Every once in a while, I get a Sunday off. (This is by choice, of course. I could take off far more Sundays than I do in my work with the Canadian Bible Society, but I choose to preach, somewhere, most Sundays of the year.) And when you visit a church whose preacher and worship leader(s) you don’t remotely know, even by reputation, you’re taking a chance on what you’re going to get in terms of a Sunday morning experience.
I had one of those recently, at a church where the preacher is different every week all summer.
On this particular Sunday, a relatively large throng (perhaps 50 to 75 people by my guesstimate) had gathered to worship God. The preacher was introduced – a ‘mature’ theological student, perhaps aged 50. (She might have been younger.) Her opening prayer – indeed, all of her prayers, save two – were prayers from spiritual traditions of the First Nations.
Her children’s story was a First Nations’ legend. No Bible application, no prayer. Just a First Nations’ legend. In a secular context, this would have been an interesting story. In a Christian context, without any biblical application, it was inexcusable. It left the listener (child and adult alike) assuming that the islands in Georgian Bay, Ontario, had been created by an angry Huron deity whose desires for another legendary character had been spurned.
There were two excellent Bible readings in the service, read by a person from the congregation. They were read well and left me waiting expectantly for their exposition and application by the preacher.
Oops. Silly me.
The “sermon”, as it was called, seemed to me to be an unengagingly-read academic paper once submitted to a university professor. At its heart, it was actually an interesting piece of writing. I would have enjoyed reading it somewhere, and learned a few things from it.
But it wasn’t a sermon. Not even close.
How can I judge it so?
Well, for one thing, it never once mentioned God. There were fifty places, if five, where God could have been brought into the message. But it never happened once.
Second, those two great Bible passages that were read before the message were not engaged at all. Now, I have enough faith in the power of God to believe that God can speak through the unadorned Scripture without any difficulty. However, it is common, in a Christian worship gathering, to engage at least one read portion of Scripture. But it didn’t happen here.
The sad thing, as I said earlier, is that what she had to say was actually quite interesting and even perhaps of some importance. But this gathering of people who came to hear a word from God ended up being subjected to an academic paper. I would have had my socks blessed off (had I been wearing any…) had this theologue even attempted to apply the Scripture to the experience she shared in her paper. Others would have, too. But it didn’t happen.
Like most church visitors, I can freely admit that a bad sermon can sometimes be redeemed with good music. Well, not this time, unfortunately.
There were three hymns sung during the service. One of the three had a relatively singable tune. That same song had a worshipful text. Another was a Psalm paraphrase, though not as easily sung by a congregation. The other hymn had both eminently unsingable and used a text that may have described love in some way, but not in a biblical way. The congregation spent most of the time it was on its collective feet also collectively lost.
I can live with a dud Sunday once in a while. I don’t seek them out or anything, but I can survive for another week if I find myself in a place where Jesus seems to have taken the day off. But I found myself thinking, What if someone truly seeking the Lord for the first time had shown up there on Sunday?
There was a whack of people who were gathered expecting something they could apply to their walk with God that day, and there might have been someone there for whom a walk with God was a brand-new, even non-existent, thing. What was the lunch-time chatter like for those folks?
My prayer is that the Lord spoke to them anyway. He can do that. If there was not sufficient special revelation present for them, there was plenty of general revelation. People just had to look at the resplendent beauty of creation to see the hand of God at work. It just would have been nice if that had been backed up by a little Scripture and application.
Oh well. The welcome from fellow congregants was pretty warm, and the lemonade after the service was first-rate (something a lot of churches seem to neglect, unfortunately). And the friends with whom we shared the experience, who likewise shared our concern, were (and are) wonderful.
God can make a silk purse out of a theological sow’s ear.
But what about all those spiritually hungry people?