This morning Marlene and I visited the historic Moody Church in downtown Chicago. We saw scores of people, including many Moody Bible Institute students, walking to church, Bibles in hand. In a city as cosmopolitan as Chicago, it's impressive to see young and old converging on the massive brick building located at the convergence of LaSalle and Clark, a couple of blocks from Lake Michigan. As we were seated, several things struck me immediately. For one thing, this is not a "seeker-friendly" church building that looks like modern convention center. The Moody Church sanctuary contains 3800 auditorium-style seats with 2300 on the main floor and another 1500 in a horseshoe balcony. The enormous space was built to be an evangelical center for worship, with stained glass windows, a massive pipe organ, and a tiered choir loft that probably seats 200. Built in the 1920s with a Byzantine-Romanesque design, it wears its age gracefully. Two large video projection screens flank the choir loft, and numerous colored lights are suspended from the high ceiling. The architecture produces a sense of awesomeness. You know you're in a church, not a civic center.
So what did we notice? I would estimate today's attendance to be around 2500. The bottom floor was comfortably full with a few hundred in the balcony. The casual observer is struck by the wide ethnic diversity, as befits a church in the heart of Chicago. After the organ prelude, the service started at 9:50 AM with a few announcements by an associate pastor, followed by a ministry spotlight on the International Friends ministry with an emphasis on Chinese leaders who are coming to America to learn English. I noticed that Pastor Erwin Lutzer led the worship service himself. He prayed the invocation and the pastoral prayer, interviewed a missionary to Africa, introduced the offering, preached the sermon, introduced communion, introduced the final hymn, gave a few final announcements, and then gave the closing prayer. In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that Dr. Lutzer is a personal friend who preached my installation service at Calvary in 1989. I comment on this because, in his 25th year as pastor at Moody Church, he leads with the informal manner of someone who knows and is known by the congregation. I think you could fairly say unlike many modern churches where the pastor preaches and someone else does the "worship leading," Pastor Lutzer truly led us from beginning to end.
As far as worship style goes, it was traditional but not exclusively so. We sang "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah," followed by the worship chorus, "Knowing You." Then the choir gave us a jazzy rendition of the Apostles' Creed.
I tracked the timing of the service because after years of preaching multiple times on Sunday morning, I have become very clock conscious. We started at 9:50 AM, Dr. Lutzer began preaching about 10:32 AM and finished about 11:04 AM. There was a hymn, and then we went immediately into the Lord's Supper, which took about 20 minutes. The ushers received the Fellowship Offering followed by another hymn. Pastor Lutzer gave a few friendly closing exhortations and the closing prayer. The service ended at 11:40 PM. The whole service lasted 1 hour, 50 minutes. That's one of the longest American services I've ever attended. (I've attended much longer services in other parts of the world.) They can do that because with such a large sanctuary, they don't need multiple services on Sunday morning. I personally enjoyed the length of the service. We had plenty of time for every part of the service, and nothing felt rushed.
Dr. Lutzer preached on "A Lasting Faith" from Genesis 15, part 5 of "Strength for the Journey," a study of the life of Abraham. His message was biblical, easy to follow, and delivered in a relaxed manner. Near the beginning, speaking of the crisis moments of life where you didn't know what to do next, he asked, "Have you ever wondered how God is going to do it?" Abraham wondered how God would keep his promises, and so do we. Lutzer noted that he has often asked that question himself and that 9 times out of 10, his answer turns out to be wrong. He stressed that when Abraham "believed" God in Genesis 15:6, the Hebrew word is actually Amen. Believing God means to say Amen to him. He also pointed out that God saves people "on credit." We run up a bill because of our sin, and God pays the debt by crediting us with the righteousness of Christ. "The only righteousness God accepts is his own." Genesis 15 ends with God walking through the pieces of the sacrifice while Abraham is asleep, meaning that God binds himself to keep the promise. It doesn't depend on Abraham at all. Salvation is an "unconditional covenant," a promise he makes with himself.
He ended his message with three "transforming lessons": 1) God doesn't treat everyone alike. He appeared to Abraham, not to Hammurabi. Not every receives grace to believe the gospel. 2) All of God's children live with delayed promises. Hebrews 11 says that Abraham lived in tents all his life. The promise was not fulfilled in his lifetime. So it is with us. We live and die without seeing all that God has promised for us. 3) Through faith we enter into an unconditional covenant whereby we are saved forever. Dr. Lutzer met at man at a wedding reception and asked him, "How far along are you in your walk with God?" When Dr. Lutzer explained the gospel to him, the man said, "Oh, so it's very easy." Yes, it is easy because Jesus paid the full price for your sins to be forgiven. But the man would not believe. Is it easy to be saved? Yes, but it is also hard because salvation strikes at our human pride. The sermon ended with these words: "Won't you believe right now? Wherever you are, say Amen to Jesus and trust in him."
This was hearty evangelical preaching at its best. Simple, clear, biblical, and faith-building. I was much the better for having heard the sermon.
One other note. I was struck by how well organized everything was. During communion, the elders and deacons (perhaps 50 men in all) filed in and sat in front of the communion table. After the prayer, the men (all dressed in suits and ties) marched with their trays to their assigned positions in the vast sanctuary. The men were not obtrusive but they served the congregation with well-oiled precision. I prefer a well-planned, well-run, well-ordered service with a friendly family feeling. The service this morning had all those elements, and the proof of it is that you didn't notice the planning and the organization. The thoughtful attention to detail allowed us to worship God together.
All in all, it was a wonderful service in one of America's great churches. Marlene and I both felt glad we had been part of it.