Services at many evangelical churches are a strange experience of bubble gum for a starter, followed by sirloin steak for a main. That is, for twenty minutes or so, we mash our jaws on vapid clichés, juvenile imagery, hokey sentimentalisms, jangling rhymes, and musical nostalgia. It’s all made pleasant by the refined sugar of pop music with its predictable melodies, formulaic chords and overpowering percussion. This is the average musical fare in an evangelical church. Any objectors to the nutritional value of bubble-gum will be summarily silenced with a few ad-hominems (“legalist”, “elitist”, “traditionalist”, “Pharisee”) and then given the standard-form lecture on Romans 14, Scripture’s supposed silence on musical form and genre, and the narrowness of critiquing another’s musical preference. I think it’s bubble-gum, but that’s just my truth, you see.
In other words, when it comes to the first part of the service, form does not matter. It does not matter what poetry you use, what verbal images, what musical instruments, what melodies, or what rhythms. In the first part of the service, these forms are all neutral, amoral, and without significance. They serve as placeholders for Christians to fill in their own sincerity and love. It’s all sweet nothing: zero-calorie warming up of the jaws for the real meal.
In the second part of the service, everything changes. Suddenly, an intense seriousness takes over. The passive spectators, who were being amused and entertained by syrupy chords and manipulative modulations, are replaced by furrowed-brow students, pencil behind the ear, prepared to conscientiously record the outline of the coming expository sermon.
And make no mistake, this sermon will be the purest beef. No antics or histrionics will be used to gain or keep attention. Vacuous stories will be vigilantly avoided. Mere talking about or around the biblical text will be a fail. Too many testimonial illustrations will be frowned upon, as will clichés. An economy of words will be practised, even though the sermon itself may run to fifty minutes or more. From the merest ephemera we have just sung, we come to high-density, compressed truth.
In contrast to the vapid sentimentalisms we just sang, the sermon will be rigorously tied to the biblical text, explaining, persuading, illustrating and applying what the text says. In other words, the form of the expository sermon is shaped by the meaning of both the text itself and the Bible as a whole. The very shape of expositional preaching emerges from the belief in an inerrant, inspired Scripture. Not only the content of the sermon, but its very shape carries meaning. The form of the sermon communicates submission and reverence towards God’s Word. The form has a meaning: preachers must submit to God’s Word and transmit it accurately.
And suddenly, almost magically, the preacher’s tone of voice will communicate meaning. Just a few minutes earlier, music (which is a kind of tone of voice) was incapable of carrying meaning, but now the speaker’s tone of voice, pitch, pause, pace, pronunciation, projection and bodily posture will now all communicate meaning. Now the meaning will be easy to spot, critique and judge as appropriate or not, whereas just a few minutes earlier, a hazy agnosticism had settled on us all like a fog, rendering us incapable of judging similar things about the hymns, their lyrical content, and the meaning of the music that carried them.
From the world of subjectivism where no one is qualified or fit to render a judgement on the musical or poetic forms we just used, we are now in a world of near-scientific objectivism regarding whether the sermon’s form was accurate, fitting and appropriate. Indeed, many church leadership teams will have times of sermon evaluation in the hours or days that follow, holding both the form and content of the sermon to rigorous standards of truth, goodness, and even beauty.
What dualism is this? Why, when it comes to sermons, are preachers fastidious about meaning in both form and content, implicit and explicit meaning of what is said and how it is said, the importance of holding a sermon’s shape and content to the standard of Scripture, but then blasé about precisely the same things when it comes to what we sing and how we sing it? Why do preachers operate with two standards for the same hour of corporate worship?
Of course, the judgement of music and poetry is not the same as judging the accuracy of a mathematical equation. But judging music and poetry is not that far from judging whether a sermon was clear, coherent, biblically accurate and effectively delivered. The kind of judgement that can interpret tone of voice, effectiveness of illustrations, or appropriateness of application is precisely the kind that can parse the meaning of poetic tropes, musical formulas, and moods or affections evoked by melody, harmony, rhythm and tone colour.
Why do preachers live with bubblegum for starters and insist upon steak for the meal? It is likely the result of the deformed evangelical culture they have been shaped by. In an attempt to respond to the secularising forces of modernity, evangelicalism has taught its adherents that objective meaning is found only in the Bible, and only sermons carry that objective meaning. Therefore, only in the Bible and in sermons from the Bible do arguments about meaning truly pertain. Outside the Bible and preaching, meaning, for many an evangelical preacher, is as postmodern and subjective as his unbelieving neighbour.
If you’re going to have bubble-gum for your songs, why not be consistent and have candy-floss for the sermon? No, rather, if you are going to have a meaty, expositional sermon, why not worship with hymns and poems that are poetically competent, accompanied by music for reverent, mature sensibilities?