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.