Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Improving the church

The (PCA) church I currently attend recently solicited advice from the congregation. My church also has a Christian school. Below is a generic version of what I wrote back, along with some additional remarks that I didn’t make in my original reply:

One other thing before I jump in. I realize that a pastor must often choose what battles to fight. There are churches in which it’s a turf war between the pastor and one dominant family or rival power clique.

1. I think a church website should be used as an information clearing house.

i) In other words, this technology should be exploited as a general resource, with links to various weblogs and websites which offer church members access to sound theology and apologetics.

ii) It should also be used to post the pastor’s sermons or sermon outlines.

iii) It should have an annotated reading list on various topics in theology and ethics.

2. I have no idea what the curriculum is like at the school. But there are certain things it ought to include, whether or not it does a present, in order to prepare young Christians for challenges to the faith, whether ethical or intellectual:

i) A course in comparative religion and the cults.

Possible textbooks:

John Armstrong, ed. Roman Catholicism (Moody 1994)

David Baker, ed. Biblical Faith & Other Religions (Kregel 2004)

Francis Beckwith, ed., See the Gods Fall (College Press 1997)

Winfried Corduan. A Tapestry of Faiths: Common Threads Among the World’s Religions (IVP 2002)

_____, Neighboring Faiths (IVP 1998)

Elliot Miller & Ken Samples, The Cult of the Virgin Mary: Catholic Mariology and the Apparitions of Mary (Baker 1992).

Robert Spencer. Islam Unveiled (Encounter Books 2002)

Eric Svendsen. Evangelical Answer: A Critique of Current Catholic Apologists (Reformation Press 1999).

ii) On course on the historical Jesus.

Possible textbooks:

T. Desmond Alexander, The Servant King (Regent College 2003)

Darrel Bock. The Missing Gospels (Nelson 2006)

Ed Komoszwski, et al. Reinventing Jesus (Kregel 2006).

Lee Strobel, ed. The Case for Christ (Zondervan 1998)

iii) A course on the creation/evolution debate

Possible textbooks:

John. Byl. God & Cosmos (Banner of Truth 2001)

_____. The Divine Challenge (Banner of Truth 2004)

J. P. Moreland. Christianity & the Nature of Science (Baker, 1989)

Del Ratzsch. Science & Its Limits (IVP 2000)

Jonathan Wells, J. Icons of Evolution (Regnery 2002)

____The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design (Regnery 2006)

Kurt Wise. Faith, Form, and Time (Broadman 2002)

iv) A course on higher criticism

Possible textbooks:

Paul Barnett, P. Is the New Testament Reliable? (IVP 2nd ed. 2005)

Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (2nd ed., forthcoming)

F. F. Bruce. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Eerdmans 2003)

Walter Kaiser & Duane. Garrett, eds. Archaeological Study Bible (Zondervan 2006)

V. Philips Long. The Art of Biblical History (Zondervan 1994)

John Walton. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Baker 2006).

v) A course on apologetics.

Possible textbooks:

F. F. Bruce, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament (Eerdmans 1984)

John Frame. Apologetics to the Glory of God (P&R 1994)

Os Guinness, O. Long Journey Home (Waterbrook 2001)

J. Gresham Machen. Christianity & Liberalism (Eerdmans 1983)

vi) A course in Christian ethics.

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any ideal textbook presently in print. John Frame teaches a fine course at RTS. Perhaps the church could arrange with RTS to have access to the course materials.

vii) Courses in the foundational/central books of the Bible, viz. Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, and the four Gospels.

Possible textbooks:


Genesis 1:1-25:18 (EP Study Commentary)
by John D. Currid

Genesis 25:19-50:26 (EP Study Commentary)
by John D. Currid

The NIV Application Commentary Genesis
by Dr. John H. Walton


Exodus 1-18 (EP Study Commentary)
by John D. Currid

Exodus 19-40 (EP Study Commentary)
by John D. Currid


Prayer, Praise and Prophecy: A Theology of the Psalms (Mentor)
by Geoffrey W. Grogan


Proverbs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms)
by Tremper Longman


The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary
by J. A. Motyer


Matthew (New American Commentary)
by Craig Blomberg


Mark (The NIV Application Commentary)
by David E. Garland

The College Press Niv Commentary: Mark (The College Press Niv Commentary)
by Allen Black (Author)


Luke (The NIV Application Commentary)
by Darrell L. Bock

Luke (New American Commentary)
by Robert H. Stein


The Gospel of John Introduction, Exposition and Notes
by Frederick Fyvie Bruce

The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel: Issues & Commentary
by Craig L. Blomberg

Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective (Encountering Biblical Studies)
by Andreas J. Köstenberger

3. As to the sanctuary and the worship service:

i) The organ rather than the piano should be used in hymnodic accompaniment. Pianos are only used to accompany hymns in nursing homes and storefront churches.

By design, a piano is basically a solo instrument. The piano is a very poor instrument for accompaniment, for it isn’t a very powerful instrument (except for a concert grand), and it can’t sustain the tone. The organ is a superior instrument for hymnodic accompaniment.

Also, in the age of digital organs, it’s much easier to transpose music using an organ than a piano.

ii) Presbyterian holdouts need to ditch the old Trinity hymnal for the new Trinity hymnal. There are several problems with the OTH:

a) It’s full of Victorian era hymns of the Ira Sankey ilk. This was not the great age of hymnody, either in terms of the lyrics or the hymn tunes. Hymns of that era are characterized by trite lyrics and amateurish accompaniment. There are a few exceptions, but they’re just that—the exception.

b) In addition, the technology of typesetting has improved since the days of the OTH, which is hard to read.

d) The OTH is also pitched about a full tone too high for untrained voices. Generally speak, untrained voices find it difficult to sing above a top D natural.

e) The OTH recycles too many of the same tunes. It’s useful for Christians to associate a particular tune with a particular text. That way, the tune functions as a mnemonic device, helping one to recall the text.

f) Some hymns have alternative melodies. In many cases, the OTH has reproduced the musically inferior alternative.

g) Then there’s the problem of the faux-Elizabethan diction.

Now, I don’t have any problem with authentic Elizabethan diction by a distinguished period writer, viz. Cranmer, Herbert, Shakespeare, Spenser, Vaughan.

I do have a problem with the merely quaint and mediocre archaizing of English, as if that’s supposed to be more reverent.

I’m not claiming that the NTH is in anyway a masterpiece. But it’s a distinct improvement over the OTH.

BTW, there’s a sense in which hardcopy hymnals are becoming obsolete. In the computer age it’s possible to cherry-pick from a variety of hymnals and reprint a hymn (complete with music) in the program. I knew a music director who used to do that.

For some distinguished exemplars, Ralph Vaughan Williams was editor of The English Hymnal as well as The Songs of Praise and The Oxford Book of Carols.

iii) The liturgy is too dry and wordy.

I once attended a Lutheran church (WELS) on and off which had a sung liturgy.

What they would do is to versify some of the liturgical material, like the creeds, and then set them to a familiar hymn tune. This is an improvement over reading aloud in a couple of respects:

a) Singing liturgy doesn’t drag the way reading liturgy does:

b) If you regularly sing a particular text (like a versified creed) to a particular tune, it’s easier to remember it.

There’s a reason we have so many songs in Scripture.

iv) There are too many sermonettes in the service. Every reading is prefaced by a sermonette. I appreciate the idea behind this, which is to give the congregation some contextual background.

But is the congregation going to remember these whirlwind introductions?

4. In terms of outreach:

The church should set up Bible clubs in the local public schools. That’s a great way to reach the young.

For the legalities, go to www.aclj.org

Other places where young people hang out, like shopping malls and beaches, are obvious venues.

I. Preaching

For purposes of analysis, I’ll distinguish between preachers and teachers. By a preacher I mean someone with natural speaking ability.


Some men and women are naturally gifted public speakers. This can either be a strength or a weakness.

i) On the one hand, a great public speaker can reach some people (indeed, many people) in a way that wooden speaker cannot. To judge by contemporary reports—including hostile sources like David Hume and Benjamin Franklin—George Whitefield may well have been the greatest preacher in the history of Christendom.

ii) On the other hand, there are some obvious dangers. There’s the temptation to coast on one’s native facility. To wing it.

In addition, great oratory can disarm the critical faculty among many listeners. A great orator can be a great heretic. So it tells you nothing about the theology of the preacher, which may be good or bad.

In terms of oratorical ability, Charles Stanley, Billy Graham, Tony Evans, James Robison, Jimmy Swaggart and C. L. Franklin are, for better or worse, representative examples of very gifted public speakers.

iii) Then you have some men who are naturally wooden, but try to be great orators. They resort to melodrama. In my opinion, James Kennedy and W. A. Criswell are hammy preachers.

This isn’t a moral or theological flaw, so it’s a fairly trivial criticism. And Kennedy, for one, has done about as much good for the kingdom as any one man can do.

iv) It’s no secret that, in America, the two great preaching traditions are the black and Southern Baptist.

In terms of the stock, black preaching-style, C. L. Franklin is, perhaps, the paradigmatic example. And “Bishop” T. D. Jakes is, I suppose, the modern-day equivalent.

But, at another level, these are very poor role-models. What they do is pure showmanship. Anyone with a good ear and a bit of acting ability can imitate that style. And the style carries the message, even if the message is heretical, or pious nonsense.

A much better role-model is Tony Evans. He’s a gifted preacher, but he doesn’t work the crowd the way Franklin or Jakes do. He’s well-educated, evangelical, and orthodox.

v) Then you have white Pentecostal preachers who try to sound like black preachers. Rod Parsley and Paula White are two who come to mind. You might say that Rod Parsley and Paula White are to preaching what Eminem and Vanilla Ice are to hip-hop. All a-quiver with push-button passion and rhetorical gimmicks.

vi) Finally, although preachers in the charismatic tradition generally excel at histrionics, there are a few, like Rex Humbard and Benny Hinn, who succeed by cultivating a low-key, Marcus Welby bedside manner. Sometimes a smooth, soothing, oily sales-pitch is just as effective as the hard sell. It’s the difference between a mugger and a pickpocket.


i) Since most clergymen are not orators, they should focus on being expository preachers. By “expository” preaching, I mean exegesis with application.

Unfortunately, a lot of what passes for expository preaching is very thin on exegesis. It merely uses the expository format to do topical preaching or systematic theology or psychobabble pep talks.

ii) Incidentally, there’s nothing wrong with topical preaching or systematic theology. But we still need to do exegesis. Application must grow out of exegesis. Systematic theology must grow out of exegetical theology.

iii) You don’t have to be a great orator to be a fine Bible teacher. Indeed, too much oratorical ability can get in the way of exposition. It’s better for evangelism than discipleship. Whitefield wouldn’t make a very good pastor.

However, to be a fine Bible teacher, a pastor does need to be studious. I often wonder how a lot of pastors spend their time. Clearly it’s not going into sermon preparation.

iv) Although you can’t turn a naturally inexpressive speaker into Tony Evans or Charles Stanley, even pastors with no natural talent for public speaking could benefit from professional coaching.

There are a number of Christian theatrical companies in this country, and seminaries should include some drama coaching in the seminary curriculum.

It would help a lot of seminarians improve their delivery. Lose some of their reticence. Eliminate distracting ticks or irritating mannerisms. Learn how to relax. Learn how to phrase and pace oneself for sense and emphasis. Gain some self-confidence in public speaking.

v) On a related note, there’s no reason that elders should do all the public readings of Scripture. Being an elder doesn’t make one a skilled public reader.

In this respect, Presbyterian polity is a bit antiquated. 400 years ago it made more sense for the clergy to do everything since the clergy were among the few members of the educated class. Among the few people who could read and write. Who even owned books.

But, nowadays, most of the laity are college-educated professionals.

One of the ironies is that high-church traditions, which are very top-down affairs, with a dogmatic lay/clerical division, nonetheless have a larger role for lay participation in the worship service than the traditional Presbyterian polity.

II. Art and Music

i) A number of one-time Evangelicals converted to Orthodoxy on aesthetic grounds. They got tired of the artistic mediocrity in so many Evangelical and fundamentalist churches.

While artistic scruples are no justification for adopting false doctrine, I would also say, at the same time, that there’s no excuse for so many Protestant churches to be so kitschy and tasteless.

ii) Contemporary Presbyterians seem to be rather schizophrenic in this regard. On the one hand, they’ve dumped the Puritan style of worship. On the other hand, they seem nervous about becoming too high-churchy, so what we end up with is a homogenous, nondescript style of worship that isn’t much of anything in particular.

In this respect, I think that Presbyterians and other suchlike need to shed their inhibitions and help themselves to the best of the Christian musical and artistic tradition, as long as that doesn’t glorify or underwrite false doctrine. We’re not going to reproduce the Assam-Kirche. But we can selectively mine the past, making critical use of Christian tradition.

The Solomonic temple was an artistic masterpiece, for the eye and ear alike.

iii) In terms of church architecture, we have the Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic. And some regions like the south have Colonial and antebellum churches.

Ugly can be just as pricey as beautiful. Why pay top dollar for ugliness?

iv) What about modern architecture? It depends on what you mean. Modern sometimes means modern for the sake of modernity. To break with the past at all cost. That should be opposed.

But men like Otto Bartning, Basil Spence, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright have created some stimulating church architecture.

v) I’m a classical music buff, so that’s where my musical sympathies lie. But as far as CCM is concerned, the most distinguished pop genre is jazz.

For a creative synthesis of classical and jazz, we have the Jacques Loussier Trio. It would be interesting to see that adapted to gospel music.

vi) While we’re on the subject of gospel music, I think that Marion Williams was the leading stylist of that genre.


  1. That seems to be a pretty good list of suggestions. I hope your church heeds some/many/lots of them.

    A propos the text for ethics, what about Geisler's "Christian Ethics"? A bit dry, but not bad certainly. Too erudite for high school, maybe?

  2. Boy, that'll teach them to ask the congregation for input again!

  3. Rhology said:

    "A propos the text for ethics, what about Geisler's "Christian Ethics"? A bit dry, but not bad certainly. Too erudite for high school, maybe?"

    It's been some years since I've read Geisler's book, but as I recall it's one of the better of the available treatments on the subject.

    Along the same lines is the work by the Feinberg brothers.

  4. A sung liturgy? The return of art to the church? Traditional architecture? Everything is new again.

  5. Do they have an evening service? The largest of the local PCA churches in my area has developed its Sunday night service into something of a congregation within a congregation. Folks who can't make it to the morning services come to it, and they hear the same sermon, etc. It's essentially a repeat of the morning service. However, they have their own social calendar and would be quite comfortable, if they grew into large enough a group, being planted in their own facility as a new local church. They have their own character as well. The morning services at this church are, oddly enough for a PCA church, quite contemporary, probably due to the large number of NC School of the Arts folks who contribute to the life of the church. They're affectionately known as a bunch of "hippy Calvinists." The evening service retains some of this character, in that the atmosphere is relaxed, with a number of young couples and students in it, but is more "high churchly," even holding common cup & loaf communion every Sunday.

    In fact, that's not a bad way to do outreach, that is, local missions. Start an evening service for folks can come at night and invite folks from around the community, particularly students from the RUF (assuming there is one functioning in the area). Use this to form the core of a new local church over the course of a year or two, assigning one or more elders to it, one from the mother church at inception, another or more from that particular group. When they are able to function independently, the presbytery and the mother church help them find their own meeting space.

    I'd add that I know of a church here that has limited its total membership to 500 in its constitution. If the church reaches that number, then it must solicit the members to voluntarily leave and form a new local church. This keeps the membership at a manageable level for the elders and deacons; it also multiplies the work of that church in the community by establishing a second. Also, my home church has done something similar. The point here is quite simple: if the church is quite large, then for outreach, I'd consider taking a core of members and forming a new church.

  6. This was very helpful. Thank you.

  7. Re. the ethics text:

    John Jefferson Davis, professor of Theology and Christian Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has written an ethics text from an evangelical perspective which is currently in print:




  8. This is going to take more than my first read to digest; I appreciate what you are saying, and calling us to. I'm glad you've discovered both God & the Cosmos, and Divine Challenge - both excellent!