Give me Preaching or give me death!
“Give me liberty or give me death!” is the powerful quote by Patrick Henry in 1775 that helped bring the Virginia Commonwealth into the fight for independence. It is one of several important statements that were both symbolic of the fight for independence and instigating to garner actual support needed at the time. It’s a great quote.
Now, my play on the quote is less aspiring, but I still hope it provokes a mini-revolution in some preacher’s heart somewhere.
I grew up in a church much like many of you — traditional Southern Baptist experience that I remember particularly marked by two things: 1) Get decisions by getting crowds and 2) Make a BIG deal about the holidays. Now, I want to say right off (knowing I could offend some – even family – who may read this blog or attended the church I did) that I had a rich experience in my home church, coming to Christ there and being called to ministry. Much of the most important early decisions of my spiritual life were made while at my home church. So, I am grateful to God for working through many faithful workers (even if it was a revolving door with vocational leadership – the lay leaders are the ones I remember most). Bottom line, over time I’ve come to be grateful for God’s faithfulness in my early years.
That said, when I remember those two elements mentioned above, I tend to be somewhat (okay, VERY) skeptical when I see a semblance of the same elements in churches today. When you combine the “crowd” idea with the “holiday” idea you often wind up with an awfully “Americanized” church experience. If the church is faithful, there will be a smattering of “gospel” elements, but often it feels more like a nod to what we are supposed to be about as a church (and at any worship gathering) rather than what is clearly central.
Personally, this puts me at risk with family, friends, even church members. It sounds like I’m against all things holiday (no Santa, no Stars-n-Stripes, no bunnies — these aren’t good examples because we actually don’t teach our kids about Santa and ignore bunnies altogether at Easter — do love our country and the American flag). Nonetheless, it’s risky. What I’m against in TOTAL are competitors for the gospel when we gather together as God’s people. By nature, we are easily distracted (with ourselves) and if we promote things above the gospel on a Sunday morning that make much of “us” (as individuals or a nation) I believe we lose sight of our true identity as believers (a humble, sorry lot redeemed by God’s grace in Christ Jesus and made citizens of heaven, NOT more entrenched as citizens of earthly kingdoms).
Let me give you a brief example. One time I had a letter from a member of a worship team that said, “Can’t you step out of the spotlight just a few times a year to let us play?” The charge related to having zero preaching in lieu of having a music only service (I think it related to a holiday). This didn’t provoke happy thoughts for me, but I had to make sure my response was equal to my offense, which had nothing to do with me being at the “center” (as the preacher), rather the proclamation of the gospel being central to every worship gathering. This has been my tenet for years (long before UBC) and will continue to be.
There are times for some of these special occasion services and I believe that holiday services can be done in such a way that God is truly glorified. Usually, however, the tone of these services when performed (and I mean that intentionally) on a Sunday morning feels more like God empowering us to be a great people with great dreams, able to accomplish anything – but little if nothing related to the gospel, the TRUE gospel. The gospel that redeems men from sin and reconciles them to God because God hates sin and will deal with all sin (meaning, the gospel is NOT about God redeeming a people so that we can bless them with democratic ideals — take it easy, love democracy…).
I’m just saying that the church must be distinct. What torch are we to bear? I believe it is the gospel proclaimed (usually expositionally) through the preaching of the Word that must be our aim every single Sunday morning (or whenever our main worship gathering is). Again, there are times for other things, as long as they are consistent with our aim as a people.
Too hard? Maybe. Too narrow? Certainly by some standards. Truth is, I think my dad should be honored as a veteran, as well as other men in my family who have died serving our country. I think there is a general kindness that we should be reminded of each Thanksgiving and Christmas to amp up our generosity. But when we leave out the proclamation of the Word, which scripture commands we do when we are gathered as a people, we have done something less than have a biblically-defined worship service. At UBC, we seasonally remember our vets and pray for our military and gospel-centered military chaplains. But we do so without forgetting that while dying for our country is noble and good, it’s not that same as Romans 5:8 that says Christ died for His enemies (the ones that killed him) not for those already His friends. One thing points to another and is a powerful image of the more eternal thing.
So, I’m not saying let’s not celebrate our country or holidays, but I am saying let us not waste one corporate worship gathering without proclaiming the very Word of God that will last longer than any country, any holiday.
This is just one reason I’m so grateful to God for a church that is so receptive to the Scriptures and understanding that preaching is to be central to each time we gather on a Sunday. I’m thankful for elder / pastor types (like John Mueller) this past Sunday who faithfully proclaim the Word helping the church to see that it is the Word that is central not the personality proclaiming it.
May God make us the kind of Christians who go hard after the eternal while faithfully brining the eternal into the temporal world we live in. We will blow it on this point and I’m certain that many of us will fail at being too stringent. May we be gracious and loving in our veracious love for Scripture proclaimed KNOWING that the REAL difference in us will occur when that Word proclaimed changes the way that we LIVE.