Right under our noses a serious divorce is occurring. Preaching is separating from worship.
Over 1600 people attended the 2006 Calvin Symposium on Worship in
I believe that a serious gap has opened up between preachers, on one side, and worship leaders on the other. By “worship leaders” I mean the person(s) designated to design and lead Sunday services. In larger churches these roles are paid and specialist, sometimes with significant budgets dedicated to excellence in Sunday worship, (which is often erroneously limited to the music program). Yet, even in small churches with part-time preachers and volunteer musicians, these two roles often play out with their own spheres of influence. And, sadly, sometimes it becomes preaching versus worship.
Why have preaching and worship grown apart?
First, because of professionalism. Frankly, some preachers just aren’t interested in worship, because they consider it to be a subject for other specialists. Why should they attend a worship symposium and enter alien territory? After all, argues a busy preacher, do you seriously expect me to be interested in training musicians, preparing orders of service and — even worse — identifying latest music trends? So let preachers get on with their job of selecting the Scripture text and (perhaps) identifying their next sermon themes, so that worship leaders can do their job of planning the rest of the worship service around the text.
Attitudes of preachers and worship leaders toward each other may therefore range from warm cooperation to competitiveness and even cold hostility. Sadly, for every one happy team there seems to be another dysfunctional one. Stereotypes abound. On one hand, preachers can demote worship leaders to a secondary role. Equating worship with merely choosing hymns and songs, worship leaders become simple preparers for the main event – the sermon. Sometimes it is presumed that organizing such preliminaries needs little more than a modicum of musical ability. While preachers by vocation have the all-important task, almost anyone can lead worship.
On the other hand, worship leaders have their own perspective. Most worship leaders would not be surprised by a recent survey that showed how a significant percentage of a worshiping community “perceived that other worship acts were just as helpful as the sermon, sometimes even more so.”1 Worship leaders know all too well how significantly communal acts of worship can impact worshippers. They can see it in the congregation’s body language. While some worship leaders believe their gifts and skills are underrated, they may also consider preachers as overrated and, in practice, less effective for creating and sustaining overall congregational life.
Behavior sometimes reinforces this division. I visited a well-staffed church where the Senior Pastor, (“100% dedicated to preaching,” he said,) had a television monitor in his office that allowed him to relax in an armchair in his comfortable office. There he stayed, viewing the service until moments before he had to preach the sermon, when he emerged dramatically at the front of the church. However, in another church I found the music leader publicly absented himself when it came to the sermon. Having completed his tasks of leading choir and orchestra for the first part of the service, he disappeared, perhaps to enjoy a cup of coffee!
I have heard complaints from pastors that music is too important in their church and from worship leaders who have resented the lack of interest in their work from preachers. One worship leader criticized the preacher because — in spite of repeated promises — he never passed on Scripture and sermon details until too late in the week. Another worship leader, with a significant choral ministry, said, “When I take a choir on a mission, singing in different parts of the world, I always feel that the senior minister thinks it’s a waste of time. I don’t think he believes we have a valid ministry.” And several times I have heard a worship leader say: “Let’s worship a little more before we hear the sermon” as though to widen the division between worship and preaching.
Unhappily, much worship literature perpetuates this divide between worship and preaching by making minimal reference to preaching as worship. For example, Gregory Dix’s classic The Shape of the Liturgy gives two out of 764 pages to the role of the sermon.2 Even when preaching is identified as a key component by worship leaders, it often receives minimal attention. In The Complete Worship Service – Creating a Taste of Heaven on Earth, Kevin Navarro extols the importance of preaching. “The more I think of my preaching as an act of worship and not merely as an act of exhortation, the more gospel I will have in my message.”3 Yet, though he claims that preaching is like the main course in a well-prepared meal, it receives only limited attention in his penultimate chapter.
From the other side, few recent homileticians seem to write about preaching’s role in worship. Thomas Troeger’s Preaching and Worship 4 concerns the interrelationship of culture, preaching and worship. Deploying a cultural analysis of the five senses he raises important questions for understanding both preaching and worship, but does not deal with the important relationship between preaching and worship.
So preachers seem to be divided from worship leaders, both seemingly leading different sorts of activities marching to a different beat (or, more likely, only the worship leaders have a beat!) Tragically, this professional divide goes deeply into the way that many churches understand and practice worship.
Secondly, different use of Scripture. Significantly, preachers and worship leaders are also likely to use Scripture differently. A preacher’s choice of the Scripture text or theme for the next worship service is often the main (sometimes the only) point of contact with worship leaders.
Biblical preachers find in the chosen text not only the content of the sermon’s message but also the shape of the sermon. Recent interest in narrative preaching, for example in Kent Edwards: Effective First-Person Biblical Preaching, has emphasized how the literary nature of a Scripture passage influences sermon design.5 Narrative passages encourage narrative-shaped sermons, parables suggest parabolic sermons, didactic passages lead to systematic teaching. Of course, the shape of any Scripture text is not prescriptive. Narrative passages, for example, can be legitimately preached in many ways, as can other kinds of texts. But the discipline of “creating sermons in the shape of Scripture” (the subtitle of Don Wardlaw’s book Preaching Biblically), has become a familiar responsibility to many preachers. Of course, this is preaching at its best because sometimes we recognize that sermons may have little or no relationship with a text, but float free at the preacher’s whim.
Yet if preachers allow the Scripture text to influence the shape of their sermons, how does the worship leader respond? At best, many worship leaders try to fit worship around elements of the chosen Scripture text. In more contemporary contexts, “praise worship” usually begins the worship service, (which often seems to comprise a limited number of re-cycled favorite hymns and songs). Perhaps the leader plans for the chosen Scripture passage to be carefully read, even with an accompanying Old or New Testament text. Music choices around the sermon are likely to be carefully chosen, especially immediately after the sermon. Further, some churches may use drama, video and testimony to support the preaching.
However, rarely does the Scripture text influence the whole structure of worship. Scripture is fitted into the worship structure rather than shaping the whole service event. It is a bit player rather than the mover and shaker of worship. Indeed, some worship services appear to be a collection of assorted elements lacking any overall purpose.
Provocatively, Sally Morgenthaler describes such contemporary worship as nonworship services that are counterfeits because “interaction with God is either nonexistent or so low it cannot be measured.”6 Part of this low interaction with God is caused by a failure to “worship in the shape of Scripture.”7 Both preacher and worship leader have profound responsibility to submit to God’s word in their respective preparation tasks.
Three, failure to practice adequate theology. Michael Pasquarello claims: “For most of Christian history the practice of preaching was believed to have taken place in, with, and through the initiative and presence of the Triune God.”8 He argues convincingly for a trinitarian theology of preaching, and criticizes much current preaching as pursuing pragmatic ends of teaching individuals and building up congregational numbers.9
Majoring on communication techniques, at the expense of encountering God’s holy glory and mystery, such preaching justifies itself with doing church business by securing bottom-line results of numbers and finances. He sums up:
There is a widespread view that preaching is no longer intrinsic to the worship of God since, for many, worship has been reduced to the matter of individual “religious” preference or taste – a marketed “style” that functions instrumentally to promote the growth of the church or individuals rather than to create and transform a people for the praise and glory of God.10
Too much contemporary preaching and worship misses out the Trinity. In a provocative analysis, James B. Torrance sharply contrasts what he terms unitarian and trinitarian practices of worship. Of course, orthodox preachers rigorously reject any association with the formal teaching of Unitarianism, that God is one person only, with unacceptable denial of the divinity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. However,
Much contemporary worship by its human orientation lacks awareness that it should be participating in God’s grace, flowing from the Father, through the Son by the Spirit, and returning by the Holy Spirit through the Son, to the Father. Human “unitarian” worship:
has no doctrine of the mediator or sole priesthood of Christ, is human-centered, has no proper doctrine of the Holy Spirit….we sit in the pew watching the minister “doing his thing” exhorting us “to do our thing” until we go home thinking we have done our duty for another week.”11
Inevitably, if there is no conviction that God enables worship to happen through participation in relationships between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, preachers are likely to opt out of trinitarian language and exhort hearers “to do their thing.” In some contemporary churches preaching does seem to offer moralizing sermons that concentrate on individual needs – giving good advice instead of Good News. “Evangelical preaching is so obsessed with the need to apply everything that we are shifting into just another moral religion”.12
Paralleling this, worship leaders can also be caught up in “doing their thing,” planning services that appeal to popular taste, deploying marketed “styles” with an eye on the competition. Such worship leading inevitably focuses more on benefits for believers, than on disclosure and worship of the Triune God. When Marva Dawn call worship “a royal ‘waste’ of time”13 because its glory-giving is utterly for God’s sake and not ours, pragmatists really do deem it to be a waste of time! So style often seems to triumph over substance and self-interested, self-styled, worship packages prevail over God-focused trinitarian worship.
The result of this separation between preaching and worship, preachers and worship leaders, has been devastating. When the sermon is divorced from worship, preaching becomes “tuneless.” Of course, biblical preaching is essential to God’s purposes. “Christian preaching, at its best, is a biblical speaking/listening/seeing/doing event that God empowers to lead and form Christ-shaped people and communities.”14
In no way do I want to downgrade its importance as God’s preferred method of saving and transforming people. But, rather I want to upgrade it to where it belongs within glorious harmonious praise as God’s people, on earth and in heaven, complemented by myriads of angelic worshipers beyond imagining, respond to God’s gift of grace. Preaching belongs within the rhythm of God’s grace that both reaches down to us with his word of life and also enables us to respond back to him. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all involved in 360-degree preaching. Preaching is not a separate activity from worship but belongs within God’s gift of worship.
Sometimes evangelizing, rebuking, often challenging about living in Christ’s upside down kingdom, preaching always belongs resoundingly within the glorious stream of God’s returning grace, first hearing from God and, second, obediently seeking to live aright as new creation. But when preaching “does its own thing” it loses this melody, becoming tuneless, monotonous, reedy, and even discordant. Its one thin note fails to harmonize in worship. It encourages jarring preaching versus worship rather than tuneful preaching as worship.
Tuneless preaching is marked by these characteristics:
1. It has an inadequate theology of worship. It is impatient with talk of “preaching as worship,” deeming it an unnecessary complication of what it regards as the straightforward task of evangelism and teaching. Why be troubled by the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, when all that matters is effective communication and results? Tuneless preaching considers time spent on trying to understand who God is in three persons, and how the triune God is involved in preaching as worship is a luxury, at best, and time-consumingly irrelevant, at worst. So, theology is relegated as unimportant and both preachers and worship-leaders pursue agendas without trinitarian underpinning. There is no shared theological vision and task.
2. It severs itself from worship. Tuneless preaching self-consciously closes itself off in its own box and “does its own thing.” It has little concern about how a worship service is constructed. Even in liturgical settings, scant thought is given to the whole act of worship’s content and structure. Once tuneless preachers have decided on how to approach the lectionary readings, they opt out of involvement in planning the rest of the worship service. So, communication between preachers and worship leaders is minimal. Lacking a sense of shared task, there is no teamwork and only average relationships.
3. It has no memory. Tuneless preaching attempts to compose original tunes with little or no regard for two thousand years of worship practice. Timothy Carson describes how the history of Christian worship ricochets between simplicity and complexity.15 In cycles, it is drawn back to its biblical roots, and builds on tradition while responding to culture. Whenever a time of renewal and reformation impacts worship, yet there is no memory of history and tradition, tuneless preaching predominates. In contrast, reformers such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Knox built on past church worship experience with profound awareness, and preaching resounded as worship. Preaching and liturgy have creatively influenced each other through church history. The Christian year has been especially important for planning throughout the church calendar, yet tuneless preaching invents minature wheels, (often not circular!), week after week.
4. It reduces worship to worship services. Because of its inadequate theology, broken relationships and lack of history, tuneless preaching has swallowed the idea that Christian worship is neatly fulfilled by weekly routines, lasting one hour (or so). Planned as crowd-pleasingly as possible, such services comprise all that the church understands to be worship. The grand biblical concept of worship as a response to God from Sunday to Saturday (Romans 12:1,2), with a seven day scale embracing all work, play, relationships, private time, and public time of the whole congregation has rarely registered.
5. It fails to let Scripture direct the whole act. Tuneless preaching may treat the Scripture text seriously and even immerse within it so that the sermon says and does what the Scripture says and does. A preacher who does this at least gets half the task right. However, tuneless preaching makes no effort to make Scripture shape the structure of worship services. Scant thought is given to relationships between word, sacrament and music throughout the whole act of worship in the light of this word of God. How the service will end is left to custom and routine rather than prayed over and planned within worship’s trinitarian dynamic.
6. It misses out on community-formation. Tuneless preaching majors on addressing “you” in the singular. It applies self-help principles to individuals rather than challenge individuals about sharing selves in community, as Christ’s body. It misses out the biblical command to grow together in Christ, becoming more like Christ in order to bring glory to the Father. Therefore it avoids preaching on unity, love, and reconciliation as primary characteristics of being God’s people.
7. It marginalizes the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. Tuneless preaching generally sees these practices as “add on ordinances” that are rated far below sermons in value. The Lord’s Supper, for example, therefore occurs infrequently, often at fast pace, and is associated with welcoming in new members, pastoral prayer and a separate offering for a fellowship fund. Often, it has little connection with the sermon and, much more seriously, slight experience of encounter and communion with Jesus Christ. Rather than being the crowning act of corporate worship, it is downplayed — appearing to be an addendum to the sermon that merely delays the end of the service.
8. It is rattled by “worship wars.” Tuneless preaching allows consumerist, market driven forces to dominate its vision for the church. Preoccupied with bottom-line success – numbers and money – its driving passion is “to give the people what they want.” Locked into one-service scale of worship, tuneless preachers are desperate for people to attend (and give) in services that “work” for them.
9. It rarely preaches on worship itself. Because tuneless preaching shrivels worship down to music preliminaries, it rarely thrills to the pulse of praising God’s glory or rests in awe before his holiness. “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) is read but never obeyed. Tuneless preaching avoids Scripture’s great worship passages, largely omits the psalms, especially psalms of lament, and finds Hebrews tedious.
10. It misses Scripture’s narrative. Tuneless preaching breaks up God’s narrative in Scripture into fragments called sermons, and therefore atomizes God’s big story into disconnected bits and pieces. Instead of enabling people to live within God’s great narrative of salvation in Scripture as “the story of stories” from creation to salvation, each sermon focuses on “doing” something rather than on “being” a new people. Of course, we need to be an active mission people, but first we need to be God’s people.
These ten characteristics are likely overstated. Hopefully, very few preachers are characterized by all ten failings! But, graphically, they spell out some great dangers facing the contemporary church. Preaching separated from worship profoundly disconnects what God wants to belong together. I believe that we are called to tuneful preaching, confronting the challenge each characteristic presents. Successive articles will identify certain key characteristics, beginning with the most urgent of all – recovering a more adequate theology of preaching as worship.
Let’s beware tuneless preaching and commit to harmonious integration of preaching and worship that will presage renewal in the church. This is a work in progress and I look forward to receiving feedback from both preachers and worship leaders about how both might serve within God’s harmony, with preachers gloriously tuneful in praise to the glory of God in three persons.
Michael Quicke is Charles Koller Professor of Preaching and Communication at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in
1. Russell Mitman, Worship in the Shape of Scripture, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2001, 20.
2. Ibid., 28.
3. Kevin Navarro, The Complete Worship Service-Creating a Taste of Heaven on Earth (
4. Thomas Troeger, Preaching and Worship, (
5. J. Kent Edwards, Effective First-Person Biblical Preaching (
6. Sally Morgenthaler, Worship Evangelism, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995),51.
7. Mitman, Worship in the Shape of Scripture.
8. Michael Pasquarello III, Christian Preaching, A Trinitarian Theology of Proclamation,
9. See, for example, Nicholas Lash, Beginning and End of Religion, Richard Lischer, The End of Words.
10. Pasquarello, 42.
11. James Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 20.
12. Navarro, 2005, 144.
13. Marva J. Dawn, A Royal “Waste” of Time, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).
14. Michael J Quicke, 360degree leadership (
15. Timothy L. Carson, Transforming Worship (