My last article concluded with this challenge: Preach as Trinitarians, and I dealt with two issues: a) Preach the Trinity in the Whole story of Scripture; b) Preach all Three Persons. Now we consider two further aspects. Preach the Trinity in Scripture texts. Keep looking for the Trinity in every text.
While the word “Trinity” is absent from Scripture, its concept is woven throughout the New Testament texture. Out of its post-resurrection conviction that the one and only God of the Old Testament had encountered them in Jesus Christ, the historical Jesus is confessed as divine in the earliest confessions, as in John 20:28, “My Lord and my God,” where the Greek translation of the Hebrew “Yahweh” is applied to Jesus. Further, the apostles experienced the person of the Holy Spirit (“another Advocate” John 14:16), as the church burst into life at Pentecost (Acts 1:8, 2:1-4, 32-33).
The gospels record an intimate connection between God’s three persons in the ministry of Jesus. See especially the annunciation (Luke 1:35) and baptism (Luke 3:21- 22). Jesus spoke about his unique relationship with the Father (Luke 10:22, John 5:18-23) and with the Spirit (Mat 12:28). John’s gospel underlines the unity of Father and Son (10:29-30; 14: 9-10) and Jesus’ sending of Spirit (16:7-15).Matthew 28:19 offers the clearest Trinitarian statement with each name preceded by the article, emphasizing both singularity and plurality – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
New Testament writers directly applied Old Testament passages to Jesus, such as Phil. 2:9-11 (Isa. 45:23) and Rom. 10:11 (Isa. 28:16). Within the epistles there are occasional explicit references, such as the benediction of 2 Cor.13:14. Father and Son are used with differentiation as in Col. 1:19 and 1 John 1:3.
Importantly, there are longer passages about the work of Trinity especially in salvation (see Rom. 8:3-4; 15-17; 1 Cor. 1:4-7; 2:4-5; 6:11; 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 1: 21-22; Gal. 4:4-6; Eph. 1:13-14; 3:16-19; 4:4-7; 1 Thess. 1:2-6; 2 Thess. 2:13; see also other epistles: 2 Pet. 1:2; Jude 20-21). Trinitarian implications are to be found everywhere.
Provocative pluralities are also found in the Old Testament, in spite of its rigorous monotheism, (Exo. 20:2-7, Deut. 6:4). Particularly significant is Gen. 1:26-27: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’…. So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God, he created them; male and female he created them.”
Humanity’s creation as male and female somehow reflects God’s personal intercommunion, as unity within plurality. Plural language (Gen. 3:22; 11:7) is intriguingly personalized, for example, in the role of the Spirit (Gen. 1:2), the angel of the Lord (Gen. 16:7-14; 22:11; Ex. 3:2-6; Jgd. 13:2-22), the three visitors (Gen. 18:1-9), and Wisdom (Pro. 8).
So, undeniably, the God of Scripture is triune and Christian faith is Trinitarian. Preaching should therefore consciously reflect God’s self-revelation as One God in Three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
• Preach explicit texts clearly. Preachers should preach conscientiously and vividly on the (few) specific Trinity texts, so that congregations are confronted by the reality of God’s three-in-oneness. For preachers who follow the lectionary, Trinity Sunday provides a strategic annual occasion for emphasizing this doctrine. Ideally, preachers in other worship traditions should also plan for equivalent opportunities, to ensure direct teaching on the mystery and wonder of God’s triunity. Texts such as Matt. 28:19 and 2 Cor. 13:14 deserve Trinitarian emphasis. While Matt. 28:16-20 (“The Great Commission”) is rightly preached as a mission challenge, it needs to be understood properly within its Trinitarian framework as Father, Son and Holy Spirit are explicitly named.
• Preach narratives that express the Trinity (e.g. the annunciation or baptism of Jesus). For example, a believer’s baptismal sermon on Luke 3:21-23, 4:1-13 was titled: “Baptism and After.”
Jesus models key spiritual events for believers:
Praying to the Father. Prayer isn’t about technique – it is about relationship.
Filling by the Spirit. A real experience of God’s third person through repentance and faith (as in Acts 2:38).
Battling with the Enemy. Do not be surprised by the outcome – that after baptism there is a battle to please God and follow his will.
Preachers also need to sensitively draw out Trinitarian implications of biblical stories. In my last article I mentioned a Pentecost sermon that set the coming of the Holy Spirit within the story involving both the Father and the Son.
• Preach doctrinal teaching that integrates God’s triune action (such as Rom. 8). Preachers need to emphasize God’s three persons when they are in the text. For example, I preached a sermon based on 2 Cor 1: 15-22, titled: “God’s ‘Yes’ and our ‘Amen’” that began:
When Paul is accused of fickleness, of failing to make up his mind, he responds that he is not about a business that is yes/no, on/off, probably/not sure, could be/can’t be. For Jesus Christ is never yes/no, on/off, probably/not sure, could be/can’t be, but always yes to every one of God’s promises.
And when we talk of ‘yes’ promises, these are not some pleasant spiritual thoughts that make us feel better in church. They are rock solid, life-changing realities of the new creation. “God establishes us together in Christ, (note this is a together event – not for individuals only), and has anointed us by putting his seal on us and giving his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.”
This is the work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, not yes/no, on/off, probably/not sure, could be/can’t be. Here is the full weight of God’s grace and guarantee. The rest of our lives together is saying and living out ‘Amen’ to the glory of God.
The sermon developed God’s triune work in the text, and the service ended in Communion.
• Preach with awareness of prepositions, as in Rom. 11:36: “for from him and through him and to him are all things,” and in Eph. 4:6 “above all, and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6).
• Preach on Trinitarian prayer. Preaching on prayer should stress the classic pattern of praying to the Father, through the Son by the Spirit, while encouraging hearers to be aware that prayer may also be offered to Jesus (Rev. 5:11-14), and to the Holy Spirit.
• Preach Hebrews. No single New Testament book emphasizes Jesus’ mediating role more than Hebrews. Many church leaders have found its teaching highly significant, as, for example, John
Calvin for his “exposition of worship, the Eucharist, and the doctrine of the church as a corporate royal priesthood participating by grace in the sole priesthood of Christ.” 1
• Preach with church resources. Preachers who follow lectionary readings inevitably engage more readily with the Christian year, as it moves from Advent to Pentecost. But this progression through the seasons can benefit all preachers, especially by remembering pivotal events such as Pentecost Sunday. A friend sadly commented that his (large) independent evangelical church had made no attempt to remember Pentecost Sunday or even mention the Holy Spirit. Christmas and Easter are other key times in which to emphasize the role of the three persons of the Trinity. Further, some preachers, even in non-creedal churches, have found that the Apostles’ Creed provides a valuable framework for preaching key biblical doctrines, including the Trinity.
Preach with Trinitarian grammar.
Just as important as direct preaching on the Trinity, is intentional cultivation of “Father-Son-Holy Spirit language,” for hearers intuitively imbibe their ideas of God from the preacher’s words. Parry calls this the syntax of worship. “All languages have a syntax – a set of rules about how words do and do not fit together meaningfully in that language…the Trinity functions in Christian God-talk in such a basic and foundational way that it starts to function something like a syntax – a set of rules about how Christian language works.”2
When preachers rarely speak of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, hearers instinctively settle for “Jesus only” or “you Lord” language, missing out the wonder and mystery of the triune God. This leads to the fourth challenge facing preachers.
Worship as Trinitarians
In my first article I described preaching separated from worship as “tuneless preaching.” Tuneless preaching “does its own thing,” sounding monotonous, reedy and even discordant as it fails to harmonize in worship. I listed as its first characteristic: “It has an inadequate theology of preaching.” This series on preaching and Trinitarian worship has attempted to redress this major defect. Only when preachers think, act and preach as Trinitarians can they preach tunefully.
Yet, many other characteristics mark tuneless preaching, including: “it severs itself from worship” and “it fails to let Scripture direct the whole act of worship.” In conclusion, I outline some practical steps by which preachers can close the gap between preaching and worship.
Preachers and worship leaders must join together as worshiping Trinitarians. How best can this happen? Let’s identify five vital tasks.
Develop team relationships. Elsewhere I have challenged preachers to develop skills of team leadership in order to lead churches effectively. 3 Sadly, many preachers have poor track records with teams. A survey found that 71 percent of pastors regarded themselves as team players, but only 48 percent of their congregations agreed!
Building teams is hard work, for it involves openness to others’ ideas and collective willingness to dialogue honestly to reach consensus. Such dialogue requires agreement on guidelines and ground rules about behavior and practice with serious commitments of time, energy and consistency. Maybe the team comprises only the preacher and worship leader, yet neither should underestimate the skills needed to develop and sustain a good working relationship.
A worship leader looking for a new job said to me: “The number one priority for my next job is a quality relationship with the senior pastor. Can we pray and relate together as friends as we prepare for public worship? Everything depends on this relationship.” Yes, such team work demands time and effort, but it proves invaluable for ministry.
Define core values. Core values identify values and beliefs that drive vision and action. They answer the question why people should invest their time and energy in this particular activity.
Aubrey Malphurs describes a Christian organization’s core values as “the constant, passionate, biblical core beliefs that drive its ministry.”4 Alongside other values, churches should identify their distinctive worship beliefs, grounded in their past and present. (Note that core values are not about future vision, but concern present strengths – vital for building future vision!)
For example, Faith Baptist Fellowship in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has developed core values entitled: “What is the Philosophy of Worship that Unites Us?” Identifying key beliefs such as “expecting the powerful presence of God” (James 4:8), it sets out a series of principles in order “To Offer Leadership that is Prepared Spiritually, Relationally, and Musically” to enable the congregation to worship in spirit and in truth.
Time spent sharing and articulating such values not only proves high seriousness and deep team commitment, but provides solid foundation for ongoing ministry and negotiating through conflict. Issues, such as tension over styles and preferences for music in worship, should be addressed within the context of each church’s distinctive worship values. I suspect that many “worship war” outbursts could be avoided by quality team relationships that, from the beginning, worked hard at defining such core values.
Shape worship structures. Planning worship services operates both at the macro-level, with its annual cycle, as well as at the micro-level of individual weekly events.
• The macro-level. Though some preachers organize preaching programs on longer time scales, (such as six or twelve months), the commonest worship structure follows the Christian year.
Mentioned earlier, this annual cycle of worship is ordered around the life of Christ. Using lectionary readings, it comprises seven seasons with three main climactic events: Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Each Sunday therefore belongs within a narrative sequence, leading Christians through a disciplined structure of corporate worship. Many preachers are totally committed to following set lectionary themes and Scriptures. Considerable lectionary resources are available to ensure their adequate preparation.
However, at the other extreme, some preachers ignore the year-long sequence, except for Christmas Day and Easter Day. While it can be argued that rigidly applying the Christian year limits Scripture selections and inhibits certain styles of preaching – such as verse-by-verse and chapter-by-chapter – its advantages should not lightly be dismissed. From personal experience, I believe that preachers in non-liturgical settings can benefit greatly from attending to this traditional structure for telling God’s “super story.”
For example, telling the story of Christmas or Easter within the Christian year framework builds carefully, Sunday-by-Sunday, through Advent and Lent, bringing discipline and structure to worship. It helps avoid quick-fire Christmas or Easter “spectaculars” that often fail to tell the wider Trinitarian story. Special days such as Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday also safeguard key doctrines. Even the most informal worship planning can gain from awareness of the Christian year.
• The micro-level. All regular worship services have structure. Even the most informal congregation has developed an expected “normal” order of events. However, significant patterns originating from early Christian worship continue to have a role.
Remember my description of tuneless preaching – that it attempts to compose novel tunes with little or no regard for two thousand years of worship practice! When the first Christians drew on the synagogue pattern of worship, and added the Lord’s Supper, they gave basis to worship as “word and sacrament.” Within a hundred years of Paul’s writings, Justin Martyr described patterns of worship that included readings, discourse, prayer and a meal. This led to thewell-known four-fold pattern: Gathering, Word, Meal and Dismissal.5
Removing any part inevitably sabotages the whole structure. Each element continues to have rich significance, especially for the missional church, which gathers in order to meet with God in three persons, and then is sent into the world for service. If, for example, the “dismissal” is omitted, worship misses the vital mission dimension that the church has practiced through centuries. These older patterns enshrine rich Christian experience and safeguard against narcissistic current culture that can turn worship services into consumer events.
Shape worship content. At the macro level of worship, lectionary texts tell the Christian story, with disciplined progression through Old and New Testament texts. At the micro level, the Word forms one of the four key elements. However, Scripture’s role in shaping the rest of a worship service vitally concerns preachers. Interestingly, Russell Mitman, a liturgist, argues that worship services need to be designed “in the shape of Scripture.” He claims that “Scripture has the innate capacity to shape, not only the sermon that is part of the worship event, but also the whole of the liturgical action itself.”6
While (some) preachers work hard to let Scripture shape how the sermon works, both preachers and worship leaders have responsibility to work out how Scripture shapes the whole act of worship. Actually, Mitman wants to go further. Believing that the “whole liturgical action itself becomes a proclamatory event,” that preaching cannot be separated from the rest of worship, he developed a structure for involving the church community. As a parish pastor, he met weekly with a group of lay persons to study the texts to share in the interpretive task and then he planned a sequence of “acts throughout the whole worship event that aim, in their totality, at a communal enactment of the Word of God.”7
Claiming that the four-fold pattern is scriptural, seen repeatedly in Scripture’s acts of worship, he calls for intentional collaboration between all those who lead worship and the rest of the worshipers. So, preachers are not only charged with choosing texts and themes but also with engaging in planning worship around the word. Several preachers have formalized working with small groups in the planning of their sermons (such as John McClure and David Schlafer),8 but Mitman calls for a wider process that shapes the whole worship event.
Recently I witnessed an epiphany moment while planning a worship series with a group of worship leaders at Calvary Memorial Church, Chicago. I prepared details of six sermons and, alongside Scripture texts and titles, I provided what I call a “main impact” sentence for each.
In my book 360-Degree Preaching, I advise preachers to crystallize each sermon’s content and purpose by expressing its “main impact.” A sermon should say and do what the scripture passage says and does. Preachers should be able to fill in a sentence like this: “By God’s grace this sermon will say ______ and will do ______.” Of course, sermon outcomes have very wide range. They may rebuke, teach ethics, increase praise, drop you to your knees, raise you with wings as eagles, call you to repentance and faith, motivate you to service or press you into mission. And, because each sermon’s impact anticipates particular purposes, similarly each service of worship should be sensitive to God’s saying and doing word too.
Then one of the key leaders spoke up excitedly. “Would you believe it? That’s exactly how I believe music in worship works. Exactly! It’s not just the words that matter, but it’s how the music functions and how the congregation will be led. Everything I choose, I ask what the music is saying and doing, and how it helps shape the direction and flow of worship.” Yes, God’s word in Scripture should shape both sermon and worship service.
Maintain Trinitarian Balance
Throughout worship planning all of God’s three persons should be kept in view. Earlier I mentioned a survey that identified four categories of Trinitarian songs: three person, two person, one person and “You Lord” songs. However, the survey found that three person songs and songs focusing on the Holy Spirit were largely missing. Music in worship reflects Trinitarian grammar by maintaining balance between all four categories.
Similarly, preachers can assess their sermons by the same criteria. How often are God’s three persons in the content and language of our preaching? If we analyzed recent preaching, what would be the percentages of three person sermons, or sermons on the Holy Spirit? No worship should happen without explicit reference to the Trinity somewhere – in the call to worship, prayers, creed, Scriptures, sermon, Lord’s Supper or benediction.
All worship planning needs to be intentional about this foundational doctrine for Christian life. As John Baillie said, “The Trinitarian approach to God must always be important for Christian worship, as a safeguard against our worshiping an idol of our imaginations instead of the true God.”9
So much more could be written on preaching and Trinitarian worship. As a “work in progress,” this series raises issues that demand much more reflection on my part. But, having begun with the warning: “Beware tuneless preaching,” I hope that you can now, at least, appreciate: “Welcome to tuneful preaching!” ?
1 James B. Torrance,Worship, Community & the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: IVP,1996), 59.
2 Robin Parry,Worshipping Trinity (Paternoster, 2005), 131.
3 Michael J. Quicke, 360degree leadership: preaching to transform congregations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).
4 Aubrey Malphurs, Values-Driven Leadership (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 34.
5 See Russell Mitman,Worship in the Shape of Scripture (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2001), 34.
6 Ibid., ix.
7 Ibid., 27.
8 John McClure, The Roundtable Pulpit: Where preaching and leadership meet (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995); David J. Schlafer, Surviving the Sermon (Cambridge: Cowley, 1992).
9 John Baillie, quoted in Cornelius Plantinga & Sue A. Rozeboom, Discerning the Spirits (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 105.