In every city in the United States there are at least a couple of Christian radio stations which broadcast preaching around the clock, seven days a week. Many areas have a Christian television station or two which broadcast worship services several hours a day. Almost any bookstore will have a religious section stocked with scores of books written by popular preachers which are really nothing more than collections of transcribed sermons. While there are still many parts of the world where Christian preaching is quite scarce, in North America preaching may be found in all of its various forms without much effort at all. One must no longer wait until the church doors open to be exposed to preaching.
Such observations may lead us to inquire about the health of today’s pulpit and how are we doing under all this preaching. We may ask if our culture is a great example of what such a preaching-saturated society should look like. Indeed those are important, and almost rhetorical questions, but before we can rightly critique the pulpit in our day and judge whether it is doing its job, we must first ask what it is there for. What is the chief end of preaching on the Lord’s day and how does that relate to the particular emphases that are vital to the spiritual health of this generation and culture?
Whether the response has been completely thought-through or is simply a default to tradition or preference, every Christian church has an answer to this question. A great majority of churches in North America see preaching solely as evangelism . Week after week the sermon serves only as a plea to the non-Christian to repent and turn to Christ for salvation. The faithful Christian in such churches never hears anything more from the preacher than the basic building blocks of repentance and faith. The success or failure of such sermons is determined by the number of people who “walk the aisle” each morning and those Christians in attendance who have already repented and believed are left stunted, immature, and untaught, year upon year.
Other churches use preaching as the weekly Christian pep rally. Congregants are encouraged to reach farther, press harder, climb higher and do better. The pastor is a motivational speaker who shouts aphorisms and sports clichés, pumping his fist in the air, inflaming the crowd with emotional fervor.
Some preachers use their allotted time to dole out bits of popular wisdom to the church. Their sermons sound as if self-help books were used as the chief source material. The preacher seeks to bring about emotional healing, higher self-esteem and better mental health. Sometimes scriptures are used as proof texts for the various lessons, but the sermons are mainly driven by secular psychology.
Larger congregations hear many sermons that are really nothing more than commercials or recruitment drives for certain church ministries. Such preaching grabs a few Bible passages about giving and sharing and then sets off to entice people to sign up for mercy ministries. Perhaps a couple of verses from Acts or the Epistles are enlisted to get folks to go on a missions trip, or scriptures which speak about discipleship are used to encourage members to join small group Bible studies. The goal of the sermon is to promote one ministry or another and to ask the members of the congregation to pitch in and ensure the success of whatever initiative happens to the hot item of the day.
Still other churches see the sermon as the highest and best opportunity to equip and train the people of God. The pastor views the congregation as the great big seminary class he always wanted to teach. The people are busily scratching notes in their notebooks and margins of their Bibles as the pastor works his way through sub-point three, letter “L”, Roman number IV of his outline. Preaching becomes an educational experience with the goal of filling heads with bits of theological knowledge.
Then there are those churches who do not see the benefit of preaching at all. These consider it to be an antiquated means of communication with little or no relevance in our day. Dramatic plays, open discussions, panels of experts and celebrity interviews are preferred over one man standing and speaking.
I readily admit that these examples are mostly caricatures and there is quite a bit of preaching that falls into none of these categories, and some that is simply too lame and boring to have a discernable purpose. To be fair, most of these models simply over-emphasize things that all good preaching should accomplish, though they make the whole of preaching an exaggeration of one of its parts. With the revivalists we can agree that preaching must certainly be evangelistic in the sense that the gospel can be seen in every section of scripture. With others we can say that it is good to preach sermons which exhort and encourage and we can concur there are times when it is necessary to call the congregation to actually follow through and do one thing or another. With the academics we may affirm that it is imperative that preachers convey the truths of scripture in an intelligent manner and that there is no excuse for ignorance or sloppiness. We recognize with the innovators that we need not bore the daylights out of a congregation. All of these things are true, but not one of them by itself comprises the whole purpose of preaching.
We can work to reform none of the problems with preaching in the Christian Church until we first consider the particular problems we have with preaching in our own tradition, and ponder the solution to those. The tendency in Reformed circles has been to lean more toward the academic model of preaching. While there are a few who have been infected in a number of ways by revivalist and Baptist influences, a typical traditional Reformed sermon can usually be described as a lengthy pedagogical theology lecture. The feeling seems to be that the longer sermons a congregation can endure the more serious that congregation is about God and His word. Certainly as the exegesis becomes more tedious and the prose more turgid, the hearers must certainly be learning more. After all, learning is the main intent of the preaching in this model. Songs and prayers are for the heart, but preaching is for the head. The praying and singing in the worship is merely the build-up to the sermon which is the climax of the service. Thus, in one sense the sermon is relied upon to do all of the things that must be accomplished when God’s people gather, and the preacher attempts to accomplish those ends by simply talking about them for a long time.
Such preaching is as unbalanced as any of the other models mentioned, but it is by no means a twenty-first century innovation. The Reformed orientation toward preaching has not changed substantially since the sixteenth century. The Reformation produced distinct attitudes toward preaching and thoughts about the purposes of preaching and we have maintained the whole kit, both good and bad elements preserved, handed down to us in the generations since.
Many of those practices which have been established as the most important distinctives of Reformed worship were initially instituted as responses to areas in which other branches of the Christian Church were in error. Reformed preaching as it is today is a product of the manner in which the Reformers and the Puritans responded to the Medieval Church and to the Church of England as they sought to greater emphasize the primacy of the Word of God in Christian worship. As such, it is necessary to study what Reformed preaching is not, by studying the ideas that it intended to reform, before attempting to study what it is.
The medieval Church against which the Reformers raised their voices and their pens was dominated by a theologically illiterate, hermeneutically untrained clergy. Sermons, on those rare occasions when they were included in the mass, were moralistic, filled with apocryphal illustrative stories and anecdotes , and had rather little to do with exposition of the Scriptures. Because the weekly Mass was performed in Latin, which was practically a foreign language to the majority of the European people, and because there was not yet an efficient means of reproducing the text of the Bible, the world had been cut off from the written Word of God for several centuries. As a result, superstition took the place of faith for the laity and it followed that the people were gradually separated from the Lord’s table; first from communing with their children, then from the cup and finally from the bread and participatory worship altogether. Medieval worshippers were, in general, uncomprehending observers to the worship of the clergy with no access to Word or Sacrament .
This is the Church in which John Calvin, the key influencer of the reformed tradition, was raised. Knowing first-hand the distance of the people from the Scriptures, the most urgent reform for Calvin was not only to bring the people back into participation in worship but to make it possible for them to hear the Word of the Lord in their own language. He worked to translate and adapt the worship of the Christian Church as it existed to both meet the need of the day and to reinstate patristic practice as much as was possible. Calvin did not see his work as innovation, but as restoration .
It has been said that the reformation was a preaching of reform, but it was also a reform of preaching . Calvin was strongly convicted that the preaching of the Lord’s Day should pass on Christ’s teaching. Calvin preached continuously through the books of the Bible, preaching the New Testament on the Lord’s Day and the Old Testament on weekdays . He used no notes, but so immersed himself in his text that he walked directly from his study to his pulpit and there built the sermon right in front of his congregation, concentrating on both the people before him and the text at hand . Such was the appetite for the Word of God that people regularly attended two or three sermons each Lord’s day and up to fifteen other sermons throughout the rest of the week . Some accounts describe the great length and frequency of those sermons, and the people’s attentiveness to them, and some scholars then proceed to use this to bludgeon the modern man over his short attention span. Perhaps it is more appropriate to view these facts as an illustration of how starved the people were for the Scriptures. People who had never heard the Word in all of their lives suddenly were refreshed by the ability to walk into the church and hear the Bible read and preached in their own native tongue.
Calvin did not minimize the importance of other necessary elements of worship, such as communion or confessions of faith, or elevate preaching to become the all-in-all of the Lord’s Day gathering, as some second and third generation Reformers eventually did, but in all of this Calvin did place an immense emphasis on the preaching of the Word. It is an emphasis that has been passed on to every Church and preacher who claims the heritage of the Reformation, and is a focus that was picked up and carried by the English Puritans who followed Calvin.
In order to understand the Puritan contribution to the Reformed tradition, it is important to understand the nature of the Church of England against which they struggled. Queen Elizabeth, who as queen of England was also head of the Anglican Church in those days, had a marked distaste for preaching, believing it necessary to do so only about four times a year . Though her desire for such a truncated pulpit ministry was never fully realized, it was a fitting expression of the spirit of the age, and that comes as no surprise given the low quality and ineptitude of the clergy. Because it was common for pastoral offices to be bought and sold and traded for favors, the teaching and preaching ministry of churches in England was left largely to vicars who could scarcely recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed, let alone teach their congregations the rudiments of the faith . What little skilled pulpit oratory could be found was seriously influenced by the flowery, prissy Baroque style – big on style, short on substance.
Against the Church of England came the Puritans with their profound preaching, precise theology and utter abhorrence for anything remotely related to papalism. The English Puritans were appalled at a State Church which had all of the outward appearances of religion, but which did not produce the piety or general morality they expected. Thus their primary focus became one of reforming the inner life of the Christian. The English church had failed to produce the sort of preaching or scholasticism that would achieve such a reform, so the work of the Puritan was to do the theological legwork necessary to understand the relationships between the spiritual life and the material life, law and grace, human will and divine decree, and then to preach sermons which would accordingly call people to repentance and faith based on their conclusions.
With this focus, the intended audience of the Puritan sermon was no longer the faithful people of God but the non-Christian and the nominal Christian. The sole aim of Puritan preaching became the conversion of its hearers. All other elements of the liturgy were stripped away, first because they too closely resembled the practices of both the Roman and State Church and secondly to accommodate the more detailed, analytical, lengthier sermon. Preaching then became entirely divorced from the liturgy and stood on its own as the only necessary element of Christian worship. Though the Reformers had once restored the congregation to full participation in worship, the Puritan preachers reversed the trend, stripping away and minimizing almost all other rudiments of Christian worship. Worship became something that happened between the ears and under the hat and required no other action on the part of the congregant than to sit and let the lecture wash over him .
Today, the great majority of Reformed preaching is not too far from the basic Puritan model. The entire Lord’s Day gathering in many Reformed churches is driven by and centered around the sermon, which is ordinarily marked by its academic language, arcane theology and tedious delivery . This present reality is a world away from Calvin’s original intent when he endeavored to place the preaching of the Word back in its proper place in worship.
Calvin wrote, “No assembly of the Church should be held without the word being preached, prayers being offered, the Lord’s supper administered and alms given” , indicating that the weekly meeting should be a balanced celebration of Word and Sacrament. Calvin did not intend to obliterate the mass, but simply to rid it of those things which were distractions and not helpful to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament. Throughout his time in Strasbourg and Geneva, he appealed to the patristic pattern of worship and sought to present Communion every single Lord’s day . Such was the importance of proper liturgy to Calvin. He desired to have truly “Word-centered” worship by not simply preaching the Word, but obeying the Word in renewing covenant and eating with the Lord every week.
Some Reformed churches have returned to a balanced understanding of the Lord’s service, and acknowledge the great importance of following the liturgical pattern of cleansing-consecration-communion each Lord’s day. With this, I trust, a re-thinking of the role of the sermon in covenant renewal worship will soon follow. Because the sermon is no longer the only weighty thing to be accomplished during the worship of the congregation, and that it is no longer the climax of the service, (that role having been taken by the sacrament of communion), the preacher must re-visit what a sermon exists to accomplish and to work to make sure that it fits into the greater context of what is taking place when God’s people gather together before Him.
Many others have worked to describe and define each section of the covenant renewal liturgy and have demonstrated how it is patterned both by the covenantal structure of the entire Bible and the liturgy of the temple sacrifice. As such, covenant renewal worship is the only order-of-worship the Scriptures provide us. But for the purpose of this topic we need only to consider where the sermon comes within that well-planned liturgy. Preaching comes after the Church has repented and has been forgiven of her sins and before she eats at the Lord’s table. Thus, preaching arrives at the center point in the order of events. The children of God, having been forgiven, are now ready to enter and eat with their Lord, but before they are fed, He speaks to them. It is here in this moment that they have a perfect standing before God, having called upon the sacrifice of Christ to cleanse them and having determined to turn from their sins. They are holy, they are righteous and they are gathered around to hear the voice of their Father.
Imagine being called in for supper as a child and as you sit down at the table your father mentions that before you can eat, he has a few charts to show you, and pulls out an overhead projector, peering at you as he lectures for an hour, making sure you are taking copious notes. Or imagine if he were to begin a long tirade on the legitimacy of your ancestry right there as the food sat on the table, bringing up all sorts of doubts as to whether you were really his own child. How much more odd would it be if he were to declare from the beginning of the conversation that you were not his at all, and begin to beg you to join the family, listing with great detail all of his grievances against you. Though this all may sound quite absurd, this is exactly what the preacher is saying that God does when he preaches an excessively academic or evangelistic sermon in the time when the congregation of the Lord is gathered around the table.
When a God-ordained pastor stands before a Christian congregation and opens the Word of God, his voice is as authoritative the very voice of God. The Second Helvetic Confession reads:
The Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.
As the pastor preaches and the people attend, both must realize what is taking place. The Father is speaking, and His message is in the context of renewing and maintaining His relationship with His people, which in turn causes them to worship Him and seek to glorify Him alone above all other things. When the Father calls us to the table, He is not waiting there with a dozen theological vocabulary words we need to learn, nor is He preparing to bring charges against us. He is there for us to enjoy Him and His fellowship and to take great joy in His wisdom, love, beauty, transcendence, holiness, effulgence, mercy, sovereignty, goodness and providence. He is the perfect loving Father at the table with His children, and His children adore Him and are delighted by His presence there with them.
It may be that the congregation on a given Lord’s day requires some instruction, or exhortation, or an exposition of the gospel, but nothing should eclipse the central purpose of preaching in such a way that the congregation is brought by the exposition of the Scriptures to worship their Father and enjoy His fellowship. All other purposes can be worked out and attained as secondary means to get to the one vital end of displaying and worshipping the Lord of Hosts.
Luther taught that where the word of Christ is preached, there is the saving presence of Christ . Preaching, in a sense, is a means of grace to the congregation. Preaching saves us in that it is the very Word of the Lord which turns our heart to honor and adore our Lord. Great preaching causes us to worship Jesus as Lord.
It might be appropriate then to term preaching which uses the Scriptures to incite the hearers to worship God exegetical doxology. It is preaching which incorporates both the head and the heart, speaking to the whole man as God created Him. It is recognizing that worship does not end at the prayer for illumination only to start back up after the offering, but that worship is taking place all throughout the service. It is a realization that preaching is an act of worship both on the part of the speaker and the hearer.
Preaching must be exegetical in order to do any justice to the Biblical text. A Biblical sermon is one that is Bible-soaked. The style in which the Scriptures are formulated demands that they be unpacked; they only come in an highly-concentrated form . They Scriptures must be read aloud and their meaning made clear and their truths easily accessible to the hearers . There are other more appropriate occasions for lengthy theological lectures to be given, but our Father knows the frame of His children. Preaching on the Lord’s day must model the act of a good father explaining the mysteries of the cosmos to his small son in a way that the child can understand . The best exegesis makes texts simpler, not more difficult, to understand.
Preaching must be doxological lest it become untethered from the rest of the liturgy and exist on its own as some self-sufficient entity divorced from the worship of the Lord Jesus Christ. When the Church gathers to worship it joins itself to the praise of the angels and to the Church militant and to the Church triumphant and to the Church throughout all ages, all joining with one voice in adoration for her King . By preaching, hearing, believing and following the Word of God, we worship him in the most profound sense possible . It is through preaching that the glory of God is revealed. When God’s Word is heard, God is glorified. Preaching displays the treasures of God – His perfect knowledge, His sacrificial love, His unfailing goodness – that we might rejoice in them.
The highest and best goal for the preacher on the Lord’s day is to stir up worship in the hearts of the people through the exposition of the Scriptures. Such preaching is consistent with the context of covenant renewal liturgy. The worship service is not the appropriate occasion for a two-hour theology lecture . It is appropriate to spend a reasonable amount of time expositing a modest portion of Scripture, to give clear understanding to the hearers and exhort them to worship the God revealed therein.
Where exegetical-doxological preaching is practiced, a number of beneficial side-effects can be seen. First, the balance between Word and Sacrament is restored. The Reformers had no intention of replacing the Eucharistic service with a preaching service . They did elevate the role of the sermon, but they still acknowledged that the audible Word of God in the Bible should be met with the corresponding “visible words” of God in the sacraments . Today, the sermon has overrun every other element of Christian worship and needs to be put back in its proper place to show that Christianity is not a religion of the head only, but is a religion concerned with material reality in obedience to the Word of our Lord by eating bread and drinking wine, among other things, as He commanded.
Secondly, a less cerebral and more doxological sermon makes the entire liturgy more accessible to every member of society. Presbyterians have been mocked for their failure in reaching the lower classes and the less educated members of communities. By removing the academic element of worship we open the door wider for anyone to come and taste and see that the Lord is good, no matter what their educational background. By removing the sermon from its place of absolute power in the liturgy and giving it a shorter time period and a reduced role, we are deferring to the needs of our weaker or more elderly brothers and sisters with various infirmities and handicaps who can neither hear, nor understand, nor endure such an exercise. So too families with young children can enjoy worshipping God as a family without running their little ones to the end of their rope. Worship is for all the people of God, but dull academic lectures are as prohibitive as the medieval rood screen  in keeping people from truly benefiting from being in the presence of their Father.
Lastly, exegetical doxology reduces the need for a strong personality in the pulpit. Many congregations have men as their pastors who are wonderful shepherds, but who are not particularly gifted orators. If the duty of the preacher was simply to read the text and draw a few brief exhortations from it, the congregation would be better served than if they expected their pastor to keep them interested in a ninety-minute Bible study. It is far less tempting to form a personality cult around a man who speaks mostly Scripture and who does not feel the burden of carrying the entire worship service on his back, relying instead upon the work of the liturgy to bear the worshipper through the act of renewing covenant and fellowshipping with his Father.
We are not faced today with the cultural and ecclesiastical issues that Calvin was faced with. People have more ready access to the Word of God than ever in human history and most Christians have been immersed in it all their lives. While Calvin’s greatest concern was the people’s gross lack of basic Bible knowledge, we have different concerns in our age. For several generations the Church has drained the sacraments of all meaning and has relegated the role of the Church almost to the periphery. The only way to effect restoration and reformation in those areas is to work at it first among the faithful by emphasizing a correct view of those things in the weekly Lord’s day meeting. The overextended role of preaching must decrease, so that the Sacraments may increase.
Preaching must be assimilated into the larger purpose of worship on the Lord’s day. No matter how pious we may sound when we say how much we would prefer three hour sermons, we simply do not have that luxury when it comes to the weekly covenant renewal gathering, however riveting such a sermon may be. The liturgy must become balanced. Preaching must be exegetical doxology. It must get us to the table, and get us there quickly before we fall asleep and the food gets cold.
1. Some of the categories and descriptions of preaching styles I use here are also used by Jeff Meyers in The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship as descriptions of different worship styles. Because those worship styles almost completely center around the preaching, and are driven entirely by the preaching and the preacher, the categories will be the same when we attempt to describe both the worship and the preaching.
2. “The preacher runs through the gospel superficially and then follows it up with a fable about Attila the Hun or a story about Dietrich of Bern, or he mixes in something from Plato, Aristotle, or Socrates.” – Luther on the preaching of his day, quoted in Hughes Oliphant Old’s The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church Volume IV, p. 10.
3. James Hastings Nichols, Corporate Worship in the Reformed Tradition p. 15.
4. Nichols, p. 17.
5. Old, p. 1.
6. Timothy George, The Theology of the Reformers p. 188.
7. Old, p. 129.
8. Nichols, p. 29.
9. Nichols, p. 91.
10. Old, p. 145.
11. Old, p. 251-268, 281, 308, 326-328.
12. Though preachers may no longer be able to get away with a two hour sermon, some seem to do everything in their power to make it feel like two hours.
13. Institutes of the Christian Religion IV. xviii. 44.
14. Nichols, p. 44.
15. Old, p. 40.
16. Old, p. 30.
17. It is quite interesting that while our fathers of the Reformation fought to rid the Mass of archaic, foreign language, many modern Reformed preachers base the quality of their preaching on how much Latin and Greek they are able to include.
18. By no means do I mean to suggest that preaching should be stupid or reduced to pabulum. We could learn from Jesus in the way that He expressed the greatest wonders in such a way that He was never condescending or nor was His speech bloated with tedious prose.
19. Nichols, p. 48.
20. Old, p. 43.
21. This is not a diatribe against theology lectures. They have their place, and they are necessary. This is about the lack of propriety of theology lectures in Lord’s day worship.
22. Old, p. 77.
23. George, p. 320.
24. The bar in the church sanctuary which barred the laity from the clergy, sometimes purposely obscuring their view from what was happening at the altar.