Worship: The Role of Preaching
When you ask the average churchgoer about worship, very rarely will they respond with a discussion on preaching. In fact, particularly for those of us who are pastors, when a person asks you “what style of worship does your church have?” very rarely are they think about what the sermon looks like as part of the service of worship.
Preaching is a vital part of worship because only in the preaching of God’s Word do we actually hear from God. Preaching is a means of grace in the sense that God uses the preaching of His Word to nourish the believer, build the flock, and bring souls to repentance and saving faith. This is why the sermon serves as the capstone of the worship service in the evangelical church.
It is easy to criticize the sermon. We lack vision for how it functions within our worship. Critics like to characterize the sermon as monotonous monologue, the product of modernism, enlightenment thinking, or the Greek philosophical academy. We are told we must return to the pristine era of dialogue or active engagement between speaker and audience, which sounds ironically like the Socratic method. There is a time and place for the back and forth of communication but the Bible lays out a picture for us of preaching and proclamation as a part of worship.
In the days of Ezra, he read the Law to the people and explained the sense to the people (Nehemiah 8:1-8). In this manner, the preaching of the Word of God led the people of God into worship. We see that Ezra opens the book of the Law in the sight of the people who are gathered (8:5). Then as they begin, we read, “And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.” With the help of the other priests and Levites (8:7), the Law was read and the sense or meaning of the text was explained to the people (8:8). The worship service centered on the Word of God and led the people to a deeper knowing and communing with God.
In the early church, the people of God likewise devoted themselves to God’s Word found in the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). Paul instructs the church that we are to let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16) “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” God’s Word and singing go hand in hand in worship.
In contemporary worship, the sermon must set the tone for the whole service. I do not mean that the sermon topic determines what songs we sing (although that is helpful). Rather, my coming to God to sing of His glory and majesty should be expectant of God’s work for me. I am coming into His presence. Worship is not just something we “do for God”. We certainly bring praises to Him and lift up His name—but we are not repaying Him, contributing to His well-being, or completing Him in any way. Rather we are acknowledging who He is. Through Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, worship brings us into the spiritual presence of the Lord. Our prayer and praise go up to heaven through Christ our mediator.
It is in the sermon that we hear from God. This is almost novel in an age where emotions become a determiner for ‘hearing God’. But it is in proclamation of God’s Word we are given rock solid assurances in the gospel, admonishments, calls to repent, encouragement, and truth. Preaching is neither a pep talk nor a monologue from man to the crowd. As the Second Helvetic says, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” It explains thusly:
Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.
We are not saying that the preacher is inspired like the prophets of old. Rather, we are saying that when you hear the Bible proclaimed and the sense and meaning is given—you are hearing the Word of God. God uses the preaching of HIS WORD. So long as the preaching is faithful to the text of Scripture we are assured that God is speaking to us.
Perhaps then, in our day and age, we need to move away from thinking a sermon is good if it inspires. Instead, we should ask ourselves: ‘did I hear God?’ without weighing this by subject inner voices. There may be two reasons, which cause you to answer “no”. First, maybe the preacher did not actually proclaim the Bible faithfully. Second, it is quite possible that I am hearing God’s Word but I am hardening my heart. As Hebrews warns, “As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion”” (Heb. 3:15; quoting Ps. 95).
Preaching is not something that happens after worship (i.e. the singing) in our services. Preaching is part and parcel of the act of worship. We respond to God’s Word because we come before Him on bended knee. We have to acknowledge we need Him; we must hear from Him; He must feed us. It was the pagans who believed their worship and sacrifices fed their deities and sometimes I fear we think our worship contributes to God. But the preaching of the Word reminds us of the exact opposite. I need God. I sing His praises because of who He is and then I hear from Him.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as Interim Pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.
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