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Preaching in a Liturgical Setting

I went to an Episcopalian church service last Sunday (for a paper I’m writing). Overall, I enjoyed it. Something that stuck out to me was how different it is when the preacher preaches after the readings rather than reading the scriptures as a part of the sermon. There is something strange about having already read the passage and put it away. The preacher cannot say, “Look with me at verse four,” because it is past that time in the service for having the Bible out. Something about it seems to undermine its very purpose. Instead of going to the Bible for the message, we are attempting to remember what we read. The whole purpose of expository preaching (as its proponents often argue) is to make sure the message of the sermon flows from the biblical text itself rather than being imposed upon the text. But the message is blunted when the text is not in front of the congregation during the preaching.

Categories: Worship
  1. James F. McGrath
    October 31, 2007 at 7:43 am

    On the one hand, being a Baptist myself, I can understand your reaction. On the other hand, it strikes me (as a scholar of New Testament and early Christianity) how out of sync it is with most of Christian history, during which reading the Bible was not something most people were able to do, nor was carrying around one’s own handwritten manuscript a particularly viable option.

    This is not to say that literacy and the printing press have not brought advantages – although the idea that everyone can understand the text themselves, since it is in plain English, is certainly misleading, since most readers are left blissfully unaware of all the textual, linguistic, historical and cultural issues that needed to be addressed in order to get them that translation, and how many should be kept in mind by a well-informed reader). My point is simply that there is something odd about defining the essence of Christian preaching in a way that excludes most of the Christian preaching that has thus far taken place in human history from the definition! 🙂

  2. Ryan Jones
    October 31, 2007 at 2:33 pm


    Hmm. Good point. However I have never lived in a non-literate society or in a place where Bibles were not readily available. I suspect that in such contexts, preaching (and probably the entire worship service) must be substantially different in ways that I have never occurred to me.

    Yet I am not prepared to yield the basic thrust of the post. By way of comparison, I think personal Bible reading is important even though many Christians through history have not had the luxury. Perhaps if I were to qualify every sentence in my post with, “in our modern Western context,” I think the argument works.

    I am coming from a context where we do not have liturgical readings and I am attempting to sort out what I think abou them. I am observing that, in an effort to make the biblical texts central to the worship service, the sermon itself seems to lose much of its ‘punch’.

  3. James F. McGrath
    October 31, 2007 at 4:10 pm

    Thanks for replying. I think one introductory qualifier might be sufficient, about the fact that you are discussing a contemporary setting. I wouldn’t be surprised if even the notion of a sermon having a ‘punch’ is shaped by our time – the vast majority of pre-literate Christians down the ages presumably experienced oral communication such as sermons differently than we do too. And the sermons themselves were probably shaped for the audience.

    Anyway, I didn’t intend to be critical of your point as a point about our time – I just wanted to observe that some of the aspects of preaching you referred to typify our time somewhat uniquely in the history of Christianity (and of preaching).

  4. Daniel McLain Hixon
    December 3, 2007 at 2:07 pm

    yeah, interesting discussion. I strongly suspect that pre-literate Christians were much MUCH better listeners than we are. I suspect they remembed past oral communication much more vividly than we do (i.e. a few minutes ago when we read a whole chapter of Isaiah, or whatever). We don’t have to remember things, we can write them down.

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