Archive for January, 2010

Dressing Down or dumbing down?

January 30, 2010

Yesterday the same idea was put to me from two different directions.  First, a local minister said he was not going to wear a tie in the pulpit from now on.  Fair enough, at first glance that is no big deal, and to some extent it depends what country you are in, what culture you are part of.  Secondly, I heard of someone from another town remarking that their church was encouraging dressing down “to make visitors feel more comfortable.”  In this latter case I happen to know that this move has gone along with “dumbing down” of the teaching.  This trend in some churches, in the UK at least, is to many ministers a matter of concern.  It is not simply a matter of “tie or no tie” but of the whole reasoning behind the concept of “dressing down.”  In the newspapers this week it is reported that one supermarket (at least) is concerned about the number of people who are beginning to come shopping for groceries in their pyjamas and dressing gowns.  They intend to ban the practice.  Are they, too, concerned about “dressing down”?

Now it may be argued that reverence is a heart matter, and that surely is true.  Peter warns women about caring for outward appearance only (1 Peter 3:3, 4).  But although reverence and respect is largely an inner attitude, it does usually manifest itself outwardly.  This is true even in human affairs.  For example, it would not do to be outwardly flippant, impolite or discourteous to the Queen of Great Britain or the President of the United States on the excuse that we were courteous inwardly!  Even in ordinary circumstances we have to acknowledge that often inner feelings and outward expression are related.  Few people would deny that they enjoy wearing something new.  Most of us feel better inside when we have taken a bath.  Women will say that having their hair done influences how they feel.  There does also seem to be a link between slovenliness and laziness.  At Bible College we were exhorted to dress properly for study when in the ministry, and not to lounge around in dressing gown and slippers.  Soldiers and policemen seem to engender more respect when in uniform than when they are in mufti.  It is quite likely that someone, somewhere has done a study on the relationship between clothes and mental attitude, between dress and demeanour.

However, I am not primarily concerned about the psychological relationship between feelings and dress.  I am more concerned about our approach to Almighty God, our attitude in worship.  I would like to approach this matter from three directions.

First, is it necessarily true that visitors feel more comfortable if church members dress casually?  I cannot help but notice that news readers and sports commentators on the television channels are, more often than not, smartly dressed.  Steve Davis and John Parrott who discuss the Snooker matches, are often impeccably dressed, especially in the evening broadcasts.  Does that make the snooker fans “uncomfortable”?  Do they even consider it?  There are many functions and occasions “in the world” when participants dress smartly.  We may blink at some of the ways the so-called ‘stars’ are dressed, but when ‘Oscars’ and such like awards are presented the recipients are usually dressed smartly.  Does that make the attendees feel uncomfortable?  I think the very suggestion is, well, daft.  Is not the worship of God much more important?  Rather than making people feel uncomfortable, neat, tidy, even formal dress can often create expectancy, and usually causes people to realise the importance of the event they are attending.

Secondly, why do people dress smartly for weddings, funerals or tea parties at Buckingham Palace?  Is it not to show respect for the persons at the centre of attention?  Is it not generally true that the more significant the occasion, the more important the person(s) we are honouring, the more likely we are to dress smartly, neatly and even formally?  Is it not also true that the less important the occasion the more causally we dress?  Who is central (or supposed to be) in a worship service?  Even in law courts people dress up.  We are not, of course, to “show off” or parade the latest fashions in church, but we ought to show respect and honour for the One we worship.  I just cannot imagine that “dressing down” impresses the importance of worship or the greatness and glory of God upon visitors.  Dressing down seems to me to suggests that worship, and hearing the Word of God, are after all, not very important.  Reverence and respect, I repeat, is not only a heart matter.  It reveals itself in our outward demeanour (see Exodus 3:5; 28:2 ff.; 2 Samuel 12:20; Psalm 29:2; 96:9; Zech 3:4, 5).

Thirdly, I am convinced that “dressing down” can sometimes reveal a defective theology, not just in terms of reverence towards God, important as that is, but also in our understanding of what it is that will bring people to Christ.  Do we really think that merely dressing informally is more likely to win people to Christ?  Do we imagine that informal attire is more likely tom cause people to listen to the gospel?  I remember the testimony of an evangelist.  He was unsaved, working more or less as a con man when he was approached by a well-dressed, well-spoken man who witnessed to him.  He said that if this Christian had been dressed as he was he would havetaken no notice, but, because he was dressed smartly he listened and eventually came to Christ.  What other kinds of manipulation will we try if we do not believe in the power of the gospel preached in dependence on the Spirit of God to save people, but must “dress down” to make our message acceptable?  We are ambassadors for Christ, not con men trying to trap people into a decision.  Can you imagine the apostle Paul writing to Timothy and saying, “You must dress more casually if you want to reach more people for Christ.”  Please remember I am discussing worship services not everyday living.  Is it possible to conceive of Moses saying to Aaron, “Don’t wear all that fancy stuff when you lead worship.  You need to make the worshippers feel comfortable.”  As a matter of fact, the true gospel preached in the power of the Holy Spirit is likely to make sinners distinctly uncomfortable! (cf. Acts 2: 37).

This leads to my final point.  I do not believe that God is totally indifferent to how we present ourselves for worship.  The priests under the old covenant had to dress in a certain way which expressed “holiness to the Lord”, and while we are no longer under those God-ordained regulations for worship, the same spirit of reverence which is manifested outwardly should characterise New Covenant believers.  The references already given above indicate that.

To summarise, I believe that heart reverence should manifest itself outwardly.  I do not believe that we should show less respect for our great and holy God than people do for their deceased relatives, a newly wed couple, or her Majesty the Queen.  I do not believe that the worship of Almighty God is less important than a sports event, an ‘Oscar’ ceremony, or a tea party.   Nor should we show less respect for the Lord than Hindus, Moslems, or sports commentators do for their gods.  “For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28, 29; cf. Josh. 5:14, 15; Psalm 95:6; Ezek. 1:28; Matt. 28:17; Rev. 1:17.

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Preaching and Leadership

January 11, 2010

When I mentioned to a retired minister that I was starting another leadership training course he asked me if I was going to teach them to preach.  I replied that I was not.  Preaching (in the modern sense) is a separate subject.  Ideally, I suppose, all leaders should be preachers and all preachers should be leaders, but it does not always work out like that.  Spiritual leadership is a separate subject from preaching techniques.

According to the New Testament records Jesus never taught his apostleshow to preach.  Likewise, although Paul exhorted Timothy to ‘preach the word’, he seems not to have instructed him in homiletics.

In the New Testament there are about ten different words translated ‘preach’ in various forms, such as ‘preached’, ‘preaching’ , and so on.  One of them is the ordinary word ‘to talk’ (laleo).  Nowadays when we discuss preaching we more often than not have a formal discourse from a pulpit or platform in mind.  For this activity a measure of skill and normally some training is expected.  But in the days of the early church, for at least a couple of centuries, there were no church pulpits.  In any case, our Lord did not seem to have that kind of preaching in mind when he told the apostles to go out and tell people the good news.  No training in public speaking was required for that.

From time to time one hears of preaching courses being held, and that raises a question in my mind.  Why?  Because I am afraid that the emphasis will be upon techniques and know-how rather than on the quality of the preachers life, his character.  For example, one excellent Christian missionary charity specializes in training third-world men to preach.  Those who attend such a course will be given a small library of basic books.  On the surface this seems to be very commendable.  If the men concerned are truly converted, called of God, consecrated, prayerful, living godly lives, separate from worldliness and Spirit-filled, that can only be good.  But if they are not so qualified, not prepared in those qualities, they may be simply learning techniques which may result in seeking status and position, and end up being blind leaders of the blind.  This applies equally in the West, of course.

E. M. Bounds, in Power Through Prayer, wrote, ‘The church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men.’   He also wrote that it takes twenty years to make a sermon because it takes twenty years to make a preacher.  The saintly Robert Murray McCheyne remarked that his people’s greatest need was his own holiness.  On the same theme, Professor James S. Stewart, in his book on preaching quoted a certain bishop Quayle as asking and answering this question: ‘Preaching is the art of making a sermon and delivering it?  Why, no, that is not preaching.  Preaching is the art of making a preacher and delivering that.  It is no trouble to preach, but a vast trouble to construct a preacher.’

The point I am driving at should be clear by now.  Emphasis on techniques alone may result in producing doctrinally weak, unspiritual, or even unconverted, men in the pulpit.  It need hardly be pointed out that there are many men in secular life who are fine, compelling, even brilliant public speakers, who are not preachers of the gospel.   So, for a preacher, while technique may be helpful, and in formal public services, very desirable, the primary emphasis for a preacher must be upon character, godliness, sincerity, prayerfulness, living the life.  This is why men need to grow in grace and if possible, learn the principles of spiritual leadership.  It is surely most significant that in that classic by J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, which every minister and Christian leader should read often, there is no chapter on preaching.

This is why, when considering a possible preacher such as when calling a pastor, we should be concerned with his character, his spirituality, his lifestyle, his godliness, and whether he is a man of prayer, not just his pulpit skills.  This is also why we must aim, not just at converts, but disciples.  But that is another story.