Every church follows a form of liturgy, whether intentional or not. Unfortunately, some churches tend toward two extremes in this matter. Some traditions take liturgy very seriously, but treat it as if it exists independently from preaching. Others uphold the priority of preaching as if necessary liturgical choices are only marginally important. Instead, we must learn to treat both preaching and liturgy as essential to corporate worship; that they exist in a relationship of mutual dependence.
Assuming the priority of preaching in symbiotic relationship, biblical exposition shapes liturgy in several important ways.
Preaching gives content to liturgical rites.
Conscious attempt to frame proclamation and response in terms compatible with Scripture in general and the sermon text in particular helps keep liturgy biblical. While this is essential for each of the elements of worship (prayer in its various foci, reading, singing), it is most necessary for the category, “seeing the word.” The ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper reenact biblical truth, however preaching guides the worshiper’s understanding of the symbolism. Unleashed from biblical preaching, the worshiper’s imagination, religious heritage, etc., will establish the significance of the rites—often erroneously.
Preaching harmonizes the elements of the liturgy.
When liturgy takes its cue from the preaching plan, all of the elements will work in consistent harmony.1 Harmony creates a unified message.2 Scriptures used (call to worship, readings, benediction) will support the sermon text. Prayers will express the worshipers’ failures, forgiveness, and joys in relation to the issues raised in the sermon. Hymn lyrics will set the larger scriptural context for the sermon or will follow the logical development of the sermon.
Preaching preserves the liturgy from undue extremes regarding form.
The unity of message described above should never be sacrificed to either rigid forms or the assumption that spontaneity is the only reliable path to true spiritual worship. Inflexible forms either impose multiple messages on a single service or force the preaching into a mold to create predetermined harmony. On the other extreme, those who equate spontaneity with spirituality settle into their own patterns of worship—forms that exhibit disorder and thoughtlessness concluding in tired and meaningless repetition.
Preaching grounds affective elements of liturgy in objective truth.
Ralph Martin called for worship that “delivers us from the tyranny of subjectivism.”3 Liturgy proves to be a seedbed of subjectivism when separated from preaching. It is not uncommon to find shallow, reductionist, and sometimes heretical songs sung enthusiastically in assemblies where a dichotomy between preaching and worship exists. The songs seem to be chosen and performed primarily for their emotional appeal. But biblical exposition enlists the elements of liturgy into a harmonious “chorus of voices” to proclaim God’s truth.
Next: How Liturgy Shapes Preaching
- I recall occasions when church members expressed amazement that, on a given Sunday, themes of some hymns matched the theme of the sermon, leading to the conclusion that the worshiper had seen God working in a mystical way. Their response revealed a settled assumption that the liturgy was about something other than the preaching and one should not expect harmony as the norm. [↩]
- The Bible does not give us a clear description of the content of the liturgical elements in a specific worship service. However it does provide examples of a commitment to logical principles of order pertaining to related topics. For example, Paul shared the content of his prayers on behalf of the Ephesian church in Ephesians 1:15-23 and 3:14-21. The theological themes set forth in the epistle are tightly woven into the petitions he offered. And in 6:18-20 he encourages the recipients of the letter to pray in response to the truths he had explained. This illustrates the value of harmony between the message and prayer. [↩]
- Ralph P. Martin, The Worship of God: Some Theological, Pastoral, and Practical Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 5. [↩]