There’s a story about a church that had trouble getting Sunday morning, worship to take off into joyous celebration. Things were so bad at that church that the preacher and congregation could not have conspired to make Sunday services more boring than they already were.
The typist of the congregation’s worship bulletin brought the gravity of the situation to light with a Freudian slip on the church’s IBM Selectric. By an unintentional act of office prophecy the Sunday bulletin’s call to worship read: “Prose the Lord.”
It takes no special gift of spiritual discernment to realize that much of our Sunday morning preaching and worship often substitutes wordy prose for the poetry of celebration. For some reason many preachers and worship leaders drone on with “prose the Lord” week in and week out! Too many sermons tend either to flagellate the congregation with moralisms or dabble in a kind of therapeutic psychobabble.
Meanwhile other worship leaders (both liturgists and musicians) often meander in other directions: wordiness, didacticism, or rank sentimentality. With such an atmosphere typical of much of our weekly preaching and worship, no wonder we can’t really seem to get it together some Sunday mornings!
What makes the situation all the more ironic is the fact that so many tools for fixing the problem are already at hand. After all, we live in an age when many clergy and lay worship leaders have begun again to treasure the intimate relationship between preaching and worship.
In the move toward greater frequency of eucharistic celebration we reclaim the fundamental link between Word and table. With new orders of service for Sunday worship many denominations are reemphasizing the importance of proclamation and response. Even the increasing use of the lectionary betokens a greater respect for the value of preaching within the framework of the traditional, seasonal cycles of the Christian year. For all intents and purposes, our preaching and worship ought consistently to be scaling new heights together!
Yet something is amiss in our seeming paradise. Preaching has yet to rise to the new occasion. Granted, we are fortunate to live in a day of great homiletical innovation. New approaches to preaching have proliferated as in no other time. Still, in many ways people in the pews from Sunday to Sunday have not yet really benefitted from this sea change in homiletic theory.
So perhaps the problem goes deeper than just what sermons can be. Maybe the difficulty we face is an inability to discern what preaching can do.
An Alternative: Preaching toward Doxology
The chief end of humanity (to paraphrase the Westminster Shorter Catechism) is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. Perhaps it is now time to claim that doxological destiny as a proper end for preaching!
To do this will not only broaden the choices available to preachers on Sunday morning but also provide a desperately needed point of contact between our preaching and worship practice. Certainly preaching ought never be reduced to any one aspect. Yet with a doxological end in view, the sermon can clearly become an even more powerful act of worship to God. Preaching toward doxology simply reclaims a lost part of our homiletical repertoire — a part that lends itself to integration in worship.
But what does preaching toward doxology mean concretely? We might begin by clarifying what such a doxological end does not entail.
First, it does not require that all preaching end in praise. There are times when sermons ought to move us to repentance, exhort us to something higher, address our deepest psychological need, prick our consciences or speak us into Gospel freedom. The argument here is that we have tended to concentrate unduly on a few of these options and then only rarely related them to the rest of our worship practice.
Second, preaching toward doxology does not mean simply tacking a poem on the end of a three-point sermon. All the doxology in the world cannot hide a poorly-structured homily. The most well-known proponent of celebration in preaching, Dr. Henry H. Mitchell, is adamant about this point: the relationship of celebration to the rest of the sermon is like gravy to meat — the one must be drawn from the other.1 If doxology is to become an option, it must be integrally related to the sermon’s content or not at all.
Nonetheless, there is more to doxological preaching than what it is not. Positively, many new possibilities present themselves to preachers and other worship planners interested in adding doxology to their homiletical/liturgical repertoire.
First, we will feel free to draw from a wider range of biblical texts for our sermon and worship planning. Preachers and other worship leaders are, of course, rightly concerned that a sermon which moves toward praise be appropriately related to its scriptural text. Fortunately, the Bible is chock full of texts that are doxologies or incorporate doxological elements into them: the psalms, prophetic visions, prophetic oracles, canticles, hymns, narrative texts with doxological and/or liturgical fragments, and even apocalyptic visions! Texts such as these — often left unpreached or truncated by our usual “prose the Lord” approaches — all but beg for preaching and worship with doxological emphases. For the worship leader and musician these texts may just also generate a wider variety of congregational hymns and choir selections.
Second, preachers and musicians will find here a very fruitful field for cooperation in planning Sunday services. On those Sundays when sermons take a doxological turn, other worship leaders will be able to explore a significant array of liturgical and musical options beyond the well-matched doxological ending naturally flows into the singing of a familiar hymn refrain, a “gloria,” or some doxological stanza. Here the work of other worship leaders, like musicians, not only underscores the work of the preacher, it prolongs it by continuing to proclaim God’s praises. By understanding the sermon intending toward doxology as an act of worship, both preacher and musician are freed for new worship possibilities.
Finally, whatever doxological preaching we do will also reinforce the other kinds of sermons and worship experiences that we already plan. With respect to those sermons that advocate certain actions (such as socio-political or moral issues), preaching that truly celebrates may actually serve as an occasion for, as Henry Mitchell calls it, “ecstatic reinforcement” for that homiletical goal.2
Although there is the danger that doxological sermons will become escapist, with careful design they may actually reinforce those sermons that address congregational praxis.
Preachers with more of a psychological bent will find that sermons which move toward doxology will offer a better (and perhaps homiletically more effective) theological frame for their preaching than barely baptized appeals to “stress reduction” and “self-esteem.”
Doxological preaching not only opens up other options for preaching, it may even transform and complement our other homiletical efforts. We may well find that preaching toward a doxological end allows other worship planners (especially musicians) to aid preachers in meeting those prophetic and pastoral concerns that move them to speak in the first place.
The good news here is this: preaching in a celebrative mode may just help preachers and other worship leaders join together to realize their common doxological destiny. For if liturgy is truly “the work of the people,” what can be better than empowering all God’s people to be employed in their true vocation offering praise to God!
1Henry H Mitchell, Celebration and Experience in Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), p.67.
2Ibid., p.30.

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