Sunday, July 8, 2012

Integrated Preaching

Every once in a while I come across a Lord’s Day service in which the sermon is subjected to some kind of segregation from the rest of the liturgy.

For example, when the sermon is the only part of the service done by the preacher, it leads one to believe that it’s qualitatively different and distinct from everything else. This is probably more common where there are multiple pastors, when one preaches while the other serves as liturgist.

The distinction, made by some, that preaching is God’s Word addressed to the people, while the remainder is the people’s praise and prayers aimed God-ward, is faulty if not foolish. The entire liturgy is a dialogue between God and the people, including the sermon. The word “homiletics” comes from the Greek word, homilētikos, from the verb homilēo meaning “to converse with.” Sermons are always conversations, engaging the people in the pews as they mentally offer their prayerful and thoughtful responses.

Bad enough that the sermon is treated as a solo performance, one step away from entertainment, even worse is that the congregation is tacitly invited to sit back and relax and watch the preacher preach. If the people are not working during the sermon, then it ceases to be “liturgy” (= “the work of the people”) in any realistic form.

Too often it’s forgotten that every sermon has a unique context—or, better, many contexts. Preaching does not take place in a vacuum. Sermons arise out of Scripture, and travel the journey of the Dominical Year, supported by songs and hymns and anthems and other music that awakens the soul. These, one would hope, are fairly well accepted points of integration of preaching with the rest of the liturgy. There are two others, however, that are flagrantly neglected.

First of all, when preaching is separated from the prayers of the people, as well as other major prayers of the service, the sermon is cast adrift in the sea of abstraction. How this often happens is that lay liturgists or other staff pastors will fill these responsibilities by way of freeing the preacher to preach.

Long-time pastors who know their congregations well may get away with this—for a while. Sooner or later, however, the sermon will lose its pastoral sensitivity and go stale.

Pastoral prayer and preaching are closely linked. In this regard I always think of Harry Emerson Fosdick of Riverside Church in New York, who was not only a preacher of note, but one who had the spiritual capacity to envelop others in his prayers.* A friend of mine, who worshipped at Riverside back then, told me that when Fosdick led in prayer, he had the sense that the two of them were alone in the room, so intimate and powerful was the connection—and that this personal relationship continued in the sermon.

Preachers should always lead the congregation in prayer before stepping into the pulpit. It makes for better sermons.

The other notoriously neglected liturgical connection with preaching is the Eucharist. When there is no Supper to follow, the Word has not been fully presented, and the sermon has been diminished.

There are those who think that omitting the Sacrament gives more emphasis to the proclamation of the Word. That is true, but only in the sense that more time is allotted. Actually, ending the service without the Sacrament leaves the proclamation incomplete, and the worshipper’s experience of the Word only partial.

All the more reason, then, to return to celebrating Holy Communion every week. Not only is the Sacrament diminished by infrequent observance, but the proclamation of the Word in Scripture and sermon is also undermined. When they are separated in this way, neither is fulfilling its liturgical purpose. Word and Sacrament are unbreakably theologically linked and therefore both should be constantly integrated with the liturgy of the people.

Even though, regrettably, we so often do not celebrate the Sacrament on the Lord’s Day, when it is observed it would be appropriate to have the preacher preside at the Table. This would be a reasonable visual demonstration of the linking of Word and Sacrament.

Who leads the Prayers of the People where you worship? When you have Communion, does the preacher always preside? How often do you celebrate the Eucharist? Why?


*For some outstanding examples of “pastoral prayers” (even if the language is somewhat outdated), see if you can find a copy of Fosdick’s A Book of Public Prayers, Harper and Brothers, New York 1959.


  1. No argument that we need to reclaim weekly Eucharist, and the sooner, the better.

    We have only the one pastor; she leads all parts of the liturgy except the call to worship, an opening prayer and the first Scripture reading, which are led by liturgists (don't forget we Presbys aren't supposed to have "clergy" and "lay" - we have officers and members!). I have seen multiple-staff situations, though, where other pastors lead other parts of the service and still manage to successfully integrate what they do with what the preacher of the day is doing.

    I think more important than who leads the Prayers of the People, however, is the nature of those prayers. If it simply a "pastoral prayer" by another name -- in which the pastor does all the talking and the people listen and even pray along -- I think the temptation is too great to tie the prayer *too* closely to the sermon (i.e., the preacher re-preaches, ostensibly as a prayer). The Prayers should have their own integrity, informed by but not restricted by the themes of the day or season or the content of the sermon. For this reason, I don't object in principle to having someone else lead them, as you seem to.

    But thanks for another thought-provoking post! I am still so glad to see a PC(USA) blog that is thinking through liturgical theology.

  2. Once up on a time I had the opportunity to speak to a preacher from Scotland. At one time he was an "intern" at St Giles. He asked me if I knew why U.S. Presbyterians don't celebrate Eucharist at every worship. I responded that I didn't and he told me that wine became so expensive at St. Giles that it was decided to celebrate the Eucharist only at one service a month. And then, when people immigrated to the America they just continued the "custom". In other words, "We've always done it that way" took over. These days I hear some folks saying that it's just too troublesome to celebrate the Eucharist at every worship service.

    That shouldn't be too surprising I suppose when in this age people often find it too inconvenient to come to worship God "Every" week.

    Don, your point about liturgy meaning "work of the people" and how often that is not understood seems to cast some light on this present condition of the Church, where often the worship service seems to be a performance of the preacher ot the choir and the congregation simply comes to watch.

    It's not just a Liturgical Theological issue, I think. My observation is that, in general, we Christians don't understand that what the world call community and what Christ demonstrated that community means for those who follow Him are two(at least) different things. That up front and personal the Christian community is the intimate connection of people who have experienced God's grace and seek to live that out with others both inside the Community of Christ and firstly those who think they are outside the Community.

    As Christ demonstrated, to do that is bound to be costly, inconvenient, painful, and as he promised, sometimes even fatal.

    Maybe, the problem of connecting the preaching with the Liturgy, the people with the Liturgy and the celebration of the Eucharist with the Liturgy is that we lack the passion to follow Christ. I often wonder about what keeps us from this passion.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!