Why Liturgy Makes Better Preaching

In the last decade or so, certain corners of the evangelical world have taken a “liturgical turn”. James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (2009) probably catalysed this, but there’s plenty else I don’t have the space to mention.

What do I mean by “liturgical turn”? I mean that lots of evangelicals have begun reassessing the value of a formal, established liturgy in their worship services, including things such as pre-written prayers, responsive readings, an intentionally identical weekly service structure, and weekly communion. Often, this has involved retrieving the historic liturgies of church history, bringing out old treasures as well as new.

This is odd because evangelical worship is typically associated with two things seemingly at odds with liturgy: spontaneity and preaching.

Spontaneity typically marks evangelical worship as it’s felt to be a mark of sincerity – a high priority for evangelicals given our emphasis on personal conversion and active faith. Whether it’s the wild shouts of praise in a charismatic megachurch, or the stirring unscripted prayer of an older saint petitioning for the needs of the congregation, spontaneity will be found and highly valued in any evangelical worship service. Liturgy, by contrast, seems suspiciously like the “vain repetitions” (Mt. 6:7) for which Jesus rebukes the Pharisees.

Preaching marks evangelical worship as it is felt to be the decisive way in which God speaks to his people. The model of ministry we see in Acts, and Paul’s final exhortation to Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2), seem to make this obvious to evangelicals. Liturgy, by contrast (and no matter how much Scripture is in it), seems to fall short of what we seem to be called on to do with the Bible. When Ezra and the priests opened the Scriptures, they didn’t lead people through a liturgy but “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8). Liturgy (which often just consists of lines from Scripture) seems to leave Scripture dangerously un-understood.

However, in the past decade or so, more and more evangelicals have realised that liturgy doesn’t need to be at odds with spontaneity and preaching, and that this is actually what the first century’s worth of Reformers taught. For example, when pressured to make greater use of the Lord’s Prayer in worship, John Calvin warned against making it “an incantation and a magic charm” (and all the evangelicals said “amen!”) but still said it should be said twice at each Sunday service and during every catechism class (and the evangelicals said “that’s a bit much”).

The scale of this liturgical turn can be exaggerated though. I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of conservative evangelicals are worshipping much the same as they were ten years ago, and are either unaware or unconvinced about any kind of liturgical retrieval. For most, preaching will do just fine. After all, it’s what evangelicals do best.

Cards on the table: I view the liturgical turn as basically A Good Thing. It’s not perfect, and the power of liturgy can be hugely overstated (you only need to keep up with James K.A. Smith’s Twitter account to see that he’s clearly prone to more than a few cheeky tokes on our society’s more acceptable cultural liturgies). 

At the very least, you need good liturgy (a distinction I left out of the attention-grabbing title of this article). But I’m convinced that liturgical worship is sensible, historical, and (hot take) biblical. And, in fact, I think evangelicalism can use its own internal logic to see why liturgy is worthwhile: because liturgy makes preaching better.

How so?

Any preacher will tell you that, as he prepares his sermon throughout the week, he is wrestling with many competing priorities. Primarily, he wants to faithfully exegete the text – in itself no mean feat. Then, he wants to feast on the Word himself before he feeds others. After that, he begins to think about what he will actually communicate to the people in front of him… and that’s when it gets really tricky. So much comes to mind: pastoral situations, intra-church conflict, varying levels of spiritual maturity and biblical literacy, hot social topics, the week’s news, doctrinal implications… the list goes on. And, perhaps the biggest tension of all for the evangelical, is balancing this week’s specific text with the need to remain “gospel-centred”. 

If the passage in front of you is Genesis 38 (which raises questions which baffle even those colleagues of mine who are experts in biblical studies), how can you hope to provide necessary context, head off difficult social questions (levirate marriage and feminism, anyone?), fit it into the Genesis narrative and redemption history, apply it practically, and also proclaim The Gospel? Something’s gotta give, right?

Well, liturgy can be a huge help to the preacher here.

We evangelicals obsess over being “gospel-centred” (a term we seem to have minted some time in the last couple of decades, which my colleague Alastair Roberts once described as functioning “in the same way as terms in the science section of shampoo commercials. It isn’t entirely clear what they mean, if they mean anything at all, but they create a desired psychological response in the hearer.” If there’s ever been a better takedown, I don’t think I’ve heard it.)

That said… let’s own the phrase. A good liturgy helps us remain gospel-centred by keeping us gospel-shaped. A good liturgy takes a congregation regularly through the key points of the Gospel, that thing which pastors most desperately want their people to hear every Sunday. 

Let’s take Calvin’s 1542 liturgy as an example. It begins with a call to worship. I’ve always found this far more fitting than beginning with a confession of sin (like Morning Prayer in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer), because it begins the service with God in himself, who was worthy of worship before creation, the Fall, and the promise of the Gospel. What’s more, we are called to worship primarily as God’s children, not as currently lost sinners.

Yet, faced with a holy God worthy of worship, our sin becomes obvious, and so Calvin next scheduled a confession, usually incorporating the Ten Commandments to expose our sins specifically to us. This, however, was accompanied with an absolution, reassuring God’s people that, though they have sinned, they have the assurance of forgiveness.

The service then moves on in a steady rhythm of God’s speech to his people in Scripture and preaching, and the people’s speech back to God in prayer and psalm-singing. The conclusion was a blessing which sent the people out into the world in peace, to love and serve the Lord. 

This is the structure of the Gospel.

Calvin wanted to include weekly communion as part of this liturgy. Along with preaching, what else better preaches the Gospel than something which, whenever it’s done, proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:26)? But Calvin could never quite manage it, because the people of Geneva were still too overawed at the idea of taking the bread and wine so frequently after years of being denied them by Roman Catholic priests. We’ve not got room to consider weekly communion, but it should make us sit up and take notice if we take communion less than weekly by choice, when Calvin was forced to do so out of necessity.

Calvin’s liturgy is just one example. There are many gospel-shaped Reformation era liturgies available to us, which were the product of a great deal of thought and prayer (and, of course, argument).

But if you are in the pulpit each week, wrestling with those competing priorities in preaching, consider what a help it is to your sermon when you know that the key truths of the Gospel will be proclaimed that morning whatever you say from the pulpit.

At a basic level, good liturgy is an insurance policy against bad preaching. If you totally misread the text, or sinfully phone it in, or preach a sermon which accidentally ends up in legalism, your people will still have heard the sweet, free words of the Gospel if you’ve baked them into the liturgy beforehand.

But beyond that, a good liturgy can alleviate the “gospel-centred” burden from our preaching. Now, that’s not to say that you remove Gospel proclamation from your preaching and focus instead on difficult textual details. The Reformers would be the first to say that preaching must be preaching of the Gospel. But, in practice, being “gospel-centred” often means cramming in a short, basic Gospel summary (usually incorporating justification by faith alone) somewhere into our sermons, hoping to both convert unbelievers and remind believers to Keep The Main Thing The Main Thing. Yet this often means we violate our key evangelical commitment to expository preaching, because we are tacking something onto the text which it simply doesn’t talk about. Being “gospel-centred” often equates to being exegetically lax.

But if our liturgy always delivers The Main Thing – in its overall shape, in the confession and absolution, in a weekly Lord’s Supper – then the burden to cram a Gospel summary into our sermon on Genesis 38 is removed. You know that someone who’s just walked in the door and never heard the name of Jesus before will hear the basic Christian message during the service, whatever you say from the pulpit. And so you’re free to better engage that week’s passage on its own terms, and to uniquely proclaim the Gospel that week in those terms, which is precisely what expository preaching is all about.

“Preach the Word”, Paul exhorts in 2 Timothy 4:2 – and so we should, in season and out. Yet that preaching is accompanied by a “pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13). Liturgy is quite simply that: sound words, preserving the simple, unchanging pattern of the Gospel, whilst our preaching responds variously to the need to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).

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