reality of that very God.
However you put it, negatively: the music makes God-centeredness palatable, or, positively: the music opens the heart to the true joy of God-centeredness, we preachers know that our words have to stand or fall without the help of music.
We Assume Doctrine Doesn’t Interest
And yet almost every preacher — and this is not wrong — wants to accomplish what music accomplishes. We want to move the heart. We want to stir the emotions as well as stoke the mind. We want to awaken heart-felt affections as well as win intellectual assent. And right here, many preachers, I fear, make a fateful mistaken judgment. It goes like this: Since I do not have music to accompany me in my preaching, and to help me hold or move the hearts of my people and engage their emotions, I cannot do this with a God-centered message. I can’t do what worship songs do.
Doctrine and theological portraits of God and a focus on his supremacy and a spirit of transcendence will simply not hold and move a contemporary audience — not without music to sustain the mood. What holds a contemporary audience verbally is not a message about God, but a message about divorce or drugs or parenting or anger or success or abuse or intimacy or depression.
“Our aim is worship: valuing, cherishing, and displaying the greatness and glory of God.”
In other words, the common strategy of preachers today for awakening people’s emotions and engaging their hearts seems to be that we ﬁnd the areas of human life where the emotions are already running high and where the hearts are already engaged; and then we root the sermon there: the pain in the marriage; the anguish of wayward teenagers; the stress at work; the power of sexual temptation; the breakdown of community; the woundedness of past abuses; the absence of intimacy and vulnerability.
We preachers know that if we plant our sermons here — if we tend this garden with modest skill in anecdote and illustration and personal vulnerability — we will move the hearts of our hearers and we will accomplish what the worship tunes accomplish. Our congregation will experience the good feelings of empathy, and we will feel the satisfaction of attentive, resonating faces.
Disinterest Beyond the Pews
Now at this point, I could put a positive or a negative spin on this development in preaching. Positively I could say: Well, at least a lot of preaching is in touch with where people are and where they feel pain — which is not a bad thing. Preaching that is ignorant of people and not empathetic with their pain will not bear biblical fruit.
But there is a negative spin that we can put on this development— one that I do indeed put on it, and one that helps explain my burden in these messages. It would go like this: The reason we preachers do not believe that the greatness of God, the spirit of transcendence, the glory and majesty of Christ, the deep things of the Spirit, will move the hearts of our people and awaken profound affections is that these things do not move us; they don’t awaken our affections. We preachers prefer to read books about anger and intimacy and marriage and success and all manner of how-to strategies for home and work and church, than to read books about God. Ask any publisher what sells — even to pastors.
What gets the preachers’ juices ﬂowing is a new psychological angle on family dysfunction; and new strategy for mobilizing lay people; a new tactic for time management; a fresh approach to dealing with depression; an empathetic focus on his own resentments and pain and anger after years of being beat up by carnal Christians. But not a book about God. Not the inﬁnite expanse of God’s character. Not the inexhaustible riches of the glory of God in Christ.
So here’s the upshot of my partial, fallible interpretation of what’s going on in the cleavage between worship music and preaching: I would say, paradoxically, that preachers are not really trying to be different. In fact, we preachers want desperately to sustain some of the same interest and enjoyment and engagement of the worship songs in our preaching. We want the same thing to happen emotionally in our preaching that happens in emotionally charged times of worship. And since we are persuaded (I think mistakenly) that it just won’t happen with God-centeredness, we seek it with empathetic human pain-centeredness. We ﬁnd the engaging itch and we scratch it.
Preach to Awaken Worship
My own sense is that this tension between God-focused worship lyrics and human-focused preaching cannot go on indeﬁnitely. Either the God-centered worship singing will be pulled down, or the man-saturated preaching will be pulled up. My aim in these messages is to plead for preaching to be pulled up — not away from the pain of the people, but along with the pain of the people into the presence of God, whose presence and reality alone is the ﬁnal answer. My conviction is that the aim of preaching — no less than singing — is God-exalting worship. And not only that, my conviction is (hence the title of these messages) that true biblical preaching is worship.
In other words, in the same way that a melody can awaken us to the true beauty of God in the lyrics of a worship song, so the spiritual music of the preacher’s soul, over the truth of God as he preaches it, can awaken the people to the glory of the preached truth of God. When the word comes worshiping, it will beget worship. When preaching is not just expository, but expository exultation (that’s my deﬁnition of preaching) it will move the hearers, and it will engage the heart with the presence and glory of God.
Now it may be that someone would say, “Well, what’s wrong with having a God-centered worship time in song followed by an empathetic human-centered word from God about our problems?” What’s wrong with it is that preaching is meant by God to catch people up into worship, not be a practical human application after worship. The aim of preaching is to deal with divorce worshipfully, and to deal with teenagers worshipfully, and to deal with anger worshipfully. Preaching exalts the centrality of God in all of life or it is not Christian preaching.
Three Reasons Preaching Is and Should Kindle Worship
Let me just point you to three biblical reasons for believing this, that preaching is meant to be and to kindle God-exalting worship.
All to God’s Glory
First, I believe it because the word of God says that everything is to be done in a worshipful, God-centered way; “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17). If everything is to be radically oriented on magnifying the glory of God and exalting the name of Jesus, how much more preaching. Whatever it deals with — and it is to deal with everything — it must be done with a view to begetting and sustaining worship: the valuing and cherishing and displaying of the glory of God.
For the Fame of His Own Name
Second, I believe that preaching is meant to exalt the centrality of God because the word says that God himself exalts his own centrality in all that he does. And preaching is one of the great things that God does. God’s word in Isaiah 48:11 is like a great banner ﬂying over all his acts from creation to consummation: “For my own sake, for my own sake, I act; For how can my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”
He chose us and predestined us for his glory (Ephesians 1:6), he created us for his glory (Isaiah 43:7), he saved us for his glory (Ephesians 1:14), he sanctiﬁes us for his glory (2 Thessalonians 1:12). All God does, he does to magnify his glory in the earth. Preaching is one of the great things that God does. It is God’s work. And therefore the mission of preaching is the mission of God: “I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10). Our aim is worship: the valuing and cherishing and displaying of the greatness and the glory of God.
Faith Is the Goal
Finally, I believe that preaching is meant to exalt the centrality of God because the New Testament teaches that the appointed end of preaching is faith, and faith is the primary covenant requirement of God precisely because it humbles us and ampliﬁes the trustworthiness, and all-sufﬁciency of God.
“The mission of all preaching should be soul-satisfying, God-exalting worship.”
Repeatedly, Paul lines up preaching with faith as its goal. Romans 10:14, 17: “How shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” First Corinthians 1:21: “Since in the wisdom of God the world did not know God through its wisdom, God was pleased through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe.” First Corinthians 2:4–5, “My message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” (see also Rom. 16:25–27; 1 (1 Corinthians 15:11, 14)
The aim of preaching is to beget and sustain faith. Why? Because faith magniﬁes the power and trustworthiness of God. This is why Paul loves the model of Abraham: “Abraham grew strong in his faith giving glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:20–21). The heart of saving faith is a spiritual apprehension of the glorious trustworthiness of God in Christ, and an earnest embracing of all that God is for us in Christ to satisfy the hunger of the soul.
That’s the way Jesus described faith in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” Believing in Jesus means coming to him for the quenching of our soul’s thirst. Faith in Christ is being satisﬁed with all that God is for us in Jesus. When we experience that, we magnify the preciousness and worth of God. Because God is most gloriﬁed in us when we are most satisﬁed in him. Which means we worship.
The aim of preaching, whatever the topic, whatever the text, is this kind of faith — to quicken in the soul a satisfaction with all that God is for us in Jesus, because this satisfaction magniﬁes God’s all-sufﬁcient glory; and that is worship. Therefore, the mission of all preaching is soul-satisfying, God-exalting worship.