The shorter catechism (#89) says that the Spirit of God makes "the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation." What follows is an attempt to justify the idea of "especially" in the catechism.
Please know that I do not mean to lessen the importance of private and family worship, but to rescue the importance of corporate worship and the preaching of the Word from the depths to which it has sunk.
First, some Biblical thoughts:
Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:11 that Jesus gave pastors and teachers (or, more literally, pastor-teachers) to His people. Why? V. 14 - so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. In other words, Jesus gave pastor-teachers because we need them. Because on our own, we would be blown every which way and would not reach maturity in Christ. The fact that Jesus gives preachers - and that we didn't come up with this idea on our own - means that our responsibility to the preaching we receive on Sunday mornings is a responsibility we have to Jesus, the giver of the gift. Contrary to popular thought, it was Jesus' opinion that we do need preachers to understand the Word of God. Not as mediators, but as teachers. And not that we are ignorant on our own, but that we won't normally achieve the maturity and protection Jesus has planned for us apart from the church's preaching and teaching.
In Acts 17:11 we see the Bereans searching the Scriptures for themselves. But the Bereans aren't solitary Christians deciding for themselves and by themselves what the Scriptures say. They are searching the Scriptures for a purpose: to make sure what they heard from the preachers was true. What prompted their searching was their receiving the Word with joy and their hope to find these things to be true. In other words, this isn't a picture of individualized Christianity, reading and living the Bible on their own. What set these Jews apart, what made them "more noble than those in Thessalonica" was the eagerness with which they received the Word, eagerness proved by their devotion to understand and double-check what they were about to obey. I would argue these Jews did exactly what I exhorted our congregation to do: watch how you hear! (Luke 8:18) Along the same lines, note the testimony of the Thessalonican church (1 Thess. 4:5), the Colossian church (Col. 1:5)
Many of the promises we have regarding the Word of God come in relation to the Word of God proclaimed and preached. See Romans 10:10-15 - justification comes by faith (10) and faith comes by hearing the Word preached (14).
Also helpful here is Paul's instructions to Timothy regarding his preaching. 2 Timothy 4:2 is well-known by every preacher: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. Why such a strong instruction? Because the "time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions." In other words, because we are sinners, we can't be trusted to read, study, understand and obey God's Word entirely on our own. Personal study shouldn't be neglected, but the noetic effects of sin - sin's ongoing brain damage - necessitate the giving of authoritative teaching. Not infallible, but authoritative. "But" some will say,"don't preachers have the same problems I do?" Yes, which is why the Bereans' discernment was totally warranted and why the painful process of ordination is so vital. This isn't a call to turn off our minds and consciences, but a call to joyful, expectant submission.
Yes, pastors are imperfect people; just ask my friends. Yes, we make mistakes. Two weeks ago I found myself repenting of something I had said from the pulpit. This is why we have sessions overseeing the pulpit, guarding the people from the preacher's mistakes. But at root here is the attitude we bring to worship: do we come to worship with an expectation of hearing God's Word from the preacher and obeying what we hear or do we come with great reservation? Do we recognize worship as the highlight of our union with Christ or as a possibly helpful time of encouragement? Do we view our preacher-in-his-preaching primarily as one more imperfect man or as Jesus' gift to me?
This post is too long to continue. I hope to write again about the historical nature of this question and my own testimony regarding it.
*note: this post was edited on Feb. 25 to reflect some of the ways the discussion in the comments have helped clarify my thinking. None of the edits were changes to my central arguments.
**Thanks for all the comments. For now, I've decided to hide them all, because we seemed to reach the end of what was helpful. If you have a question about this, feel free to email or call. -Jared
My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: "O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!"