John 3:16 in the Key of C
John 3:16 in the Key of C
Why true preachers are worship leaders
An unfortunate trend has occurred in some churches—the separation of preaching and worship. I don't mean that the two no longer occur in the same service but that many people think of them as distinct even when they occur together. The term worship has become almost synonymous with singing, especially singing contemporary music. With our healthy postmodern emphasis on experience, worship is valued as more engaging, holistic, participatory, and even transformative than preaching, which connotes cognition and authoritative monologue. Worship is up, preaching is down, and never the twain shall meet.
In contrast to this trend, I contend that the Bible depicts preaching and worship as tightly bound in a symbiotic relationship.1 Peter 4:11 captures this concept: "if anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of Godso that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ."
Worship can be summarized as revelation and response. What that summary lacks in precision, it gains in breadth. It is wide enough to include all that the Bible calls worship, including singing and prayer, as well as presenting our bodies as a living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) and sharing with others (Hebrews 13:16). It is wide enough to capture the broad expanse of activities and moods characterizing worship in the Bible—singing, shouting, silence, repenting, remembering, serving, giving, tithing, interceding, playing a musical instrument, lifting hands, dancing, kneeling, fasting, and feasting. All of these activities are responses prompted by the revelation of God's character and will.
Two classic texts support the idea that worship is revelation and response. The first is Isaiah 6, where the prophet saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted. The revelation of God's holiness prompted Isaiah to respond, "Woe to me," and "Here I am, send me." The second text,Micah 6, describes a similar exchange. Micah asks how he should worship: Shall I come before him with burnt offerings and calves? God responds with a reminder of what has already been revealed: "He has showed you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
In these texts, God himself (or his commissioned seraphim) reveals his own glory, but even when God uses human instruments—the foolishness of preaching—the process is the same. He reveals himself and prompts response. Therefore, worship is unlikely (dare we say impossible?) without preaching.
I know that my argument has jumped quickly over hedges of objection, so let me qualify the argument. I am not saying that preaching must occur in every worship service. An old fashioned hymn sing can be wonderful worship. Neither am I saying that the only way God reveals himself is through words. He also communicates aspects of his glory through nature, art, and companionship. I've praised God while walking the rim of the Grand Canyon, listening to a concert, and basking in the love of my friends.
I am saying that when God reveals his magnificence it naturally produces worshipful response—repentance, laughter, works of righteousness, singing, and so forth. I'm also saying that God has chosen to use preaching as a primary channel for his self-revelation, so that the separation of worship and preaching is unnatural at best, and harmful at worst. When we reduce worship solely to its experiential, affective, and artistic components, we no longer have biblical worship. True worship is rooted in God's self-revelation; hence, the need for preaching.
Preaching reveals God's character, and it also reveals his expectations for his people. Preaching explains doctrine and applies it to everyday life. As Warren Wiersbe says, "A sermon isn't a picture on the wall, hanging there for folks to admire.... The sermon is a door that opens onto a path that leads the pilgrim into new steps of growth and service to the glory of God." Because sermons exhort and equip, they are indispensable to the response aspect of worship.
The early church knew this. In The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Hughes Old summarizes the Didache, a manual of church life from the early second century: The worshiping congregation understood Christ to be present with them "by means of the teaching and preaching of the Word of God." In contrast to the doctrine that would develop in a few centuries, "the Didache teaches a doctrine of the real presence which is kergymatic rather than eucharistic" (p. 265). When we encounter this lofty view of preaching, we are surprised to see that much of the exhortation in the Didache is down-to-earth moral instruction. It speaks of the relations between teachers and students, husbands and wives, and parents and children. It promotes chastity and almsgiving. In the midst of such moral instruction the early Church believed Christ revealed himself. Revelation was melded with response.
The union of revelation and response, and the pattern of that ordering, is present in most of Paul's epistles. He begins with doctrine and then proceeds to exhortation. That pattern also marks much biblical preaching—explanation then application. It is a time-tested form, and it makes sense.
The pattern is at least as old as post-exilic Israel when Ezra read the Law aloud "from daybreak till noon" while "all the people listened attentively" (Nehemiah 8). In response, the people "lifted their hands and responded with 'Amen! Amen!' Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground." The Levites "instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there...making it clear and giving the meaning." This prompted sorrow as the people realized how far their nation had strayed, but soon Nehemiah and Ezra called for an end to their mourning: "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to the Lord." Revelation of God's glory and his requirements produced response.
The preacher's role as revealer of God's glory and will is captured in a quotation from Cotton Mather, the New England divine: "The great design and intention of the office of a Christian preacher [is] to restore the throne and dominion of God in the souls of men" (quoted in John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, p. 22).
Two implications arise from my argument that preaching exists in a symbiotic relationship with worship. First, preaching must be thoroughly God-centered (theocentric) not man-centered (anthropocentric). If a visitor to your church could mistake your sermon for a self-help talk, moral diatribe, or spiritual lecture, you are not preaching biblically. Barth's advice to prepare sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other is helpful as long as we hold the Holy Book in our strong right hand. The Bible must interpret the newspaper. Another way to say this is that the quest for relevance may begin with felt needs, but those needs must be linked to ultimate needs—darkness and rebellion—and solutions must include repentance and faith toward God prompted by a portrayal of his fearsome beauty. Preachers are worship leaders. Our job is to magnify God, explain his decrees, and urge response. This is the essence of worship.
One trend in homiletics, popular among our Reformed brothers and sisters, has understood this implication. That trend is called Christ-centered preaching. You may disagree with some details of that program (I myself have questions about its hermeneutics), but surely all of us applaud its basic stance: Preaching is about Jesus! This stance does not negate our need to analyze the audience, but it will mitigate extreme forms of audience adaptation. The tail must not wag the dog.
The second implication of preaching as indispensable to worship is that preachers should work in concert with the entire worship service. This takes planning. We should coordinate singing, special music, prayer, testimony, communion, and other elements according to the general pattern of revelation and response as well the specific revelation for that service. Churches in the liturgical tradition have done this for centuries. Perhaps the worship services of those churches would benefit from more flexibility so that they could, for example, follow the sermon with a testimony as a direct response. Churches in the "free" tradition might benefit from more structure. For example, they may want to adopt the tradition of ending each service with a charge to urge response to what has been revealed.
However we work out the details, my hope is that preaching will be seen as indispensable to worship since it both reveals God and urges response.