Last week the esteemed Al Mohler reprised an excellent article he originally posted several years ago, “Expository Preaching—the Antidote to Anemic Worship.” I recommend it highly. As the title suggests, he argues that much of the corporate worship in today’s evangelical churches is weak because the preaching is weak. Whether the style is choir-and-orchestra traditional or guitar-and-drums contemporary, it is often the case that “music fills the space and drives the energy of the worship service.” Music, that is, instead of the Word of God accurately preached.
It’s not my purpose here to disagree with this well-made point but rather to build on it. At the risk of nitpicking just a bit, I want to think carefully about whether preaching is “the” antidote to weak corporate worship. Based on my church experiences and my own studies of worship in the Bible, I believe there is an important oversimplification here.
Actually, Dr. Mohler strikes even closer to the heart of the issue when he observes the consumer mentality many churchgoers have as they evaluate a church based on its Sunday morning music: “Those dissatisfied with what they find at one church can quickly move to another, sometimes using the language of self-expression to explain that the new church ‘meets our needs’ or ‘allows us to worship.’” Indeed, this is the very heart of weak corporate worship—the self-centered idea that it has to be customized for me in order to be effective.
But then the article veers just slightly off course: “But music is not the central act of Christian worship, and neither is evangelism nor even the ordinances. The heart of Christian worship is the authentic preaching of the word of God.” Here is the point where I believe we must say more, and here I finally get to the point at hand: the heart of Christian worship is not so much the preaching of God’s Word, but submission to it. Of course, you can’t have the latter without the former, and so I am still in full agreement with Mohler’s main point. But I’m convinced we must press this point a little harder, because if we stop here we can leave people (especially pastors) with the notion that if they just preach well, everything will be all right.
In both the Old and New Testaments, worship is a response to God’s self-revelation. And so expository preaching of Scripture—God’s written self-revelation—is necessary. But more specifically, the worship response is humble, reverent submission to whatever God said. God spoke, Noah built an ark (and an altar). God spoke, Abraham believed and obeyed. God spoke, Moses took off his sandals and (after some arguing) put them back on and marched off to Egypt. God spoke, and the Israelites bowed and exclaimed, “All that YHWH has spoken, we will do!” These responses provide a model for a worshiper’s heart attitude as worship is codified in the Mosaic covenant. Here formal worship explicitly involves a humble heart bringing a sacrifice to the tabernacle or temple according to specific instructions.
In the New Testament (especially in Hebrews 7–10), Jesus is presented as the embodiment of everything those sacrifices (and the priests who presented them) foreshadow. And we, the people of his church, are still offering sacrifices—of praise (Heb. 13:15), of good deeds (Heb. 13:16), and of our whole life (Rom. 12:1), to name a few specifics. These are all acts of humble submission to the holy, worthy God revealed to us in Christ Jesus.
So Dr. Mohler’s point is well-taken: we need expository preaching (i.e., preaching which explains the meaning of Scripture) in order to have strong worship. But that is not the “heart” of biblical worship. We are not worshiping by merely listening to a sermon (or singing a song) from God’s Word (and I believe Mohler would agree). Rather, it is when we present our hearts in submission to the God of the Word as we listen or sing that we are worshiping. And when we go out of the church’s meeting place and embody what we’ve heard and sung, we are worshiping.
In our proper zeal for expository preaching, let’s not lose sight of the actual heart of worship—corporate or individual. It’s the humble, reverent submission of the person who has seen God rightly because God has revealed himself clearly. It’s the response of one who understands the creature’s place before the divine majesty, like Isaiah, falling down to cry, “woe is me,” and rising again, purified, to say, “here I am, send me.”
Our preaching (and singing and praying…) must be aimed at this target, or else we will still have weak worship. Expository preaching strengthens worship when it presses the listener to go beyond hearing, beyond understanding, to bowing.