Liturgical Preaching

PreachLectern Every church has a liturgy, a way of worship. Liturgy cannot be evaded or escaped. It is. If we publically worship we have liturgy. A question that should be asked in this regard, however, is about whether our worship is both deliberate and informed. If our worship is not both deliberate and informed, and regardless of our well-intentioned hearts, we are not worshiping. We may be calling and encouraging ourselves to worship. We may even be concerning ourselves with worship. But, in fact, we are not worshiping.

The renewal of worship in the Latin West, and including both Catholics and Protestants, can be traced to the Second Vatican Council which took place between 1962 and 1965. The first document to be released was Sacrosanctum Concilium/Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy. This document, along with documents on the Word of God and on communicating the gospel, radically reoriented worship cross-denominationally.

Many Protestant churches since Vatican II, and more so over the past twenty-five years, have begun to embrace fixed forms of liturgy. Worship as the work of the entire body of Christ, with identifiable priorities and processes, are finally (if not fully or functionally) being embraced. Liturgy that is both informed and deliberate is slowly being welcomed and enjoyed. This is an important shift, and one that many more of our churches need to make.

In spite of this, as with our Roman Catholic friends, little attention is given to liturgical preaching. At best, as in the past, we Protestants want to ensure that the entire process of worship is centered upon the sermon. Apart from this “essential,” little attention is given to what a sermon should actually sound or be like. Consequently our preaching is pathetically thin.  How can we thicken and deepen our preaching? How might we become more effective and efficient pubic communicators of Christ’s good news? How might we become liturgical preachers?

As ridiculous as it may sound, liturgical preaching is liturgically informed, liturgically formed, liturgically framed, and liturgically preached. Over the years I have known of pastors preaching out of one book of the Bible for seven to ten years. Barring some holidays they returned– for weeks, months, or years at a time– to the same book. These preachers should not be celebrated, they should be lamented. If preachers must be concerned about the “whole counsel of God,” how does hobby-horsing one book or one theological idea constitute a reformed biblical model of communication? It doesn’t! Liturgical preaching is concerned with God’s whole counsel– liturgically generated, guided, governed, and graced. It does not hobby-horse. It does not flog a book, a doctrine, or a principle. It preaches the whole gospel as outlined in the whole Lectionary, to the whole congregation throughout the whole year. Anything less is, at best, far less than liturgical preaching.

And this applies equally to pastors who preach through a particular book, or upon an important theological doctrine or principle, over a couple of months. Although I cannot suggest that God would never lead the pastor to do this, I am highly suspicious (in this regard) of “Spirit guidance” that is not informed by a received tradition. It is at best questionable to assert our “leading” above Lectionary imperatives. As such, on Sundays if at no other time, our lips should be governed by the Lectionary. If we want to preach through books, or emphasize certain doctrines or principles, this should be done in an entirely different forum– possibly during a Wednesday Night Service or as part of a Class Meeting / Bible Study / Cell Group. Liturgical preaching must be informed by the texts and the seasons, formed according to both, and framed within the emphasis given by the passages as they intersect with the people. Liturgical preaching must be entirely liturgical.

Liturgical Preaching must be precise. For many years now I have governed my preaching by the words found in Ecclesiastes 12:11: “The Words of the wise are as a well driven nail.” Just after I became a Christian I helped an Elder in my church build his home. Although I was and remain entirely unskilled, I did learn about how to properly drive a nail. In order to not waste time, energy, or a good nail, you fix the nail and swiftly (usually in two to three blows) drive it “home.” This is the way of the effective preacher. Preachers do not meander. Preachers do not miss the point by trying to make the point. Preachers say it and drive it home. If I want comedy I will go to a club. If I want a story I’ll go to a Pow-Wow. If I want an abundance of illustration I’ll purchase a children’s catechism. Preachers PREACH! As such, to preach well, be precise. Get to the point. Say enough to make your point “flush” with the Lectionary and with the congregation. Move on or move out!

Liturgical Preaching is purposed. I must admit that I sometimes sacrifice effectiveness on the altar of efficiency. It is a weakness, and one that at times I take to the pulpit. Nevertheless, effective preaching is efficient preaching. My old preaching professor used to say “If you can’t say it well in five minutes, you can’t say it well in twenty-five minutes.” This does not mean that sermons must be homilies– ten minutes or less. What it does mean is that time does not dictate content. Length does not determine depth. If we speak well, efficiently, we will be far more effective. Quite frankly, we often take too much time to preach. In fact I would assert that the more time it takes the pastor to make h/er point, the more likely it is that s/he lacks focus or purpose.

to_the_pointIt is not that preachers don’t have purpose. Almost every sermon I have heard during my years of ministry has been purpose-driven. The problem is that so many preachers couch the purpose in so many illustrations, jokes, garden paths, and conversational communication that the point (purpose) is compromised. GET TO THE POINT!

And what, within a liturgical setting, is the point? The answer to this question has both a fixed and a flexible answer. At all times the preacher preaches the substance of the good news of God. The preacher, stealing from Dr. Robert E. Webber, preaches God’s saving acts throughout history. This is fixed and inflexible substance. It never changes. However, when we use the Lectionary, the substance of the message is seen from different perspectives. While we receive God’s “whole counsel” by using a Lectionary, each week or month or season will have a different emphasis. We must capitalize on this in at least two ways. First we must preach according to the purpose of the Lectionary. We do not read the readings and then preach what we want. Lectionary and Lecture must match. Second to this, and often overlooked by both Protestants and Catholics alike, we must (as far as possible) touch upon ALL of the texts that we read. Liturgical preaching will reference EVERY passage in every proclamation: Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel. We lose purpose when we compromise the passages.

Liturgical Preaching is proclamation. Preaching is not conversation. Although I do not entirely reject a conversational tone, it seems that preachers today have adopted this as their “go to” methodology. It is, flatly, tedious nonsense. It demonstrates a profound insensitivity to the tones of the texts and the seasons. Preaching is preaching. It insists upon a scorched heart apologetic. Its policy is to burn. Its policy is to enflame. Its policy is to incite. Its purpose is to reveal God as a flaming fire who simultaneously burns with passion and damnation. We will burn with the fire of God, this God of passion, or we will burn and be consumed by our own passions to damnation. Or, more precisely, preaching presents the biblical God who is untamed. Liturgical preaching, for all of its propriety and order, presents a God who is wild from the core to the edges. And, quite honestly, this scares the shit out of me. Please do not be offended by the use of this word. It is intentional. It speaks of a reality, a biblical reality. Have you ever felt God’s presence so intensely that you begin to shake and your innards melt? I have, and we should. This is at least one of the outcomes of biblical, liturgical preaching.

(To be sure, and not to be neglected, I have experienced what Thomas Cranmer [16th century English Reformer] called the “comfortable” word of God. We need those comforts. Thank God for them! But before comfort must come a profound discomfort. Sin precedes grace.)

Finally, and not to be lost in a well-ordered Service of Worship that values liturgical preaching, liturgical preaching is dynamically pneumatic. We must not sacrifice Holy Spirit to Holy Scripture. Both work together. Both “need” each other. Without text we are at risk of licentious preaching; and this is a perpetual problem. How many dangerous doctrines have been generated by a refusal to abide by what is revealed? We must remain within the revelation. On the other hand, without Spirit we are at risk of lamentably lame preaching. How many messages have we heard– or, sadly, may have given– that are true but tediously true?

To some degree I think this lack of Spirit reflects a lack of prayer. As of late I have myself been challenged to ask the following question: “What does it say when you spend more time preparing than you do in praying?” Consequently I am seeking to pray more and prepare less– keeping in mind that true prayer is the most effective preparation. If preaching is a form of spiritual warfare, which I believe it is, we should be prayed up before we speak out. Spirit AND Scripture!!!

The Church is desperate for preachers, biblical preachers, liturgical preachers who have the two-edged sword of the whole gospel to communicate. Will we take up the call? Will we preach?


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