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How Liturgy Shapes Preaching

This entry is part of 2 in the series

"The Symbiosis of Preaching and Liturgy"

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The Free Church tradition typically devotes more thought to the way preaching shapes liturgy than vice versa.  This is an unfortunate imbalance that overlooks the importance the New Testament places on liturgy for spiritual instruction (cf. Ephesians 5:18-20, Colossians 3:16).

Liturgy trains Christian affections to love biblical preaching.

The approach advocated here distinguishes between feelings and affections.  Some art forms function on a visceral level, driving straight for emotional response.  Other art forms affect feelings by way of cognitive reflection on truth and beauty.1  Only these latter art forms are consistent with Christian worship.  Liturgical elements rich in biblical content, particularly hymnody, train the worshiper how to feel about truth that is preached.  This may be called orthopathy.  The Bible weaves a tapestry of affective responses to truth:  joy, lament, thanksgiving, etc.; the church’s liturgy must include this broad range of responses.

Liturgy enhances biblical preaching by cultivating sacred imagination.

Imagination is essential to understanding and loving God’s truth.  Cognition, abstract thought, and imagination are reflections of the imago dei.  Imagination in this context does not mean fanciful thoughts, but rather the mind’s ability to create images.  Understanding depends on images we create to interpret, store, and correlate what we see and hear.  Images may be concrete or abstract.  Artistic images (regardless of the artistic medium) invite others into shared understanding via the use of metaphors.  If we turn to the Scriptures for examples of teaching via the imagination we find “an embarrassment of riches.”2  Reading the Psalms and wisdom literature, rich with metaphorical imagery, or singing artistically crafted lyrics set to appropriate melodies, hones the assembly’s ability to use sacred imagination to interact with truths expounded in the sermon.

Liturgy conserves the preached message by strengthening the worshiper’s memory.

Few people remember the details of a lecture for any significant length of time.  But many remember lessons longer when learned in an interactive context.  Mnemonic ability increases as teaching methods enliven multiple senses in the student.  In the same way, liturgy helps the worshiper store the mental “images” derived from the word of God by multiplying the number of senses employed in the worship event.  The assembly hears the word throughout the liturgy; sees and tastes the elements of the Lord’s Table; hears and feels the truth sung in community.  The total experience of worship burns proclaimed truth into the memory of the worshiper more effectively than preaching alone.

Liturgy connects preaching with the biblical metanarrative.

Liturgical choices often broaden the message emphasized in a worship service.  Sometimes this occurs by design, such as when Scripture readings and songs are chosen specifically to walk the worshiper through salvation history.  At other times this broadening effect is unintentional, due to the nature of the church’s hymnody.  In other words, a liturgist might choose a song because one verse clearly expresses a particular theme, however most hymns intentionally tell a story broader than that single idea, often recounting a significant portion of salvation history.  For example, a service might include Charles Wesley’s magnificent hymn, “And Can It Be,” because the final verse proclaims the believer’s security in Christ (“No condemnation now I dread”).  Yet in the complete lyrics of the song, the worshipers will sing of the imputation of Adam’s sin, Christ’s incarnation, kenosis and substitutionary death, as well as his current the session.  These kinds of connections, whether by design or accidental, deepen the assembly’s understanding of the biblical metanarrative.

Liturgy maintains a nexus with the church’s historical message.

Liturgical choices ought to conserve a heritage of gospel commitment by demonstrating to each new generation that it stands in allegiance with those who walked with Christ in preceding generations.  The assembly honors the contributions of the Reformers and their predecessors by refusing to make concession to contemporary conceit.  This does not imply that elements of a service are valuable only if old.  Particularly in hymnody, each generation should embrace both the lyrical legacy of the past and appropriate contemporaneous3 additions that contribute to the stream of godly tradition.  In this way, the church in every age forms a nexus between generations past and future.

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About Guest Author

This guest article has been published because an editor has determined its contents to be supportive of the values of Religious Affections Ministries. Its publication does not imply full agreement between its author and RAM on other matters.

  1. Gene Edward Veith, Jr.’s discussion of the relationship between cognition and aesthetics in art is helpful here, State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 221–34. []
  2. Kevin T. Bauder, “The Importance of Imagination, Part 9 – A Biblical Example,” In The Nick of Time, last modified May 7, 2010, []
  3. The author sees a distinction between contemporaneous and contemporary (as popularly used).  The former has to do with time—it is new.  The latter has to do with character and often expresses values that, in this writer’s opinion, are at odds with biblical worship. []