A Church’s Silent Messages Cannot be Ignored

My teammate and I pastor small churches in a pair of rural villages in South Africa. At a service where both churches were present, the same question came to my mind on two occasions as I sat, sang, watched, prayed, listened, and reflected on the service. What exactly is being passed on to the believers God has placed in my stewardship?

The first time this came to my mind was when I considered our churches with African pastors. What would be different? What would be the same? What would the people not tolerate, and what would they not even notice had it changed? What would or should orthodox churches look like with genuine African leadership?

The second time I found reason to chew this cud again was while Paul, my partner, was explaining how Paul the Apostle made himself under the law to win those under the law. I thought about Acres as a 16-year old convert and Musa as a 41-year old religious man who is still fuzzy about key doctrinal distinctives. Were they listening? Were they following the well-laid argument of the Apostle to the Gentiles communicated through the rhetorically simplified craft of the apostle to Mbhokota?

My answer: I didn’t know.

What? I am not sure if the listeners are getting the main points of the sermons? Are we wasting our time? Then entered a string of other observations that made me think that all was not lost even if the propositions were only slowly leaking into mostly sealed containers. What was clearly communicated in the service? What sounded like a trumpet in the midst of Gregorian chants? It seems that the following conclusions came across just as clearly at that service as on every Lord’s day since we were privileged to begin our ministry.

These lessons were not passed on because someone explicitly taught them. Other lessons were explicitly taught that probably weren’t caught, but these—passed on by other means—could not fail to have been received by the great majority.

  1. Christian worship must not be intentionally showy, merely entertaining, or lackadaisically prepared.
  2. Preaching is an important part of worship.
  3. True Christianity is essentially humble and not man-centered. Away with a kind of religion that allows, or worse yet, subtly encourages pride!
  4. We like to sing, and the best songs are packed with ideas and pictures.
  5. Ecclesiastical forms that encourage thinking, reading, meditation, and the life of the mind are the right ones; practices that don’t help those goals are probably bad.
  6. Jesus Christ must reign in our hearts, not lesser loves. Even if someone can’t remember every part of the gospel, they could take this home after only brief interaction with our churches.
  7. Evangelism matters. We urge, command, and beg men to come to Christ. We plan our sermons so that the maximum appropriate pressure would be brought to bear on their souls. And it was equally evident that there are inappropriate ways to effect pressure on a listener.
  8. Men should be leaders in the assembly of God’s people.

I doubt if anyone, even the most careless, could have missed these messages because the forms by which we founded and buttressed the service wrote them in large letters that even the illiterate could take in.

Now, there may be some false doctrines that could weasel into a church thus guarded, but my hunch is that a church is safe when it is rooted with these kinds of priorities deep down in its soil. That entire list might have been communicated to a person who barely understood the words of the songs or preaching.

Don’t get me wrong: the preaching was helpful, and I wished as I have often done in the past, that the Word would cut into hearts making a lasting impression. The message’s thesis was: We deny ourselves perfectly legitimate rights so that we can serve the cause of evangelism. Yet who really remembers that statement now? Though the well-writ thesis may not still be in the people’s consciousness, the other conclusions probably are.

For all our love of right propositions, it may have been the unspoken, implicit signals that were most clearly passed on to the visitors and that were cemented ever stronger for the faithful. I am sometimes filled with a hope that our church members could not be too badly deceived if we left because they have a kind of church culture that will stand watch against such a variety of errors.

This is true for the small congregations in which we serve that include Tsonga, Venda, Sotho, and Shona speakers. And yet, in any part of the world a church’s culture also sends silent messages that cannot be ignored. Since vehicles like architecture, worship liturgy, clothing, musical styles, and sermon types are invested by God with such a powerful ability to carry implicit messages like the ones listed above, that minister who grapples with their speech is doing important exegetical work.

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