The Higher the Liturgy, the Lower the Preaching

Zac HicksPersonal Stories & Testimonies, Worship Theology & Thought6 Comments

It is fascinating that a book published in 1971 has so much relevance to very current trends in church worship right now.  D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971) was aimed at British churches (and, secondarily, US churches) who were discounting the importance of preaching in the life of the church.

Lloyd-Jones makes several observations which are nearly graph-able in their correspondence.  One such observation is noticing the correlation between the greater emphasis on formal liturgy and the decline in preaching.  This rings true with what I see and experience.  In the more “liturgical” worship settings, one tends to see shorter sermons (often called “homilies”), and they tend to be delivered in a lifeless manner.  This is a good check to the “return to ancient” movement guys like me are heralding in evangelicalism.  This is what Lloyd-Jones has to say:

As preaching has waned, there has been an increase in the formal element in the service.  It is interesting to observe how Free-Church men, non-Episcopalians, whatever you may call them, have been increasingly borrowing these ideas from the Episcopal type of service as preaching has waned.  They have argued that the people should have a greater part in the service and so they have introduced ‘responsive reading’, and more and more music and singing and chanting.  The manner of receiving the people’s offering has been elaborated, and the minister and the choir often enter the building as a procession.  It has been illuminating to observe these things; as preaching has declined, these other things have been emphasised; and it has all been done quite deliberately.  It is a part of this reaction against preaching; and people have felt that it is more dignified to pay this greater attention to ceremonial, and form, and ritual. (p. 16)

This is significant…and it should be a warning as we progress down the road of tradition, ritual, and greater formality with elements in our services.  The observations Lloyd-Jones has made and I am making are obviously generalizations.  In every denomination where some or all of their worship expression is marked by a more high-church liturgy, there is powerful, unabashed preaching going on.  There are lengthy sermons and a high view of the preaching of the Word in every one of these contexts.  However, Lloyd-Jones is right, and I can speak from personal experience. 

Over the last three years, I’ve attempted to guide our church toward elements of higher liturgy.  In doing so, I’ve noticed a tendency in my heart to resent the amount of time taken for preaching (and we have already clipped it down to 27 minutes!!!).  “It’s crowding out our ability to add much of anything else!”, I say.  Just a few weeks ago, at a worship leaders’ meeting during our denomination’s General Assembly, I noted several worship leaders and planners who were frustrated by the fact that they felt shackled in their creative expression in worship design simply because “the preaching took so long.”  I don’t fault them for this…I feel many of those same pressures.  I also understand the other side, however, because I ama preacher who feels called to preach.  I do still believe in the primacy of preaching. 

What is to be done?  I don’t think Lloyd-Jones is saying (and I certainly don’t believe) that there is an irreparable state of entropy with preaching when high liturgy is on the rise.  But I recognize with Lloyd-Jones that a tension exists here, and, left unchecked, it is very natural to downgrade preaching.  And if Lloyd-Jones is right about the primacy of preaching, such a move would come at the peril of the local church.

6 Comments on “The Higher the Liturgy, the Lower the Preaching”

  1. Zac,

    Interesting observations. As long as I have been a Christian, I have not had the pleasure to attend a biblical church that engages in a higher than average level of "liturgy" compared to most evangelical churches (think SBC, non-denom, A29 church plants, etc.).

    However, the church that I attend now ( has Sunday morning gatherings that normally go two hours. The sermon is typically 60-80 minutes (usually closer to 60); singing songs, maybe 5 minutes of announcements, and communion (weekly, during a song) take up the rest of the time.

    Maybe consider longer services in general? (That was my only thought that was spurred because of this post.)

  2. I, like you, believe in the primacy of preaching. If I were choosing a church, worship style would be at best fourth on the list of things that would be important to me behind preaching, preaching and preaching. And I think you (along with the good Doctor) are probably right that there can be a tendency to minimize preaching in highly liturgical churches by devoting less time to it.

    There is an even greater danger I see in both liturgical and non-liturgical churches, and that is to minimize the sermon not by devoting less time to it, but by changing its very nature. Instead of expounding on the word of God and proclaiming the good news of our salvation on the basis of Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension, many turn the sermon into a self-help talk instead. May we always keep the gospel at the center of our preaching, whether we preach for 15 minutes or for an hour!

  3. Balderdash! I disagree entirely. Our High liturgy is mostly the reading and responsive recitation of scripture. We hear the word (reading), we sing the word (worship songs), we meditate on the word (open prayer time), we feast on the word (Holy Eucharist). We have really good preaching (20-30 mins), but I worship far more selflessly when hearing God's word read, sung, and prayed through the service than any sermon.

    Maybe the problem is that the liturgy is not high enough (including enough scripture, prayer).

    The content is more important that the quantity when it comes to a good homily.

    Primacy of preaching, apart from a rich and reverent liturgy, fills the head, but often leaves the heart empty.

  4. My tradition emphasizes the sermon as central to worship, and I take that seriously; however, I am not so disillusioned to believe that people will hear God speak to them on a given Sunday morning exclusively through my preaching. It may be a hymn or a prayer or – best of all – Scripture itself (the biggest component of "high liturgy" as noted by St. Mark Of The Desert above) through which God speaks to a person during a worship service. Now, that doesn't give me permission to slack off in sermon prep and delivery; rather, it encourages and challenges me (together with others) to craft an ENTIRE service with as much excellence as I can with the help of the Holy Spirit.

    In fact, I wonder whether we make a bigger bifurcation between sermon and liturgy than necessary. I personally strive for each of the elements of a worship service (including the sermon) to connect with and support the others around one or two texts/themes. That way if someone has a hard time following my sermon about grace, for example, hopefully they still get the message through a responsive reading or by singing songs on the subject.

    I hope these thoughts that come to my mind are helpful. Thank you for the opportunity to share them.

  5. I have been blessed to have both "preached" from the pulpit and to have "led" the worship. Each is extremely fulfilling to me personally and spiritually. So it is from these experiences that I offer these tidbits…

    Worship is really just the act of adoring God. One of the problems in evangelicalism is that we are out of balance with the scripture as pertains to worship in general. We tend to emphasize "public worship" while the Bible emphasizes "personal worship." A heart that is in tune with God can worship in practically any setting, whether liturgical or not. May I be so taken with Him that even when I hear His name profaned, I am reminded of His majesty and then marvel at His Grace towards a depraved soul like mine. No music or readings necessary, just the whimsical chirping of the wrens outside my window every summer morning.

    High Liturgy can over-emphasize the process of worship and we can lose touch with the object of our worship.

    Low liturgy can over-emphasize the product of our worship (warm, fuzzy feelings) and we can lose touch with the structures (doctrine) of our worship.

    Balance is the key in our public services. Yes, there is a tension that exists between our preaching and our singing but it is often felt more strongly by the preachers and the singers than the parishioners.

    Let's face it. It is every christian's natural impulse to offer his gifts into the kingdom of God. And God is pleased when we do. Preachers want to preach and singers want to sing! Be careful when accusing someone of acting selfishly with their contribution to the services.

    The biggest problem here is that the Church is slow to learn how to connect with post-moderns. For years the way we have done church is this: 1) assemble a crowd 2) sit them down in front of us 3) tell them what we want them to hear. ** The Monologue** Folks today want a dialogue, they want a conversation, they want a connected relationship.

    I say that whether our services are highly-liturgical or highly casual, if they do not foster stronger relationships with our God and our fellow man they are just shallow oblations of religious pharisees.

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