I get the chance to visit a lot of churches. It is great to how God is working in many different churches and I have learned so much from other Christians. I love the church and I am not arrogant enough to think that the one to which I belong has got it all right. But one thing I feel is missing from many churches is a sense of transcendency.
Now I accept that I am on the more traditional wing of the church (although hopefully not a traditionalist). I'm all for vibrant joyful worship but I like my hands very firmly in my pockets rather than in the air. I like worship that feeds my mind and moves my heart towards the transcendent God of the Bible, not some sentimental figure dreamed up by a few 20 somethings in a church in California. I need worship that covers all the bases so I like to sing though all the themes of the Bible not just ones that make me feel better about myself. I like to sing about the glory of God, faith in crisis, sin being an ever present reality and life being really tough so I gravitate to the best hymn book: the book of Psalms.
As a reformed Christian, I believe that the word of God expounded through the sermon needs to have central place in the public worship of God. I like to come out of sermons feeling like I have met with God, that the preacher has helped me to see the force of God's word and how each part of the Bible brings me back to the glorious story of redemption. I want to feel humbled, moved and, in the midst of all my sin and failure, loved by the only Saviour of the world. I also need to be convinced that a preacher has first been moved by what he is preaching himself. As Tim Keller's book 'Preaching' says in his chapter on 'Preaching Christ to the Heart' he says this;
If you want to preach to the heart, you need to preach from the heart, It's got to be clear that your own heart has been reached by the truth of the text. This takes a non-deliberate transparency. Heart-moving preachers (in contrast to heart manipulating ones) reveal their own affections without really trying to. What is required is that as you speak it becomes evident in all sorts of ways that you yourself have been humbled, wounded, healed, comforted, and exalted by the truths you are presenting, and that they have genuine power in your life.
Preaching isn't about 'information takeaways' its about meeting with God as the Holy Spirit applies the word of God to our hearts. It is different from lecturing. It is 'logic on fire' not a well crafted essay read out word for word. This is why the prayer life of a preacher is so important. As Keller says: If your heart isn't regularly engaged in prayer and repentance, if you aren't constantly astonished as God's grace in your solitude, there's no way it can happen in public. You won't touch hearts because your own heart isn't touched. This is why the spiritual walk of the preacher is just as important as the content of the sermon. A sermon needs to touch and move the hearers to change, a process traditionally called application. As Keller says earlier in the book, A good sermon is not like a club that beats upon the will but like a sword that cuts to the heart. (Acts 2:37). At its best it pierces to our very foundations, analysing and revealing us to ourselves (Hebrews 4 v 12).
But its not all down to the preacher. Listeners play a huge part. In out rush to be 'missional' and 'contextual' (things I feel we passionately need), we have jettisoned the transcendency of worship. We as listeners need to prayerfully prepare for worship. This stuck me powerfully recently when I got the new Banner of Truth edition of The Westminster Confession of Faith, (which also contains the Larger and Shorter Catechism, the Sum of Saving Knowledge, the National Covenant, the Directory for Public Worship and the Directory for Family Worship). You can order a copy here. If you have never read these documents I would encourage you to do so. I particularly find the Larger Catechism a huge help in in understanding the Bible.
The Directory for Public Worship was an attempt to bring some Biblical order to a time when the church had become very confused over worship. It was after the reformation where the church had sought to reform after centuries of corruption and idolatry. Worship had become sensual and man centred, a process that we are once again descending into in the 21st century church.
What is interesting is the plea for solemnity in the public worship of God which reads so strangely to our modern minds. Listen to this paragraph on the 'Assembling of the Congregation, and their Behaviour in the Public Worship of God.'
When the congregation is to meet for public worship, the people (having before prepared their hearts thereunto) ought to come and join therein; not absenting themselves from the public ordinance through negligence, or upon the pretence of private meetings. Let all enter the assembly, not irreverently, but in a grave and seemly manner, taking their seats or places without adoration, or bowing themselves towards one place or another.
Surely it is no coincidence that stillness and knowing God are inextricably linked. Psalm 46 says 'Be still, and know that I am God, I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.' It is when we still ourselves and come aside from the concerns of this word that we are better able to worship and listen to what God wants to say to us. Also check out Job 37 v 14, Psalm 4 v 4,
I don't think church should be like a funeral. I think there should be hearty welcome, especially for visitors. I'm not against hospitality as people arrive. But at some point, there needs to be silence, there need to be an acknowledgement that we are not at a football match, or a coffee morning, we are not at church primarily to catch up with our friends (nice as that is), we are here for something serious, life changing and transcendent. That doesn't mean we need to create a hostile or austere environment but it does mean that there should be a stillness before the service and a reverence and seriousness throughout.