If you’re going to have bubble-gum for your songs, why not be consistent and have candy-floss for the sermon? No, rather, if you are going to have a meaty, expositional sermon, why not worship with hymns and poems that are poetically competent, accompanied by music for reverent, mature sensibilities?
Services at many evangelical churches are a strange experience of bubble gum for a starter, followed by sirloin steak for a main. That is, for twenty minutes or so, we mash our jaws on vapid clichés, juvenile imagery, hokey sentimentalisms, jangling rhymes, and musical nostalgia. It’s all made pleasant by the refined sugar of pop music with its predictable melodies, formulaic chords and overpowering percussion. This is the average musical fare in an evangelical church. Any objectors to the nutritional value of bubble-gum will be summarily silenced with a few ad-hominems (“legalist”, “elitist”, “traditionalist”, “Pharisee”) and then given the standard-form lecture on Romans 14, Scripture’s supposed silence on musical form and genre, and the narrowness of critiquing another’s musical preference. I think it’s bubble-gum, but that’s just my truth, you see.
In other words, when it comes to the first part of the service, form does not matter. It does not matter what poetry you use, what verbal images, what musical instruments, what melodies, or what rhythms. In the first part of the service, these forms are all neutral, amoral, and without significance. They serve as placeholders for Christians to fill in their own sincerity and love. It’s all sweet nothing: zero-calorie warming up of the jaws for the real meal.
In the second part of the service, everything changes. Suddenly, an intense seriousness takes over. The passive spectators, who were being amused and entertained by syrupy chords and manipulative modulations, are replaced by furrowed-brow students, pencil behind the ear, prepared to conscientiously record the outline of the coming expository sermon.
And make no mistake, this sermon will be the purest beef. No antics or histrionics will be used to gain or keep attention. Vacuous stories will be vigilantly avoided. Mere talking about or around the biblical text will be a fail. Too many testimonial illustrations will be frowned upon, as will clichés. An economy of words will be practised, even though the sermon itself may run to fifty minutes or more. From the merest ephemera we have just sung, we come to high-density, compressed truth.
In contrast to the vapid sentimentalisms we just sang, the sermon will be rigorously tied to the biblical text, explaining, persuading, illustrating and applying what the text says. In other words, the form of the expository sermon is shaped by the meaning of both the text itself and the Bible as a whole. The very shape of expositional preaching emerges from the belief in an inerrant, inspired Scripture. Not only the content of the sermon, but its very shape carries meaning. The form of the sermon communicates submission and reverence towards God’s Word. The form has a meaning: preachers must submit to God’s Word and transmit it accurately.