Sunday, July 24, 2011

Prayer, Preaching and the People

If you stop to think a moment or two about the integrity of worship, then you won’t be surprised to find seemingly different parts having important connections.

The present subject under consideration is what the “prayers of the people,” also known as the “pastoral prayer,” has to do with the preacher’s sermon, and why this might be important.

There is one obvious difference, of course: the prayer of the people is addressed to God, while the sermon is delivered to the people. Therefore they have very different functions in the service, the sermon as an extension of the proclamation of the Word, and the people’s prayers as part of the response to the Word. Each has its appropriate time and each has a unique sound.

Nevertheless, the two acts of worship are related intimately.

First of all, both will be conscious of language (grammar, syntax, vocabulary) that will be appropriate to the worshipping congregation.

The prayers of the people, in order to be truly the people’s prayers, will be crafted in language that fits more or less comfortably in their thoughts and speaking. Such usable prayer-language will be straightforward and direct rather than resorting to forced elegance or strained eloquence. The speech of prayer, especially if it is to be said by worshippers aloud, must approach something they might actually say, and not sound like the voice of a stranger.

This is equally true of the preacher’s language. If the sermon is to be a conversation or dialogue in any sense, those listening must also be formulating their responses mentally. Language from the pulpit that sounds foreign will suffer diminishing impact on the listeners in the pew.

A second consideration has to do with structure: both the people’s prayers and the preacher’s sermon have structure, it is to be hoped.

Yes, of course, there are times for adlib prayers, even within the context of the prayers of the people. But for public worship, in order to be sure to cover the necessary ground, some outline is necessary. Rambling prayers most often disintegrate into repetition, and from thence into boredom.

Similarly, in terms of the sermon, an adlib emphasis or enlargement can be exciting. But for the thoughtful preparation and presentation of a sermon, there needs to be some evidence of structure revealing a beginning, middle and end, at the very least. The progression of logic will reveal a theological growth from start to finish which the hearers can follow. Without some such skeleton, the sermon will likely become a mere blob of belief of minimal concern to any who might still be listening at the end.

The third matter that links the prayers of the people to the sermon is the prayer life of the preacher.

Prayer is an art that is learned by life-long practice. Going to seminary or ordination guarantee nothing at all when it comes to being adept at prayer. But practicing prayer consistently helps continual spiritual growth.

Now, part of that preacher’s prayer life is going to be praying for the congregation, their real and spiritual needs, and the world within which they live. The lives of the worshippers, as best the preacher can know them, will set the agenda both for the prayers of the people and the sermon.

Even though the prayers of the people usually follow the sermon in the service, the preacher might do well to prepare them first. Prayerful and thoughtful consideration of what’s going on in the hearts and minds of the people, and how to put it in words for them, is not a bad thing to do to get ready to draft a sermon that the same people will hear.

The “prayers of the people” used to be called the “pastoral prayer,” which in many instances was spoken entirely by the pastor. It was considered “pastoral” because folks understood that the pastor was one who would be sensitive to human needs worthy of articulation in prayer to the Almighty. That pastoral sense is important to retain in our worship, not just in the prayers, but in the preaching as well.

In seminary, we were regularly reminded that we should spend as much time in preparation for Sunday in finding the right words for the prayers as we would in writing a sermon. Based on the experience of my years of ministry, I’m convinced that’s a good idea.

Who prepares the “prayers of the people” at your church? Do they come word for word from a book? Are they printed for all to see in the worship order? Would you say them differently? Would you include different petitions?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Is Preaching Worship?

You may think that’s a silly question, but there are others who will come up with a quick answer: “No!”
Well, what then is preaching if it’s not worship?

I raise this question for two reasons. One, I’ve long been bothered by the custom of labeling seminary professors as teaching “Preaching and Worship,” or vice versa, as though they were two separate things. If one teaches about worship, of course they will teach about preaching and a host of other things as well, such as the sacraments.

Then, a while back, I came across a point-blank affirmation that Preaching and Worship are worlds apart. I can’t for the life of me track it down again, but I remember the logic of the position: Worship comes from the people directed toward God, and Preaching is the medium of God’s Word proclaimed to the people. Worship is worship aimed heavenward; preaching is proclamation aimed at the worshippers.

Proclamation, this reasoning goes, is in a class by itself. It is kerygma, the announcement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the liturgical form of the Incarnation. The preacher presents and re-presents Jesus Christ to the people God has called to carry Christ into the world. The rest of worship is basically a response to the ancient kerygma as rehearsed in the sermon.

That’s an interesting proposition, and has some virtues, but is seriously flawed.

First of all, preaching is rooted in Scripture. That’s why we have three lessons each Sunday (four if you count the Psalter), so the sermon has a larger context. When the preacher interprets Scripture, he or she does so recognizing that “Scripture interprets Scripture”.

The Book of Common Worship (1993) provides a Prayer for Illumination for the congregation before the reading of Scripture. In the prayer, the people ask for grace to be open to hear the Word proclaimed in the words of Scripture and Sermon. This prayer alone indicates the presumption that the Scripture-Sermon duo is not a monologue, but a dialogue.

Any preacher worth his or her salt knows full well that preaching is a dialogue. From the pulpit you are face-to-face with people who listen and respond by their demeanor. As actors tell us the response of their audience is immediate and influences their performance, so it’s true that a preacher can read understanding or bewilderment on faces in the pews. Who hasn’t thrown in an extra line, or amplified a point, because facial expressions called for it.

It is a gross over-simplification to suggest that Preaching is where God speaks to us, and we don’t speak to God—that it’s a one-way conversation (which is to say it’s not a conversation at all). During the sermon, facial expression or not, the people are answering in their thoughts. Since retirement I have a better idea what that means. When the preacher is preaching thoughtfully and prayerfully, I am working in the very same way.

Pew-sitters have part of the responsibility for the sermon. They bring to it their life experience, and their most intimate needs. Any one sermon will be heard in as many different ways as there are people in the room, because how they hear it depends on who they are and what’s going on in their lives. So the dialogue of preaching is taking place, not only in the pulpit but in the heads and hearts of the listeners. And it is in that dialogue, and what issues from it, that lives are changed. In this way preaching becomes liturgy, the work of the people.

So, to go back to the question at hand, “Is Preaching Worship?” the answer is “Yes.” The preacher will invite the participation of the people and welcome their involvement and commitment as they hear and appropriate the Gospel proclaimed.

Of course, this doesn’t just happen. This kind of dialogical preaching requires biblical study and awareness ahead of time, and conversation continued afterward. Lots of ministers like to have ongoing bible study of lectionary passages in advance. I also used to enjoy getting together with church members after the service, coffee cups in hand, and hearing how they personally conversed with the sermon. The dialogue of preaching is exciting when it has this kind of larger context.

How would you answer this question? Is preaching worship? Or is preaching distinctly different from everything else in the liturgy?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Watch Your Language

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Christian worship in this country generally went through what would be modestly called an upheaval.

It was all the fault of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Church. Protestants as well as Catholics started scrutinizing their worship practices more closely, and just about everything was up for review and renewal.

It was an exciting time when what was said and what was sung was up for grabs. Many congregations shelved much of the traditional language and music, offering instead more “contemporary” worship.

Many changes went forth into the churches, but the most significant was how we wrote and spoke our public prayers. The King James English just didn’t cut it any more. We heard those rhythms and sounds as poetic, but considered them too stilted to be authentic prayer in the mouths of twentieth-century people.

Around the same time, Presbyterians came out with the “Worshipbook” using no lofty elegant language generously seasoned with “thees and thous”, but more straightforward common English. Many old prayers were updated, and recast so the same thought was expressed in terms familiar to people in the pews. When it was published, the Worshipbook was one of the first major liturgical resources to break the log jam to let the river of contemporary English flow free in many other church publications.

One of the premises of a worship book is, of course, to provide model prayers for the people. Too often such books have been taken hostage by the clergy and other leaders, but they really are supposed to be useful for congregations.

For one thing, worship book prayers model content. From table prayers and night-time prayers to full Eucharistic prayers, examples are offered for the immense variety of circumstances and situations that call us to approach God in prayer.

Furthermore, worship book prayers display structure. The pattern of the venerable “collect”, for example, is useful in many different prayers.* Also, the Eucharistic prayer is more readily comprehended if the Trinitarian shape is evident.

By using these prayers, people and leaders alike learn what content fits into which prayers and how they can be structured. The prayer book is the constant teacher of prayer to the people of God.

Prayer books also try to find the language that fits into the minds and mouths of the people. Since English is a living language and constantly changing and growing, and those who use it are a widely diverse population, the language of prayer must be flexible.

The trick in composing prayers is to find words that convey meaning clearly. Jargon or slang usually distract. Plain English works best. But we don’t want it to be flat and pedestrian. The language of prayer needs to be up-lifting. At the same time, forced elegance does not make a prayer eloquent. There’s a fine line between flat and flashy where we find prayers that have a genuine ring to them.

Prayer books have their limits, of course. The Book of Common Worship (1993), wonderful as it is, has a shelf life, as did all its predecessors. That’s why we need to learn from the prayer book how to write and compose prayers for every “now” of worship, how to write “better” prayers in words that fit the people in the pews and set free the yearnings of their hearts for God’s grace.

Do you write new prayers for each week’s service? Or rely on a printed resource entirely? Or a combination of both? Or do you perhaps shun prayer books altogether in favor of improvised prayers? And for each of the above, why?


* The pattern followed by collects is simple and straightforward:
1) Address to God—naming the One to whom we pray;
2) divine attributes—what we know about God pertinent to our request;
3) the petition—the heart of the prayer claiming the promises of God;
4) the result desired—how God’s granting the petition will translate into the lives of the people; and
5) a doxology—praise for Christ as the mediator of prayers to God.

Monday, July 4, 2011

"Sensible" Worship - Touch, Taste and Smell

For worship to be “sensible” we need to pay attention to the physical as well as the conceptual meanings of the word. For what is perceptible to our physical senses influences our reason or understanding.

In the last two posts, we’ve considered the primary impact of the senses of sight and hearing on our worship experience. Now in this last post in the series, we’ll ponder the potential of touch, taste and smell to provide data affecting the sense of what we do.


The experience of touch in Christian worship is somewhat more limited than we have by sight or hearing. Still, considerable influence is wielded through our sense of feeling, as, for example, we grasp human flesh in welcome at the door and greet friends and strangers. Touch also finds liturgical expression in the greeting of peace by means of a handshake, embrace or kiss. In all these we celebrate our human unity and mutual care as God’s own.

Touch between people is particularly powerful in the sacraments. Baptismal washing and anointing, and the giving of bread and holding the cup for another, are human contacts signifying sharing at the most basic and intimate level.

There are many things we may touch during worship, such as books like hymnals, prayer books, Bibles. They will testify to the value placed on them by the condition they’re in—books well cared for and in usable condition will be recognized as more valuable than those that are worn and torn.


What we taste in worship is by and large limited to the Eucharist. Real wine and fresh baked bread leave a lasting flavor in our mouths and in our memories. People often resist this, complaining of the excessive expense of wine versus grape juice, and the inconvenience of baking bread as opposed to shaking our wafers from a package or dicing slices from leftover loaves. But we all know better—the expense is minimal and the inconvenience is small, both certainly worthy for our praise of almighty God.

Taste of whole-grain bread and wine is rich in flavor and reminds worshippers of the richness of food God provides in the world, food to be shared not only at the Lord’s Table, but at every table for every one of God’s children.


The sense with more clout than most people give it credit for is that of smell. For invoking memories and suggesting mental images, the ability to detect and identify odors cannot be beat.

For most Protestants, maybe for Presbyterians in particular, smell is all but ignored on the grounds that our worship does not generate any significant smells. Unaccustomed to incense though we are, there are other smells that engage us in worship of which planners and leaders ought to be aware.

For example, one of the first odors one encounters when coming into church is that generated by cleaning materials. If these are unduly harsh or recently applied, they can be off-putting and detract from more positive, welcoming odors.

In addition to soft light, candles produce aromatic odors pleasing to the worshippers’ sense of smell. (When using oil-based candles, it is often advisable to add a perfumed scent. When using regular wax candles, light them before the service and blow them out to let the smoke scent the air—this will also make the candles easier to light when the time comes.) Flowers, of course, offer bouquets of fragrance, sweetening the air as in other venues incense does. The scent of flowers, as of incense, is a reminder of the Psalmist’s plea, “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense….” (Ps. 141:2a)

In some ways the most powerful smells of all for our worship come from the Lord’s Supper where we are given a feast of bread and wine. The unfortunate and over-sanitary habit of using grape juice eliminates the bouquet of wine, and the use of cubed bread or wafers minimizes the odoriferous quality of fresh-baked bread. These bread-and-wine odors are most significant in carrying the memory of the Eucharist on to every meal in our lives, where we have our eyes opened and recognize Christ as the host at our tables.

In what other ways does the sense of touch influence one’s worship experience? Does your church used fresh-baked bread and wine for Communion? Have you used incense in worship?


This is only a partial list of the ways we use our five senses in worship. The point is that there are many things, some large, some small, for planners and presiders of worship to pay attention to, because the people in the pews have a lot of sensibility and are computing meanings constantly throughout the service.