Phooey on the Sermon and the Church Order

Before I wrote the following, I hesitated for some time. If I should say what I think, then maybe some of my fellow ministers would become angry. And who wants to be the object of anyone’s anger, and especially of that of preachers? The study is too peaceful and pleasant to get all hot and bothered.

Yet, I think the Christian Reformed Church is in for some very rough sledding unless we stop the dangerous trend that is in the thinking and actions of some ministers. At a conference of about forty ministers in the East, I spoke briefly on church worship as one of a panel of three, and considerable discussion ensued. Before I spoke, I prayed earnestly that the Holy Spirit would enable me to speak kindly and in love and at the same time to say what I believed. Too often I speak sharply and unkindly, and that is not good. We must always try to “speak the truth in love,” as Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:15. We must be inoffensively offensive; that is, we should speak the truth (the offense of the gospel), but do it in a pleasant, inoffensive way. This is my goal now: to say plainly what I think needs to be said, but to say it in a loving way without any trace of bitterness to those with whom I disagree. And some of these ministers with whom I disagree I consider to be my friends.

The conference was called by those interested in home missions in order to stimulate ministers to have a more effective outreach. In the Christian Reformed Church, to go no further, there is a decline in church attendance, especially (but not only) in Canada among our new Dutch immigrants, and especially in the evening services. It is true that the Christian Reformed Church has never dramatically reached out to attract people in the community the same way some other denominations have done. In reaction to this lack of outward success, many were justly concerned about new ways in the seventies to win men to Christ. So, it should be emphasized at the start that the purpose of all at this conference was very good: it was how to be a better church.

Wrong Methods to Stimulate Growth

But I believe that even though the motives are good, the methods suggested by some are wrong. For example, some churches dispense with a formal official worship service in the evening. There is no formal salutation and benediction, nor even a sermon. Rather, the people get together and have a song fest. They love to sing, but not out of the Psalter-hymnal, which is required of every church by our synod. Then there is prayer and a discussion, which may be followed by the people drifting off into the foyer and having refreshments. Possibly a film may be shown with an ensuing discussion around the film. In this way, the needs of the local community are met, they say. Instead of fifteen or twenty people, maybe eighty or ninety will come out—people who would never have been reached otherwise. Other churches, instead of having sermons, are experimenting with dramas, poetry, choral reading, cantatas and the like.

In my estimation, this is a grave mistake. I believe that many of these methods are permissible and desirable as young, informal groups try to establish a church. We do this sort of thing all the time with young people’s groups, young adults, Mr. and Mrs. clubs and at church suppers. There is plenty of room for hymn sings, poetry reading, film, dramas, chalk-artists and cantatas. But only as a supplement to the official gatherings of the church of God, and not as a substitute for them. There ought not to be a cutting out of the official proclamation of the Word of God, but a bettering of it.

The Solution: Preach the Word

The solution to the decline in church attendance is not to be found in the latest gimmicks, such as, high schoolers with guitars singing “Michael , row your boat.” (I asked one group of college students in InterVarsity that had just sling that what the words meant, and they had no idea. But this is the in thing, so they thought it was good in order to be appealing to the non-Christian.) The church will not long attract people when it tries to compete with the far superior entertainment on TV. The strength of the church is not in the latest fads, but in “doing its thing.” And “its thing” is the preaching of the Word. As Leonard Verduin pointed out in his excellent article in The Ballner (Dec. 19, 1969), the pre-Christian world did not know the sermon. They had the ritual, the action, whether it be dancing or liturgy or chanting or pantomime or the sacramental act. But Christianity’s thing was the preaching of the Word. John the Baptist came preaching. Jesus began his ministry with preaching. Repeatedly in Acts the apostles went preaching. Paul tells Timothy: “Preach the Word” (II Tim. 4:2).

The strength of the church is not in fewer sermons but in better ones. One main problem today is that some preachers are not studying enough. They are doing too much visiting of the physically sick to the neglect of the spiritually dying. They find it more rewarding to be at meetings and with people than to be in the study. They prefer counselling to expounding the Word. And let’s face it: sermon preparation is hard, tough and oftentimes no fun.

It is tough to do the following in preparing sermons:

1. To know the Bible well, including the Greek and Hebrew.

2. To make a logical outline so that there is no rambling.

3. To make the deep teachings so plain that children can understand.

4. To know the problems and nature of the seventies.

5. To speak up on relevant, current issues.

6. To be enthusiastic about the subject instead of droning on in a mechanical fashion.

A Twofold Principle

But success (in God’s sight) will come jf we follow the twofold Biblical principle: 1. Preach the Word of God (intelligently, clearly and with conviction); 2. Pray for the working of the Holy Spirit in the preacher and the listeners. When we follow those two principles, there will be results. Goers Word will not return void. It will accomplish that for which it was sent. God’s Word and God’s Spirit: an unbeatable combination. There is no blessing apart from the Word that the Holy Spirit inspired. Nor are there any results if the Author of the Word does not open up the hearts of the hearers. All the liturgical gimmicks in the world will not save a single soul if there is not that twofold presence of the Word and the Spirit. Whenever a revival has come in the church, whether at the Reformation, or in the last century or today, it is always without exception through the proclamation of the Word of God.

It seems to me that one of the hang-ups of some preachers who want to substitute the latest fad for the sermon is their denominational inferiority complex. They look at churches of other denominations that grow phenomenally fast, and then conclude that the answer must be in their methods.

But we must not sell the Christian Reformed Church short. It is often like a turtle, getting there so slowly. But God has blessed it greatly. Too often, churches are a flash in the pan: big crowds, evangelistic messages every Sunday night, meteoric growth. But there has been no solid maturing. They often become doctrinally weak and that then affects their outward visible actions.

To be sure, the Christian Reformed Church has been much too slow; and yet, see its steady growth. It has lasted for over a hundred years. Every church without exception still proclaims the deity of Christ, salvation by faith alone, the substitutionary atonement, Christ’s resurrection, his kingship and his return. Our mission programs at home and abroad have multiplied. Our chaplaincy quotas are continually oversubscribed. Its impact is felt not only on Sunday, but also every day of the week in the Christian schools and the several institutions of higher learning. Where else in an America will you find a denomination of our size where every Sunday in every church you can find Jesus Christ exalted? Too many people, because they have been brought up in the Christian Reformed Church all their lives and because they have attended Christian schools, Calvin College and Calvin Seminary, do not really know how bad off many other American churches are. It is so easy to criticize ourselves and to despise the blessings of God right in our midst.

Yet, on the other hand, we must not become fat and complacent. Dead orthodoxy can set in: formal doctrinal correctness and yet no life of the Spirit. We must not relax because there has been good preaching of the Word and sound doctrine. We must revitalize ourselves—not with the latest fads—but by the Holy Spirit as the Word of God is proclaimed.

A Disturbing Development

The fact that disturbed me most at the ministers’ conference was the open disregard for the Church Order by some. In my short presentation there I stated that I felt that some ministers and consistories were dishonest in violating the Church Order. Article 51 says that “the congregation shall assemble for worship at least twice on the Lord’s Day.” Article 54 says: “In the worship services the minister of the Word shall officially explain and apply Holy Scripture.” When ministers substitute drama, movies and discussion for the sermons, regardless of how good their motives are, they arc violating the Church Order and should stop doing so. I think that the Church Order should be changed at various places. And I have written articles to that effect. But as long as I am a minister in the Christian Reformed Church, I solemnly agree to abide by its rules until by the legal process agreed upon I proceed through normal church channels and the church changes them. This is the policy of honesty. But to do what is right in one’s own eyes, and to obey th is article but not that one, is wrong and contrary to what every minister agrees to do.

At that point several ministers felt that we arc not bound to obey everything in the Church Order. How this can be said is beyond me. One suggested that the Church Order is only a guideline that docs not have to be followed at every tum. The word “ordinarily” should be understood as being in front of each article. The problem with such an interpretation is that the word “ordinarily” was specifically inserted in several articles because it was felt that the Church Order was binding in all parts and they wanted to make some exceptions to that universally binding character.

For example, the 1965 Synod changed the old Church Order by inserting the word “ordinarily” in order that there might be occasional exceptions to the following of the Heidelberg Catechism each Sunday, such as at Christmas or Easter. It now reads: “At one of the services each Lord’s Day, the minister shall ordinarily preach the Word as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism, following its sequence.” In Article 51 it states, “Worship services shall be held . .. ordinarily on Old and New Year’s Day, and annual days of prayer and thanksgiving.”

Another minister suggested that the only way you can change the Church Order is to break it continually!! Then Synod will see a real need for a change. But without such a need, no change will come about.

It is clear, however, that the Synod of 1965, which adopted the Church Order, expected a faithful adherence to it. Article 42 says that “the church visitors shall ascertain whether the office-bearers faithfully perform their duties, adhere to sound doctrine. observe the provisions of the Church Order….” And the last article concludes with these words: “This Church Order, having been adopted by common consent, shall be faithfully observed, and any revision thereof shall be made only by synod.”

Presbyterian or Congregational?

The feeling was expressed by one minister that he did not want any other church to lord it over him or his church. He felt repressed by the Church Order. Well, this is the issue: Is the Christian Reformed Church going to remain Presbyterian in its form of church government, or is it going to be Congregational, Independent?

One of the strengths of the Christian Reformed Church has been that we do not have a Baptistic, Congregational kind of church government. Rather, when some minister or consistory, however sincere and well meaning they may be, deny certain truths in our Forms of Unity, the other churches have an obligation lovingly to rebuke them. The deviating party must then show that the creeds or Church Order are unbiblical. If he fails to do so to the satisfaction of the other churches, he must then not speak out against them, or he must leave the church. Instead of such a rule being stifling, it is a great blessing. For without this inter-church discipline, Arminianism and Modernism will creep into local churches, as it already has done in the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. and the Reformed Church of America. We must decide, then: Do we want to remain in the Biblical tradition of our fathers, having a Reformed-Presbyterian form of church government; or do we want to follow independentism, allowing every church to do what is right in its awn eyes?

If you want what our church has always stood for, then when violations come, speak up and call them to the attention of the proper authorities. But do it in love. If you sit back as one of the silent majority, then you are voting for independentism, and any decline in our church’s faithfulness to God’s Word is partially your fault.

May God be gracious to the Christian Reformed Church so that the Word of God will always be vigorously proclaimed.

Dr. Edwin H. Palmer is executive secretary of the Committee of Bible Translation of New York Bible Society.