It was a Sunday church service with a difference. The service was well attended, the opening prayer was as ever heaven-drawing, and the singing was offered with characteristic verve. This time, however, the singing went on an hour longer than usual, with the gradual effect of dissipating the energy and concentration of the worshipers. A growing air of anxiety was unmistakable as the service approached home time. Bibles had not been opened and no preacher took to the podium. It was a worship service without a sermon!

“Strange!” you might say. If strange indeed, then preaching must have a unique place. And I do not think this place is allotted purely by habit or tradition.

What exactly is the place of preaching in public worship?

The contemporary church keen to attract as many people to its meetings as possible has tended to depreciate preaching. Where it has taken place it has either been brief or frivolous. Its aim, usually, has been to thrill listeners. It’s all about entertainment. It is everything but biblical. And Christ is conspicuously absent in it.

In most worship services preaching no longer has the guaranteed quota it was honoured with among evangelicals in previous centuries. It now has to fight for a slot of prominence with other and new elements of worship. The competition from prayer warriors or intercessors, testimony experts, professional talk stars, motivational speakers, choirs, praise teams, drama artists and Hollywood “Christian” movies, is real and fierce. How resilient preaching will remain, we do not know.

So-called psychology experts have only succeeded in taking away our hope for better days by telling us that research has revealed that the concentration span of listeners is less than an hour. Preaching racing beyond thirty minutes must therefore go under the guillotine, we are advised. Anyone attempting to remind us, even one as authoritative as the historian Alfred Edersheim, that synagogue Scripture reading alone took three hours, would be seriously reprimanded. Such is the new church order.

What is the place of preaching in worship? Preaching holds centre stage in public worship. It is the focal point. Being central, it becomes regulatory of all other elements of worship. As important as the other elements of worship may be, they are curtain-raisers for preaching. While serving their own independent ends, they are ultimately tributaries supplying the river of preaching. There are good reasons for this.

Why preaching is central

Firstly, the practice of the church has always been that of turning her eyes to preaching to climax her worship. Edersheim reminds us that “the main object of the synagogue was the teaching of the people. The very idea of its institution, before and at the time of Ezra, explains and conveys this… perhaps the ordinary reader of the New Testament may have failed to notice, how prominently this element in the synagogue is brought out in the gospel history” (1993: 267). Gardiner Spring concurs: “Every thing with which a minister of the gospel is concerned ought to be made subservient to the pulpit” (1986: 111). “The primary task of the church and that of the Christian minister is the preaching of the Word of God,” adds Lloyd-Jones (1972: 19).

If the apostle were asked, “Brother Paul, will you conduct the baptism or the preaching? His reply would be emphatic: “Why, of course, the preaching! Is there any doubt about that?” He was this emphatic to the Corinthians: “For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 1:17). Paul was not merely attempting to stay clear of the internal divisive politics at Corinth. He was pasting on their notice boards his ministerial pecking order out of the broad sphere of worship. Many were the aspects of public worship in Corinthian practice, yet only the issue of the gospel captured Paul’s primary interest (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Emulation of early church practice is not driven by sightless addiction to orthodoxy. Good reason exists for it. Are we not counselled, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7)?

Secondly, the church is not an entertainment centre or a social organisation. It is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). Propagating life-transforming truth is its chief business.

Thirdly, in worship, believers are not simply expressing their thoughts and feelings to God. They are actively exercising their spiritual gifts in order to build one another. Gifts of teaching, serving, giving, etc., are all in action. The atmosphere addressed in 1 Corinthians 14 is that of public worship. But recall that Paul insisted that gifts of teaching are the most important (1 Corinthians 14:1-5 cf. 12:28). The salience of the teaching gift must therefore be unmistakable in public worship. After all, building or edification of the saints is by the Word (John 17:17).

Fourthly, all worship must be made through faith (cf. Romans 14:23). This faith comes by hearing the preached Word (Romans 10:17).

Fifthly, the goal of worship is to glorify God. And God is glorified when all that is done is in his Son’s name and in conformity with his Word. Each of the elements of worship ought to be presented to God in the attitude and form he prescribes in his Word for them to be acceptable. For instance, the Word must dwell richly in us as we sing (Colossians 3:16). Prayers must be offered according to God’s will (1 John 5:14). And the confidence that prayer will be answered is based on the fact that we have imbibed God’s Word (John 15:7). Financial giving must be cheerful and liberal (2 Corinthians 9:6-7). But how will all this worship that is so reliant upon God’s Word exist unless the Word is central to worship or regulatory of it?

If there is truth in the statement “what God says to us is of greater importance than anything we ever say to him through prayer or song,” then the principal conduit through which God has ordained to speak to us, namely, preaching, merits its place of primacy in worship.

Practical implications

1. Sufficient time should be allowed for preaching. Those directing the worship should not get carried away with the beauty of the singing, robbing the preacher of ample time for his task. It is mischievous to transfer to the preacher the burden of guilt for ending the church service late.

2. The preaching of God’s Word should be preceded by activities and attitudes that pave a smooth passage for its reception. Themes of songs ought to harmonise, as far as possible, with the Word to be preached. Frivolity, which is not synonymous with warmth and pious humour, should be considered illegal. Too many activities before the sermon, along with prolonged singing reduce on the worshipers’ capacity to listen to the Word with eagerness and alertness. Brevity is the antidote to lethargy.

3. The congregation should eagerly anticipate the preaching of God’s Word. This may mean sleeping early the night before the Lord’s Day to ensure mental freshness. Arriving at church in good time guarantees a calm ready spirit. Training children to be orderly and attentive to the sermon, however limited their absorption capacity may be, is another. Satan loves poorly disciplined children. They are his faithful allies in disturbing parents from concentrating on sermons. Eagerly anticipating God’s Word may mean quarrelsome spouses holding a truce prior to attending church. For others, it may mean taking notes of the sermon.

4. Preaching must be sound and expository for it to justify its primacy in worship. It must also be interesting, simple and clear enough to capture the interest of both children and restless adults. Long sermons must be left for those who sincerely think they compare favourably with Spurgeon’s aptitude. Preaching, therefore, is to be assigned to gifted men. I needless say not all elders are gifted to preach, even if all ought to teach in counselling. But prevailing practice demands that I do. Better one gifted man preaching January to December than one poorly endowed preaching the whole of April. Disinterest in preaching is often due to mediocre preaching, and overly technical sermons that make sense, largely, only to their author.

                The health of the church is directly proportional to the place preaching holds in its worship. Churches that centralise preaching – biblical preaching – are bound to be healthy God-honouring churches. Those which place other elements at the centre may thrive outwardly, according to worldly standards, but the eventual malnourishment of their members is never to be doubted.

“Is it not clear as you take a bird’s-eye view of church history, that the decadent periods and eras in the history of the church have always been those periods when preaching had declined? What is it that heralds the dawn of a Reformation or of a revival? It is preaching” (Lloyd-Jones. 1972; 24).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Edersheim, Alfred. Sketches of Jewish social life in the days of Christ, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.

2. Lloyd-Jones, Martin. Preaching and preachers, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972.

3. Spring, Gardiner. The power of the pulpit, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1986.