Preaching the Word of God has always been central in the life of His called-out people. This act of proclamation is distinct from giving a speech, even if that speech is eloquent, authoritative, and godly (cf. Gen. 41:25–36; 44:18–34). Proclaiming the Word actually began with God Himself when He spoke to the Israelites (Exod. 20:1–17). It was so profoundly powerful that when the people heard it, “they trembled and stood at a distance. Then they said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die’ ” (Exod. 20:18, 19).1 It was indeed a sermon to remember!
The Hebrew word qara, “to proclaim, call or read aloud,” captures the essential definition of preaching or proclamation in the Old Testament. It “denotes primarily the enunciation of a specific vocable or message . . . customarily addressed to a specific recipient and . . . intended to elicit a specific response.”2 It was used when God said to Moses: “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you” (Exod. 33:19; cf. Neh. 6:7; Jon. 3:2).
To demonstrate that preaching was not a phenomenon unique to the newlyminted Christian faith, the apostle Peter noted that Noah was “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5). In koine Greek, the word kerussō “signifies (a) to be a herald, or in general, to proclaim . . . publish . . . to preach, Rev. 5:2; (b) to preach the gospel as a herald, Matt. 24:14; (c) to preach the word, 2 Tim. 4:2 (of the ministry of the Scriptures, with special reference to the Gospel).”3 Other notable heralds included John the Baptist (Matt. 3:1); the leper whom Jesus healed who “began to proclaim” (Mark 1:45) what He had done despite the stern warning not to (vv. 43, 44). Jesus announced that the Spirit of the Lord anointed Him to preach the gospel (Luke 4:18) and, in His last command to His disciples, told them to “ ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation’ ” (Mark 16:15). After His ascension, they did just that, “[a]nd every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42). It is also evident that preaching was a significant part of the life and worship of the early church. Exegetical, polemic homilies became a staple of the church during the period of a.d.200–800 4 when Origen—recognized as
It is also evident that preaching was a significant part of the life and worship of the early church. Exegetical, polemic homilies became a staple of the church during the period of a.d.200–800 4 when Origen—recognized as father of the sermon, as a fixed ecclesiastical custom—explored theological-practical exposition of a definite text, known as the homily. Then, “at that period of the separation of the divine service into homiletical-didactic part and a mystical part, the sermon was missionary and apologetic in type and suited to instruct the catechumens.”5 Sermons also “took the form of explication and application of the text, using particularly the method of allegory, which from that time on became prevalent and controlled the homiletical use of Scripture until the Reformation.”6 John Chrysostom put preaching on the map. As archbishop of Constantinople—this Early Church Father, and perhaps the first celebrity preacher—denounced the abuse of authority by political and ecclesiastical leaders. Later on, Augustine “was distinguished for his energy and tirelessness as a preacher.” His sermons were “strong in the elements of experience, witness-bearing, dialectic, and practical applications . . . and more infused with the Gospel.”7
With the proliferation of mass media communications and a renaissance in worship, preaching reached its zenith as the main portion of worship in the mid-twentieth century. During that resurgence, more than half of the time spent in worship was devoted to preaching. However, the unhinging of the sermon from the rest of the worship service may have originated in the Middle Ages when some elements were done in Latin and “the sermon required the use of the vernacular of the region.”8 This created the sense that some parts of worship (i.e., preaching) were more important than others. Some contemporary theologians and/ or homileticians, such as Michael J. Quicke, bemoan a recent paradigm shift in worship style and content where music, drama, praise, dancing, and video presentations appear to be usurping the prominence and centrality of preaching in worship.
A few proponents of this change express that “when sermons are regarded as primary, worship is reduced to plying musical ability and arranging service elements appropriately,”9 into “preliminaries.” Opponents did not surrender or sit silently as the movement gathered strength and popularity. Some, like Albert Mohler, said: “Music fills the space of most evangelical worship, and much of this music comes in the form of contemporary choruses marked by precious little theological content . . . [as] many evangelical churches seem intensely concerned to replicate studio-quality musical presentations,” adding that these stylistic changes “have sadly contributed to friction and sometimes even divided churches.” 10
T. David Gordon confidently predicted the imminent decline (not disappearance) of contemporary worship music11 and gave eight reasons, five of which are summarized below:
“Contemporary worship music hymns not only were/are comparatively poor, they had to be” because “one generation cannot successfully ‘compete’ with 50 generations of hymn-writers.”
“Early on in the contemporary worship music movement, many groups began setting traditional hymn-lyrics to contemporary melodies and/or instrumentation.” The writers quickly realized “how difficult/demanding it is to write lyrics that are not only theologically sound, but [are] significant, profound, appropriate, memorable, and edifying (not to mention metrical).” Thus, “the better contemporary hymns . . . have been over-used to the point that [congregations] have become weary of them.”
No longer is it “a competitive advantage to have part or all of a service in a contemporary idiom” since most churches now do so—reaching “what Malcolm Gladwell calls the ‘Tipping Point’ ”12—and are no longer marked “as emerging, hip, edgy, or forward looking.”
“As with all novelties, once the novelty wears off, what is left often seems somewhat empty. In a culture that celebrates what is new, . . . most people will pine for what is new.”
“Contemporary worship music is . . . accompanied by ‘Praise Teams’ ” to whom it is frequently, but not always, “difficult to provide direction . . . due to the inherent confusion between whether they are participants in the congregation or performers for the congregation.” Gordon also asserts that “ ‘[c]ontemporary worship’ to me is an oxymoron. Biblically, worship is what angels and morning stars did before creation.”13
Some of these predictions are challenging, conjuring uncomfortable feelings. Others, such as David Williams, opine that “when worship music is determined by our own preferences, we enthrone self”14 are indeed fighting words. Comments of this ilk have been said in an assortment of ways by a diverse group of opponents of the new trend in worship. They are like a shot over the bow, throwing down the gauntlet for a duel, or enough to raise the hackles of the proponents of contemporary worship music. Truth be told, worship has already become so controversial it “should be spelled ‘warship,’ and tragically, the term worship wars describes conflict, sometimes bitterly splitting congregations over worship styles.”15 Traditional churches, where the musical style continues to be hymns and choirs, have not escaped this great controversy. The pressures to conform, plus the dwindling attendance and declining financial support, cause many to surrender, even under duress, to the new wave where music is more dominant than preaching.
Are worship wars a new phenomenon?
Even before the establishment of His church, the woman at the well wrangled with Jesus about the place of worship. She observed contentiously, “ ‘Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship’ ” (John 4:20; emphasis mine). Upon reflection, this response of Jesus should cause the warriors of worship to lay down their arms: “ ‘You worship what you do not know, we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” (John 4:22, 23; emphasis mine).
It is clear that “the worship of God will be emancipated from the bondage of place,”16 but can we anticipate that it will be loosed from the wars about style and content? Since proskuneo (worship) means “to make obeisance, do reverence to (from pros, towards, and kuneo, to kiss)” and “is used of an act of homage or reverence,”17 in the battle between preaching and music, both protagonists and antagonists are worshiping “what” they do or do not know. Neither group is worshiping the implied “Who” (i.e., the Father). If they did, instead of their own knowledge, they would not allow this controversy to divide, destroy, or detract His church from its mission to seek and save the lost.
The “[h]ubris that plagues the act of preaching” has not helped to heal the wounds caused by these controversies. Unfortunately, “rightly convinced of preaching’s importance, preachers can wrongly become self-important. Investing all their effort in sermon-making, and claiming its importance for proclaiming the gospel (Rom. 10:9), they can sideline worship as a secondary matter,” proposes Michael Quicke. “Charles Rice,” he notes, “mischievously describes such an attitude as viewing the sermon as ‘a kind of homiletical ocean liner, preceded by a few liturgical tugboats.’ ”18 As another example of this hubris, Quicke quotes John Killinger saying, “There is no substitute for preaching in worship. It provides the proclamatory thrust without which the church is never formed and worship is never made possible.”19
Pastors who relegate all but preaching to the bottom drawer of “preliminaries,” asserts Quicke, reflect myopic views of preaching and worship. “Myopia” he argues, “is defined as a visual defect in which distant objects appear blurred because their images are focused in front of the retina rather than on it; nearsightedness. Often unaware how limited its vision has become, myopic preaching misses out on God’s long-range worship perspective, on the details of life.” He also notes that “[m]yopic preaching is marked by ten characteristics”: 20 (1) faulty defini-tions; (2) thin theology of worship; (3) nondirective use of Scripture; (4) liturgical amnesia; (5) feeble community formation; (6) naiveté about culture; (7) ambivalence about music; (8) not living in God’s narrative; (9) isolated preparation; and (10) worshipless sermons. 21
An appeal for a new era
Since preaching increasingly plays a supporting role to music and other contemporary additions to worship, how can those who are seeking and those who have never known Christ hear without the preached Word of God (Rom. 10:14, 15)? On the other hand, why should preaching have the dominance in worship when music has the power to touch the soul with such astounding emotions and accuracy? Consider the following:
1. God created the world with His word (Gen. 1; Heb. 11:3); revealed Himself to the world and humanity as the Word (John 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21); performs His works (John 9:4) of redemption, re-creation, reconciliation, and restoration by His Word (Matt. 9:22; Mark 5:8; Luke 4:39; John 11:43); and converts people (changes hearts and lives) by His Word (1 Pet. 1:23).
2. A 2002 United States-based survey by the Barna Research Group concluded that participants in the “worship wars” ignore the real issue regarding worship: “ ‘Most of the church people who fight about their musical preference do so because they don’t understand the relationship between music, communication, God and worship. Church leaders foster the problem by focusing on how to please people with music or how to offer enough styles of music to meet everyone’s tastes rather than dealing with the underlying issue of limited interest in, comprehension of, and investment in fervent worship of a holy, deserving God.’ ”22
3. There’s a desperate need in preaching for “fierce conversation.” This is not “menacing, cruel, barbarous or threatening,” language. It does not sound “like raised voices, frowns, blood on the floor, no fun at all” discourses. “[T]he word fierce has the following synonyms: robust, intense, strong, powerful, passionate, eager, unbridled, uncurbed, untamed.”23 It is the backbone of prophetic preaching—or speaking truth to power and challenging the status quo—that nurtures, nourishes, and evokes relevance and creativity to balance the prevailing model of pastoral preaching.
4. If preaching continues to retreat or be relegated to the status of “preliminaries,” a whole host of entertaining innovations will rise up to take its place. Today it is contemporary music, but who knows what tomorrow will bring? However, fighting each other for power or prominence of preferences in worship is not the Holy Spirit–anointed answer to resolve these tensions. This kind can only be resolved through prayer and fasting—the foundation, launching pad, and sustenance of preaching and worship.
5. Worship was intended to please God, not man, and contemporary worship is often anthropocentric rather than theocentric or Christocentric. There is no scriptural support that a person’s traditions, instincts, favoritisms, or experiments are divine commands for the content and exercise of worship. Neither was the Geneva order of worship (developed by John Calvin and practiced by many conservative Protestant churches) written by the finger of God on tablets of stone like the Ten Commandments. Believers are called to worship God in spirit and truth, and He gave no rules or regulations regarding style or content; yet, in our obsessive, anthropocentric clime, in the words of Paul, when we “come together as a church . . . divisions exist among” us (1 Cor. 11:18).
6. We cannot and must not eliminate or undermine preaching in order to substitute entertainment for evangelism under the guise of making worship interesting and exciting to attract the unconverted. Entertainment is seductive and appealing because we all want to see many who live beyond the choir brought to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. However, in the words of Robert Godfrey, “We must remember that entertainment is not evangelism and evangelism is not worship.” People are not converted by a comedian in the pulpit, a group of praise dancers on the platform, or a big band sound of music in the sanctuary. It is by the gospel of Jesus Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–10).
7. Traditional Protestant worship has always been strong on reverence and may seem mechanical, formalistic, and without emotion to some in our media-driven, action-obsessed culture. Others may view contemporary worship, with its enthusiasm and joy, as being focused on fun and excitement at the expense of reverence.
I recommend proponents of both approaches (a) ask and answer whether the content of their worship achieves a biblical balance where preaching is the lamp to the worshipers’ feet (Ps. 119:105) and the music and songs recount and guide them to God’s saving works of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration; and (b) put an end to the “warship” by beating the swords of what they know or don’t know into plowshares (Isa. 2:4) to cultivate a new era of Christian preaching and worship. Then, the world will know Jesus is Lord because of our love for one another (John 13:35).
1 All Scripture in this article is quoted from the New American Standard Bible.
2 R. Laird Harris, ed., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 2 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1980), 810.
3 W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1966).
4 Samuel Macauley Jackson, ed., The New Schaff-Herzog Religious Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, vol. 9, (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1911), 159, books .google.com/books?id=pZJAAQAAMAAJ.
7 Ibid., 160.
8 Ibid., 161.
9 Michael J. Quicke, Preaching as Worship: An Integrative Approach to Formation in Your Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 32.
10 Albert Mohler, “Expository Preaching—The Antidote to Anemic Worship,” August 19, 2013, www.albertmohler.com/2013/08/19/expository -preaching-the-antidote-to-anemic-worship/.
11 T. David Gordon, “The Imminent Decline of Contemporary Worship Music: Eight Reasons,” Second Nature, October 27, 2014, secondnaturejournal.com /the-imminent-decline-of-contemporary-worship -music-eight-reasons.
12 Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2000).
13 Quicke, Preaching as Worship, 30.
14 Professor of Worship and Music at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary.
16 Archibald Thomas Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. 5 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1960), 66.
17 Vine, An Expository Dictionary, 235.
18 Quicke, Preaching as Worship, 28.
20 Ibid., 39.
21 Ibid., 40–59.
22 “Focus on ‘Worship Wars’ Hides the Real Issues Regarding Connection to God,” Barna articles in Faith & Christianity, November 19, 2002, www.barna.org/ component/content/article/5-barna-update/45 -barna-update-sp-657/85-focus-on-qworship -warsq-hides-the-real-issues-regarding-connection -to-god.
23 Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time (New York: Berkley Books, 1999), 7.