Recently I heard Michael Horton say on the White Horse Inn podcast, “The method reveals the message.” At first I just let the comment pass, but then it began to gnaw on me. The methods he was referring to are the methods and activities engaged in by churches. This includes worship service activities, outreach methods, fellowship activities, and so on. But do the activities of a church present a message? Surely the message is independent of the method. Isn’t this what we hear or read? For example, when it comes to church music I have heard it said, “The music style isn’t important. What is important are the lyrics.” Also, “It doesn’t matter whether sermons or topical or expositional as long as they meet the needs of the people.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what a church does or how it does it as long as the gospel message is presented. But can the methods and activities of a church obscure or change the gospel?
I have no doubt many churches with exciting worship services, loud music, “relevant” sermons, and non-stop youth activities love Jesus and sincerely want to spread the gospel. Many of these churches also have genuine conversions and I am grateful for that. However, do these methods and activities present a message? If so, is it the proper message? A large multi-campus church in my part of the world has the following on its website. (I have replaced the name of the church with a fictional name.)
Community Church has grown from a small group of people to a church of thousands because we do church differently. We don’t do what’s expected or, for that matter, what’s accepted. The music is loud. The message is bold. We value kids and love students. We do whatever it takes to connect people to God. We want to change the way you think about church, so come and visit us real soon.
The website proclaims they have different methods (“We do church differently,” “We do whatever it takes”), and they want to change how I think about church. Also, “The message is bold.” What is the message? The message someone receives from a website can be subjective, that is, it can differ from person to person. For me the message appears to be, “If you are bored with your church or bored at your church, check us out. We aren’t boring.” There are other messages there (good ones too), but that is the primary message I hear. Now, I know this church presents Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6); and this church wants its people to grow in the Lord. Is that the message being presented, though? The methods and activities promoted in that excerpt from the church’s website are meant to appeal to my sense of excitement and fun, and it does appeal to many. That church has a large attendance each week. Again, I’m thankful this church proclaims Jesus as Lord. I’m not questioning motives, simply methods.
But what if the website said something like this.
At our church we strive to embody Soli Deo Gloria – which is giving all glory to God. Our preaching is predominantly verse-by-verse through entire books of the Bible. Our teaching is focused on developing disciples that can explain well and live passionately their faith in Jesus. We employ a multi generational and simple approach to discipleship and ministry. Our fellowship is spontaneous, warm, inclusive, and joyful.
The methods listed here consist primarily of preaching, teaching, and fellowship. To me this yields the message if you are serious about learning God’s word, growing in your walk with Christ, and enjoying warm Christian fellowship, this is the place for you. These types of things should appeal to all true believers. Do I truly want to know Jesus more through the preaching and teaching of the whole of Scripture? Do I want to mature in my biblical knowledge? Do I want to be a faithful witness and disciple? Do I want to grow deep in fellowship with other believers? Most Christians would answer yes to all these questions. However, when they actually look for a church do they look for expositional preaching, solid teaching, and deep fellowship; or do they look for a specific music style, certain activities (family, children, youth, singles, women, or men), or messages that touch their heart? Evidently there are a lot that do the latter given what many churches promote.
I’m concerned that if my primary reason for attending a church is not centered on God’s word, I am focused on the wrong things. My purpose is not to pass judgment on any church but to get each of us to determine which methods are most important, because what we do, how we do what we do, and what we promote presents a message. Many churches that promote exciting methods also have good teaching, but solid biblical preaching and teaching is not what is advertised as most important. My question is if biblical preaching is top priority why not promote it as most important, and, if thorough biblical exposition is not what is most important, why not? Dr. Horton is right; the method does reveal the message, so advertise the methods and do the methods that actually transform lives. The faithful preaching and teaching of the whole of Scripture in the context of the local church is what God uses to bring true and lasting change.