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?

1 comment:

  1. Is preaching worship? This is an important question for preachers to ponder. My answer: it could be, it should be, but so often isn't.

    Preaching isn't always proclaiming the good news. You've heard lots of sermons that left the good news out, haven't you? I have. The sermon that was offered in those cases may have been erudite, it may have been entertaining, it may have even talked about God and our Christian responsibilities... but I didn't get the sense that the preacher was worshiping or witnessing to God's grace during the sermon - rather instructing or lecturing.

    I took a class in preaching at Andover-Newton a few years ago. Just preaching, not preaching and worship, and I believe there's a good reason to study preaching separate from worship. Or rather to focus on the aspects of preaching that are unique to that function. There are elements of stagecraft that preachers need to be aware of. This is not to say that preaching is the same as performing... but that a knowledge of and skill in the performing arts can help the proclamation of the kerygma and increase the chances that those present will hear it. Sometimes these elements of stagecraft make it possible for the preacher to get out of the way of the Spirit.

    One of the texts in that class (Speaking From the Heart: Preaching With Passion by Richard Ward) explored the idea that a sermon should speak to and surprise the preacher (at least in its creation) if we want it to speak to and surprise the listeners. Making room for the Holy Spirit to speak to me, surprise me, catch me off guard, makes room I believe for the Spirit to speak through those words to the folks in the pews.

    Next, many sermons are not kerygmatic. My approach to preaching has also been shaped by reading "Good News Preaching: Offering the Gospel In Every Sermon" by Gennifer Brooks and Ronald Allen. I deliberately structure my sermons to include an opportunity to say what "the good news is" for our particular situation.

    All that said, I know that my sermons do not always attain what I aspire to: that each one might hear the good news God intends for them. Thank God it's not up to me alone.

    So, my long answer to your question is Yes, preaching is distinctly different from other elements of the liturgy. But it is not the only thing that is unique. Music is distinctly different from preaching, how the pews are arranged and where the communion table or baptismal font are located are also distinctly different from other parts of the liturgy. But all these elements can work together toward a seamless experience of worship.

    Is preaching worship? It is a part of the whole - but too often doesn't lend much support.


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