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Trust the Entire Worship Service to Change Lives

I am growing as a preacher because I am learning to trust that God transforms people through every aspect of the worship service, including the sermon.

Ironically, I am growing as a preacher as I de-emphasize my preaching ministry. As I write these words, I know I risk alienating Matt Woodley and the rest of the staff at PreachingToday.com who have devoted themselves to helping poor preachers like me communicate God's Word more effectively. So let me quickly say that I believe that week-by-week preaching is often the most important task assumed by every minister. Based on this truth, we should continually hone our skills and cultivate our craft so we can see God bear Gospel fruit through our handling of his Word. To that end, the pastoral staff at our multi-congregational church meets every Tuesday to discuss the upcoming sermon text and critique the sermon from the previous week. The goal for this weekly evaluation is to help us grow and prepare more effectively as preachers.

That being said, I am growing as a preacher because I am learning to trust that God transforms people through every aspect of the worship service, and of course that includes the sermon. This has long been known by the church, but often forgotten by those of us in the Protestant and Reformed traditions—especially on Saturday nights (or early Sunday mornings!) as we tweak every last word of our sermon text, sometimes thinking that our people's only hope for spiritual transformation on Sunday morning hangs on the words in our sermon.

In the fifth century, Prosper of Aquitaine, a disciple of St. Augustine, wrote that the law of praying must establish the law of believing: lex orandi, lex credenda. In other words, the way we worship shapes who we are and how we live—it is pre-cognitive and habitual—and the evidence seems overwhelming. Historically, the early Christians gathered for singing, prayer and the breaking of bread decades before the New Testament was written and centuries before the formulation and recitation of creeds. Philosophers and psychologists argue that most of what we do is determined by the affective and unconscious aspect of our being, which itself is shaped by habitual practices (see James K. A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom).

Experientially, we know that practices shape us more than ideas. For example, reading a book about exercise doesn't convince us of its benefits as much as regularly working out. And those who already exercise regularly don't need a book to convince them of its benefits. As another example, I've never explicitly taught my children to practice biblical hospitality, but because they have always participated in the act of hospitality with me and my wife, they are now more welcoming and generous than we are.

This has a direct effect on my preaching because I now trust the entire liturgy, including the sermon, to shape my congregation. Rather than trying to squeeze every drop of theology and application from a particular passage, I can trust that whatever is omitted from my sermon and left on the cutting floor can be found elsewhere in other facets of the worship service.

Here's what that looks like in our context. Every week, we re-enact the story of salvation as we are called into God's presence, then confess our sins because we do not deserve to be there. We hear God announce his peace to us and we pass it to one another. After receiving God's word in the readings and the sermon, we bring the needs of the church and the world to God in prayer. Finally, during our weekly Lord's Supper celebration we feed on holy food and are nourished before being sent out into the world. Given the all-encompassing nature of the liturgy, I know that even my worst sermon is only one element of worship and the very act of sitting under God's declarative word is a habit by which we practice submission to our gracious King.

So even as I am learning to de-emphasize my preaching by locating it within the narrative structure of the liturgy, I am not promoting less preparation or care in the handling of God's Word. Rather, I am simply advocating that we understand the sermon as one crucial course in a divine dinner party that, if prepared well, will nourish and delight God' s people as they feast together.

Matt Brown is the senior pastor of Resurrection Brooklyn and the lead pastor of the Park Slope congregation.

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