Preach the Word – Genre-Specific Preaching

Themes in Current Homiletical Theory

Genre-Specific Preaching

When James Muilenburg addressed the Society for Biblical Literature in 1968, he raised issues with the dominant way of analyzing biblical texts in scholarly circles for years. So he pleaded with scholars to move away from form criticism to rhetorical criticism.1 In layman’s terms, treat the Bible as a unified piece of literature. Slicing and dicing the text into numerous strands of redactional theology does not necessarily help us understand the text as we now have it. Muilenburg began a profound shift in reading the Bible that would impact biblical studies for the next fifty years. Any pastor who uses a recently published commentary can note how biblical studies is now keenly interested in treating the Bible in a literary and rhetorical way. This seismic shift in biblical studies has now cascaded into the other disciplines of theology, including homiletics. Preaching is now all about preaching the genres of the Bible in a literary and rhetorical way.

Genre-specific preaching originally began with the New Homiletic. Not only was Fred Craddock critical of authoritarian, deductive, theme-and-subparts preaching that had been the standard in Christian oratory for centuries, but he was also critical of preaching that did not appreciate the diverse genres of the Bible:

The Bible is rich in forms of expression: poetry, saga, historical narrative, proverb, hymn, diary, biography, parable, personal correspondence, drama, myth, dialogue, and gospel, whereas most sermons, which seek to communicate the messages of that treasury of materials, are all in essentially the same form. Why should the multitude of forms and moods within biblical literature and the multitude of needs in the congregation be brought together in one unvarying mold, and that copied from Greek rhetoricians of centuries ago?2

Instead Craddock contends the “forms of preaching should be as varied as the forms of rhetoric in the New Testament.”3

Genre-specific preaching is not only the concern of mainline preaching. It is also the concern of confessional preaching, and in fact, there is a solid argument that preachers who believe in inspiration should be very interested in preaching the genres of Scripture. In a very recent book on genre-specific preaching, Doug O’Donnell makes this exact point:

Did God inspire the forms of the Bible, or only the content? Both! God led some biblical authors to write stories, others to write poems, others to write satire and proverbs and epistles. The Holy Spirit superintended the process of composition undertaken by biblical authors and also the resulting products of that composition (see 2 Pet. 1:21). Thus, whenever a biblical author expressed the content of a passage in a literary form, we can safely conclude that he intended that the preacher interpret the passage using ordinary literary methods of analysis. Put differently, whenever a biblical author embodies his message in a literary genre and by means of literary techniques, he intends that pastors engage in literary analysis.4

Preachers who believe in inspiration should be very interested in preaching the genres of Scripture.

In context, O’Donnell is giving seven reasons to convince preachers to preach biblical genres in a literary way:

  1. It appreciates the Bible as literature.
  2. It helps avoid reductionistic preaching.
  3. It recognizes biblical meaning is communicated through literary forms.
  4. It helps the congregation relive the text and appreciate the human experience in the text.
  5. It appreciates the artistry of God’s Word.
  6. It opens up the entire Bible for preaching.
  7. It adds freshness to preaching and prevents misunderstanding.5

O‘Donnell has been profoundly influenced by Leland Ryken, the renowned professor emeritus of English at Wheaton. In case Lutheran preachers are suspicious of this approach, both O’Donnell and Ryken quote Luther and his conviction that preachers of the Word need to be students of rhetoric and literature.6 In his Festschrift in honor of Kent Hughes, Ryken shares Hughes’ contention that “all biblical exposition is literary analysis.” Ryken goes on to argue for the great promise of literary analysis for expository preaching, “Although good expository preachers intuitively practice an incipient literary criticism, they could enhance their expository sermons significantly if they would add even a modicum of self-conscious literary analysis to their methodology.”7 His lament is incisive, “Many Bible expositors would assent to all that I have said about the literary nature of the Bible, only to ignore it when they stand in the pulpit.”8 That means the study of genre does not simply take place in a pastor’s office; it also needs to come through when he actually preaches on Sunday.

Basic Features of Genre-Specific Preaching

Traditional homiletics views the preacher’s task as distilling the content of the text and then faithfully transmitting that to the congregation. When he has preached what the text is saying, his job is done. Craddock, in particular, has argued that preaching is far more. Preachers need to capture both the “what” and the “how” of the text (and if they don’t, they are actually preaching an unbiblical sermon).9 I take it a step further. Holistic preaching needs to preach (1) what the text is saying (2) how the text is saying it and (3) why the text is saying it. Preachers need to be proficient exegetes, but they also need to be proficient in literary and rhetorical analysis. Genre-specific preaching addresses a deficient view that preaching is only concerned with transmitting biblical content or knowledge.

Genre-specific preaching means a preacher models the literary forms of the Bible in his sermon.

What exactly is genre-specific preaching? Peter Adam says it the simplest and best, “If this is the style of Scripture, perhaps it ought also to be the style of our preaching.”10 Genre-specific preaching means that preaching is specific to the genre of the text. It does not mean that a preacher simply appreciates the Bible as literature. It does not mean that a preacher merely comments on the literary forms of the Bible in his sermon. I cannot emphasize this enough: genre-specific preaching means a preacher models the literary forms of the Bible in his sermon. In other words, the preacher actually changes how he writes his sermon, so that his sermon is communicating, as much as possible, in the same way the text is communicating. Current homiletics speaks of narrative preaching, prophetic preaching, epistolary preaching, apocalyptic preaching, and so forth. Each genre of Scripture offers a unique way of preaching.

Narrative Preaching

I will begin with narrative preaching, not only because the majority of the Bible is narrative, but because narrative preaching is now all the rage in homiletics, especially as it applies to preaching in a postmodern world. Unfortunately, narrative preaching is itself a large label, and there are various ways to accomplish it.

Narrative preaching is now all the rage in homiletics.

To begin with, narrative preaching can be done by simply telling the biblical story in a compelling way. Walter Wangerin is a master of this.11 Narrative preaching emphasizes the holistic nature of a story, and so it is usually not subdivided into parts.12 As Mark Paustian says, “Let the story be the story.”13 The preacher needs to place himself (and his hearers) in the text, use the present tense, and belabor the details and emotion of the story. For example, here are selections from my Lent 1B sermon on Genesis 22:1-18, with the theme, “The Greatest Sacrifice of All:”

The emotion builds with each of the four descriptions—your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac. After all, this is the child he never thought he would have, the son he held in his arms, the miracle baby he received in his old age, the only hope for continuing his family line into the future. … Just imagine looking at these two heading off into the distance. This is just excruciatingly painful at this point! Every step of the journey Abraham has to think about making the greatest sacrifice of all, sacrificing his only son who’s walking right next to him. For three days in a row! … Once Abraham starts to hike up the mountain, Isaac asks where the lamb for the sacrifice is. I mean, this is just unbearable at this point! We have the wood and the fire, Dad, but where’s the sacrifice? Well, Isaac, you’re it! You’re the one being led like a lamb to the slaughter! This must have felt like five thousand darts fired right into the heart of Abraham. … Once they arrive at their final destination, everything goes into slow motion, as time seems to stretch out for eternity. First, build an altar. Then put wood on top of it. Then bind Isaac. Then put him on top of the altar. Then reach out your hand. Then grab the knife. I mean, you just got to cover your eyes and turn away. Abraham, are you really going to go through with this? Abraham, are you really going to kill your own son? Abraham, are you really going to offer up the greatest sacrifice of all? No! Don’t do it!

To take this a step further, narrative preaching can also be done in a first-person style. In first-person narrative preaching, the preacher speaks in first person throughout the sermon from the perspective of one of the characters in the story. For example, I preached on Transfiguration from the perspective of Peter (Mark 9:2-9), with the theme, “Lord, Teach Me Your True Glory”—beginning with Peter interacting with the crowds in Galilee, then confronting Jesus, then ascending the mountain to see his true glory, then addressing the people of my congregation with what he learned that day, and finally ending with what he told Mark as he began to write his Gospel. For a more complex example of this technique, consider the emotional impact from my Lent 2B sermon on Job 1:13-22, with the theme, “Praise God for Pain.” I preached in first-person narrative style, except that I manipulated the “I” to be six people’s different perspectives from which I was speaking throughout:

  1. The introduction is from Alexander’s perspective in the children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
  2. The body is from Job’s perspective as he lives through his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day (losing his possessions and children).
  3. The transition is from the congregation’s perspective, as they imagine what it would be like to live through their terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day (house burning down, laid off from work, car stolen, children killed in a car accident).
  4. The gospel is from Christ’s perspective, as he goes through his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day (suffering and dying on the cross).
  5. The application is from my own perspective, as I recount my own terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day (my mother dying in the hospital while I was deliberating a call right before Holy Week).
  6. The conclusion is from Kristyn Getty’s perspective, as she recounts her terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day (her cousin’s death and the Nashville school shooting, which inspired the hymn “God of Every Grace”—which our choir sang right before the sermon).

Prophetic, Apocalyptic, and Epistolary Preaching

After narrative preaching, we can briefly explore some more nuanced genres. First, prophetic preaching is not only about direct prophecies that can get easily traced to Christ. The Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah endured profound suffering, and so my sermon on Jeremiah 20:7-13 (Proper 7A), with the theme, “Lord, Why Is It So Hard?” modeled the jeremiads throughout the book. The introduction to my sermon was ten complaints, all of which began with, “Lord, why is it so hard …?” Notice that I am not only saying what the text is saying; I am doing what the text is doing. I am lamenting, just as Jeremiah is lamenting. Second, apocalyptic preaching is not just about the end of the world. It needs to capture the drama of an epic, crushing defeat of the forces of evil, and it also needs to provide profound encouragement for Christians to persevere in their faith until then. That is why I captured the intense drama of apocalyptic literature with my theme, “Christ Crushes the Competition,” for Revelation 20:1-6 (Proper 5B) and the exhortatory nature of apocalyptic literature with my theme, “Here’s What You Need to Keep Going,” for Revelation 7:9-17 (All Saints’ Day A). Finally, epistolary preaching is both personal and practical. Epistles were modeled after Greco-Roman features of letter writing, and so my sermon on Romans 1:1-7 (Advent 4A) was framed from the perspective of writing Christmas letters to family and friends.14 My theme was, “A Christmas Letter Filled with Good News,” but I am intrigued with the thought of writing an epistolary sermon as a letter itself.15 Epistles also include large sections of ethical exhortation, and so one way to structure these sermons is by merging exposition and application together.16 Much more could be said, but recent homiletical books will have entire chapters on how to preach each of these genres.17

A Closing Encouragement

As I talk to pastors around our synod, sometimes I hear comments like, “I don’t preach two-part sermons anymore. That was the way we had to do it at the seminary.” Or “I don’t develop parts at all.” Then I read Sermon Studies or listen to the Preacher Podcast or hear pastors who seem to always use two parts. All this has led me to conclude that many preach in the same way—whether that’s the way you’ve always done it since the seminary, or it’s a new way you’ve developed yourself. To which I usually think, “Well, what is the text doing? Does the text have two parts? Three parts? One part? Is it a narrative? Parable? Prophecy? Epistle? That should inform how you outline, structure, and write your sermon.”

If your sermons are all the same form, go back and look at the genre and literary features of the text again.

My simple test for preachers is this. Look at your sermon theme and parts over the past year. If your sermons are all the same form, go back and look at the genre and literary features of the text again. The Bible is not all the same form, and neither should your preaching be. I have preached deductive sermons with one part, two parts, three parts, four parts, and even five parts. I have preached inductive sermons with numerous narrative components. I have utilized the New Homiletic. I have preached apocalyptic sermons with drama, prophetic sermons with laments, and epistolary sermons with warmth and practicality. There’s no one way I preach, because there’s no one way the Bible communicates. Genre-specific preaching, well done, employs diversity and intrigue. It moves us beyond our comfort zones and helps us model diverse ways of preaching biblical genres. When we do so, no one will be able to complain that our sermons are boring.

No one will be able to complain that our sermons are boring.

It moves us beyond our comfort zones and helps us model diverse ways of preaching biblical genres.

Written by Jacob Haag

Rev. Dr. Haag serves at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Ann Arbor, MI. His doctorate is from Westminster Theological Seminary with research in New Testament and preaching. His research project was entitled “Evangelical Exhortation: Paraenesis in the Epistles as Rhetorical Model for Preaching Sanctification.” He also serves on the Michigan District Commission on Worship.


1 James Muilenburg, “Form Criticism and Beyond,” Journal of Biblical Literature 88, no. 1 (March 1969): 1-18. It should be noted, however, that Muilenburg is not rejecting form criticism; he is saying it needs to be supplemented.
2 Fred Craddock, As One Without Authority, 4th ed. (St. Louis: Chalice, 2001), 113.
3 Craddock, As One Without Authority, 45.
4 Douglas Sean O’Donnell and Leland Ryken, The Beauty and Power of Biblical Exposition: Preaching the Literary Artistry and Genres of the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022), 19, ft. 10.
5 O’Donnell and Ryken, The Beauty and Power of Biblical Exposition, 15-22.
6 Luther wrote, “I am persuaded that without knowledge of literature pure theology cannot at all endure … Certainly it is my desire that there shall be as many poets and rhetoricians as possible, because I see that by these studies, as by no other means, people are wonderfully fitted for the grasping of sacred truth and for handling it skillfully and happily.” Quoted in O’Donnell and Ryken, The Beauty and Power of Biblical Exposition, 15-16; Leland Ryken, “The Bible as Literature and Expository Preaching,” in Preach the Word: Essays on Preaching: In Honor of R. Kent Hughes, ed. Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway: 2007), 38. On pages 45-46, Ryken goes on to provide further reasons to defend a literary approach to confessional pastors who question it as modernistic or theologically precarious.
7 Ryken, “The Bible as Literature and Expository Preaching,” 39.
8 Ryken, “The Bible as Literature and Expository Preaching,” 44.
9 Craddock, As One Without Authority, 5, 44; Fred Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1985), 28, 122-123, 178.
10 Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching (Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 2004), 94.
11 Walter Wangerin, Jr., The Book of God: The Bible as a Novel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).
12 If you do, one way is to divide the story based on the characters in the story.
13 Mark Paustian, “Joy and Confidence from the Basics—Part 3,” Preach the Word 24, no. 3 (January/February 2021), 3. Or as he says elsewhere about Hebrew narrative, “The story will not be rushed.” Mark Paustian, “The Beauty with the Veil: Validating the Strategies of Kierkegaardian Indirect Communication Through a Close Christological Reading of the Hebrew Old Testament” (PhD diss., Regent University, 2016), 3
14 The sermons mentioned above are available on the Commission on Worship website: worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/preach-the-word-volume-28
15 Those of my generation will fondly remember Pres. Mark Zarling’s “letters from home” chapel sermons that employed this approach.
16 For more on preaching sanctification in line with NT epistles, see my first article in this series.
17 I’d suggest starting with O’Donnell and Ryken’s book cited above. Then move on to The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text by Sidney Greidanus or Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible by Thomas Long.


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Understanding and Embracing Good Worship Patterns

More Worship Words to Wrestle With

Understanding and Embracing Good Worship Patterns

In public worship, the topic of patterns is unavoidable. Once a family of believers takes to heart the exhortation let us not give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25), there will eventually emerge a regular and repeated way in which something happens or is done.1

How should we deal with these inevitable patterns? Some may view them as a necessary evil. Whether from a desire for creativity or from wariness of getting stuck in a rut, planners may feel compelled to vary the path of worship wherever possible to keep people awake, on their toes, and, presumably, more engaged.

In this article we’ll explore the topic from a different angle. We’ll consider some reasons to embrace the patterns of worship, and we’ll talk about the beneficial effect good patterns can have on the various people who gather in God’s house. The goal? That we worshipers may be even more poised to fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:2).

An aside: this is not specifically a conversation about ritual and ceremony, though what we say here may also apply there. Here we’re looking through a broader lens. We’re viewing the whole service, the context of that service in a year and even in the life of a congregation.

In an oft-quoted passage from his Letters to Malcom, C.S. Lewis writes:

Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best—if you like, it “works” best—when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling.

The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about the worship is a different thing from worshipping.

Lewis is not suggesting that each service must replicate the one that preceded it. He does not renounce creative use of art, poetry, and music. Rather, he points out that a good path for worship is one that doesn’t call attention to itself. He encourages us not to be afraid to let that path be a repeating pattern from week to week.

Of course, no pattern for worship can by itself stop us by-nature-sinful worshipers from being distracted. We have Old Testament apostate Israel as an example of that, and their worship patterns were divinely ordained. We have the same flesh they had. The spiritual OCD we’ve inherited can lead us to focus on getting things done right and in the right order, while the message about Christ dwells richly somewhere else. Ex opere operato is alive and well in the flesh of even the staunchest Lutheran.

The problem of going through the motions is a problem that can’t be solved either by a pattern or the absence of one.

The problem of going through the motions is a problem that can’t be solved either by a pattern or the absence of one. Only a trip to the cross can do it. Only through Spirit-worked contrition and repentance can we be freed, whether from an unhealthy obsession with novelty or from the grip of spiritual OCD. Only then can we be renewed in our desire to worship our Savior God. Then, as Lewis might say, when we are eager to dance, we’ll be grateful not to have to think about the steps.

A Good Worship Pattern

So then, what constitutes a good worship pattern? If the goal is to enable worshipers to fix their eyes on Jesus, it may be helpful if the pattern itself is Christocentric. And if the goal is to avoid patterns familiar only in one congregation, it may help to choose an order for worship that is already in broad use in other places. And it’s worth noting that some repeating patterns may not be optimal for Lutheran worship if they represent a significant departure from what Lutheran worshipers typically do.

Believers who are interested in Christ-centered worship week after week, year after year, don’t need to shy away from using the patterned environment of the liturgy. It’s a weekly pattern that rehearses and reinforces the daily devotional rhythm of a healthy Christian soul: contrition, repentance, means of grace, prayer, praise. The liturgy’s key repeating elements from week to week are the canticles of the ordinary, each of which engages hearts and voices with the saving work of Jesus. The liturgy also offers an annual pattern of holidays and seasons. Together, we celebrate the key events in the life of our Savior. Together, we consider various applications for our Christian life. And since the liturgy is already in broad use, any beneficial improvements tend to happen slowly and with careful consideration by the church at large, just what the doctor ordered for anyone looking to embrace a consistently good pattern for worship.

This is not to say the liturgy is the only worship pattern that can benefit worshipers. But since it is so familiar to us and so commonly used in our circles, and especially since it offers the saving gospel of our crucified and risen Savior in rich supply, the liturgy can serve well for the purpose of this present discussion. Whether the liturgy’s texts are of themselves beneficial in worship is not in question. We are trying to determine to what degree we might want to embrace worship patterns, and the liturgy is a good example of a good pattern.

It may be helpful if the pattern is Christocentric and already in broad use.

For children

Consider how this pattern called liturgy may benefit children. It’s no secret that children thrive in a patterned environment. Do you want your child to have healthy sleep habits? Establish a nightly routine with them, and see how they start yawning and settling in even before the routine is finished. It’s not a stretch to suggest that a good worship routine can help children to find their rest in Jesus.

Children thrive in a patterned environment.

At bedtime, children say: “‘Tell me again,’ … as we repeat a familiar story for the hundredth time. ‘Tell me again!’ Some stories they know so well that they can say them right along with us. Changing even a word or two brings the instant response, ‘That’s not how it goes.’”2 So also in worship we tell them “the most important story they will ever hear or learn. And we tell it in the same way—again, and again, and again.”3

We might think children won’t be interested in a liturgical pattern that seems designed for adults, but:

Young children like to pretend they are adults. When they think no one is watching, girls dress up in their mother’s grown-up clothes… Boys like to hop into the driver’s seat of the family car, grab the steering wheel, and pretend to drive. Children are eager to show they are growing up and can do grown-up things…

More congregations are helping children to participate [in worship] by teaching them the simple melodies of the liturgy, helping them to learn the songs of God’s family in which they, too, can participate.4

When a congregation embraces this pattern, children can learn to worship in much the same way that they learned how to understand language, from simple words to complex sentences, by watching and listening to the adults around them. So also in worship. Early on they can grasp: Lord, have mercy. Give it time and they can learn to know: incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. Without the pattern, they struggle to participate. Without the challenges, there’s little encouragement to grow. Add some worship education along the way, and the liturgy can help children grow into a pattern that will continue to serve them well for years into the future and in places far away from the place where they grew up.

(For more perspectives, see the Children in Worship series of this newsletter, authored by Phil Huebner: worship.welsrc.net/archived-resources/#worship-the-lord/36.)

For guests

But what about our guests? Won’t the liturgy seem strange to someone who has never experienced it? The goal of Christian worship is to fix worshipers’ eyes on Jesus. Won’t our patterns distract them? To use Lewis’s illustration, how can someone dance when they have to focus on the steps?

Of course, there’s no avoiding this hurdle. Where any group of worshipers has been regularly meeting, patterns of worship are indeed unavoidable, and those patterns will always seem strange to a first-time visitor. But that’s only the beginning of the strangeness. The symbol in the front of church represents a barbaric form of torture from two millennia ago. We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23).

So we welcome a first-time guest with open arms and genuine hospitality. We can’t expect him to feel welcomed by a message he doesn’t yet believe or to appreciate a path of worship he can’t yet understand. What we can do is let him know that we care about him. We can welcome him, tell him we’re glad he stopped in. We can offer further conversation about the Savior we proclaim. As the gospel is proclaimed, we can trust the Spirit to work the miracle of faith when and where he chooses.

It is becoming less and less common for a guest to walk into a place of worship all on his own, without an invitation from a family member or friend. When it happens, he may well expect to find the unexpected when he arrives. Indeed, for him to find no surprises would seem incongruous. But while he may not understand everything he experiences, he may find our engagement in worship to be compelling. Clearly what’s happening is important to us. Especially when we invite him to attend again, he may decide to take us up on it.

The first-time visitor may well expect to find the unexpected.

It is for the second-time visitor that we begin to see the value of a good pattern of worship. Now he’s beginning to resemble a young man visiting his fiancée’s parents. He’s looking for patterns, something to help him get to know this unfamiliar family, something he can do with us, something that gives him a sense of belonging. It will be of great benefit if his second experience in worship isn’t completely different from his first. He’s learning to dance, and repetition is the mother of learning. And when the worship pattern he experiences proclaims Christ throughout, it won’t take long for him to know that the cross in the center of our building is also the central message of worship.

(For more perspectives on guests in worship, see Christian Worship Foundations, chapter 19 (NPH 2023), “Worship and Outreach,” authored by Jon Bauer.)

For longtime members

We can see how good worship patterns can benefit those who are new to worship, our children and our guests. They need consistency and growth. Can the same be said of lifelong members? What happens when the weekly and annual patterns of the liturgy are stretched out over a lifetime? Is there value in embracing a good worship pattern from cradle to grave?

It’s not children or guests but rather long-time members who most often feel the need to break the worship patterns and change things up. They’ve had more time to sin by going through the motions, and it may seem as though our worship patterns are to blame. They may also point to worship patterns as the reason why they’ve seen young people drift away from church. To give up the worship patterns they’ve used their whole life feels like sacrificial love.

The problem was never with the patterns of worship.

But the problem was never with the patterns of worship. Just the opposite, those patterns have been a great blessing for God’s people. We’ve all witnessed or heard stories of the grandfather who can’t remember what happened the day previous but still prays the Lord’s Prayer by heart. Of wayward teens who came back to church again because it felt like home. Of married couples, newly reconciled, who have renewed their vows before the Lord. Spread out over a lifetime, good patterns in worship have a way of shaping and molding us in our habits and our focus, keeping our eyes on Christ.

Rather than setting aside those familiar patterns, longtime members are better served by leaning in and learning more.

Understanding why we worship helps worshipers review the enduring necessity of the gospel for faith, causes them to appreciate the gospel message communicated to head and heart, leads them to gospel gems they may not have noticed before, and enables them to present a clearer gospel witness to those worshiping with them. When they understand worship’s primary purpose, believers arrive at church with intention: they know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and thus the church is edified and God is adored.5

In times of trouble

The better we know and understand the liturgy, the more readily we can use it in times of trouble. In her book Prayer in the Night, author Tish Harrison Warren references a dark time in her life when she suffered a miscarriage. During those difficult days when she struggled to find words for her own prayers, she found herself turning again and again to the patterns handed down to us in the liturgy, which she calls “other people’s prayers.”

Over a lifetime the ardor of our belief will wax and wane. This is a normal part of the Christian life. Inherited prayers and practices of the church tether us to belief far more securely than our own vacillating perspective or self-expression.6

When we pray the prayers we’ve been given by the church—the prayers of the psalmist and the saints, the Lord’s Prayer, the Daily Office—we pray beyond what we can know, believe, or drum up in ourselves. “Other people’s prayers” discipled me; they taught me how to believe again… When my strength waned and my words ran dry, I needed to fall into a way of belief that carried me. I needed other people’s prayers.7

When gathered in church

Christian Worship Hymnal (2021) encourages the use of the liturgy in public worship. There are three musical settings for this good pattern for worship (and even more in Service Builder), and while there is some minor textual variation between each setting, the flow of each service, its pattern, is the same. If the creed follows the sermon in Setting 1, the same is true in other settings.8 The idea was to establish a rhythm that worshipers will recognize from week to week. The goal is that they not get caught up in the services themselves. The hope is that their focus may be on the key focal point of all true worship, Christ crucified.

One more encouragement toward embracing good patterns: In WELS Congregational Services’ online resource The Foundation9, worship planners are invited to choose a musical setting for three or more weeks in a row, to provide space for worshipers to embrace that musical pattern before moving to the next one.

There are all kinds of ways to engage people, to keep them awake and interested. It’s wise for us to continue examining our practices. We need to keep asking ourselves: Is what I’m doing in worship from week to week drawing attention to worship itself, or to me, the presider/preacher10, in a way that lessens the attention that might be fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith? By God’s grace—whatever we may in freedom decide to do—let us resolve both in our preaching and in our worship to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).

By Jon Zabell

Pastor Zabell chaired the executive committee of the WELS Hymnal Project and served as managing editor for Christian Worship: Foundations. From 2011–2023 he chaired the WELS Commission on Worship. He serves as pastor at St. Paul, Green Bay, Wis., and as first vice president of the Northern Wisconsin District.


1 Brittanica, “Pattern, noun, 2a”, www.britannica.com/dictionary/pattern
2 Carl Schalk, First Person Singular: Reflections on Worship, Liturgy, and Children (St. Louis: MorningStar, 1998), 13.
3 ibid, 14.
4 ibid, 45.
5 James Tiefel, The Purpose of Christian Worship in Christian Worship Foundations (NPH, 2023), 10-11.
6 Tish Harrison Warren, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 16.
7 ibid, 17
8 See history and rationale for a consistent pattern in Christian Worship Foundations, 118ff.
9 welscongregationalservices.net
10 See the discussion of the presider’s demeanor in Christian Worship Foundations, 228ff.


 

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A Fresh Look at Symbolism

More Worship Words to Wrestle With

A Fresh Look at Symbolism

The Wisconsin Synod has come a long way in its nearly 175-year worship history. This article will not attempt to review that history1, but a brief glance at that story shows a church body whose worship customs have grown from straightforward and simple services to the full liturgical rite we know today. Musical diversity in style and instrumentation is now widely accepted. We also recognize the Word is proclaimed not only by our spoken words, but also in our songs and even in symbolism.

In this article, we explore the matter of symbolism in public worship. Symbolism is the idea that something we see or say or do represents something else—something larger and more significant than the symbol itself. With symbolism, we depict that which cannot be seen through art, ceremony, music, and even texts.

I’ve written about symbolism previously.2 An essay about symbolism is also included in the new Christian Worship: Foundations.3 These resources especially speak to the principles that underlie symbolism in public worship. Without mechanically repeating what has been written previously, this article takes a fresh look at some of the issues raised by common symbolic practices in our midst.

Symbolism Requires Participation

For several years, I have taught classes about worship to seniors at Kettle Moraine Lutheran High School. On the day we discuss symbolism, I introduce them to a sampling of The Far Side cartoons by Gary Larson. Besides the fact that most of the students are unfamiliar with Larson’s old comic strip and his unique brand of humor, the benefit of this exercise is that The Far Side requires you to “participate” with it to understand the humor. One example: Two dogs are looking at a broken mirror on the ground. One says to the other: “Tough luck, Rusty. Seven years of bad luck—of course, in your case, that works out to 49 years.” At the risk of stating the obvious: A reader needs to know the superstition that breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck, and that “dog years” are commonly equated to seven years of a human’s life. A reader who brings that knowledge to the cartoon will respond with something between an outright laugh and an inward chuckle. But if the reader doesn’t know about the superstition or dog years, the cartoon makes no sense. We need to bring a certain “necessary knowledge” to the cartoon for it to be humorous. When we do, there is an “Aha!” moment—the moment when we understand the joke and it causes a reaction within us.

Symbolism works in a similar manner. Symbols—whether in art, ceremony, music, or words—require worshipers to “fill in the blanks.” Even though subtle printed explanations can be helpful, worshipers must engage with the symbol—observe it, ponder the biblical truth it is meant to portray, and apply it to their own present circumstance. The “Aha!” moment with worship symbolism does not result in a chuckle, but in a personal devotional application of biblical truth. The placing of the funeral pall over the casket communicates to mourners that their loved one is clothed in the righteousness of Christ through Holy Baptism, which gives them confidence and joy amidst their tears. The minister’s raised hands for the blessing communicate that this blessing from God’s Word is not a mere recitation of an excerpt from Numbers, but that this blessing is being applied to God’s people in that assembly and at that moment. When the organist adds a growly, low reed in the pedal (bass) for her accompaniment of stanza 3 of Luther’s A Mighty Fortress, many singers will understand that she is depicting the stanza’s opening words which describe a spiritual reality that must keep us on guard: “Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us.”

Symbols require worshipers to “fill in the blanks.”

Just as a lengthy explanation of a joke causes the joke to fall flat, so a wordy explanation of symbolism causes the symbol to turn into mere information. Worshipers’ participation is blunted. But just as a lack of the necessary background knowledge causes a joke to bomb, so a lack of biblical understanding and catechetical truths can result in ineffective symbolism. Worshipers’ participation hasn’t been enabled.

Preaching and teaching must be solid for symbolism to be effective. Worshipers will experience those “Aha!” moments when they observe symbols because they know the doctrinal truths expressed in symbols. But another simple, practical way for symbolism to be more effective is with simple, succinct, printed comments about the symbolism employed in public worship. When space permits and opportunity suggests, an explanation along the margin or in a text box can enable worshipers to fill in the gaps of the symbols they see.

Depicting What Cannot Be Seen

One important value of symbolic communication is that it helps us to depict truths we believe and confess but cannot see. When we baptize an infant, we cannot see the child’s baptismal connection to the death and resurrection of Christ, but the sign of the cross over the head and heart visualizes Romans 6:3, and the lit paschal candle alongside the font symbolizes Romans 6:4. We cannot see this divine miracle with our eyes, but to communicate its reality, we symbolize it. We likewise cannot see the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the sacrament, but the sign of the cross in connection with the Words of Institution not only sets apart these elements for Christ’s purpose, but also communicates that the bread and wine we receive are in fact the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for us on the cross.

Because symbolism depicts what we cannot see, some common symbols we use might be considered redundant. For example, I once heard someone argue against the use of a unity candle in wedding services. His rationale was this: Marriage is established by the public consent given by a man and a woman. We witness this at a wedding service. We hear this in the vows that they speak to the Lord and to each other. There is no great need to symbolize that which people can hear with their ears and see with their eyes. Not everyone will agree with my acquaintance’s opinion. For some couples, the unity candle is a desirable feature. Others may find it to be anticlimactic after the declaration of marriage. The local pastor will work with couples to determine what makes the most sense in each setting.4

Emotional Impact

The way that symbolism communicates engages our emotions far more than words alone. Words especially speak to our heads—the logical side of our being. But symbolism in beautiful art, music, rituals, or poetry has a way of speaking to our hearts—the emotional side of our being.5 And that emotional message is powerful—sometimes overwhelmingly so!

At my first congregation, I introduced the custom of the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. I also inherited that as an established custom at my present congregation. What I didn’t sense as a younger pastor is just how powerful the emotional impact of that symbolic ceremony can be—not just for the worshiper, but especially for the minister! What goes through the pastor’s mind when the octogenarian widow comes forward to receive the sign of ashes? What does the pastor think to himself as the cancer patient stands before him? “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Can we speak these words without a lump in our throats?6

The imposition of ashes is akin to sticking your finger in a liturgical light socket! We stand inside one another’s personal space. The ashes are physical; the application is personal. “Remember that you are dust” bluntly means “Someday you will die.” Not everyone will be comfortable with its strong emotional impact, and that’s okay. My parish makes it clear that participation is optional. It’s fine if a person doesn’t want to “go there” due to the impact of the rite or for any other reason.

The emotional impact of symbolism can be a great blessing that worshipers deeply appreciate. At the same time, be aware that some symbols and ceremonies can impact people so strongly that it leaves them uncomfortable. The careful, caring parish pastor can be a good judge of what symbolic customs work best for his people and how to carry them out. Encourage your people to appreciate the emotional impact, but give them the space they need if the impact is too uncomfortable.

Reassessing Symbols

Do some of the symbols and ceremonies of worship need to be reassessed? Have they lost their meaning and impact? Is the “Aha!” moment missing because the symbol itself is murky or unclear? As with anything, a reassessment of why we do what we do can be a valuable exercise, in this case, to make sure that worship symbolism communicates clearly.

As the hymnal project neared completion, a small group from the Rites Committee met to finalize special occasion services. One of those services was the Good Friday Service of Seven Words, also known as the Service of Darkness, or Tenebrae. An issue that the group wrestled with for this service was its ending conclusion. Should a single lit candle be returned to the chancel before people exit, symbolizing the glimmer of resurrection hope that we possess on Good Friday? Should the service end with the strepitus, the loud “bang!” sounded in the darkness that some interpret as the sealing of Jesus’ tomb and others as foreshadowing the rending of Christ’s tomb on Easter morning?

Many found the strepitus symbol confusing and unclear.

The group did not agree on a single approach, and so the rubrics of this service in Christian Worship: Service Builder are intentionally flexible. I originally advocated for retaining the strepitus, but I changed my opinion after my own informal survey of brother pastors and parishioners. A personal email survey is hardly scientific, but it did reveal that many found the symbol confusing and unclear. Still others appreciated these symbols and would regret to see them disappear. My perspective on these symbols changed from, “Let’s encourage this,” to “It’s not always effective, so perhaps it should be optional”—which is reflected in the service’s rubrics.

Another symbol that deserves reassessment is the Advent wreath—particularly its arrangement of candles. As a recent Forward in Christ devotional article7 indicated, many people wonder about the origin of the pink (technically: rose) candle for the third Sunday in Advent.

The story of the Advent wreath is uncertain; there are at least three theories about its origins.8 When the Advent wreath made its way from the home into the church in the early twentieth century, Roman Catholics used colors for the wreath’s candles that echoed their liturgical colors—purple for most Sundays in Advent, but rose for the third. While purple is understood as a symbol of repentance, rose symbolizes joy. The traditional Introit for Advent 3 from Philippians 4:4 begins with Gaudete—“Rejoice!” Now several of the appointed readings for the Third Sunday in Advent in the three-year lectionary also contain thoughts about joy.

There seems to be good reason to believe that the use of rose is connected to the medieval Roman Catholic Church’s lessening of Advent (and Lent) fasting restrictions9—a bit of joy and reprieve injected into a somber season, hence the color rose (joy) injected into the otherwise purple (repentance) season. But these practices are not part of Lutheran history and need not affect our own Lutheran liturgical practices. In recent decades, blue, understood as a symbol of hope, has been replacing purple in many parishes during Advent. These realities suggest a different approach to our Advent wreath candles—blue to match the liturgical color or white to reflect the more original Lutheran custom10, in either case without a rose candle for the third week of Advent.

The rose candle is a well-established custom in many minds and parishes. It is not likely to disappear, so understanding it as a symbol of joy is a devotionally appropriate way of handling this custom and symbol.11 But since its origins don’t necessarily reflect Lutheran history, the rose candle may be worth reassessment and, ultimately, replacement.

The placement of the flag in the chancel can be a touchy subject!

A symbol that stirs up passionate feelings is the American flag. The placement of the flag in the chancel can be a touchy subject! But the flag is a good example of the way symbolism works. No one sees the American flag and thinks only about our nation’s 13 original colonies and the present 50 states. The flag conjures up memories of American history. The flag is viewed as a symbol of the sacrifice of our servicemen, a symbol of freedom, pride, and patriotism. In our current tense political climate, some also consider the flag to be a symbol of oppression.

So let’s broach that touchy subject: Does this symbol belong in the chancel? Many people have argued that the freedom of religion we enjoy as a nation is a reason for displaying the flag in the front of the church. It is absolutely true that our congregations have been blessed through that freedom! But other factors also affect our decision. Does a symbol of laudable national sacrifice belong in a setting that is meant to communicate Christ’s sacrifice? Does a symbol with such diverse political interpretations belong in a space where we communicate our unity in Christ? Does a symbol of our nation confuse the truth that the kingdom of God is found within the hearts of people from “every nation, tribe, people, and language”?

Like the other examples in this article, we do not want to be dogmatic about the flag. The debates and battles that might ensue in a congregation might lead worship leaders to rightly conclude, “Let’s not take this up at this time.” At my own congregation, we recently resolved that issue by placing the flags in a visible place in our lobby. We certainly are not against the flag and what it stands for, but we didn’t want the American flag’s message to compete with all the other gospel symbols in our chancel.12

Final Thoughts

Symbolic communication is not like a doctrinal subscription. We must agree on the teachings of Scripture! We don’t have to agree on what constitutes the best symbolic practices in worship. There is room for differing opinions, especially due to differing circumstances from setting to setting. But an honest discussion will prayerfully lead us to look at the symbolic communication that happens in worship with an eye toward the gospel.

Can our art, music, ceremonies, and texts help people to apply gospel truths in a personal way? Can we help our people sense what cannot be seen? Can we touch their emotions as well as their intellect without falling into emotionalism? Can we assess our current practices to make sure that the message perceived is the message we want to proclaim? When we approach symbolism with these questions in mind, the rites and rituals of worship will not fall into ceremonialism but will be a beautiful depiction of the beautiful gospel that proclaims our beautiful Savior.

By Johnold J. Strey

Pastor Strey served congregations in California for 15 years and as the Arizona-California District’s worship coordinator for a decade before coming to Crown of Life in Hubertus, Wisconsin in 2016. He earned a master’s degree in worship and church music from Santa Clara University in 2009. He has served on the School of Worship Enrichment team and on the hymnal’s Rites Committee and is the author of Christian Worship: God Gives His Gospel Gifts (NPH).


1 The best resource for a succinct yet thorough summary of WELS worship history is James Tiefel’s “The Formation and Flow of Worship Attitudes in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod,” in Not unto Us: A Celebration of the Ministry of Kurt J. Eggert (NPH, 2001). See also two presentations at this summer’s worship conference Prof. Joel Otto’s “175 Years of Change in WELS Worship” and my “The Story of The Service in CW21” – welsworshipconference.net.
2 See “Proclaiming the Gospel in Worship” in Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, Vol. 105 No. 4 (Fall 2008), particularly part 2, “Proclaiming the Gospel—in Symbol,” pp. 256-269; “Worship and the Right Brain” in Worship the Lord, No. 79 (July 2016); and Christian Worship: God Gives His Gospel Gifts (NPH, 2021), particularly chapter 11, “Symbolism,” pp. 199-217.
3 Christian Worship: Foundations (NPH, 2023) is one of several supporting volumes for the new hymnal; see chapter 16, “Worship Symbols.”
4 A simple symbolic action that can be used with the new marriage rite in Christian Worship (2021) is for the minister to place his hand on the joined hands of the couple after the exchange of rings as he prays, “Lord, pour out your blessing…” (p. 272). While subtle and simple, this visualizes the marriage truth that we cannot see, that God (represented by his called servant) is the One who joins husband and wife together as one.
5 For a fuller discussion, see Worship the Lord, No. 79 (July 2016), especially page 2: worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/wtl-practical-ideas-worship. See also Christian Worship: God Gives His Gospel Gifts, pp. 202-203.
6 I am blessed to serve a church with a few retired pastors, seminary professors, and seminary students in the congregation. One of them assists me with the imposition at each Ash Wednesday service. After one year when I choked up while imposing ashes on my wife and children, my family knows that they need to go in the other minister’s line on Ash Wednesday.
7 December 2023, pp. 17-20
8 Frank Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), pp. 211-212
9 Rose is the Roman Catholic Church’s liturgical color for Advent 3 and Lent 4.
10 Senn, ibid.
11 It is with this understanding that I wrote the devotional articles based on the Advent wreath for the December 2023 edition of Forward in Christ. My personal preference is for blue paraments and four blue candles around the Advent wreath. But like many liturgical customs, there is no “one right way.”
12 See “Flags in the Worship Space,” at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-more-worship-words-to-wrestle-with.


 

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Preach the Word – The New Homiletic

Themes in Current Homiletical Theory

The New Homiletic

As Fred Craddock looked out at the American mainline church around 1970, he saw some major problems. People were not listening or attending church. People did not care about an inspired, authoritative Bible or about societal institutions—especially after the countercultural movements in the tumultuous 1960s. All this could not help but affect the American pulpit. This was the time when, according to the homiletical historian Hughes Oliphant Old, the great era of American preaching simply was coming to an end.1 The American pulpit needed something new. So Craddock helped launch this grand movement away from deductive, authoritative preaching. He was convinced preaching needed to be done in an inductive way much more sensitive to the hearer—as one without authority.

So began the New Homiletic.2 As with any movement, it is oversimplistic to credit one person or book with starting everything, but Craddock’s As One Without Authority—first published in 1971 and now in its fourth edition—was certainly formative. Craddock is critical of the deductive, theme-and-subparts style of preaching that was based on classical rhetoric and had long been part of Christian preaching. He laments that preachers have used this form for too long, “The sermons of our time have, with few exceptions, kept the same form. … Either preachers have access to a world that is neat, orderly, and unified, which gives their sermons their form, or they are out of date and out of touch with the way it is. In either case, they do not communicate.”3 Not only does deductive preaching not conform to the messy complexities of our modern world, but it also does not conform to educational theory, which is based on discussion and participation—not lectures.4 Expository preaching is “guilty of archaism,” the Scriptures “shackle the minister,” and the sermon still has the traditional view of “clearly discernible authoritarianism.”5 However, once preachers abandon the three-point, Aristotelian deductive method, they will stand “at the threshold of new pulpit power.”6 As with many New Homileticians, Craddock often does a good job of identifying problems. His proposed solutions could be questioned. No matter what you make of him, Craddock’s influence is indelible. As William Bronsend said when Craddock recently died, he “changed everything about preaching at a time when nothing less would do.”7

Basic Features of the New Homiletic

While the New Homiletic is a broad movement with differences within it, here are some basic features:

  1. the turn to the hearer
  2. the shift from deductive to inductive/narrative
  3. the sermon as an existential word event8

Now this might seem that all the New Homiletic is trying to accomplish is a better job of application. That is not the case. Much more is at work here. The New Homiletic arose from the New Hermeneutic and twentieth-century existential theology. That means the turn to the hearer is not so much meant to apply the text to the congregation but to allow the congregation to participate in the meaning of the text, as the text is recreated through the church’s continual experience and revelation. Craddock justifies this on the important role of the hearer in communication theory, in Luther’s theology of the priesthood of all believers, in the church’s role in canonizing Scripture, and in his own synergistic theology.9 Simply put, Craddock does not believe in forcing preconceived conclusions onto the text but in allowing the hearers to come to their own conclusions.10

I am concerned that confessional preachers will overreact to the New Homiletic.

So certainly, for us who are committed to the inspiration of Scriptures, who emphasize the Spirit’s work in creating and strengthening faith through the proclamation of the Word, who believe preaching comes with authority (Jer 23:29), I am by no means giving the New Homiletic a full endorsement. Even Craddock himself wondered later in his life if he moved too far away from textual content.11 So what to make of the New Homiletic? I am not concerned that confessional pastors will not be able to spot these considerable doctrinal differences. I am concerned that confessional pastors will overreact to the New Homiletic, throw the baby out with the bathwater, and miss out on some current homiletical insights that could really aid them in preaching to a culture that distrusts authority.

Inductive Preaching

To go back to the historical background of the origin of the New Homiletic, Craddock and others were on to something when they recognized two things: twentieth-century American culture had become resistant to deductive, authoritarian, propositional truth statements, and inductive or narrative communication is uniquely situated to bypass the barriers a tuned-out (or hardened) culture puts up to scriptural proclamation. (To allay the fears of confessional preachers, we will see in this series’ next article that narrative and inductive communication is affirmed in Scripture itself.) Many people within America’s diverse culture hear classic, deductive preaching and retort, “Who are you to assume that the norm for your truth claims is normative for everyone else?” If confessional preachers are not sensitive to this and their thunderous claim, “Thus says the Word of the Lord,” becomes perceived not just as an authoritative message but authoritarianism, then their audience is tuned out from the very beginning, and any hope they will actually pay attention is lost. Confessional preachers are rightfully concerned about preaching the text, but at the end of the day, we also want the text to be heard. Maybe the issue is not so much the message but the way in which the message is delivered. Here the New Homiletic has much to teach us, especially for those who use deductive preaching so much that we routinely say what we will say (introduction), say it (body), and say what we just said (conclusion). If that’s all people hear all the time, they rightfully start to get tired of it—and we preachers need to look in the mirror. To solve this problem, we need to find a way to pair an infallible Bible with the homiletical approaches of Craddock and Lowry.

Inductive or narrative communication is uniquely situated to bypass the barriers a tuned-out (or hardened) culture puts up to scriptural proclamation.

Fred Craddock’s Narrative Preaching

Fred Craddock goes down as the father of narrative preaching. This movement, so central to the New Homiletic, has now taken over the homiletical world. And that is, largely so, a good thing. As Old says, “There is something obviously true about this movement. One of the basic responsibilities of the preacher is to recount the story, the Heilsgeschichte, the history of salvation. … Narrative preaching does not exhaust the preaching vocation … but storytelling is of the essence of preaching.”12 It is not too much of an exaggeration to say a preacher is as good as his storytelling. Not to mention, the vast majority of Scripture is narrative. In particular, the entire OT is essentially a narrative of God’s action from creation up until he was about to send the Savior into the world. On Thanksgiving Eve in 2019, I custom designed the service around five psalms of thanksgiving. I preached on Psalm 136, which is unique in two ways: the antiphonal refrain (“His love endures forever”) repeats over and over, and the whole psalm is a narrative recounting Israel’s history. So my sermon employed Craddock’s concept of overhearing13 to layer the sermon with multiple communicative aspects:

  1. The introduction artfully sketched the scene as the Israelites gather for Passover and sing this psalm antiphonally in the temple (as we sung it in church).
  2. The exposition is framed from the perspective of an Israelite head of household, who tells his family the story of God’s love over the table.
  3. The application is framed from the perspective of an Israelite head of household, who shares what he would say to the people of America today.
  4. The conclusion alludes back to the introduction and sketches the scene as my congregation gathers with their families for Thanksgiving and then closes by asking them which stories they will tell.14

Now notice exactly what I’m doing. I’m crafting the sermon as if we were all a fly on the wall during the Jewish holiday of Passover thousands of years ago. For the majority of the sermon, I’m acting like I’m not even talking to my own congregation. I’m just talking in first person like an Israelite head of household. Everyone else is just listening in. I do not address them until the very end. That’s the whole point. I’m purposely inviting them to take their barriers down, but all along, they are indirectly hearing the gospel in story form.

Eugene Lowry’s Loop

Eugene Lowry studied under Craddock and is another New Homiletician. Since his approach is now part of senior homiletics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, I will focus on his book. Lowry’s approach is a five-part inductive form, often called a “Lowry Loop:”

  1. Upsetting the Equilibrium
  2. Analyzing the Discrepancy
  3. Disclosing the Key to Resolution
  4. Experiencing the Gospel
  5. Anticipating the Consequences15

At first glance, it might seem Lowry’s approach goes like this: problems–PROBLEM–SOLUTION–solutions. Or it might seem it is a classic Lutheran evangelistic presentation—a “God’s Great Exchange” of sorts—that goes from sin, to grace, to faith, to fruits of faith. That is an oversimplification of Lowry. Lowry’s loop is a highly disciplined, yet highly artful, communicative form that first embraces the hearers’ natural objections to the text, leads them to eventually see how their own assumptions will lead to dead ends, then exposes the hearers to something they had never considered before, then leads them to see how this something new is a richer and fuller understanding, and finally explores how all this will impact their lives.

There are two make-or-break parts of a Lowry Loop that are absolutely crucial: the first and the third. The opening is not meant to create interest in the subject matter in the audience, as in traditional forms of oratory. The congregation immediately needs to sense, “Oh, there’s a problem here.” More specifically, they need to sense, “There’s a problem with the text.” A Lowry Loop goes much more quickly to the text than traditional preaching, which may not quote the Bible until much later in the exposition/body. For example, here is the opening of my Thanksgiving Eve sermon from 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, preached as a Lowry Loop in 2020 in the height of COVID:

These unbearable words from Scripture seem so trite in their brevity and so offensive in their simplicity. Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Seriously? Nothing more said than that? No caveats, no nuances, no exceptions? Always thankful? Even in the worst year ever? People are sick and dying, yet again. Hospitals are on the brink, yet again. PPP is running low, yet again. Students have been sent home, yet again. Churches are going virtual, yet again. A stay-at-home order has been issued, yet again. Restaurants are shuttered, yet again. Twelve million are set to lose unemployment benefits after Christmas unless another relief package somehow gets passed in a lame duck session. People don’t know where they’ll live, what they’ll eat, or how they’ll stay sane. Families are torn apart in an emotional back-and-forth between CDC guidelines and precious holiday traditions. … And God wants us to be thankful in a year like this? The only thing to be thankful for is New Year’s Eve, when we can kick the worst year ever to the curb and kiss it goodbye!

Now notice exactly what I’m doing. I’m embracing the hearer’s natural objection to the text and saying (at least for now), “You’re right. You’re right to be mad about this text. I agree with you, and I’m going to go along with you to see where this takes us.” So I find a Lowry Loop particularly useful, not only in preaching NT texts that are obviously inductive in form (like 1 Corinthians 15:12-22), but especially in preaching offensive OT texts that grind against Western sensibilities (like Isaiah 45:18-25).16 You need to nail a Lowry Loop in the opening few sentences, or else it’s doomed from the start.

We need to find a way to pair an infallible Bible with the homiletical approaches of Craddock and Lowry.

Another absolutely crucial part of a Lowry Loop is the third part. This is where the entire sermon, rhetorically speaking, turns. After embracing the hearer’s natural objections to the text, and then getting deeper and deeper into the mess along with them, this is the grand “aha!” moment. Here is where you say, “If A (your objection) is true, why is not B (what you sense is right) also true? Maybe your assumptions have been flawed from the get-go. Maybe you haven’t considered all the options. What about this?” Here is how my Thanksgiving Eve sermon continued:

Here’s the ultimate issue. This year it’s easy to create a long list of things we aren’t thankful for: death, sickness, unemployment, stress, virtual learning, curtailed freedom. If you take that approach, there’s always things you can find to not be thankful for. For argument’s sake, let’s even envision a normal year. The college graduate, instead of focusing on a diploma from a great university, focuses on how she doesn’t have a house. The busy parent, instead of focusing on the blessing of children, focuses on how they can’t behave. The successful person, instead of focusing on a very sufficient paycheck, focuses on how he doesn’t earn six figures. That’s the perpetual problem: focusing on things we don’t have, instead of focusing on what we do have. So if we can’t be thankful in difficult situations, we actually won’t be thankful in any situation! We’ll always find more things we don’t have, more things to complain about. You’ll be digging yourself a vicious hole that will result in stress, envy, and discontentment in the worst year ever and in the best year ever. What’s the one thing that can get us out of this hole? What is the one unchanging constant you can be thankful for—no matter what? That would make all the difference!17

This is the grand “aha!” moment—where the lightbulb goes off and the epiphany occurs. The exclamation point in your manuscript needs to be reflected in some drama and excitement in your delivery. You need to absolutely nail this part of a Lowry Loop, or else the sermon will just fizzle.

Inductive preaching does not give the preacher more freedom. It forces the preacher to be more constrained—to only give away certain things at certain times.

To be clear, inductive preaching is a nuanced facet of current homiletics. You have to know what you are doing. Inductive preaching does not give the preacher more freedom, as if he can just take the sermon in whatever direction he wants, because he’s bringing the hearers along for the ride, and the ride is what counts. Inductive preaching forces the preacher to be more constrained—to only give away certain things at certain times. If you are going to attempt a Lowry Loop, you need to follow it precisely and do it the way it is intended. Done poorly, a Lowry Loop becomes an incoherent mess that leaves hearers completely confused. Done well, a Lowry Loop becomes some of the most powerful preaching you will ever hear.

The New Homiletic has profoundly shaped homiletics in the last fifty years. To be conversant with current homiletical theory, one has to be familiar with the New Homiletic.18 This requires preachers to read widely and get outside the comfortable parameters of theologians who have a commitment to scriptural infallibility. If preachers in our circles can do the hard work of reading with discernment and sift the wheat from the chaff, they will come away with greater flexibility in preaching an authoritative Word in an intriguing, inductive way to a skeptical world.

Written by Jacob Haag

Rev. Dr. Haag serves at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Ann Arbor, MI. His doctorate is from Westminster Theological Seminary with research in New Testament and preaching. His research project was entitled “Evangelical Exhortation: Paraenesis in the Epistles as Rhetorical Model for Preaching Sanctification.” He also serves on the Michigan District Commission on Worship.


1 Hughes Oliphant Old, Our Own Time, vol. 7 of The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 1-2.
2 The term was coined in 1965 by David Randolph at the first meeting of the Academy of Homiletics.
3 Craddock, As One Without Authority, 4th ed. (St. Louis: Chalice, 2001), 13.
4 Craddock, As One Without Authority, 15.
5 Craddock, As One Without Authority, 17.
6 Craddock, As One Without Authority, 38.
7 William Brosend, “Something Else Is Lacking: Remembering Fred B. Craddock,” Anglican Theological Review 101, no. 1 (2019): 129.
8 O. Wesley Allen, “Introduction: The Pillars of the New Homiletic,” in The Renewed Homiletic, ed. O. Wesley Allen and David Buttrick (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 7-9.
9 Fred Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985), 28, 39, 86; Craddock, As One Without Authority, 18, 51, 96-97; Fred Craddock, “The Sermon and the Uses of Scripture,” Theology Today 42, no. 1 (April 1985): 9.
10 Craddock, “Inductive Preaching Renewed,” in The Renewed Homiletic, 44-45.
11 Craddock, “Inductive Preaching Renewed,” 50.
12 Old, Our Own Time, 30.
13 See Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel (St. Louis: Chalice, 2002).
14 The entire sermon is available on the Commission on Worship website: worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/preach-the-word-volume-28
15 Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form, Expanded ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).
16 See my example sermons on the Commission on Worship website, endnote 14.
17 See my example sermon on the Commission on Worship website, endnote 14. (The two midweek Thanksgiving Eve sermons above are significantly shorter than my normal Sunday sermons.)
18 Bryan Chapell has a section on the New Homiletic in Christ-Centered Preaching, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 162–168.


For Further Study
  • For more on Fred Craddock and the theology of the New Homiletic, see my article in Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly (117:3), “A New Look at the New Homiletic: An Evaluation of Fred Craddock’s Bibliology”
  • For more on alternate sermon styles, consider Prof. Jon Micheel’s Summer Quarter course, “Survey of Sermon Structures”

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

 

Participation

More Worship Words to Wrestle With

Participation

Is participation in public worship a breaking of the Fourth Wall?

All the World’s a Stage

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…”1 While Jaques’ soliloquy is considered some of William Shakespeare’s finest poetry and is one of many Shakespearean quotations that remain in common usage, it has become an oft-used modern idiom for a broad range of applications. Seen positively or negatively, collectively or parochially, it speaks to the way in which each of us must temporarily “tread the boards” of this thing called life.

Because the idiom is so encompassing, many aspects of theater have been applied to all sorts and conditions in life. One aspect in particular has found broad application: the concept of the fourth wall. The fourth wall is really a metaphor, completing the “four walls” of a theater—the stage mise-en-scène bordered by three “solid” walls. The proscenium and arch are an invisible “fourth wall,” creating a barrier between actors and audience. The audience can see through it while the actors pretend that they cannot.

In many ways, the fourth wall didn’t exist until the 16th century. Ancient performances, medieval morality plays, even Elizabethan theater, were mostly in the round, or otherwise in the midst of the people, with narrators and characters engaging the audience through winks, nods, soliloquies, questioning, and active participation. (Think Peter Pan inviting the audience to clap for Tinker Bell.)

But by the 19th century, there were strict rules throughout much of Western theater, making the so-called Fourth Wall inviolate. It would be another century before writers, directors, and actors would break through the “wall” and once again engage the audience. Actors will acknowledge within the script that they are fictional characters. They will speak directly to the audience to set the scene or explain a situation. They will bravely step out into the auditorium, making use of public doors and aisles. They will even sometimes let the audience change the course of the script. In such ways, the Fourth Wall isn’t merely broken or shattered, it is obliterated.

The Church’s Four Walls

The “breaking of the Fourth Wall” concept is not confined to theater. It can readily be found as a literary device, even in Scripture. A few striking examples include Moses’ “humble” side comment in Numbers 12:32, the many narrator-type Old Testament connections of Matthew’s gospel, and Jesus’ direct address “let the reader understand” in Mark 13.3 One could argue that the Epistles, by their very nature and the expressed directive that they be passed from congregation to congregation, shows an intent that there be no Fourth Wall between the 1st century world of the early Christian church and every generation to come.

Not surprisingly, the Fourth Wall metaphor has often been applied to the church of today. Discipleship, evangelism, elders’ work—nearly every area of ministry has some aspect of breaking down real or perceived barriers to the words and works of Jesus. Author Wes Vander Lugt summarizes the application this way:

Overall, I am suggesting that interactive theatre provides a compelling model by which to re-imagine Christian mission, not as a mission to unbelievers through an impenetrable fourth wall or a mission with others where no fourth wall exists, but a mission among and in interaction with unbelieving guests in the context of our everyday lives. In order to participate in God’s mission, we need to take church beyond the fourth wall.4

Nearly every area of ministry has some aspect of breaking down real or perceived barriers.

What Wall?

While Vander Lugt’s point has some validity as applied to congregational life—we do tend to hide behind church walls where it is warm and comfortable—are there Fourth Wall implications or parallels for a congregation’s public worship life?

Though there are plenty of descriptions of public worship in both Old and New Testaments, there is no prescription for what New Testament age worship should look like. This is not to say that the New Testament does not have anything to say about public worship. Though it does not dictate the forms for public worship, it does say that public worship should not be formless.

As the apostles proclaimed the words and work of Jesus, they connected the Old Testament to its fulfillment in him. As they heard the life of Christ proclaimed, believers naturally responded with thanksgiving, praising God for the great things he had done and was continuing to do. As the message of Christ dwelled in them richly, the Holy Spirit continued to work in them both the will and the ability to love others as they were first loved by Christ.

And so it continues today, from generation to generation. Paul’s declaration to the Galatians is yours and mine, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I am now living in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”5 The life of Christ is our life. By grace, through faith, we are not viewers but participants in God’s plan for redemption, renewal, and resurrection to eternal life. As the gospel is proclaimed in Word and sacrament, as we gather around these means of grace to our eternal good, and as we respond with gospel proclamation in praise and thanksgiving, we worship.

The congregation’s Spirit-effected response to the gift of salvation, conveyed in Word and sacrament, is itself Word… This responding, confessing, thanking, and glorifying word of the congregation will always recall the great and saving deeds of God’s might; it will acknowledge, laud, and glorify them prayerfully, and in this manner also proclaim and present them to others.6

This is our calling, our right, our responsibility, our joy. In other words, in public worship, the audience can no more be separated from the action than the action “for us and our salvation” can be separated from us. There is no Fourth Wall. In fact, there are no “walls” at all!

In public worship, the audience cannot be separated from the action.

Walled Off

And yet, nearly throughout the history of public worship in the New Testament Age, there are those who would construct a wall between Jesus Christ and the people he has saved. From the Gnostics to the monastics to the Arminian Evangelicals there has been a determined effort to shift the emphasis from Christ’s sacrifice for you to the by me of self-wisdom, self-sacrifice, and self-prove-ment. By the end of the first millennium A.D., the sacrifice of the Mass was firmly entrenched in the Western Church, replacing the Christ’s sacrifice for us with its own so-called sacrifice, but also removing, to varying degrees, participation in the sacrament by the people. Screens were built to literally wall the people off from the message and actions of public worship, the Life of Christ only to be glimpsed in stained glass or meted out in small doses, lest the people have no need for the church.

Even after Luther’s reforms, Calvinism deemphasized the grace of God for the almighty rule of God and robbed the people of the efficacy of the sacraments. Within Lutheranism, the Pietists sought to emphasize Christ in us, not in balance with, but at the expense of Christ for us. Methodism and Arminianism determinedly pulled the spotlight from the Life of Christ to shine on proving oneself and a personal decision for Christ. Nearly across the landscape of public worship in America was a pervasive attitude to “do what works,” an attitude that continues to color public worship decisions today.

Finally, one thing that all these abuses of public worship (not to mention abuses of the Word and sacraments) have in common, is a moving away from, or at the very least an obscuring of, what one could call Life-of-Christ worship.7

Peruse the website and watch a few online services from your local Evangelical mega-church and you will readily see the shift. Christmas is observed and celebrated, but what of the preparatory and anticipatory weeks of Advent? Though not always the case, Easter is observed and celebrated, but Good Friday is rare (perhaps only every few years!). The rest of Holy Week, Palm Sunday in particular, is lost to the ages. The sovereignty of Christ is often emphasized, but the humble King riding into Jerusalem is dismissed as an archaic reference to some by-gone tradition of waving palms.

The rest of the year is filled with preaching series on self-improvement, congregational visions, and situational ethics in which the Life of Christ is relegated to an occasional reference, hidden behind walls of “relevance,” and instrumentalized for personal purposes.8 If observed at all, Baptism and Holy Communion are embarrassingly dismissed with a wink and nod that “some people need this sort of thing.”

The apostle John was inspired to conclude his Gospel account with these words: “Jesus, in the presence of his disciples, did many other miraculous signs that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”9 The apostle Peter declared that we “are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, the people who are God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”10 As such, the purpose of Christian worship is to praise God by proclaiming the gospel in Word and sacrament.

A determined effort to shift the emphasis from Christ’s sacrifice for you to the by me of self-wisdom, self-sacrifice, and self-prove-ment.

Can public worship fully honor the Word of the Lord when the Life of Christ, the story of him who is our light and life, is reduced to occasional glimpses, disjointed references, and whimsical illustrations seemingly on par with the ever-loved personal story?

God wants to call human beings to eternal salvation, to draw them to himself, to convert them, to give them new birth, and to sanctify them through these means, and in no other way than through his holy Word (which people hear proclaimed or read) and the through the sacraments (which they use according to his Word).11

A lack or even diminished role of the Life of Christ in public worship contributes to construction of not just a Fourth Wall, but the whole theater. Worshipers become audience, engaged through “winks and nods,” creative preaching, and musical selections—perhaps glimpsing occasional nuggets in Christ’s story, but nuggets primarily for private insight and application. This loss of Christo-centricity, deemphasized gospel proclamation, and preference for a rationalized subjectivity in worship slowly and tragically distances attendees from the true heart of worship, transforming them from participants to at best outside-the-box enthusiastic appreciators and at worst shadowed cheap-seaters, slipping out the nearest exit.

Tearing Down the Walls

But as all Christians have the right and responsibility to declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light, we do well to encourage such declaration through Word and sacrament as the gospel message is proclaimed in the Life of Christ. To encourage such participation, public worship acknowledges what is already true, Christ is in us because he has been, and is, for us. We prioritize gospel predominance, we strive to faithfully use God’s gifts, we honor the historical experiences of the church, and we encourage the participation of God’s people in freedom and love.

Consider the many-layered ways in which the Life of Christ is proclaimed in public worship through ritual, calendar, readings, preaching, music, art, architecture, and language. All of these combine to create an invitational environment in which those sweet words, “Your sins are forgiven,” provide the counter-intuitive and counter-cultural message that releases and transitions lost souls from the grip of sin and the strictures of society to the freedom for which Christ has set us free. Oh, that this message of forgiveness and grace would not be reduced to merely a weekly reference in absolution and a monthly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but generously offered again and again through Word, sacrament, liturgy, and song! Frank Senn explains in Christian Liturgy:

It is something else to obediently proclaim the word and administer the sacraments and to be surprised by the work of God, to see how the Holy Spirit works in, with, and through the means of grace to produce a faith response. What finally makes worship authentic is not human design but the presence of Christ in the proclamation of the gospel and in the celebration of the sacraments, whose Spirit works through these means to create, sustain, and awaken faith.12

As the totality of our being is found in Christ, our public worship is the mirror image of his life lived for us, sacrificed for us, and raised for us. Participation in the actions of public worship brings us together, strengthens our bond as a family of believers, gives expression to our unity of faith, and prepares us for returning to the outside world. It is the actions of public worship that move us from the liminality of self to the unity of us as we participate in standing together, sitting together, reading together, praying together, confessing together, singing together, and communing together. As the apostle Paul declared:

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a communion of the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a communion of the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.13

By grace, through faith, in Christ alone, this is our calling, our right, our responsibility, our joy.

The actions of public worship move us from the liminality of self to the unity of us as we participate.

All In

It’s good for the pastor not only to rightly understand participation but also to teach it. Here are some idea-starters for verbal or printed explanations:

  • Ritual: See a section in Foundations, Ritual and Ceremony (page 212ff) for “several teaching angles.” Our Worth to Him: Devotions for Christian Worship, Unit 1: The Story of Worship, offers the perspective of a participant in worship as one among many worshipers spanning space and time and eternity.
  • Calendar: The Church Year isn’t merely a way for pastors to organize worship themes. It’s also something that forms us together as Lutheran Christians, something that you can echo in your homes by means of devotions (cf. the link in today’s worship folder for free options from The Foundation: welscongregationalservices.net/foundation-yr-b).
  • Preaching: How does preaching involve participation if only one person is talking? Several possible ways: active and focused listening, the “work” of concentration, taking notes on key points both to aid attention and for later reinforcement, intentionally applying some point in a personal way even if the pastor doesn’t make that specific application. A great resource is the new “My Christian Worship” journal and accompanying Bible study: online.nph.net/my-christian-worship.html
  • Music: Singing hymns is obvious participation. But how does one participate when listening to instrumental music? Include an occasional note in the worship folder regarding service music. Here’s an example.
    Suo Gan Reverie, by Franklin Ashdown [from The Eventide Collection, CPH 2006]
    The Welsh title for this music translates as “Soothing Song.” It was used in Steven Spielberg’s movie, Empire of the Sun. Our new hymnal uses it for two new texts: 647 and 669. While neither is sung in today’s service, 669 may serve for preservice meditation on Holy Communion.
  • How do we participate in art? By consciously taking it in as message and not merely decoration. Explain the Christian symbols by printing explanations in your worship folder. Example: Carved into our altar is the symbol AΩ. These are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and omega. They symbolize the eternal nature of Jesus Christ. “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.’” (See Foundations, chapter 16, for deeper understanding and quotable quotes to share.)
  • Architecture: Worship does not take place ideally from a stage (presentation to the people) but rather in a chancel and a nave, or a wide seating layout focused on the chancel. With a visual focus on the means of grace, with pastor and people participating in proclamation and praise, the form of the worship space encourages the actions of public worship. Use Foundations, chapter 15, Worship Space, to enrich understanding and appreciation.

By Joel Gawrisch

Pastor Gawrisch served for 14 years at Christ Lutheran before taking a call to New Life in Shoreview, Minnesota. He is the Minnesota District Worship Coordinator. He has also served on the Schools of Worship Enrichment team, the Rites Committee for the WELS Hymnal Project, and with the Commission on Congregational Counseling’s Self-Assessment and Adjustment Program.


1 From “As You Like It” Act 2, Scene 7 (line 139), by William Shakespeare
2 Numbers 12:3: Now the man Moses was very humble, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.
3 Mark 13:14; also recorded in Matthew 24:15.
4 itiablog.wordpress.com/2010/10/08/church-beyond-the-fourth-wall/.
5 Galatians 2:20
6 Peter Brunner, Worship in the Name of Jesus, tr. by M. H. Bertram (CPH, 1968) pp. 122-124 as quoted in Christian Worship: Foundations (NPH, 2023) pp. 30-31.
7 For an exposition on Life-of-Christ pubic worship, see Michael Berg’s On Any Given Sunday: The Story of Christ in the Divine Service available from 1517 Publishing: shop.1517.org/products/on-any-given-sunday-the-story-of-christ-in-the-divine-service.
8 See Caleb Bassett’s comments on instrumentalizing Jesus in Preach the Word Vol. 27, No. 1.
9 John 20:30,31
10 1 Peter 2:9
11 Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration II, 49-50 as quoted in Worship, Gottesdienst, Cultus Dei: What the Lutheran Confessions Say About Worship (CPH, 2005) p. 90.
12 Senn, Frank C. Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997) p. 565.
13 1 Corinthians 10:16,17


 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

 

Preach the Word – Redemptive-Historical Preaching

Themes in Current Homiletical Theory

Redemptive-Historical Preaching

Charles Spurgeon is one of the most famous preachers in homiletical history. In his massive seven-volume set on the history of preaching, Hughes Oliphant Old gives this nineteenth-century Reformed Baptist preacher from London high praise, “There was no voice in the Victorian pulpit as resonant, no preacher as beloved by the people, no orator as prodigious as Charles Haddon Spurgeon.”1 In his sermon entitled, “Christ Precious to Believers,” Spurgeon tells a story that compares Christ to the grand metropolis of London:

A young man had been preaching in the presence of a venerable divine, and after he had done he went to the old minister, and said, “What do you think of my sermon?” “A very poor sermon indeed,” said he. “A poor sermon?” said the young man, “it took me a long time to study it.” “Ay, no doubt of it.” “Why, did you not think my explanation of the text a very good one?” “Oh yes,” said the old preacher, “very good indeed.” “Well, then, why do you say it is a poor sermon? Didn’t you think the metaphors were appropriate and the arguments conclusive?” “Yes, they were very good as far as that goes, but still it was a very poor sermon.” “Will you tell me why you think it a poor sermon?” “Because,” said he, “there was no Christ in it.” “Well,” said the young man, “Christ was not in the text; we are not to be preaching Christ always, we must preach what is in the text.” So the old man said, “Don’t you know young man that from every town, and every village, and every little hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London?” “Yes,” said the young man. “Ah!” said the old divine “and so from every text in Scripture, there is a road to the metropolis of the Scriptures, that is Christ. And my dear brother, your business is when you get to a text, to say, ‘Now what is the road to Christ?’ and then preach a sermon, running along the road towards the great metropolis—Christ. And,” said he, “I have never yet found a text that had not got a road to Christ in it, and if I ever do find one that has not a road to Christ in it, I will make one; I will go over hedge and ditch but I would get at my Master, for the sermon cannot do any good unless there is a savour of Christ in it.”2

Christ is the center of all Scripture.

Spurgeon was convinced that the best preaching is focused on Christ. No matter the text, the sermon must lead people to Christ, because Christ is the center of all Scripture. As Jesus taught the Emmaus disciples “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Lk 24:27, emphasis added), so redemptive-historical preachers who follow Spurgeon preach Christ from all Scripture. This is what the redemptive-historical, Christ-centered model of preaching is all about.3

Basic Features of Redemptive-Historical Preaching

Redemptive-historical preaching is based on redemptive-historical hermeneutics. Redemptive-historical hermeneutics (also called a biblical-theological approach)4 is a way of interpreting Scripture in its grand canonical context of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. This four-part drama5 of human history finds its grand climax in Christ. History is uniquely redemptive history, because God has been crafting the story all along to give hints of what the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15) would later do in his redemptive work. God is still crafting this story to lead to the day when all creation will be redeemed and restored in the new heavens and new earth (Rom 8:19-25). Particularly in its Vosian form,6 redemptive-historical hermeneutics emphasizes the covenantal structure of Scripture to argue for its organic unity and Christocentric nature in response to critical approaches of Scripture that divorce the OT from the NT and which relegate Christ to something other than the main character from cover to cover. Here are some basic features of redemptive-historical preaching:

  • Redemptive-historical preaching is Christocentric. It does not matter if the text is from the OT or NT—or if the genre is narrative, prophecy, wisdom literature, Gospel, epistles, or apocalyptic—in one way or another, the text is about Christ. All roads lead to him.
  • Redemptive-historical preaching is typological. It does not only emphasize prophecy about Christ, but it also emphasizes how historical persons and events foreshadow Christ.
  • Redemptive-historical preaching is textual, exegetical, and academic. Redemptive-historical preaching is not for the faint of heart. Sermons are usually thirty minutes or more. Preaching is robust, especially because it often features lectio continua. Sometimes redemptive-historical preaching feels like reading a popular commentary on the Bible.
  • Redemptive-historical preaching is artful. It does not simply exegete a word/theme in its immediate context. It then bridges to how that word/theme is used throughout Scripture. Finally, it demonstrates how that word/theme climaxes in Christ. When first exposed to this approach, hearers are often amazed at the artistry of redemptive-historical preaching.

The best preaching is focused on Christ.

To illustrate a redemptive-historical approach with a simple example, here are selections from my Advent 4B sermon from 2 Samuel 7:8-16, with the theme, “Build a Bigger, Better House!”

Think of it like a pit stop on a road trip. For example, my parents live in Wisconsin. You have to travel through Chicago to get to Wisconsin. Can I say, “I traveled to Chicago?” Sure. We traveled there and stopped to get gas, food, and take a break. But I don’t travel to Chicago for the exclusive purpose of filling up my car with gas and grabbing a bite to eat. Chicago’s not the ultimate destination. The ultimate destination is when I turn on Meadowbrook Lane to see family. In the same way, can we say, “Is this promise fulfilled in Solomon?” Sure. The promise has to get traced through him. But Solomon is like a pit stop for lunch and gas. As good as it is, it’s not the ultimate destination. The place this prophetic road finally ends is in Christ, when Gabriel announced to Mary that her son Jesus would sit on David’s throne. …

God promises to build us a bigger, better house—an eternal kingdom—through David’s messianic descendant. To the bigger, better Son of David God would ultimately say, with the deepest significance of the words, “I will be his father, and he will be my son.” On Christmas Day, God’s Son, begotten from all eternity, also became Mary’s son. To the bigger, better Son of David God would ultimately say, with the deepest significance of the words, “I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands.” On Good Friday, God’s Son was punished with Pilate’s flogging, not because he sinned, but because he took our sin on himself. To the bigger, better Son of David God would ultimately say, with the deepest significance of the words, “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever.” On Easter, God’s Son proved that he could destroy this temple and rebuild it in three days, because Solomon’s temple that manifested God’s presence on earth was manifest once and for all in Jesus’ body on earth (Jn 2:19). The living and reigning Christ would endure for all eternity. Jesus takes what Solomon did and makes it bigger and better.

Objections against Redemptive-Historical Preaching

To go back to Spurgeon’s analogy, redemptive-historical preaching begins with the text and finds a road to Christ. The first major objection to redemptive-historical preaching, therefore, revolves around the question, “When is building a road to Christ legitimate? Is that connection really there, or is it simply the preacher’s fanciful imagination?” That is not simply a homiletical question; that is a hermeneutical question.

On one side of this debate is the position that a connection to Christ is only legitimate if the NT explicitly makes the connection. For example, if the NT does not explicitly say this is fulfilled in Christ, it is illegitimate allegory. The problem with this view is that it is a reductionistic and oversimplified view of what is a very nuanced and complicated aspect of current biblical research, the NT usage of the OT. This view essentially denies the phenomenon of an allusion. Many biblical authors (and preachers) use words or themes in a sophisticated way to refer to something else, without necessarily saying, “This happened so that these words would be fulfilled.” They are implying that, but they don’t explicitly say that in such convenient terms. On the other side of this debate is the position that a preacher can use anything to make a legitimate connection to Christ. For example, any mention of the color red becomes a connection to Christ’s blood, any mention of water becomes a connection to Baptism, or any mention of bread becomes a connection to Communion. The problem with this view is that it ignores the immediate context, which in many cases has nothing to do with Christ’s blood, Baptism, or Communion. The limited scope of this article prevents us from dealing with specific examples, but simply put, in between those two sides of the debate is where we want to be. Preachers need to use every legitimate avenue possible to get to Christ. If Lutherans thought they have found them all, they will be challenged and enriched by reading redemptive-historical homileticians, even if they do not agree with every connection they make (as I do not). There are explicit prophetical connections to Christ where we are on sure ground (see my sermon above). There are allegorical connections to Christ where we are on shaky ground. In the middle are many cases where we use inter-canonical allusions to say (with various degrees of certainty) to what degree they connect to Christ. When we are in this messy middle, we can preach how general themes point to Christ, without saying we know for sure that specific details point to Christ. That requires a nuanced approach from preachers today.

To go back to the definition of redemptive-historical preaching, redemptive-historical preaching focuses on God’s action throughout redemptive history. The second major objection to redemptive-historical preaching, therefore, revolves around the question, “What about the people? Is preaching only this grand exposition of the biblical story? Isn’t it also supposed to encourage the congregation to actually do something on Monday morning?” That is not simply a homiletical question; that is a hermeneutical question.

When is building a road to Christ legitimate?

On one side of the debate is the position that the very purpose of Scriptural revelation is to record God’s action for us, not our action for God, and any focus on doing something for God by imitating biblical figures is contrary to the purpose of redemptive history. For example, sermons that urge people to be more like David as he fights Goliath are bound to lead to legalism.7 On the other side of the debate is the position that Scripture includes many exhortations to godly living, and an exclusive focus on redemptive history is contrary to the ultimate purpose of Scripture, which is that people would respond to the text by believing or doing something. For example, sermons that constantly use the four-part redemptive-historical context are bound to be this overly abstract, grand sweep of biblical history that has precious little to do with everyday life.8 So where do we want to be? We need to emphasize that the central character of all Scripture is God (specifically Christ), but Scripture’s many exhortations toward godly living show that the Holy Spirit was not only concerned about recording redemptive history. He was also concerned with how believers respond to redemptive history in their participation in the work of God’s kingdom. Preaching that focuses on doing something for God or imitating other saints can be moralistic, but it does not have to be moralistic.9 The motivation is crucial. We do so, not because we are trying to gain more favor before God or improve our standing with other people, but because we are responding in gratitude for what God has done for us and wanting to advance his kingdom for his glory, not our own. That requires a nuanced approach from preachers today.

What about the people?

To illustrate how to properly preach the imitation of Christ, while being sensitive to the complexities of the redemptive-historical/exemplaristic debates, here are selections from my Easter 4A sermon from 1 Peter 2:19–25, with the theme, “Be Like Your Slaughtered Shepherd.”

Christ knows exactly what it is like to suffer unjustly for something you did not deserve. To be clear, Christ is first and foremost your Savior, who did what you could not when he died in your place to take away all your sins. You can never be like him in taking away your sins, nor do you ever need to be, because he has already done that for you. But that does not negate that Christ is also your example. He does call you to follow him on a path of suffering, and he inspires you to do what he did. So be like your slaughtered Shepherd, because he calls you to it.

Still today, it’s easy to feel like slaughtered sheep. Yes, we all want a nice, easy life, where God paves this smooth four-lane highway with no traffic and no problems straight to heaven. But this is not the Christian life! This was not the path for Christ. Christ suffered all the unjust beatings during his passion to perfectly fulfill God’s law for all the times we have resented or avoided or complained about our suffering. Christ took up our guilt on the cross, where our sins died away and where our righteous lives spring to life. Here’s the key: sheep are not on a different path than their Shepherd. You are united to your Savior Jesus, which means you will suffer unjustly too. What do you do when you feel like slaughtered sheep? Remember that Christ calls you to it. For the children here, Christ calls you to simply walking away from the class bully who wants to rile you up and make fun of you and fight with you. For the university students here, Christ calls you to humbly admit your faults in a cut-throat academic environment that just wants to prove how much smarter you are than everyone else. For the young professionals here, Christ calls you to embrace biblical sexuality when all your friends are telling you to do whatever you want with your own body. For the families here, Christ calls you to carve out time in your evenings and on your weekends for church, catechism, and Sunday school. For the retirees here, Christ calls you to generously support his church financially at a time when people are concerned about how big a retirement account they can have or how big an inheritance they can pass to their children. Because Christ does that for you, wouldn’t you do this all the more? So be more and more like your slaughtered Shepherd.10

We benefit from being much more familiar with redemptive-historical preaching.

Redemptive-historical preaching is the dominant paradigm in confessional Reformed preaching. Unless Lutherans have read widely outside their circles, they may not be very familiar with the intricacies of this approach. By now it should be apparent that there is plenty within this model of interpreting and preaching Scripture that Lutherans can appreciate and use, especially when preaching from the OT. We benefit from being much more familiar with redemptive-historical preaching.

Written by Jacob Haag

Rev. Dr. Haag serves at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Ann Arbor, MI. His doctorate is from Westminster Theological Seminary with research in New Testament and preaching. His research project was entitled “Evangelical Exhortation: Paraenesis in the Epistles as Rhetorical Model for Preaching Sanctification.” He also serves on the Michigan District Commission on Worship.


1 Hughes Oliphant Old, The Modern Age, vol. 6 of The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 422.
2 C. H. Spurgeon, “Christ Precious to Believers,” vol. 5 of The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1859), 140.
3 For redemptive-historical homiletics texts, start with Him We Proclaim by Dennis Johnson. Then consider also: Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell, Preaching by Timothy Keller, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text or Preaching Christ from the Old Testament by Sidney Greidanus, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture by Graeme Goldsworthy, and Preaching and Biblical Theology by Edmund Clowney.
4 Outside of our circles, biblical theology is not simply defined as exegesis or isagogics. It has the more nuanced definition I am describing here.
5 The concept of a “drama” is based on Calvin’s comparison of Christ’s cross to a “magnificent theater” where “the inestimable goodness of God is displayed before the whole world.” Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel according to John 2:73.
6 Geerhardus Vos taught at Princeton and was a leading confessional Reformed voice in early America. He is to the Reformed world what C.F.W. Walther is to the Lutheran world. See “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001), 234–267.
7 See Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 117–118, 163.
8 Watkins calls Krabbendam’s comparison of redemptive-historical preaching to an airplane that flies over the heads of people and the realities of life a “near infamous critique.” Watkins, The Drama of Preaching (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017), 7, fn. 22.
9 In his section on “be like,” “be good,” and “be disciplined” messages, Chapell writes, “There are many ‘be’ messages in Scripture, but they always reside in a redemptive context. . . . ‘Be’ messages are not wrong in themselves; they are wrong by themselves.” Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 294 (emphasis original).
10 Full versions of this sermon excerpt and the one above are available at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/preach-the-word-volume-28/


For Further Reading
  • For more on preaching Christ from all Scripture, see my forthcoming review of Him We Proclaim in the Shepherd’s Study: www.wisluthsem.org/grow-in-grace/shepherds-study
  • For an extensive example of redemptive-historical exegesis, see my previous WLQ article (118:1), “The Indicative Behind the Imperative in James 2:1-13”
  • For more on preaching the imitation of Christ, see my forthcoming WLQ article (121:1), “Preaching Christ as Example? Paraenesis in 1 Peter 2:21-25”

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Nutrition and Formation

More Worship Words to Wrestle With

Nutrition and Formation

The great questions of life pursue us. When they catch up to us, they grab ahold of us and do not let go. Philosophers muse upon them. Theologians preach about them. Politicians manipulate them. Laypeople think about these big questions too. What is the good life? How shall we live? Where did we come from and where are we going? How do the physical and spiritual interact? At the core of all these questions is an anthropological question: Who am I? This question pursues every person. It can even haunt us.

Genesis Anthropology

The early chapters of Genesis address this anthropological question. We are embodied souls. We are created in the image of God. This image is lost but a shell remains. This image is regained in Christ. We were created with original righteousness but now have original sin. It is all there. Genesis provides the reader with new angles on this existential question seemingly every time we take it up and read it. No wonder some of the great theologians like Luther and Augustine found their way back to Genesis late in their careers. The great questions grab ahold of us and do not let go.

Among other important doctrines, Genesis subtly tells us that humans are 1) psychosomatic people1, 2) people of words, 3) eaters, and 4) worshipers. First, we are psychosomatic people. We are not simply brains on a stick. We have bodies. You cannot get around it. A person cannot simply assert, “I am not spiritual.” We do not have a choice. This is as ridiculous as saying “I don’t have a body.” Yes, you do!

We are people of words. We were created by words. We primarily gain knowledge through words. We interact with each other primarily with words. We interact with God with/through words and are to take him at his Word. No wonder Jesus is the Word through whom all things were made.

We are also eaters. We eat not only to survive physically but to interact with one another. Try to think of a culture that does not gather around the table for important events. You can’t. It is how we mark occasions and enjoy each other. Eating is as much spiritual as it is physiological. No wonder God chooses to eat with us and not just speak with us.

Finally, we are worshipers. Every person has a number one in their life. They might not call it a god but it sure acts like one. It might be their nation-state, their political party, their family, their career, or anything else that gives them their identity and answers for them the great anthropological questions. These gods demand their time, their money, and their energy. Another way to say it is that they demand worship. But none of these gods love them back.

Nutrition and Formation

This Genesis anthropology is quite different than late modern anthropology. Late modern anthropology describes humans as evolved animals, as machines, or, more applicably, as consumers. Work is for production. Rest is to prepare us for work and not contemplation. Eating is for nutrition or fuel. Modern anthropology also tends to see humans as consumers of information. We are learners. Most of our activity is located in the brain, not in the heart or the stomach as the ancients saw it. This affects our view of ourselves, the world, God, and worship.

We need spiritual nutrition or as Ambrose famously stated, “Because I always sin, I ought always take the medicine.”2 He was speaking about Holy Communion, but it applies also to absolution and to the Word of God. We need it. Why? Because we are sinner-saints. We need the medicine. We need the nutrition. Jesus quotes a portion of this Old Testament passage during his temptation, “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Dt 8:3). Jesus is the Bread of Life that keeps us alive spiritually. We need it as much as we need physical bread and water, even more.

Ambrose: “Because I always sin, I ought always take the medicine.”

We also know that health is not just about putting the right food into our bodies (we are more than machines); it is also habitual. Healthy habits matter as much as calorie counting. We rightly speak about being fed by God’s Word, but perhaps a fuller concept than “nutrition” is “formation.” We are psychosomatic people that eat, use words, and worship. This means that words, eating, and physical realities like rituals, rites, architecture, and art form us. They make us who we are.

We can be malformed, or we can be formed beneficially. A child who lives in a violent home is malformed. As he grows, he might only express his emotions through violence. A child who grows up surrounded by books is more apt to be a seeker of knowledge. These things form us. Let’s take a look at two modern views of humans that (mal)form us. The first is the idea that we are primarily consumers. Advertisers want us to believe that certain products will change our lives and even give us an identity. “I am a Dodge guy” or “We are an Apple family.” We are even told in times of economic crises that it is our patriotic duty to play our consumer role in the economy. Our patriotism is connected to our consumerism. The second is that we are thinking-things or, more charitably, students. We take in information, and this makes us better people. We are smarter and more apt to be successful. Notice that these two views are connected. We consume information.

Both consumerism and information-ism affect our view of worship.

Notice also that both consumerism and information-ism affect our view of worship. We are consumers of the spiritual. This is different than seeing ourselves as embodied souls that need to be fed both physically and spiritually. We tend to choose what information we want to consume rather than approaching God to be formed.

The information matters, but we need to be more than informed; we need to be formed. We tend to privilege the information over the formation. We privilege the teaching over the ritual. This is an anthropological mistake. It assumes that we are primarily thinking-things, hearers, or, at best, students. It assumes that we are consumers of information. This is a mistake because we are embodied souls. The body matters. Christ comes to us not just in Word but in physical-Word. He knows who we really are despite our modern anthropology.

Let’s think about ritual and teaching for a moment. There are three options when it comes to the relationship between information and formation. Option number one is ritual without teaching. Scripture repeatedly warns us about this. “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings” (Ps 51:16). This only ends in shallow work-righteousness. We go through the motions, and this somehow benefits us. The second option is teaching without ritual. Theoretically this can work. A person can hear the Word of God and believe it. But this option is mediocre and, I would argue, not possible. We still occupy time and space. Every church is liturgical. The pastor has to wear something! The congregation has to gather somewhere! There must be an order of service even if it is sitting with Quakers in a bare room waiting for the Spirit to move someone to speak. That’s a liturgy and that liturgy proclaims a theology and forms the worshiper. The third option is ritual with teaching. This is the best option because it fully embraces our anthropological reality: we are embodied souls that occupy time and space and are formed not just by information but by art, architecture, movement, song, and prayer.

Forgiveness is not a reminder of an ancient event but a delivery of that forgiveness.

Explaining ritual also provides an opportunity to teach that forgiveness is not a reminder of an ancient event but a delivery of that forgiveness. The saving actions of Christ are not merely for us to recall intellectually but for us to receive in the here and now with real ears from real voices. Forgiveness is a present reality, medicine, and nutrition that continually forms us and maintains our status with God. Absolution is a good case study. I prefer when the absolution is spoken in the first person, present tense, “I forgive,” rather than in the third person, past tense, “God forgave.” I am not arguing that one is more valid than the other. It’s not. Yet there is something special about the pronouncement of forgiveness in the present moment instead of a slight degree of separation between the repentant Christian and the forgiveness. It is as if the minister says to the penitent, “Make no mistake about it, right here and right now, these sins are forgiven.” It is not a reminder of a past event or even a declaration of a present event occurring elsewhere. It’s an event that is occurring right here and right now.

Not only does the different subject in the absolution teach us about the tangible means by which God delivers his grace, but ritual can as well. If taught properly, liturgical actions like kneeling for confession, the sign of the cross employed with absolution, and bowing the head also teach the present reality of the forgiveness delivered through the voice of the minister (Jn 20:21-23). The same can be true of other rituals. Think of an eight-sided baptismal font that points to the eight people in the ark (1 Peter 3:20) and to our eternal life.3 Or consider the musical contrast between the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei? The heavenly “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Rv 4:8) joins the heavenly choir with the choir of worshipers in the local congregation in great anticipation of a foretaste of the heavenly banquet while the Angus Dei sobers the worshiper. Christ must die and we must carry a cross. All of this forms us.

We privilege the teaching over the ritual. This is an anthropological mistake.

With this reality in mind, it seems that the best course of action is to thoughtfully and deliberately plan—and teach—worship so that all five senses are engaged, proclaiming the gospel clearly and boldly to embodied souls. What follows are a few simple examples of how we can be thoughtful about such matters without falling into the trap of empty ritual. As we go forward, remember that we are either formed or malformed. Everything we do matters. It is a heavy burden for the worship planner to carry but a delightful cross at the same time.

Examples

Let’s start with hymnody. What follows is an oversimplification but helpful. Early Reformation hymnody was largely didactic. Think of Luther’s hymns based on the Small Catechism. There was a need for teaching at that moment. When we jump to Pietism, we see a move from the objective to the subjective. The subject of the sentences becomes “I” instead of “God.” These hymns reflect the heart. Then there is the sweet spot exemplified by the hymns of Paul Gerhardt. The doctrine is applied. The information doesn’t only teach but forms as it engages the heart.

Movement and posture matter as well. Whether you sing an introit, process in behind a crucifix, or walk up the steps to the altar at the beginning of the service, this movement teaches the observer about the presence of God. Yes, God is everywhere but he chooses to be sought in certain places. For New Testament believers, it is in Word and Meal, Baptism and Absolution. Our liturgical movements form us. If we truly believe that Christ is present in the Supper, our actions around the elements will form the worshipers’ view of the reality of the Supper. We stand to show respect. We also stand to confess the faith and be counted among the faithful who have gone before us. We kneel to confess our sins and ask for mercy. We sit to receive. Movements and posture matter.

Some congregations no longer “pass the plate.” It is an archaic tradition considering online giving (and COVID), but there is still value in bringing the offering up to the Lord’s altar. Does not this physical movement teach us about stewardship and therefore form us as we watch the movement to the altar?

The Prayer of the Church is a general prayer. It may connect to the theme of the day but also should include petitions for the world, the congregation, and individuals in the worshiping community. It is a good practice to consistently pray for governmental officials by name especially those elected officials for whom some congregants didn’t vote. This teaches us about God’s Two Kingdoms. It forms us. It helps the worshiper broaden their sympathy as well. It is also a good practice to pray for disasters and tragedies around the globe and not just events in America or Europe. Can we pray for Ethiopia as much as we do for Ukraine? This forms us.

Finally a word on preaching. There is a difference between preaching the gospel and preaching about the gospel. The former proclaims, “This is for you!” The latter informs. It tells us about the gospel in an academic way, but there is a subtle degree of separation between the gospel and the listener. It is primarily for the brain and not the whole person. The sermon may be considered an extension of confession/absolution. It terrifies and then heals. This is the dynamic Word Paul speaks about in Romans 1. It is the power (dynamis) to save. It does something. It is dynamic. It is not merely to be learned. If we see the listener as a person with a free will who only needs the correct information to change their lives or make the right decisions, we have the wrong anthropology. We preach to sinner-saints who need to die and who will rise. Perhaps the language should be less “Here is some information” and more “This is who you already are in Christ, a saint.” It is the difference between proclamation and formation on the one hand and mere information on the other hand.

Embodied souls or thinking-things?

Genesis anthropology insists that we see ourselves as embodied souls and not just thinking-things. Biblical worship always involved movement, rituals, a meal or sacrifice, along with hymns, prayers, readings, and preaching. It is healthy for us to examine and critique the anthropology we inherit from our culture. There simply is no such thing as a spiritual but not physical being or the opposite, a physical but not spiritual person. Nor is there such a thing as a church without liturgy or ritual. We are therefore called to plan worship with this anthropological reality in mind with the sober reminder that all we do will form or malform the worshiper. A heavy burden, indeed. But also an opportunity. Let’s teach the ritual. It will bear much fruit as we both provide the nutrition burdened souls so desperately need and help them answer the great anthropological questions that pursue us all.

By Michael Berg

Rev. Dr. Michael Berg is an associate professor of theology at Wisconsin Lutheran College where he teaches courses on Worship, Apologetics, Martin Luther, Christ in the Old Testament, and Christ and Culture. He is the author of Vocation: The Setting for Human Flourishing (1517), The Baptismal Life (NPH), On Any Given Sunday: The Story of Christ in the Divine Service (1517), and an upcoming book from NPH Peter: Theologian of the Cross.


1 Psychosomatic medicine explores how social, psychological, and behavioral factors affect physical health, mental health, and quality of life.
2 De Sacramentis V, 4, 25. Also AC XXIV, 33.
3 “Early Christian theologians interpreted … baptisteries and pools symbolically. Eight was the number of Noah’s family saved in the Flood. The Eighth Day, Sunday, referred to the day of Christ’s resurrection and the coming of the New Age which we enter in Baptism.” Huffman and Stauffer, Where We Worship, Augsburg (1987).


Cleansed and Fed: The Sacramental Life

Could your congregation benefit from deeper exposure to the ideas in this article? This could happen through comments in sermons or through a Bible class. See WTL 62:a-c for an eight-part study based on a synod convention essay, “Cleansed and Fed: The Sacramental Life.” Free download at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/wtl-confessional-perspectives. Selected quotations:

At this meal God will provide us his antidote for sin’s poison. Here he will serve real food for starving sinners. (15)

A preacher may find himself explaining the saving work of Jesus rather than preaching Jesus. Faith does involve knowing things. And yes, it’s true: explanations of Law and Gospel are still Law and Gospel, and so they are still powerful. But if all the preacher ever does is explain God’s saving plan, his listeners will soon gain the impression that faith is primarily a matter of understanding explanations.

But then why should they keep listening to the same explanations about Jesus’ saving work over and over again? In time they’ll begin to think of their pastor as though he were a restaurant that only hands out menus but never actually serves food. They’ll listen to his sermons and say, “Sounds good, but I’m still hungry!” If they’re loyal, they’ll keep coming to listen anyway, out of duty. But no one will gladly listen for long. (18)

 


 

 

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Preach the Word – Law-Gospel Model Revisited

Themes in Current Homiletical Theory

Law-Gospel Model Revisited

Law-gospel distinctions are widely recognized as a hallmark of Lutheranism. In its American confessional form, C. F. W. Walther has profoundly shaped this model through his lectures to seminary students in the nineteenth century. They remain widely read today, and in many ways Walther’s approach has influenced the approach of many Lutheran preachers today. Walther strongly emphasizes the law’s condemning role that exposes sin, leads people to despair of their self-righteousness, and leads them to see their need for Christ. He strongly emphasizes the gospel’s comforting role that announces the forgiveness of sins, proclaims Christ’s righteousness, and leads them to their Savior. This classic Lutheran law-gospel approach is summed up as follows:

Accordingly, we may not preach the Gospel, but must preach the Law to secure sinners. We must preach them into hell before we can preach them into heaven. By our preaching our hearers must be brought to the point of death before they can be restored to life by the Gospel. They must be made to realize that they are sick unto death before they can be restored to health by the Gospel. First their own righteousness must be laid bare to them, so that they may see of what filthy rags it consists, and then, by the preaching of the Gospel, they are to be robed in the garment of the righteousness of Christ. . . . They must first be reduced to nothing by the Law in order that they may be made to be something, to the praise of the glory of God, by the Gospel.1

This is the Lutheran model: first the law, then the gospel. Preach the law to expose sin. Preach the gospel to announce forgiveness. But that begs the question: for what goal?

But that begs the question: for what goal?

Law-gospel preaching has been so engrained in Lutheranism that often many do not even stop to ask that question. We expect the preacher to proclaim law and gospel because that is what we are accustomed to. And it is little wonder why so many Lutheran sermons, regardless of the unique text itself, are two-part sermons, where the first part exposes sin and the second part announces forgiveness. Preachers first ask the question of specific law, “How have my people sinned against this text?” Then they ask the question of specific gospel, “How can I announce forgiveness to my people?” This, then, is what application is. After all, Walther said that since the fall into sin, the law “has but a single function, viz., to lead men to the knowledge of their sin,” before he famously said, “The Word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching.”2 But that begs the question: then what?

The Need for a Lutheran Philosophy of Preaching

This is what a philosophy of preaching answers. A philosophy speaks to “why we do what we do the way we do it.” In advanced studies of any discipline (especially at the doctoral level), students need to wrestle with their discipline’s philosophy. For example, there are philosophies of worship, education, and ministry, all of which explain why we take the approach we do and what we want our approach to accomplish. Lutherans have done a good job in articulating a philosophy of worship.3 I have found Lutherans have not done as good a job in articulating a philosophy of preaching. Certainly, we speak of the importance of law-gospel preaching within the liturgy. But many recent homiletical texts outside of Lutheran circles have chapters or sections on an explicit philosophy of preaching.4 Some entire books are devoted to a philosophy or theology of preaching.5 When I surveyed the Lutheran scene, there seemed to be little explicit treatment on a philosophy/theology of preaching in books, though there have been some advancements in journal articles.6

One hearer leaves comforted that her sins are forgiven; another hearer leaves clueless on what to do on Monday morning.

Now imagine what happens when we have no explicit philosophy of preaching—in other words, when we have not explicitly stated why we preach law and gospel and what we intend law and gospel to accomplish. Preaching becomes notoriously subjective and based on assumptions, both on the part of the preacher and the hearer. One preacher feels it is his duty to simply identify the specific sin and specific gospel; another preacher feels it is his duty to also identify ways the people can apply this text in their lives. One hearer leaves comforted that her sins are forgiven; another hearer leaves clueless on what to do on Monday morning. If a philosophy of preaching is at best assumed and at worst forgotten, it is little wonder that someone tells a pastor his sermon was great, while another tells him it was boring.

In current homiletical theory, it is incumbent on Lutheran homileticians to get up to speed on what is a distinctively Lutheran philosophy of preaching. Therefore, to make the implicit explicit, my philosophy of Lutheran homiletics is this: God’s called representative heralds God’s message of law and gospel that is specific to the exposition of the text, the lives of the hearers, and the place in the church year, in order to indict them of their idolatrous sin, comfort them with Christ’s unconditional forgiveness, and urge them to live the Christian life more fully under the cross. Let’s break this down.

We are preaching to people, not merely presenting doctrine.

First, the emphasis begins with God. The message is his inspired Word, and he is the one who calls preachers through the church to herald that faithfully, so that preachers can honestly say they are “Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20, NIV). Next, law-gospel specificity is hierarchical: first the text, then the hearers, finally the church year. Law-gospel cannot simply be this oversimplified construct that mechanistically follows Walther by rearranging or re-emphasizing the text,7 no matter how convenient that may be for Lutheran preachers. Law-gospel proclamation needs to originate from a careful exegesis of the text, and the contours of that specific text need to be reflected in the contours of that specific sermon. Law-gospel proclamation also needs to be specific to the lives of the hearers, since we are preaching to people, not merely presenting doctrine. Law-gospel proclamation finally considers its place in the church year. Lutherans have often used the church year beneficially, but they cannot simply preach the lectionary for the sake of the lectionary.8

The key is that this philosophy of preaching includes three purposes or end goals. Law-gospel preaching is not only about indicting the hearers of their sin and comforting them with Christ’s forgiveness. Law-gospel preaching also needs to explore ramifications for living the Christian life more fully under the cross.

The key is that this philosophy of preaching includes three purposes or end goals.

Objections to a Wholistic Lutheran Philosophy of Preaching

I call this philosophy of preaching wholistic because it emphasizes wholistic application that includes sanctification. The stereotype that Lutheran preaching points out sin, announces forgiveness, and then quickly says “Amen!” is a stereotype, but all stereotypes come from somewhere. I am not contending every Lutheran sermon falls into this category, but I am contending that it is a danger for those of us whom Walther has influenced. Law-gospel preaching has a purpose, and the end goal is not merely to announce sin and grace for the sake of doing so.

One objection to this is that the law as mirror is primary. So the Lutheran thinking goes that when Paul says, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love” (Eph 5:1-2), the primary application ought to be that the hearers have not followed God’s example, have not lived as God’s dearly loved children, and have not walked in the way of love. They are forgiven of this, sure, but they leave church with little guidance or inspiration to actually do something. But consider authorial intent. One would wonder why Paul continues by motivating with the gospel, “just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” when really he is trying to expose sin by the law. One would wonder why he addresses his audience in such benevolent terms, “dearly loved children,” when he has already demonstrated how to address his audience in the scathing terms of the law (2:1-3). Those factors show that preachers ought to preach the law in this text the way it was intended, as a guide to sanctified living. What Walther has emphasized, therefore, is not wrong, but it is often incomplete and misleading.9

Paul’s solution was not to simply give up preaching sanctification but to motivate through the gospel, clear up confusions, and then fearlessly preach sanctification.

A related objection is that even if the law is preached as a guide, the law will still accuse the hearers of sin, and so it is impossible to preach sanctification, strictly speaking.10 So the Lutheran thinking goes that when a preacher encourages people to live according to Ephesians 5:1-2, some will still think of how they have not. Now all communication can be misunderstood. Above I focused on how the misunderstanding happens at the preacher’s level; here the misunderstanding happens at the congregation’s level. But they are related. If the preacher is preaching in line with authorial intent—addressing them as redeemed children of God, benevolently motivating them with the gospel, speaking to their new man as their true identity who wants to do God’s will—that can help the congregation too. But what if they still feel accused, even after that? Presumably this happened with Paul himself, and we can learn from how he preached sanctification. His solution was not to simply give up preaching sanctification, lest people misunderstand. His solution was to motivate through the gospel, clear up confusions as they arise, and then fearlessly preach sanctification regularly and explicitly. So the solution is more evangelical encouragement, not less.

If epistles were meant to be read aloud to congregations, they essentially functioned sermonically.

A final objection is that sanctification preaching could go against textual emphasis. Some texts emphasize appropriation—truths to believe, not actions to do. So the Lutheran thinking goes that, in order to be faithful to the text, the preacher should stick with law-gospel preaching that exposes sin and announces forgiveness, and leave it at that. On days like Christmas and Easter, do not the texts simply announce God’s saving acts, and preachers should not feel compelled to urge people to be like the shepherds or the women and spread the gospel? There are always dangers of forced applications, but the inconsistency of this approach is that we do not follow it when preaching on texts that are all law. To be faithful to the text, does this mean we do not consider the gospel? No, we find the gospel in the broader context. This should also hold true with sanctification, and this is confirmed by examining NT epistolary rhetoric. If epistles were meant to be read aloud to congregations (Col 4:16, 1 Thess 5:27), they essentially functioned sermonically, and we can learn from how NT authors shaped their messages theologically. Romans is a clear example of law-gospel preaching that indicts sin and announces forgiveness. But why did Paul structure Romans the way he did? He did not stop at chapter 11 for a reason. He continued on to the paraenetic chapters 12–14 because law-gospel proclamation was not meant simply for the Romans to believe something. That was a necessary foundation, but what Paul was really after was for the Romans to do something. Paul does not assume the Romans will automatically put law-gospel proclamation into practice, simply if they hear and believe it. Nor should we. We need to encourage our hearers to see how it will actually impact their actions. The basics of NT epistolary rhetoric is that the indicative is the foundation and empowerment for the imperative. If we are to model that in our preaching, we will always lead our congregations to see how God’s acts for us are the foundation and empowerment for our acts for God. Here is a selection from my Christmas Eve sermon on Luke 2 from 2021:

God has sent a Savior into our world, a Savior for you and for me, to give us peace. And that vertical peace between God and us now inspires horizontal peace between us and others. If the epic cosmic conflict between God and us is now pacified, then suddenly all the conflicts between us and others seem rather small. Now this church can be a place where people don’t constantly fight about masks and COVID. Now this church can be a place where life-long white Christians welcome people of different races, cultures, and backgrounds to sit next to them. Now this church can be a place where all of us first listen to each other before trying to express our opinions. That’s how the surprising peace with God gives us surprising peace with others.

The indicative is the foundation and empowerment for the imperative.

Lutheran preaching cannot simply be reduced down in toto to the law-gospel model; it is much more than that.11 In current homiletical scholarship, Lutheranism is not exactly known for its robust sanctification preaching. That need not be the case. By no means does the law-gospel model need to be rejected. It needs to be divested of its oversimplistic caricatures, embraced for all its beautiful richness, and preached with all its compelling appeal, so that God’s people are indicted of their idolatrous sin, comforted with Christ’s unconditional forgiveness, and urged to live their Christian lives more fully under the cross. All three purposes are vital.

Written by Jacob Haag

Rev. Dr. Haag serves at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Ann Arbor, MI. His doctorate is from Westminster Theological Seminary with research in New Testament and preaching. His research project was entitled “Evangelical Exhortation: Paraenesis in the Epistles as Rhetorical Model for Preaching Sanctification.” He also serves on the Michigan District Commission on Worship.


1 C. F. W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel (CPH, 1986), 118.
2 Walther, Law and Gospel, 236, 403.
3 See Peter Brunner, Worship in the Name of Jesus, tr. M. H. Bertram (CPH, 1968); Timothy Maschke, Gathered Guests, 2nd ed. (CPH, 2009).
4 See Part 3, “A Theology of Christ-Centered Messages” in Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994), and chap. 3, “Paul’s Theology of Preaching” in Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007).
5 See A. Duane Litfin, Paul’s Theology of Preaching (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015); Jonathan I. Griffiths, Preaching in the New Testament, New Studies in Biblical Theology 42 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2017).
6 See Joel Gerlach and Richard Balge, Preach the Gospel (NPH, 1982); Paul Grime and Dean Nadasdy, eds., Liturgical Preaching (CPH, 2001); Mark W. Birkholz, Jacob Corzine, and Jonanthan Mumme, eds., Feasting in a Famine of the Word (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2016); Edward Grimenstein, A Lutheran Primer for Preaching (CPH, 2015); Richard Caemmerer, Preaching for the Church (CPH, 1959). The first half of Grimenstein’s book is an exception, but it is not very comprehensive, and there is little to no treatment of sanctification preaching within a law-gospel model. The closest I could find to a Lutheran philosophy of preaching is David Schmitt, “The Tapestry of Preaching,” Concordia Journal 37, no. 2 (Spring 2011), 107–129. See also Richard Lischer, A Theology of Preaching: The Dynamics of the Gospel, rev. ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2001); Richard Lischer, “Cross and Craft: Two Elements of a Lutheran Homiletic,” Concordia Journal 25, no. 1 (January 1999), 4–13; Richard Warneck, “Notes on Preaching Sanctification,” Concordia Journal 25, no. 1 (January 1999), 56–64. Regardless, there is a great need for a current, comprehensive confessional Lutheran homiletical textbook.
7 For example, gospel application must always follow law application, or a sermon’s last sentence must always declare the gospel and not exhort sanctification.
8 In current homiletics, much of the criticism against lectionary preaching (especially by those who favor lectio continua) is that lectionary preaching is atomistic in that the church year determines the meaning and focus of the text, not the text itself. Before we rush to defend lectionary preaching, we need to admit this can be a danger.
9 See footnote 2 above. Walther does say the law as mirror is the only (not merely primary) function after the fall, which implies that preaching should only use the law in that sense. Even the traditional view is prone to misunderstanding, because “primary” is not explicitly defined. It is primary in a logical sense within the order of salvation, such that sins need to be revealed if gospel proclamation is to mean anything at all. If primary is meant in terms of rank, it is unfortunate (and not surprising) that preaching on the third use of the law is denigrated or neglected in Lutheranism. See footnote 10.]
10 Certain voices, particularly in the LCMS, have minimized or essentially denied the third use of the law as a function unto itself. They emphasize lex semper accusat to mean the law only accuses. Preaching the third use then becomes the other uses applied to Christians, or preaching sanctification simply becomes a return to justification and confession/absolution. See Timothy J. Wengert, A Formula for Parish Practice, Lutheran Quarterly Books (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 98; Louis A. Smith, “A Third Use Is the First and Second Use,” Lutheran Forum 37, no. 3 (2003): 65–67; Walter Bartling’s position in Scott R. Murray, Law, Life, and the Living God (CPH, 2002), 109–11.
11 Thanks to Tim Bourman for this insight.


Indicative-Imperative Structure

The indicative-imperative structure is a common way of analyzing epistles. Simply put, they declare, “Here’s who you are in Christ.” Then they encourage, “Act according to who you are in Christ.” “Therefore” ties the two together. The indicative and imperative do not merge together, as if sanctification causes justification, but they are inseparably connected. If it’s a text that’s imperatives, preachers need to root the imperative to the corresponding indicative. If it’s a text that’s indicatives, preachers need to show how the indicative will naturally flow to the corresponding imperative.


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Preach the Word – The lectionary: an enduring narrative

Free Text Series or Lectionary Preaching?

The lectionary: an enduring narrative

In the first two parts of this discussion of lectionary preaching vis-à-vis topical preaching, I argued that in many ways the topical paradigm has not grappled adequately with how contemporary culture has changed since the topical paradigm became popular in Evangelicalism. I also warned against several undesirable outcomes ranging from instrumentalizing Jesus to missing out on the creative strength of an established framework. I pointed to the ways in which the lectionary paradigm effectively keeps Christ as Savior at the center of the homiletical task while also providing the kind of framework that supports homiletical creativity and engagement by taking the burden of brainstorming off of the preacher.

Many of my colleagues who preach topically do, in fact, diligently seek to be thoughtful about what they plan and preach. The nature of my argument, though, is not about what preachers are able to do, but about the directions in which paradigms nudge preachers and their hearers. I see paradigms as a kind of intellectual and spiritual architecture whose designs invisibly—and often inexorably—move people toward certain ends. Such a phenomenon is not individual, but collective and cumulative.

Which leads to the third and final part of this series. Given the character of contemporary culture, it seems that lectionary preaching is perfectly poised to make a meaningful difference among God’s people because the lectionary is, at its heart, not so much a curriculum of topics as it is a comprehensive gospel narrative.

The corruption of narrative as a concept

The term narrative has, unfortunately, reversed polarity from positive to negative. Today narrative means something like dishonest spin. Political and social opponents accuse one another of perpetuating a narrative. “Your truth” competes with “my truth.” Or as The Dude put it in The Big Lebowski, “That’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

But narrative once meant a faithful account. Narrative was used in legal contexts to describe the facts of the case. A narrative is what St. Luke was talking about in the opening sentence of his gospel. To tell the story was to offer testimony to truths that had real-world implications.

The work of Lutheran preaching relies heavily on an understanding of narrative in the original sense.

The work of Lutheran preaching relies heavily on an understanding of narrative in the original sense, which is (thankfully) making an encouraging comeback these days. People are noticing what it’s like to live without narrative and are wondering if perhaps we might want to renew our narrative structures of sense-making.

Shared narrative vs. individual identity

Every preacher surely agrees that something in our social setting has gone horribly wrong. We appear to live in a time marked by a general dissolution of meaning and coherence. People no longer inhabit stories or contribute to institutions, they express identities and construct meaning by giving voice to a true self.

In a world where the primary catechetical truth is not that “I should be his own” but rather that “I should be my own,” the fundamental task in life becomes one of assembling the puzzle of personal identity from whatever material, values, and interests are available. This task is radically individualized. Indeed, that is the whole point. It is an expression of pure autonomy, of self-law.

Much has been said about this phenomenon, perhaps nowhere so thoroughly as in Carl Trueman’s recent work, “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.” But that’s a long book. Taylor Swift captured the spirit of what Charles Taylor called expressive individualism in only two lines: “I know my love should be celebrated / But you tolerate it.”

This is not how it has always been and not how it must always be. People once sought to understand themselves not as isolated individuals but as part of a broader narrative. The shared story gave shape to the years and offered wisdom for different seasons of life. It helped them process sorrows and celebrate joys.

But such sense-making is far afield from our culture’s deepest convictions. Indeed, the late modern notion of freedom is to see oneself as a person who has no story. Today’s ideal protagonist is someone who yearns to discover who they really are, subsequently seeks to uncover an authentic self, and then throws off the expectations of family and society to chart their own path and construct their own meaning. The goal is to jettison existing narrative structures and to replace them with stories that are self-made.

Narrative as necessary counterculture

If this is an accurate description of the modern self and we agree that this not only makes society miserable but also contradicts broad tenets of biblical anthropology, then preachers must avoid acting as a chaplain to the culture of self-ownership. I have little doubt that many preachers have substantially addressed the phenomena described above, especially in recent years. But consider again the difference between what is said in the text of the sermon and what is communicated through the paradigm.

Topical sermons can, no doubt, make vigorous connections to the overall narrative of God’s work in the world. But it seems impossible to describe the paradigm itself as a narrative paradigm. The topical paradigm seems closer to a curriculum than to a story, which is in some ways the heart of my point about the paradigm’s interaction with contemporary culture: What is the story that seekers of true self are likely to discern from an idea-driven or concept-centric paradigm—especially ideas that are presented as useful for their practical benefits? One likely story will sound like this, “I am on a journey of self-discovery, self-actualization, and self-improvement, and God is my guide and ally in the process.”

To underestimate how much expressive individualism is imported into church is to be needlessly naïve. Those preachers who can discern the culture’s dominant influence on character formation even among Christians may wish to seek a preaching paradigm that aligns more closely with the countercultural nature of God’s Word.

What if the church had its own set of days tailor-made to accomplish its overarching goals over time?

The power of a calendar

A powerful way to address expressive individualism is to integrate people into a shared calendar. Indeed, the ability to set the calendar matters. What society celebrates as holidays says a great deal about what they value. The recent addition of Juneteenth to the calendar of federal holidays in the United States is an example of this phenomenon. Activists and marketers are also well-aware of the value of marking time by their own values. Our summers are now marked by huge commercial commemorations: Pride Month and Prime Day. The calendar is contested territory for a wide variety of competing values and commercial interests.

The big loser in all this has been, of course, the ecclesiastical calendar. This is unfortunate but also unsurprising considering the dominant cultural values of our time. In the past a liturgical calendar marked time in terms of the Christian story of God’s work in the world. But in an age when therapy and individuality are paramount cultural values, a church year calendar is seen as onerous. Why should a communal sense of what is important to all of us at all times impose on my sense of self-direction?

Now, I am not aware of anyone who has stopped observing Christmas and Easter, but for the most part the rest of the calendar appears to be fair game for revision. This is not to say that topical preachers do not sense the power of a calendar, it’s just that the calendar that sets the agenda is often the civic calendar.

I understand the rationale. “Preach on subjects that everyone’s attention is focused on that weekend anyway.” I suggest, though, that this tactic is not as effective as one might assume. Take Valentine’s Day, for example, and the perfectly understandable desire to preach about love on the adjacent weekend. That love sermon, good as it may be, is not likely to outpace the massive marketing complex devoted to selling billions of dollars’ worth of flowers, wine, and chocolate. To try to grab the microphone from the marketers and say that, actually, the holiday devoted to romance between lovers is a great time to consider the love of God may be an example of spitting in the wind. Chad Bird once noted that Christians already enjoy holidays far better suited for emphasizing the Christian idea of love. They are called Good Friday and Easter.1 So here’s a radical idea: Let people enjoy Independence Day or Memorial Day or Valentine’s Day without necessarily trying to capitalize on the opportunity to preach a religious spin on it.

Here’s an even more radical idea: What if the church had its own set of days tailor-made to accomplish its overarching goals over time, one that closely reflects the nature of its message and the story into which God is integrating us all? And what if this calendar were used in common among all the churches with the same set of ultimate ends? If Jeff Bezos can see the value of having his own holidays and spreading its influence as far as possible, then surely we can imagine that the ecclesiastical calendar might have some power to it, especially as it employs its narrative strength to engage people on a deeper level than the curricular presentation of ideas can.

Tapping into the mythical core

A narrative structure that repeats and reinforces itself taps into what the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski called the mythical core of how human beings think and act.

The mythical core refers to matters of human experience that are not revealed by scientific examination or standard investigative inquiry. The mythical core connects to those aspects of human experience that are undoubtedly real but not strictly empirical. Kołakowski contrasted the mythical with the technological. The technological core is that which is subject to human manipulation and therefore involves reason, science, and most forms of thinking and philosophy.

Love is a good example of where mythical and technological diverge. Even the most strident evolutionary biologist knows that explaining love in terms of species survival (technological core) is lame. Something more satisfying—more real—is required. Presenting ideas doesn’t cut it. We need a story.

I doubt I will encounter much pushback when I say that contemporary culture is almost entirely dominated by the quest to deploy human power to manipulate and control. This impulse has moved into church life in the form of what has been called spiritual technology, that is, technique-oriented tactics of leveraging spiritual practices to achieve measurable results. Name-and-claim prosperity gospel, glossolalia, and even decisional regeneration are all examples of pagan-style efforts to bring God under human control.

These are, of course, out-of-bounds for confessional Lutherans, but this does not mean that other forms of spiritual technology never appear. Subtle discernment is required here. Emphases on, say, right thinking or applications about how to manage one’s finances or maintain one’s physical health certainly gesture toward topics that arguably fall within the realm of Christian virtues, but the line between sanctification preaching and the uncritical introduction of spiritual technologies imported from cognitive behavioral therapy or modern-day Stoicism (to name two popular movements today) is a narrow one.

Here it may be helpful to repeat a point from a previous article, that there are some things that Lutheran congregations will address in their ministry, but not primarily through the main, public preaching voice of the congregation. Other avenues are better for such things, especially when so many people are missing out on the narrative component of reality that strikes them in deep, abiding ways. When all the people of God are together let preaching be primarily about the story that enfolds all of history and therefore all people present.

Let preaching be primarily about the story that enfolds all of history and therefore all people present.

The language of history and narrative is in many ways more truthful than the language of concepts. Only when a person fully enters the rhythms and contours of a narrative that sets the agenda week after week, season after season, year after year is the transmission of information able to produce transformation of character. Indeed, this issue has long been one of the legitimate criticisms of sermonizing that is too heavy on deductive points of doctrine. But the cure for sermons too heavy on deductive points of doctrine is not sermons too heavy on practical points of application. If anyone wants parishioners to encounter preaching that is more transformational than informational, then he will not present a series of concepts but will instead inculcate a long-term narrative structure.

We do not turn to the Scripture merely to look up correct answers or to find helpful information (though such things are surely there), we turn to the Scripture because there we find the Way—and not according the technological core, as if Jesus is the way to some other good, but in the sense of the mythical core, that is, every aspect of who we are—from our body to our personality to our mind to our behavior—must participate fully in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the main protagonist of history. All of us are written into his story just as a branch is grafted into a vine.

Narrative as network good

Lutherans are familiar with the concept of antinomianism, that is, a person who rejects moral rules revealed in Scripture. A similar somethingnomianism has lately arrived: autonomianism, that is, the view that we are a law unto ourselves.

Autonomianism in ministry introduces a curious version of the old cuius regio, eius religio in which the principle is often expressed as something like, “This is what we like.” To be sure, there is little justification for blanket uniformity among churches of a denominational brotherhood, especially across broad geographical distances, but there are surely ways to reflect unity apart from uniformity. A shared ecclesiastical calendar and preaching lectionary is one such way. The narrative of the lectionary is a network good.

Note the distinction between a good and a network good. A good is something that is advantageous to have, like money. Having one dollar allows you to do very little. Having one million dollars allows you to do very much. An iPhone, on the other hand, is a different kind of good, a network good. The advantage comes not from owning many iPhones but from many people owning iPhones. The good is a network good.

I would like more and more to think in terms of the “we” in our shared story.

I see the narrative character of the lectionary and corresponding calendar in much the same way. If everyone charts their own path, then not only is the local effect of a consistent, long-term narrative structure lost, but so is the broader network amplification of the good. I would like more and more to think in terms of the “we” in our shared story, a “we” that includes not just the members of this or that congregation who heard this or that particular set of topical sermons, but also the other churches of the denomination 15 miles across town or 1500 miles across the country. I would enjoy learning how some of the most gifted communicators in our church body walk their people through the texts and themes of Lent each year. I would be glad to know that a young professional newly introduced to the gospel narrative in one place could move to another and pick up where he left off. I see great appeal in raising children to find meaning in the narrative points of God’s work in the world, especially in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And best of all, inhabiting the same narrative structure does not require rigid uniformity. Not everyone in a baseball lineup has a uniform batting stance, but they are united in the task of hitting the ball and for that reason they do all share a certain set of practices in common. In the same way, creative variety and local contextualization in preaching will actually be stronger when connected to a common core.

Free to tell the story

The vision I have sought to articulate in this series is one in which the core paradigm of preaching is narrative, cyclical, seasonal, and communal. Such a paradigm is built on a sturdy foundation of texts selected for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel in a way that is distinctively Lutheran in emphasis. It is also a framework that is more likely to produce creative and engaging results in contemporary culture, to say nothing of the massive potential for network good and refreshingly countercultural testimony.

The massive potential for network good and refreshingly countercultural testimony.

For many years I have served in a setting where I could freely preach according to almost any paradigm I might want to try. But I have continually returned to the lectionary not because I am compelled to do so but because of the rationale I have explained in this series. I believe that a careful analysis of the way culture has changed since the rise of the seeker-sensitive or attractional model of Christian cultural engagement reveals a compelling case that, for the most part, the topical paradigm is a paradigm better suited for the past. I’m not enough of a historian to know if lectionary preaching was always so well-suited to a contemporary task at hand, but as I look around me and ahead of me, I am hard pressed to come up with a better overall way to preach to people living in late modern culture than through the shared heritage, common good, and creative strength that the lectionary paradigm offers.

Written by Caleb Bassett

Caleb serves as pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fallbrook, CA. He was a member of the Executive Committee of the WELS Hymnal Project and chairman of the project’s Technology Subcommittee. He has been a frequent guest panelist on The White Horse Inn, a nationally syndicated radio program and podcast on theology and culture. He is a fellow of the International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism, and Human Rights in Strasbourg, France and a member of the WELS Institute for Lutheran Apologetics.


1 Chad Bird, Upside-Down Spirituality (Baker Books, 2019), p. 137.


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Proclamation

More Worship Words to Wrestle With

Proclamation

Can you remember a time when school cancellations were read aloud on the radio station? Truth be told, they probably still are; it’s just that few of us rely on the radio station anymore. Nowadays, everyone just checks their smartphone for an always up-to-date listing of the latest cancellations. Back in the day, however, students actually had to listen through the entire list of school closings, hoping that the name of their school would be announced. And, if you got distracted and missed it, you had no choice but to wait a few minutes for the next reading of the list. “Did I hear my school’s name, or was that just wishful thinking?”

Smartphones are definitely more convenient, but I must admit to a special kind of joy that came from anticipating the news spoken out loud. Not only did hearing good news over the airwaves bring a smile to my face, but there was something else too. If you were the first one to hear it, then you got to run and tell everyone else in the house. “No school today!” Not only was it fun to hear the news; it was fun to tell it too.

As we think about the Word of God and especially as we learn how to preach it, one of the words that comes to our minds is proclamation. The Word of God is for proclamation. As the words painted above the threshold of the Seminary chapel tell us, our work is to proclaim the gospel. Scripture is not merely a book full of information, a spiritual how-to manual of sorts. It is not merely a textbook with lessons to teach and to learn, though it certainly is useful for teaching and a delight to learn. In addition to all that and more, God’s Word is something to be proclaimed. It is the almighty God’s announcement of salvation sealed and accomplished in Christ Jesus, our Savior.

Those who have the privilege of speaking that Word are doing more than simply conveying information. As Paul teaches, public ministers of the Word actually get to serve as ambassadors of God Most High (2 Cor 5:20) and proclaim to his people and all the world the good news of what he has accomplished for them in Christ. The good news is a proclamation!

Again and again, the Lord teaches us to recognize the great honor—and the great responsibility—that comes with this charge of proclaiming his Word. We might think, for example, of the Lord assigning Ezekiel to be the watchman of Israel. “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself” (Ezek 33:7-9). Or perhaps we remember Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians that it is necessary that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful (1 Cor 4:1). Or maybe from time to time it leaves us in awe to think of Jesus’ reminder that what we proclaim with our mouths here on this earth is valid even in heaven itself (Matt 18:18). Yes, what an awesome privilege God has given us to proclaim his Word. So central is this work to pastoral ministry that oftentimes the “pastor” is simply the “preacher.” It’s why Paul can sum up his encouragement to young Timothy with the simple, “Preach the Word” (2 Tim 4:2). It’s also why we hear that encouragement repeated in our Rite of Ordination, as we take up that work for the first time as an ordained pastor.

No doubt, proclamation has a special application to the art of homiletics and to preachers; though preachers proclaim God’s Word in many of their ministerial duties, it is particularly in the sermon that they have the privilege of regularly and publicly proclaiming good tidings to the flock entrusted to them.

Giving thought to public worship, however, leads us to recognize that it is not only the sermon that proclaims the gospel. In his classic work, Worship in the Name of Jesus, Peter Brunner explained, “The congregation’s Spirit-effected response to the gift of salvation, conveyed in Word and Sacrament, is itself Word. Also where this response involves a physical gesture, this gesture is not mute, but vital through the words accompanying it. This responding, confessing, thanking, and glorifying word of the congregation will always recall the great and saving deeds of God’s might; it will acknowledge, laud, and glorify them prayerfully, and in this manner also proclaim and present them to others. It is precisely the priestly service of the congregation that thus becomes a proclamation of the wonderful deeds of God.”1 Yes, all of public worship is proclamation, work carried out not only by the preacher but by the people as well.

All of public worship is proclamation, work carried out not only by the preacher but by the people as well.

It is here that we can recognize the treasure that is Lutheran worship as our forefathers in the faith have passed it down to us. Not only in sermon but in in ordinary and proper, in liturgy and hymn, in art and architecture, in confession and creed, historic Lutheran worship is dripping with proclamation of the sweet gospel. While one could fill volumes answering “What does this mean?” consider two points: 1) the importance of the choices we make in respect to the content of public worship and 2) the importance of emphasizing the essential function God’s people carry out in public worship.

The Content of Proclamation: God’s Gospel

It could probably go without saying, but if it is clear that God’s Word is to be proclaimed in public worship and, likewise, that the proclamation of the Word means more than the pastor’s sermon, then the words we put into our people’s mouths to proclaim week after week matter. Recognizing that is nothing new. About hymns Johannes Brenz (d. 1570) wrote, “In accordance with the example given by the Apostle Paul (Eph 5:19), the singing of hymns has been understood and regarded as a form of preaching, a proclamation of the word of God.”2 The song of the people is a sermon too.

The song of the people is a sermon too.

Robin Leaver likewise writes, “Theologically understood, music in worship is akin to the preaching ministry in its liturgical setting. It is to proclaim the word of God to the people of God. Sometimes this is done through the single voice of the cantor or minister, sometimes through the combined voice of choir or instruments, and sometimes through instrumental music alone. And then there is that unique proclamation of the whole people of God when they join their voices in one, in psalmody and hymnody, as they proclaim their response of faith to God and give witness of that faith to each other. All the Church’s great composers have understood the proclamatory nature of their art, that through it the eternal sound of God’s grace focused in Jesus Christ is made known and shared with his redeemed people.”3

Recognizing this purpose of music in public worship calls for the utmost care in selecting the hymns that we sing and the music that we play. Of course, we want to praise the Lord with joyful songs in our worship, but more than that, we recognize that the highest praise we can give is when we proclaim, with specificity, who he is and what he has done.4 The Lutheran hymn writer Carl Schalk (d. 2021) observed, “God is praised when the gospel is rightly proclaimed; and, conversely, the proclamation of the gospel is the way that God is rightly praised. There is no artificial division between songs that ‘proclaim’ and others that ‘praise’: unless ‘praise songs’ proclaim the good news of the gospel, they are not, in any Christian sense, praise songs at all.”5 Yes, we choose all worship content carefully because it serves to proclaim the gospel and the doctrines of God’s Word. As they do that, they serve to summarize and solidify the truths of God’s Word for his people.6

The best of Christian hymnody has always done this. No doubt, our minds rush to the contributions of the church fathers or to the Reformers. As we survey the historical hymns of the Lutheran church, we cannot help but acknowledge how the Lord has blessed us with a rich heritage. The gems of historic hymnody have pointed generations of believers to Christ and his cross on their journey heavenward, and we pray that they not only do the same for us, but that through us, God preserves them and passes them down to generations of believers after us.

At the same time, we also know that proclaiming Christ has never been the arena of hymnody from the past alone. As our new hymnal illustrates so well, Lutheranism has always taken the best hymns, both old and new, and incorporated them into its worship life. Consider how many of the modern selections in Christian Worship have quickly become beloved ways for God’s people to proclaim the gospel beautifully and powerfully. Again, that has always been the hallmark of the best hymnody of every age. Perhaps the most well-known of modern-day hymn writers, Keith Getty observes, “The healthiest congregational environment flourishes when the worship leader/worship songwriter partners with pastors in feeding the congregation well through the songs they sing and the sermons they hear.”7

Yes, the best hymns of every age proclaim the gospel. Sermon and song are not competing interests, nor do they have only a tangential relationship. Rather, music and song work together with the spoken Word so that in public worship Christ is proclaimed.

“All the Church’s great composers have understood the proclamatory nature of their art.”

Keeping that in mind suggests several applications for public worship:

  • Devote sufficient time and attention to selecting hymns for public worship that work right alongside the readings and sermon for the day—both to teach the particular emphasis of a particular Sunday and, more broadly, to proclaim Christ crucified to everyone who attends.
  • Consider also the value of selecting those hymns as far in advance as possible. This enables musicians to plan and practice so that their work on a Sunday morning can really be a well-considered proclamation of the Word (rather than just making sure the notes fall in the right place). But advance planning also allows preachers to consider how the sung proclamation of the Word can complement and enhance the spoken proclamation that day. So often, hymns capture theological truths in particularly effective and winsome ways that, if recognized, can enhance the sermon.
  • Don’t overlook the value of the Hymn of the Day. These hymns are chosen specifically for their rich content and connection to the day’s Gospel. Of course, there is no ecclesiastical law demanding our use of the Hymn of the Day (or any other hymn). Sometimes pastors who know their congregations and circumstances will make another choice for a particular Sunday. At the same time, however, regularly using the Hymn of the Day not only gives musicians an anchor they can count on in their own planning (and means one less hymn selection worship planners have to make), but more importantly, it helps keep the very best of hymnody in regular use across our congregations.
  • From time to time, consider introducing unfamiliar hymns (both old and new) to your congregation. Perhaps it requires a bit of extra effort, and perhaps a congregation will need to grow in appreciating them. With a bit of time and practice (and the wisdom of not biting off more than a congregation can chew), learning and using less familiar hymns equips the congregation to sing a new song to the Lord, and, with time, these can become beloved favorites. If some Hymns of the Day are not yet familiar in your congregation, consider a plan to introduce two or three each year.
  • Of course, hymns are not the only way the gospel is proclaimed in song in public worship. The psalms have been enriching the worship for millennia. Christian Worship, together with the complete Psalter, provide a variety of ways to use the psalms in worship.
  • Finally, in all this talk of hymns, never overlook the value of the ordinary. Singing the songs of the Western Rite has summarized and solidified the gospel for generation after generation of believers. Christian Worship gives congregations the ability to use these songs week in and week out, while still allowing for musical variety. And Service Builder provides even more variety, including a wealth of metrical canticles (canticles cast as hymns). Sometimes pastors and worship planners will make other choices for their particular ministry contexts (and that’s certainly understandable), but do consider how the textual consistency of the ordinary ensures that the gospel is clearly and beautifully proclaimed week after week in a way that connects us to believers of many generations past.

Yes, in public worship, the gospel is proclaimed. It is proclaimed in Word and sacrament. It is proclaimed as it is spoken and sung. That speaks to the importance of the content of public worship. It also speaks to the importance of the participants in public worship.

The Participants in Proclamation: God’s People

In our age, this latter point deserves nearly as much consideration as the former. Increasingly, it seems that some people allow a consumer mentality to drive their thoughts and decisions about worship. They see worship as an opportunity to be stimulated—spiritually, intellectually, emotionally. They come to receive what’s been prepared for them. Of course, that’s true in a certain way. “Nothing in our hands we bring,” we sinners sing. In worship, we are always the recipients of God’s gospel gifts first.

There’s a danger in worshipers thinking of themselves as consumers of a product.

At the same time, however, there’s a danger in thinking of worship as a largely passive experience. There’s a danger in worshipers thinking of themselves as consumers of a product. We see that in the notion that music and sermons are valued first and foremost for their ability to appeal in various ways.

Or consider the rise of “virtual worship.” Of course, in the difficult days of the pandemic, hearing the Word this way was better than nothing, and virtual worship served as a blessing for many. And yet, we would probably all agree that what may be necessary during dire times is not what is best under usual circumstances. Worship in front of a computer screen just isn’t the same as being in the house of God with fellow believers.

Why? Because worship is all about proclamation. As the writer to the Hebrews tells us, we encourage one another as we see the day approaching (Heb 10:25). And how do we encourage one another? No doubt, there are different ways of encouraging, but the most important way is the building up of our faith through the means of grace.

In public worship, we speak the Word of God to one another (Eph 5:19). We proclaim the gospel to each other. When I am singing a hymn or speaking the Creed or confessing my sins, I am not only speaking to the Lord (though I am certainly doing that) but I am also proclaiming the Word to brothers and sisters who are, in turn, proclaiming that Word to me. Together, we are proclaiming our faith to the world around us.

That’s an especially encouraging thought when we consider how often following Christ can feel lonely in this fallen world. Christians don’t always enjoy the benefit of being able to mutually share their faith with those around them on a day-to-day basis. That’s what makes opportunities for public worship so special. During this precious time of the week, we come together as Christians and encourage one another through our proclamation of God’s gifts to us.

What a privilege God gives us as we gather. We get to proclaim the gospel. As God enables us, let’s help his people see this vitally important work that they as the body of Christ get to carry out together.

By Jacob Behnken

Jacob Behnken graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2012 and serves as the Dean of Chapel and a Professor of Music at Martin Luther College. This article begins a new series of possibly ten articles and complements a previous series of timeless topics available at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/wtl-worship-words.


1 Peter Brunner, Worship in the Name of Jesus, trans. M.H. Bertram, CPH 1968, 124.
2 Quoted in Oliver Rupprecht, “The Modern Struggle for Standards in Religious Music,” Concordia Journal v.9, #4, July 1983, 129.
3 Robin Leaver, The Theological Character of Music in Worship, CPH 1989, 11.
4 Johnold Strey, Christian Worship: God Gives His Gospel Gifts, NPH 2021, 23f.
5 Carl Schalk, “Hymnody and Proclamation of the Gospel,” in Not unto Us: A Celebration of the Ministry of Kurt J. Eggert, NPH 2001, 138.
6 See the recently released hymnal project volume Christian Worship: Foundations, 15ff, 23ff.
7 Emily Brink, “Teaching the Faith, Expanding the Song: An Interview with Irish Hymnwriter Keith Getty,” Reformed Worship #81, September 2006.


Teach the proclaimers

How can we better teach people about their role as proclaimers? Obviously, a Bible class could address this theme. But that will reach only a minority. So look for ways to reinforce the point also in sermons. One pastor instead of saying “God bless our worship” says “God bless this time as we proclaim God’s love to one another.”

 


 

 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

 

Worship and Outreach – In a Mission Restart

I have been asked to share how our congregation’s outreach efforts intersect with our worship life. The first part of this article will be a description of those efforts. How do we reach out to our community? What are our worship services like? To be honest, I am not sure those answers will be especially interesting or insightful. I am not an innovator. Worship and outreach, if viewed separately, remain under our control. But where they intersect, the Spirit blows, and things get more interesting, at least for me. I will conclude with excerpts from interviews I conducted with new members about how they experienced our worship.

Background

“Fish or cut bait.”

That was the directive ringing in my ears five years ago when I was assigned to a mission restart in Knoxville, Tennessee. Dwindling attendance, a lack of leadership, and a massive projected budget shortfall meant that the 40-year-old church would not remain viable for long. “Fish or cut bait.”

The frustrating thing about fishing is that the end results are beyond our control. This is also true about those Jesus called fishers of men. But knowing this didn’t necessarily lessen the frustration. It did, though, lead me to focus on the things I could control.

Outreach: The Basics+

To return to our Lord’s metaphor, I didn’t have to learn how to sew a net when I arrived in Tennessee. During my training I had learned numerous ways to engage my community. As I share some of what our congregation has done over the past five years, there may be little, if anything, new for most of you. That is a great thing.

In no particular order, here are some of what I considered “The Basics” as I led our church to actively reach out to our community:

  • Frequently teaching and modeling the appropriate balance between reliance on divine monergism and recognition of human responsibility in outreach.
  • Frequently teaching and modeling outreach as an essential part of our church’s mission without making outreach the sum total (or even the most important part) of our church’s mission.
  • Equipping and encouraging members to invite their FRANs and to share the gospel with them. (Does that acronym make you groan because you have heard it so often? That is another good thing!)
  • Praying for the Lord to give the increase to our efforts.
  • Maintaining a “good enough” online presence. It doesn’t need to be great, but it should be somewhat active and professional. Post-2020, I believe this now includes a livestream or some sort of video content to give a digital window into the church.
  • Personal pastoral care and follow up.
  • Traditional canvassing (rarely) and door hangers (more frequently).
  • Targeting major services (especially Christmas and Easter) for community invites. We send out thousands of postcards and spend hundreds on online advertising. Most importantly, we encourage and facilitate FRAN invites at these times.
  • Maintaining a clean and attractive church building, including decent signage.
  • Making sure guests are “greeted and seated.” I changed the flow of our foot traffic so I would have a chance to personally interact with everyone who enters our building on Sundays.
  • Clear worship folders.
  • Sharing a brief, clear, and compelling welcome and worship focus each Sunday.
  • Encouraging attendees to fill out some form of worship registration.
  • Gathering that information, reviewing it, and following up on guests within 48 hours of their attendance.
  • Maintaining prospect records. Frequently praying for them and following up as appropriate.
  • Frequently inviting guests to a Bible Information Class.

While the goal is that our congregation understand and share in this work, these basics are largely under my control. If need be, I could make everything above happen on my own.

In addition to the basics, we are blessed with unique opportunities to reach out to our community. Several engaged volunteers offer themed educational playdates for children (Mornings with Mommy—more info at knoxvilleshepherd.com/mwm) and early childhood music classes (Music Makers—more info at knoxvilleshepherd.com/aboutmusicmakers). We train these volunteers to engage the parents and invite them, as appropriate, to church.

Finally, our building has a beautiful education wing. When I arrived, it was only being used for Sunday morning Bible study and Sunday School. It sat empty for six days, 23 hours, and 15 minutes each week. For the past four years, we leased it to a small private school that teaches children on the autism spectrum. This provides a valuable service to our community. It has also led to dozens of connections with teachers and families, a boost to our reputation, and some much-needed rental income.

We have been, in our own modest way, fishing. Has it worked? Sometimes, even for months at a time, nothing seems to work. Other times, it all goes according to plan. (Family gets a flyer, attends children’s music classes, meets the pastor, talks about baptism, attends pre-baptism classes which lead to BIC which lead to membership!) Sometimes, people showed up at church out of the blue. (Knoxville is a growing area. People still church shop around here.) Sometimes, they showed up because a friend invited them. Some showed up because we were the only Bible-believing church they could find that was not shaming people for wearing masks. Sometimes, the voice of the Good Shepherd echoed in the conscience of one of his long-lost sheep, leading him to seek out a church after many years away. One time, that voice of God took the form of a pastor who locked his keys in his car and needed to borrow a phone after going for a run in July. (Definitely my sweatiest evangelism story!)

There is always more to say. Bunches of WELS members have transferred in (a perk of being in a growing area) but some transferring away. The quantitative results are largely beside the point, except to highlight the variety of ways in which God may choose to work.

We’ve been blessed with unique opportunities to reach out to our community.

In fact, and to close this section with perhaps the only unusual part of our approach, we have purposefully avoided opportunities to scale up or streamline our efforts. We limit mass messages to prospects. Post-COVID, I teach most BIC classes one-on-one. (We even treat transfers like a special kind of prospect. They take a four-part course before we accept them into membership.) This comes from a series of convictions: People increasingly hate being marketed to. Every soul is not just precious, but unique. Idols hide well, even in small groups. Assent to a series of doctrinal propositions is only a small part of discipleship. This approach also addresses the immense difference in biblical knowledge and faithfulness found among prospects, a gap that will only increase in size as cultural Christianity fades away.

Worship: The Basics+

Worship, to a significant degree, is the goal of our outreach efforts. We want as many people as possible to hear the efficacious Word of God proclaimed in responses, prayers, songs, and sermon. Worship is also something we can control. That control, even for congregations that most aggressively exercise it, has limits. The Spirit blows where he wishes. Lutheran worship has a distinct flavor and progression. People react based on their backgrounds, prejudices, what they’ve heard youth like, and a host of other reasons beyond our control. Yet we do control, at the very least, the songs chosen, the instrumentation, the sermon text, and the sermon itself. We control the effort we put in as we strive for excellence.

Again, I doubt you will find much exceptional in what we do. I wear an alb. We print the order of worship in the bulletin. We sing hymns from the hymnal. We follow the lectionary. We do not offer a staffed nursery or any children’s programming during the service. If we exercise additional control over the order of worship, we do so in a way that we believe to be judicious. You may, of course, disagree. The following is offered as a description of some of those choices. It is not a defense, nor is it a prescription.

  • We often replace the Kyrie/Gloria with a hymn. We appreciate the opportunity to sing an additional song and tie it in with the season of the church year.
  • We take a fewer-is-better approach to song selection, working toward what the old Germans called “Kernlieder” —core hymns that become deeply embedded into the hearts and minds of God’s people.
  • We have introduced some guitar-based contemporary songs into this repertoire, as well as some more modern versions of classic hymns.1
  • We have a children’s sermon after the Prayer of the Day. It explains one of the readings or tells a Bible story appropriate to the day’s theme.

As with outreach so also in worship: our congregation is blessed with several unique advantages. The worship space is attractive and has good acoustics. In a sea of Bible Belt big box churches, we stand out as a church that looks and feels like a church. The Lutheran emphasis on the arrow-pointing-down love of God stands out, too, as does the fact that we allow children to participate in worship. We also have the personnel to worship well. Our members have always sung strongly. My wife is an excellent pianist and choir director. We have other high-caliber musicians.

In a sea of Bible Belt big box churches, we stand out as a church that looks and feels like a church.

The Intersection of Outreach and Worship

We fish, as best as we can control. We worship, as best as we can control. Yet it is impossible to control what happens next, as worship and outreach intersect. But we can notice, appreciate, and learn from the experiences of guests who do join us for worship.

What were your initial impressions?

I found the congregation’s active participation in the worship service more formal than what I was accustomed to with decades of attendance at a Baptist church but a bit more engaging.

I expected that such a formal service would be stone-cold silent, but instead the ambiance of small children was heard throughout the service.

Certainly from the very beginning I really appreciated the music. While performance quality is a nice addition, what I really appreciated was the substance. (The choice of doctrinally solid hymns over worship choruses.)

I appreciated the sermon the most. It was easy to understand, relatable, and it held my attention. Nothing laced with guilt about what you did or didn’t do or how you missed mass last week. It was all about Jesus and his promises.

Did you find anything especially confusing or strange?

I didn’t recognize very many songs (Lutheran songs tend to be a lot older and more theologically dense). The banners marking the church season were foreign to me as I didn’t really know what the church calendar was. The congregational responses were very strange to me as they sounded a lot like chanting.

Phrasing the absolution as “I forgive you” was strange. Was nearly a deal breaker.

The feeling of “not in Kansas anymore” kept running through my head.

The joint congregational responses made me feel like I was in a room with a cult.

The robes were a surprise to me.

I grew to appreciate the congregational responses. I think there is value in stating beliefs corporately as a body of believers.

Have you grown to appreciate any particular part of the service?

After learning of the biblical and historical reasoning for the Office of the Keys, I grew to appreciate audibly hearing that my sins had been forgiven each week. As I learned the truth about Baptism being the historical moment we were brought into the family of God, the subtle reminders of my Baptism throughout the service (primarily through the invocation of the Triune Name) became really profound to me.

Baptist churches put a huge emphasis on the altar call. It is the point up to which the whole service builds; one final opportunity for us to decide to offer our lives to Christ at the front of the church. The Lutheran church, instead, has the Eucharist at this point where Christ willingly gave himself to and for us. Now I see beauty in every piece of it.

I immediately appreciated that creeds were recited, doctrinally rich hymns were sung, and political power/grievances were not the substance of the sermons.

I grew to appreciate the congregational response; I think there is value in stating beliefs corporately as a body of believers.

It took me a long to time to see, believe, and fully embrace that we’re saved by grace and not by our good deeds.

There is an obvious selection bias at play in this sort of conversation. Prior impressions or ignorance of Lutheran worship may prevent someone from visiting our church. A negative impression may prevent them from returning. This is somewhat inevitable.

That said, I have consistently found discussions about worship to be fruitful. I have learned to appreciate parts of the service to which I hadn’t given much thought. I have learned what some appreciate and what others don’t. Sometimes it’s the same thing! Some people did not return because we’re far too liturgical, and others left because we’re not liturgical enough. Some stormed out because of closed communion; others joined because we practice it faithfully and unapologetically. I have heard, “We love everything about your church except that there is no children’s church. We are moving on.” And I have heard, “We are so grateful to finally be able to go to church with our children. What a gift!”

To return to the metaphor at the beginning of this article, these conversations prevent me, a lifelong Lutheran, from being like the proverbial fish swimming along, ignorant of the water. They help me appreciate the manifold ways the Spirit works and highlight just how much of this is beyond my control.

By Scott Henrich

Pastor Henrich graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2018 and has served Shepherd of the Hills in Knoxville, TN since then. While he states in this article that “quantitative results are largely beside the point,” it’s worth noting that attendance has doubled since 2018 to over 140.


1 A growing variety of resources for both are available at online.nph.net/musicians-resource for both congregations with the new hymnal and those using CW93.


Sierra’s reflection

Sierra is a gifted singer, song writer, and guitarist. She and her husband joined the Lutheran church as adults, along with their children. I asked her to reflect on her initial experience attending a Lutheran church, as well as her work as our music coordinator.

When first visiting a Lutheran church—as cheesy as it sounds—it felt like coming home. The church felt like a group of people who collectively loved the Lord. They sang songs that spoke of his promises that specifically claimed his words. As a Christian I had never experienced the level of sound doctrine in congregational worship songs before. While I had always loved contemporary Christian music, I didn’t know what I was missing until I dove into the heart of the Lutheran hymnal.

I was so shocked at the clarity of the sermon. Growing up in multiple denominations, I was used to a very bland sermon. In stepping into the Lutheran faith, I feel like the level of education of the pastors truly shows in their knowledge of Scripture.

I have had the privilege of becoming the music coordinator, and I’m truly loving it! I get to help Pastor pick music for Sunday services. The biggest factor that goes into music choice is Scripture. I would say that the way that the readings are set up every month as a church body encourages a clear guideline for worship that allows me to plan ahead and connect the hymns with the doctrine provided. I would say that some of the hymns are difficult because they are not bland or made to be simple for first-time singing. They are meant to clearly relay the messages of the Bible. I feel truly blessed to help the church choose these songs to sing weekly and to worship our Lord with my fellow believers.


2024 National Conference on Worship, Music, and the Arts

Save the dates: July 30 to August 2, 2024, at Carthage College, Kenosha, Wis. (Pre-conference rehearsals for the Festival Choir will begin Sunday evening, July 28.)

A 2020 conference was moved to 2021 to better take advantage of new hymnal resources and to link the summer conference with the fall release of the new hymnal. Then, after the pandemic we planned for 2024 to avoid scheduling in the same year as the WELS National Conference on Lutheran Leadership (2023).

Pastors, please forward this info to various people. See wels.net/worshipconference for details on the following:

  • Who is this conference for? (Not just pastors and musicians!)
  • Were other sites considered?
  • How were the dates selected?
  • What’s the cost for congregations that want to budget ahead?
  • I’m an advanced-level musician who hasn’t been involved in the past. How can I sign up to be
    considered?

 

 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

 

Preach the Word – The lectionary can’t cover everything—but it can cover what matters

Free Text Series or Lectionary Preaching?

The lectionary can’t cover everything—but it can cover what matters

My previous article argued that the underlying logic of the topical series preaching paradigm popular in American Christian culture and somewhat influential in Lutheran homiletical thinking carries with it some unexamined weaknesses that are worth the attention of Lutheran preachers. I cautioned that the underlying logic of the paradigm can push the homiletical task toward making Jesus instrumental instead of essential, that is, a topic-first approach has inherent qualities that could either make it more laborious to accomplish gospel predominance or that might move Christ from the center of the sermon’s purpose and position the gospel as a footnote to what people otherwise sense is the primary goal: religious therapy, cultural commentary, intellectual inquiry, or spiritual motivation. I suggested, then, that a shared Lutheran lectionary, with its clear and consistent focus on the words and works of Jesus, makes gospel relevance and gospel predominance more natural—even easy—to accomplish.

Some readers suggested that the paradigmatic issues I described and conversations about them among preachers do not exist to the extent that I described them and therefore most if not all of my argument is spurious. I want to make clear that I do not consider this subject to be in the category of a roiling synodical controversy. I called it a simmering debate on purpose. I have observed it gently bubbling in circuits, conferences, and in the online spaces where pastors gather to talk shop. But by writing as if every reader was fully acquainted with the contours of the conversation, I opened my point to unwanted misunderstanding. The background I elided is this: contemporary Lutheran preachers have before them a significant choice between two fairly distinctive preaching paradigms. One is lectionary-driven, the other is topic-driven. The latter is quite influential, but I am arguing that such influence is not all that warranted and that the former is the better overall choice for Lutheran preachers in our time and place.

A more serious concern from some readers is that I have accused colleagues of ministerial malpractice. Therefore it is good to repeat what I said in the previous installment. I am not saying that someone who preaches topically fails to preach law and gospel, nor am I saying that topical preachers are automatically guilty of positioning Jesus as instrumental instead of essential. I set up the framework of analysis to be one of paradigms in general, not preachers in particular. I signaled this in several ways, especially in gesturing toward the famous dictum that a medium can communicate in a way that overrides or undermines the message or, to put it another way, sometimes style can overpower substance. I’m not talking about the presence or absence of law/gospel sentences but rather the characteristics of preaching paradigms.

Style can overpower substance.

My specific claim was that the paradigm of topical preaching runs an unnecessary risk of interacting with the characteristics of ambient culture in a way that pastoral perspectives might overlook. Preachers tend to think in categories like Christian freedom and efficacy of the Word, but people catechized by the ambient culture’s domineering emphasis on self-ownership and self-construction are prone to engage with sermonizing in radically different terms. We think we have said one thing, but in reality they hear another. The result can be a subtle shift from an objective message of good news to a message perceived as self-improvement. Such an outcome is surely not intentional, but that does not make it imaginary.

I am suggesting that Lutheran preachers think carefully about this phenomenon and adjust their approach accordingly because they are free to do so. Christian freedom is essential to my thinking on this. The fact that we don’t have a prescribed preaching paradigm is why discussing the merits and demerits of the available options is legitimate and worthwhile. That this is an adiaphoron is precisely why it deserves attention.

In this installment I give attention to the sentiment that the lectionary paradigm is too limited and that the topical paradigm is worth pursuing because it gives the preacher opportunity to cover things not covered in the lectionary. In this formulation it’s not that the lectionary paradigm is irrelevant, it’s that the lectionary paradigm is insufficient.

But first, we need to talk about books.

Books are an excellent contribution to preaching

I love to encounter thoughtful, engaging writing on theological subjects—and not just new writing either; reading old books is just as refreshing. C.S. Lewis once praised the salutary effects of the “clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”1

Reading broadly in popular literature is important for cultivating a well-rounded homiletical mind and for developing illustrations and examples. Reading widely in popular Christian commentary is a useful way to develop fresh idiom and expression. Reading deeply in professional literature is important for gaining new angles on familiar texts.

But you know this already. This is commonplace homiletical advice. Preachers know the benefit that comes from reading an expert author exposit a biblical theme. We all have favorite writers who resonate with us. Excellent writing can teach new skills, encourage fresh enthusiasm, offer timely support, increase emotional intelligence, and deepen knowledge. These are good things.

Books are an inadequate agenda for preaching

Sometimes, though, enthusiasm from reading a good book becomes a powerful desire to communicate the same content to the congregation. Thus the sermon-series-on-a-recent-book is born.

I identify with the preacher who wants to act as a kind of London Review of Books for the people he serves. The book review (not the book report) is a simple and flexible genre that offers writers and readers alike the opportunity to creatively interact with all sorts of ideas. If a preacher thinks of himself as a purveyor of engaging ideas (a communicator in contemporary parlance), then he will probably be the kind of preacher who enjoys digesting, synthesizing, and systematizing other people’s work. This is a tremendously useful skill and is valuable in ministry.

But I suggest that the Sunday service is not an ideal time for a book review. Such a practice relies too much on the personality and temperament of the pastor. The homiletical task offers generous opportunity for the preacher to speak naturally from his personality and to develop sermons in a way that suits his temperament, which is why it strikes me as unnecessary for the preacher to also claim control over the agenda of preaching.

Is the pastor’s bibliography an adequate pattern for congregational proclamation? I’m skeptical, but even if I’m wrong, the question remains: On what grounds does the preacher conclude that his reading list should set the every-Sunday agenda for what the people of God hear?

Answers might sound like this, “This book covers things not covered in the lectionary,” or its corollary, “This book covers things not covered with enough detail in the lectionary.” In this sense the topical preacher provides a vital service by selecting texts that plug critical gaps left open by the lectionary.

A framework for preaching that is creative, relevant, enduring, and engaging.

Sufficiency as acceptance of reality

Here I sense common ground between lectionary and topical preachers. A persistent challenge in ministry is to connect parishioners to diligent study and application of the Bible. We all agree that it is good for believers to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. I also understand why the Sunday sermon becomes the front line in the battle to get more people engaged with more biblical topics and their application. Preaching remains the most prominent public voice of the congregation. If a pastor is concerned that people need, say, an in-depth review of how to forgive one another, then the sermon seems like just about the only avenue available.

But here a dose of finitude might be helpful. It seems both self-evident and inevitable that no preaching paradigm could be so extensive that it covers every important subject in careful detail. There are parts of the Bible that the lectionary does not appoint for reading and preaching just as, I am sure, a random sampling of three years of topical series preaching would reveal whole swaths of the Bible and entire categories of teaching that received little to no attention in Sunday sermons.

This is not a problem, though. The point of an organized presentation of Scripture is that certain texts are better suited for certain purposes than others. No one complains that six funeral sermons last year missed out on opportunities to cover Paul’s missionary journeys.

“People won’t get this material otherwise,” when offered as a reason to set aside the lectionary, is a rationale that bolsters my point. If preaching really is the primary way most people connect with Christian teaching, then it is all the more important that the agenda for all that preaching be aligned as closely as possible with the main purpose of Lutheran preaching.

The Lutheran concept of sufficiency has long included the sense that something is sufficient for a given purpose. The purpose of Lutheran preaching is to announce the gospel of Jesus Christ for the salvation of mankind. If there is to be an agenda for the public voice among God’s people, then the person at the center must be Christ and him crucified. The lectionary paradigm excels at this and consistently nudges preachers in this direction. Yes, there will be a lot of otherwise good things that don’t get as much coverage, but some things really are more important to say than what the preacher might otherwise want to say. This is not a problem; it’s the whole point.

Brainstorming as a bad sign

I realize that not all topical series preaching is seeking to plug gaps. I agree that the metaphor has a certain haphazard, ad hoc feel to it. I know that many topical preachers take the task of long-range planning very seriously. I do not doubt that these men believe that what their congregation needs is not offered by seasonal texts from Epiphany or Advent and therefore they need to think thoroughly about what to offer instead. I admire the level of effort that goes into such work, but allow me to suggest that preachers keep one part of that process (the planning) and ditch the other (the inventing).

Consider the cognitive model of topical series planning. It necessarily begins with what amounts to a blank page. Of course, the page is not literally blank; there is, at the very least, a list of every Sunday. Next to these dates are blanks that must be filled. Several may be marked already with themes or events like Soccer Camp, National Back to Church Day, Christmas, and Easter. The task is then to fill in all the blanks with a year’s worth of themes, weekly topics, and biblical texts to support them. And so the brainstorming begins.

The topical preachers I know are usually open-minded men, certainly more amenable to creative innovation than some of their more conservative colleagues, which is why I see a certain irony in the fact that the planning model that undergirds topical preaching is, generally speaking, less likely to produce creative and innovative results. Looking at the year ahead as an empty calendar to be filled with new ideas might just be one of the worst ways to work. Brainstorming can be a bad sign.2

The black hole of the blank page

The typical planning process of the topical series takes the preacher back in time to the unsettling college experience of staring at a blank page that must eventually become a finished paper. The common composition advice in such a situation is to brainstorm. “Come up with as many ideas as you can. See what sticks.” But this advice only makes sense because the writer has nothing to work with. Brainstorming is the first step not because of the virtue of the process but because of the poverty of the situation. When you have nothing, then, yes, anything is better. But that’s a low standard to work with, couldn’t we agree?

A blank slate can be a black hole.

Could it be that the blank slate brainstorm is not ideal for delivering the kind of creative results and engaging communication that preachers want to deliver? Brainstorming prioritizes ideas that come easily. But easy does not equal relevant. Easy is simply a matter of our mind remembering what is most recent, has the most emotion attached to it, or what is most lively, novel, or practical.

Brainstorming is also susceptible to the human tendency to like our own ideas the best. People prefer to hold onto their own ideas whether they are optimal for the task at hand or not. Brainstorming can actually reduce relevance for others.

One might think that adding more people to a brainstorming session will help, but the opposite is usually the case. It instead reduces the quality of the ideas and meaningfully narrows the scope of thinking.

This is not to say that it is impossible to generate creative ideas, but it is to say that brainstorming isn’t as useful a tool as preachers might think it is. A blank slate can be a black hole. If a year of preaching began with a blank page brainstorm, then the odds are increased that the end result was not as creative and engaging as it could have been. There must be a better way.

Books to the rescue

The experience of blank page brainstorming may explain why some lectionary preachers react differently to the reading of books than topical series preachers do. Because the topical preacher has decided against following an overarching preaching agenda, he regularly faces the task of inventing one. It should be no surprise, then, that what a book offers will seem especially valuable: a systematic, carefully organized, and meticulously edited sequence of logic or narrative created by someone besides the preacher. The good book gives the topical series preacher what the lectionary would otherwise provide: a framework for preaching that is creative, relevant, enduring, and engaging.

The lectionary preacher, on the other hand, has a preaching agenda defined by the regular pattern of reviewing the words and works of Jesus Christ in an organized and narrative structure designed to repeat and reinforce itself over time. When the lectionary preacher reads a good book, he more naturally thinks of its benefits in terms of how elements from the book will fit into his preaching now and into the future. He thinks, “This insight will be really useful for my sermon on Lent 1,” or “This chapter will contribute to my approach in Epiphany.”

It is through the connection of new material and existing structures that creative thinking and original effort is most likely to occur.

It is through the connection of new material and existing structures that creative thinking and original effort are most likely to occur, especially if the structure is consistent over a long period of time. The preacher who sets aside invention in favor of integrating his thinking and reading to a lectionary framework over many years might discover that huge gains in creativity and engagement accrue at compound interest.

A different path is before you

The topical series preachers I know are men with tremendous skills at digesting, synthesizing, and systematizing the work of others, which is why I mean it sincerely when I suggest that they might become even better preachers if they migrated to the shared heritage, common good, and creative strength of our lectionary. The communication of important ideas is a skill that becomes all the more potent when connected to a long-term, external framework.

There are also a range of opportunities to engage people with the benefits of good writing apart from a book-driven sermon series. Reading groups, blogs, podcasts, classes, and newsletters are all better suited for the work of interacting with and applying ideas to strengthen and equip the saints for lives of faithful obedience, especially when the telos of such settings is more aligned with treating topics didactically and applying them within community accountability. Lean into such genres instead of trying to fit similar efforts into sermonizing.

To set aside the concept of sufficiency is to eschew a critical element of Lutheran preaching.

Topical preachers are right to remind colleagues of the many important matters that God’s people need to understand and apply, but to set aside the concept of sufficiency is to eschew a critical element of Lutheran preaching. It is good for preaching to be proclamation and it is good when the agenda of preaching is the news to be proclaimed: the person of Jesus Christ and the great works by which he has redeemed us. And when the overarching agenda is not a bibliography of theological miscellany but a framework designed to support the primary purpose of Lutheran preaching, the creative communicator will offer what the denizens of contemporary culture are desperate to hear: a total narrative in which to situate themselves. If believers have the story of Christ for them, then what they have will be more than sufficient.

Written by Caleb Bassett

Caleb serves as pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fallbrook, CA. He was a member of the Executive Committee of the WELS Hymnal Project and chairman of the project’s Technology Subcommittee. He has been a frequent guest panelist on The White Horse Inn, a nationally syndicated radio program and podcast on theology and culture. He is a fellow of the International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism, and Human Rights in Strasbourg, France and a member of the WELS Institute for Lutheran Apologetics.


1 On the Reading of Old Books,” God in the Dock: Essays on God and Ethics, Ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harper, 1970), 201-202. Also HarperCollins, 2014.
2 For more detail consult the research presented in section 13.1 of “How to Take Smart Notes,” 2nd ed., by Söhnke Ahrens, pp. 130ff.


WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

 

Worship and Outreach – At Our Redeemer, Madison, WI

In his excellent book of devotions titled Our Worth to Him, Mark Paustian described the music of the church as a “soft apologetic” that reaches out into the world, an apologetic not “of evidence and argument, but of beauty, mystery, and…nostalgia.”1 A “soft apologetic” strikes me as a perfect descriptor not only of church music but of how the whole worship life of a congregation serves in interfacing with the broader public, and it puts into words the approach we’ve attempted to take at Our Redeemer in Madison, Wisconsin. We’ve been careful not to treat the preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments as a product in need of marketing, nor do we wish for our services to be subservient to a shopkeeper’s mentality that follows the whims of the customers in order to keep them satisfied. Still, our church doors are open to any and all on Sunday morning, service times and an invitation to come are routinely broadcast to our community, and a channel on YouTube allows anyone who is interested to peer in on what is taking place within our walls when we gather for worship.

In other words, our congregational worship life is public facing, and on most weekends we do have visitors joining us. What will they notice when they come? We hope they will find a soft apologetic—not an in-your-face sales pitch for Jesus, but the quieter witness of a body of believers who are gathered together around Word and sacrament, who believe that Jesus comes to them with forgiveness through these means, and who are engaged in mind and body in receiving the gifts of Christ and offering up prayer and praise in the Spirit. Some specific things might catch their attention right away: I begin the service standing next to the baptismal font for the invocation and confession and absolution, a silent reminder that this is a gathering of believers who are joined by water that runs thicker than blood. They will notice, like the well-known former Southern Baptist Beth Moore did on her visit to an Anglican Church, that we are intent on letting Scripture speak on its own by the inclusion of three readings,2 and that these Scriptures are applicable to our lives today as they are expounded in the sermon. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, they can’t miss the importance we place on the sacrament Jesus gave in which the body of Christ gathers to receive the body and blood of Christ.

Our congregational worship life is public facing, and on most weekends we do have visitors joining us.

Since it is these means through which the Holy Spirit works faith when and where he pleases, we make sure that they are front-and-center. But those means never come bare, so we also pay attention to the form in which they are delivered. Not to worship our worship, but so that such things as beauty and mystery and nostalgia might serve, as Paustian puts it, like a John the Baptist, pointing away from themselves and to Jesus, the Lamb of God.3

Beauty – liturgy and music that adorn preaching and the sacrament

Our Redeemer is a mid to large congregation of about 500 souls, and we have a vibrant school and early childhood ministry. That brings a lot of children into our midst, and it is what I have heard and seen from the kids that has reinforced in my mind the role beauty fulfills in worship. For example, for our school Christmas service every year, we have the children sing one of our standard settings of the Gloria that we use on Sunday mornings. Without fail, every year as I am walking through the school hallway some day in early December, I hear children’s voices spontaneously breaking out into that liturgical canticle as they pile on snow gear to head out for recess. They sing the Gloria strong and loud and all together at the Christmas service, but even better is hearing the voices of some of the littlest ones joining with the rest of the congregation on other Sundays throughout the year. The beauty of this great Christian song of praise that grows out of the liturgy has a way of getting into kids’ ears and onto their lips and sinking into their hearts. I love that!

The best hymns, whether very old or very new, are hymns that bring together strong images with powerful and moving melodies.

The children also remind me that beauty is not something that is narrow and rigid by definition. The best hymns, whether very old or very new, are hymns that bring together strong images with powerful and moving melodies. Our school teachers do a fine job of drawing the children into these hymns, but they are aided by the beauty that’s already there. The hymn captures some facet of the gospel, and it also captures the hearts of children. You can see it in the intensity on their faces as they sing those hymns in worship.

There is also a time-tested quality of beauty in the orders of service that have survived the winnowing fork of church history and have wound up codified in our hymnal. The way that the liturgy strings together a coherent path of worship, drawing us in, gathering us together around Word and sacrament, and then sending us out, is something I appreciate more and more with each passing year. Again, I’ve noticed the way this simple beauty makes an impression by what I’ve witnessed among the children of our congregation. Every month we hold a Vespers service on the first Wednesday evening. We just follow the order of service straight out of the hymnal, but we do a few things to draw attention to the where the worship form is leading us: dimming the lights, having an acolyte light the candles during the singing of the Phos Hilaron, burning incense while the congregation sings Psalm 141. For a number of months, now, we’ve had a group of children who ask their parents if they can sit together for the service. But they don’t choose to sit in the back so they can goof off—they sit as close to the front as they can get so they can see the action and participate in it.

We strive in our worship for beauty that is not ostentatious but simple and dignified.

In my mind, that’s the power of beauty, and while I might argue that reaching children is doing outreach to the next generation, I could also add that what appeals to children is not likely to be lost on adults. So we strive in our worship for beauty that is not ostentatious but simple and dignified. We want to adorn the real meat of the service, Word and sacrament, in a manner that reflects the great gifts Christ is giving.

Mystery – worship with a low floor and high ceiling

With its economy rooted in government, university, health care, and technology, Madison is a community of professionals. Every week I’m preaching to people who are a lot smarter than I am. For that reason, one of the important soft witnesses that marks our worship is our embrace of mystery. People who are pushing the boundaries of knowledge need the humbling reminder that there is a limit to human wisdom. None of us can wrap our minds around who God is and what he has so wonderfully done for us and for our salvation. So we strive to reflect this in our worship by crafting services to be accessible but not remedial.

People who are pushing the boundaries of knowledge need the humbling reminder that there is a limit to human wisdom.

I one asked my school principal for advice on teaching Bible study. He gave me an image that has stuck with me. He told me that you want a classroom with a low floor and a high ceiling—that is, no one on the low end of comprehension will be lost, but at the same time no one with a good deal of learning will feel bored or as if they have nothing more to gain. That’s a good way to think of worship. It needs to be accessible enough so that a newcomer isn’t totally lost, but it needn’t overexplain everything nor chop out everything that cannot be understood in one pass. We want worship to offer treasures that even lifelong members (and pastors) can grow into and discover—one good reason to keep coming to church.

There are some practical things we do in this regard. We print the entire order of service, but sing hymns out of the hymnal. That strikes a balance in making it easy to follow along, but also gets the book into people’s hands to show the wealth of resources there for personal devotional use outside of the service. Likewise with hymn selection. We sing a Hymn of the Day that is often meaty and always tied closely to the Gospel, but we select more familiar and crowd-pleasing hymns for other spots in the service.

Thinking of the apologetic of mystery on a deeper level, I see the wisdom in using resources that I did not create but received. Such things as the liturgy and the lectionary are at some level accessible, but they also offer a lot that is yet to be understood or discovered. At least, it has helped me to realize that I don’t need to sweat it so much if a visitor doesn’t “get” everything in a service. After all, I myself don’t get it all, either—and that’s a good thing. It means I have the opportunity to keep on growing into all that liturgy and lectionary have to offer.

So, for example, I had heard the post-communion collect prayed countless times for more than three decades and had myself prayed it at the altar for six or seven years before it dawned on me one Sunday that this prayer includes petitions that look both backwards and forwards—back in thanksgiving for the forgiveness of sins that we receive in the Lord’s Supper, and forward to the way this sacrament increases our love and fuels holy living. That Sunday, I realized that the prayer reflects the same ordering of doctrinal truth that is found in articles four, five, and six in the Augsburg Confession. Justification (AC IV) comes to us through the ministry of Word and sacrament (AC V) and leads to good works and new obedience (AC VI). The post-communion collect demonstrates that perfectly, but it took me a long time to see it and appreciate it.

Likewise, the lectionary is a helpful tool that has both a low floor and a high ceiling. People with no church background whatsoever are still acquainted with Christmas and Easter, and they know what they should expect to hear if they come to church on one of those festivals. From there, it doesn’t take much to figure out that the seasons around these holidays fill in the story of Jesus’ life and that the church follows a calendar that makes it impossible to miss out on the main details of God’s plan of salvation. Yet there is always room to grow in understanding how a given Sunday’s readings fit into the broader church year and connect to one another. I think that is the delight of the lectionary—it is always inviting us to see new connections as it reveals the fullness of Jesus and his saving work and leads us through an annual review of all the chief doctrines of Scripture.

These kinds of mystery bear witness to the fact that the God we worship is bigger than ourselves and beyond our ability to comprehend. Yet in grace he has revealed himself to us in his Word, so that all of us might continue to grow into our knowledge of him who fills everything in every way. I’ve found this to be a helpful dynamic in a town like Madison.

Nostalgia – homecoming for pilgrims

Madison is a fairly transient community. People move here for school or work, but just as quickly find a job offer elsewhere and move away. So a lot of our outreach has to do with connecting to Christians who are new to town and looking for a church home. With them in mind, one of the things we strive for is that our worship would evoke a sense of nostalgia in the best sense of that term. We want people who encounter us to feel like they’ve come home, and we’ve had good success in that regard by trying to look and act like a church as we gather together.

Since we’re pretty much worshiping straight out of the hymnal, it’s not surprising that in this regard we do very well with people who come from a Lutheran background. Many of them tell me that our church feels like the church they grew up in or came from recently. But I have also heard similar things from people who have come to us from very different backgrounds, whether former Evangelicals or Roman Catholics.

How might this be? I suppose that former Roman Catholics feel somewhat at home in the format of our service and in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Evangelicals, on the other hand, connect readily with our preaching that is based on the Bible and brings the Scriptures to bear on our Christian lives. Call it the Lutheran middle—or call it what the Christian church at its best has always done in worship. We are at our best when we are gathering people around preaching and the sacrament, and therefore it shouldn’t be surprising that such worship would feel like home for God’s pilgrim people as they make their way through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

They tell me that they appreciate a church that tries to look and act and feel like a church.

For people who have come to us with no church background, we have the opportunity to start from scratch and give them a solid foundation on which to build future nostalgia, if I can call it that. They tell me, too, that they appreciate a church that tries to look and act and feel like a church. I’d like to think that if they move away they will also readily feel at home in other WELS churches because of what they’ve experienced at Our Redeemer.

A soft apologetic with a personal touch

I am ever-mindful of Eugene Peterson’s observation that pastoral work is geographical and tied to a specific locale—the real, mappable Nineveh and not Tarshish, the dream.4 But I would venture to guess that it’s not only in Madison that worship seems to be less of a front door to the church as it once was—our visitors are largely those whom I described above as already having some Christian background. That means we also need to get out and meet people outside of our services if we wish to reach those with little or no experience in church. We’ve found that opportunities to witness have come simply by training our people to ask their friends or family members, “Do you have a pastor who is visiting you? Would you like my pastor to stop by?” That personal interaction goes a long way—people are hungry for personal touch. It stands out to them when they are not treated as just a number or another customer, but as individual souls worthy of individual attention and care.

Then, when they come to church, they see the same guy who visited them in the hospital or elsewhere. That dynamic, I think, is something we will keep trying to capitalize on. We have the real advantage that the preacher in the pulpit is also the pastor who makes hospital calls and personal visits. Especially in the era of mega-churches where the preacher is inaccessible for the rest of the week, this is something I’ve noticed that really makes an impression. But I suppose we’ve always known this: the old adage about a home-going pastor making a church-going congregation is as true today as ever.

I’ve tried to describe some of the circumstances in Madison that have shaped the worship of our congregation. Situations may vary, but I think that the concept of worship as a soft apologetic will prove a helpful framework for fitting worship to any locale.

By Philip Moldenhauer

Pastor Moldenhauer graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2012 and has served at Our Redeemer in Madison, WI since then. In addition to congregational duties, he serves as the District Worship Coordinator for the Western Wisconsin District.


1 Mark Paustian, Our Worth to Him: Devotions for Christian Worship (Milwaukee, WI: NPH, 2021), 145.
2 https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2023/march-web-only/beth-moore-book-sbc-church-stranger-anglicans-welcomed-me.html
3 Paustian, Our Worth to Him, 145.
4 Eugene H. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1992), 122-123.


2024 National Conference on Worship, Music, and the Arts

A 2021 conference was canceled due to the pandemic. Rather than rescheduling in the same year as the WELS National Conference on Lutheran Leadership (2023), the next worship conference will be in July of 2024. The site and exact dates are not yet firm. For the latest information, see wels.net/worshipconference. Advanced ability musicians who have not previously played at a conference and those whose contact information has changed are invited to submit their information at this site. This information is requested even from those who aren’t yet sure they will attend the 2024 conference. Pastors, please share this invitation with instrumentalists of above average skill who entered or graduated from college since 2017 and with other adult new members since 2017 with similar skill.


Adorn the liturgy for outreach.

Moldenhauer writes about using liturgy and music to adorn the real meat of the service, Word and sacrament. The word “adorn” recalls an essay by Jonathan Schroeder from the 2005 national worship conference—still valuable reading almost 20 years later: worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-and-outreach. When Schroeder wrote this essay, he was serving a small, mission congregation. Since then it has grown to become the largest single site congregation in the South Atlantic District.


 

 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

 

Preach the Word – The essential element that makes preaching worth anyone’s attention

Free Text Series or Lectionary Preaching?

The essential element that makes preaching worth anyone’s attention

A common sentiment among my fellow preachers suggests that the lectionary-based approach to preaching has become unsuitable for contemporary ministry. The thinking is that an occasional, topical approach—typically called series preaching1—is better than following the liturgical church year with its one- or three-year cycle of pericopes used in common across an entire community of churches. This opinion appears to be particularly pronounced in missions to the unchurched and in parish settings self-consciously characterized as visionary or innovative.

This is the first part of a three-part essay in which I will enter this simmering debate. I will analyze and comment on three subtle but significant criticisms of lectionary preaching. I intend to offer meaningful resistance to what strikes me as a largely unexamined assumption: that series preaching is the way of the future because it somehow offers unique advantages for ministering to the kind of people shaped by contemporary American culture. I will work to carve out some much-needed common ground even as I make the case that lectionary preaching remains the best preaching paradigm for Lutherans in our time and place.

Perhaps I will be able to convince some of my fellow preachers to return to the shared heritage, common good, and creative strength of lectionary preaching. But if not, then the series preacher might at least rely less on unwarranted assumptions to justify the practice and become more sensitive to the realistic pitfalls in series preaching.

Effort isn’t the issue

Last year I participated in a conference discussion on how best to contextualize worship to today’s culture. The conversation inevitably turned to contextually relevant preaching. A clear sentiment emerged: lectionary preaching was said to be the easy way to preach because the lectionary has already been planned for you. The topical series, in contrast, was said to be the hard way to preach because a good series requires a significant amount of advance planning. The resulting benefit of all this hardness was said to be a corresponding increase in homiletical relevance. In other words, “The topical series is hard to do because relevance is hard to come by.” By the end of the discussion the matter was even cast in moral terms. One pastor called the lectionary not just the easy option, but the lazy option!

No doubt he was overstating the case. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the lectionary has acquired a reputation as little more than a time-saving table of texts instead of an atlas showing the way to the kind of seriously relevant preaching that ministers of the gospel are called to deliver. Many preachers are setting lectionary preaching aside on the grounds that it is simply too weak of a tool to till the fields where they have been called to gather a harvest.

I will wholeheartedly agree that series preaching takes more effort to do well than most lectionary preachers probably realize. I once had to plan and preach a brief, occasional series and I found the process to be quite unpleasant. Maybe the difficulty arose from working against the grain of so much training and so many years of practice. Regardless, my point is that, yes, it does take serious effort to do series preaching well. I hope any preacher who preaches serially always gives the job the full beans it requires.

Persistent misuse of a preaching paradigm does not prove the paradigm is faulty.

I will also agree that many preachers have used or continue to use the lectionary lazily. The point is well taken that the specific value of the lectionary is not that you can arbitrarily (and at the last minute) grab a text from a table of pericopes and preach as if every sermon is isolated from what has preceded it and what will follow it. But at the risk of offering what amounts to a playground retort—“I’m not lazy, you’re  lazy!”—what is the lectionary preacher to make of the many websites trafficking in ready-to-preach series kits? A clever programmer could probably code a bot to compare the social media feed of every WELS congregation to what’s trending on the most popular sources of series kits and find no small number of matches.

Both lectionary preaching and series preaching have well-known and well-worn ways of taking shortcuts, the habitual use of which should be unwelcome in a virtuous professional culture. Persistent misuse of a preaching paradigm does not prove the paradigm is faulty, rather it bears witness to an ethos short on rigor and lacking in integrity. Excellent preaching of any kind requires significant foresight, careful planning, and all-around effort. The lectionary is not the easy option because preaching is not the easy option. All preaching is hard when practiced seriously and sincerely.

I suggest that we settle on this common ground and focus on more fruitful ways to analyze and compare series preaching with lectionary preaching. We must still discern a credible path from the premise, “series preaching requires more planning than lectionary preaching,” to the conclusion, “therefore series preaching yields greater contextual relevance compared to lectionary preaching.” Is such a path possible or plausible?

Relevance is at stake

Differences over lectionary preaching vis-à-vis series preaching seem to arise most frequently in conversations about what makes preaching relevant to a particular cultural demographic or cultural moment. It seems that context and relevance, not ease or difficulty, are the real points of contention. This is significant for understanding and addressing the issue. The assumption appears to be that the lectionary cannot reliably engage the context of the congregation or the community in which the congregation operates. The question, then, is why anyone thinks this.

One commonly-held answer seems to be rooted in the static nature of the lectionary. The lectionary tells and retells the account of a God who promised (and subsequently accomplished) to become our human brother in order to decisively redeem mankind from its entanglement in the cords of death and to definitively raise us to new life in a God-owned identity and vocational purpose that stretches from this moment through eternity. And because these things happened in the past there can never be new things that happened “once for all,” as the writer to the Hebrews puts it. The core story in the lectionary is static in the same sense that history is static.

This means that the lectionary cannot know who was elected president or what progressives want to teach kids these days. The lectionary does not react to the latest ministry blogs, nor does it comprehend that superhero movies are a big deal. The lectionary hasn’t been imbibing the latest pop psychology and religious self-help. The lectionary doesn’t know any memes. The lectionary hasn’t reviewed the latest Barna studies. Therefore, the thinking goes, for preaching to be relevant to a contemporary setting (as opposed to flowing from a historical consciousness) there must be an intermediary individual or group, like a pastor, group of pastors, or a planning committee, who regularly surveys the surrounding culture anew to discern what topics need emphasizing for preaching to enjoy relevance in the coming months.

This is, to say the least, an extremely popular approach to preaching. Aside from the expository model in which a congregation will work through whole books of the Bible over lengthy periods of time, the entire Evangelical industrial complex appears to be geared toward the task of churning out series after series. Such an approach thrives in the theological framework governed by the presumption that if the church and her ministers will only just embrace the surrounding culture with gusto, then the surrounding culture and its denizens will be more open to the church’s message in return. In this dispensation it seems the concept of relevance is meant to mean the task of calibrating preaching to harness the most engaging subjects or styles of the times, even if it means making heroic leaps of logic to somehow connect intellectual fashions and cultural fads to biblical theology.

This is not the relevance that Lutheran preachers ought to seek.

I am unconvinced that this is best described as relevant. Predictable may be a better word for it—and not the good kind of predictable, like Christmas coming every year. The point at which the series approach as commonly practiced could be called innovative appears to be in the rear view mirror. Whether it’s the barely camouflaged fundraising effort (#generosity) or the soft-core commentary on sex (#intimacy), series preaching as a trend appears to have become a rote procedure by which a cultural product of some kind, like a fascinating book, hit movie, major event, or social trend becomes the catalyst for the question, “How can I preach a multi-week series on this subject?” Indeed, some such books come with twelve chapters, which—voila!—become twelve sermons.

This is not the relevance that Lutheran preachers ought to seek. Unless the goal is to communicate that the church’s message is a Christianized expression of the surrounding culture, it’s an awfully big assumption to think that what’s trending in culture or what’s on the pastor’s Kindle is also genuinely relevant to the actual predicament of particular people in the padded seats, to say nothing of relevance to the formation of thick, resilient, long-term Christian communities. In fact, a serious concern to consider is whether by focusing on cultural relevance the preacher is directing the eyes of his people away from where they need to be focused, that is, preachers can easily point people away from the Person in whom genuine relevance is found. To answer this concern with, “Jesus is in every one of my sermons,” is, frankly, inadequate. Jesus is in an awful lot of hip-hop tracks, too. The heart of the issue is what role Jesus plays in preaching.

Jesus is essential, not instrumental

The series paradigm too easily positions Jesus as instrumental instead of essential, that is, when a congregation’s preaching is presented as a species of cultural commentary, religious therapy, or intellectual inquiry, Jesus must inevitably come across as one of the many great minds that people could choose to follow for good advice. In this paradigm the preacher can really only recommend Jesus, and because he can only recommend Jesus he must go to great lengths to present Jesus as the best way to accomplish whatever the stated goal of the sermon series is. The preacher may say something quite biblical, like Jesus is the only way to salvation, but such a message, while technically true, is overwhelmed by what the medium says. Things soon start to sound less like preaching and more like motivational speaking or life coaching. After all, if this month isn’t “The Greatest Month of Generosity Ever,” then what was it all for?

Things soon start to sound less like preaching and more like motivational speaking or life coaching.

The underlying logic of an instrumental deployment of texts tends to create people who hear only way as better way—and even then, it’s only the better way for now, that is, until they discover an even better way. This underlying logic of instrumentality is subtly implied if not explicitly stated in the form of advice-centric series themes and topics. “Come to hear how Jesus makes blank better,” is the main message, even if a few sentences of gospel are sprinkled in to rescue the sermon from formal charges of legalism. The fact is that there are other great minds out there and many people who recommend them as the good, better, or even best way to get after your goals. Only Jesus asks his followers to bear a cross. At some point following Jesus does not make everything better, it makes many things quite a lot worse. If Jesus is offered to people as relevant insofar as he can be a means toward some other end—especially a self-directed end—then he is not relevant at all.

The psychological captivity of the church.

I file this entire tendency under a concept described as the psychological captivity of the church.2 The notion that the most relevant pastor is the one who looks to the world around him to determine where to head with his preaching has probably ceded any remaining position of strength against profoundly strong cultural currents. The church and her preachers are mired in a trade deficit of sorts; we import more ideas than we export.

None of this is to say that good preaching won’t engage with the cultural context of the congregation in significant and meaningful ways. It is to say, however, that it is too simplistic to think that the series paradigm is itself the engine of relevance. Quite often the result is literal irrelevance, especially if what’s on offer is merely a Christianized version of what others offer. People will go elsewhere to get the same practical benefits but without the Christian cross. Can we blame them?

The gospel is relevance incarnate

A helpful way to understand the issue of relevance is to analyze what kind of communication the gospel actually is. Christian doctrine is clear that salvation comes “from hearing” and what’s heard is a “message about Christ.” Here it is not pedantic to point out the plain meaning of the word gospel, that is, “good news.” Because the gospel is a report of an event or state of affairs, we must understand our preaching as the delivery of news. If we are not preaching news, then we are merely hosting a speaking event. Whether this event takes the form of a droning lecture or a trendy TED talk is immaterial. Both manifestations are the same—devoid of the distinctive power at our disposal to call lost souls from death in sin to life in Christ.

What does this have to do with the question of relevance? Everything. A sermon that offers commentary, advice, or application about the world that someone could, in principle, come upon elsewhere and apart from the Christian gospel is, by definition, irrelevant as news. It may be good and useful information that everyone is glad to have heard, but it is not, in the final analysis, news—and certainly not gospel.

Nothing ever will be as relevant as the words and works of Jesus Christ.

What animates the lectionary paradigm is the insight that nothing is or ever will be as relevant to as many people in as many situations as the words and works of Jesus Christ. The relevance people need most comes in the form news, an announcement of events that no one could come upon by any amount of their own thinking or choosing, events that happened “once for all,” but must be proclaimed again and again, generation after generation.

This is why I suggest that Lutheran preachers be less concerned about the quest to make their preaching relevant in culturally conditioned terms and to work instead at saying what is genuinely relevant to people living under the effects of sin and death. You can be sure that everyone will one day find themselves facing a deadly spiritual thirst (indeed, they face it already). Your task is to ensure that they have been drenched with words that point to the one who can and does quench their thirst. Aim your preaching at the moments when people will need to have heard good news, not endless therapeutic applications of biblical proof passages. Aim your preaching at relevance worthy of the word.

The lectionary does make one thing easier

I want to be clear that my claim is not that the series preacher never preaches the gospel, but that the series paradigm as a medium, with its reliance on a culturally-conditioned definition of relevance, makes genuine gospel proclamation either more difficult to accomplish or makes the gospel into an instrumental footnote attached to what people otherwise sense is the obvious goal: religious therapy, cultural commentary, intellectual inquiry, or spiritual motivation.

For example, one Sunday after Easter I was enjoying dinner at a neighbor’s house. Our host, knowing that I am a pastor, asked, “What was your sermon about today?” I briefly summarized the thrust of my sermon on the appointed gospel in which the recently-resurrected Jesus shows his wounds to Thomas. Then, knowing that our host attends one of San Diego County’s largest multi-site Evangelical churches, I asked, “What was your pastor’s sermon about today?” The answer: “How to lead like Moses.” I have little doubt that Jesus was mentioned in that sermon just as I have little doubt that the Lord was mentioned mainly as the means to a practical end.

I am not saying that everyone who follows the series approach to preaching does that, but I am saying that the lectionary makes it a whole lot harder to traffic in legalistic life lessons. It would take a monumental effort to somehow feed God’s people leadership training seven days after Easter while preaching the lectionary. If the lectionary makes one thing easier it’s this: maintaining focus on the words and works of Jesus and delivering the good news in a way that is—as I will argue in the following parts of this series—uniquely poised to matter most in our cultural moment.

There are almost limitless opportunities to engage contemporary culture within the lectionary preaching paradigm. It’s still hard work, too; but where it matters most the lectionary may really be the easy option.

Written by Caleb Bassett

Caleb serves as pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fallbrook, CA. He was a member of the Executive Committee of the WELS Hymnal Project and chairman of the project’s Technology Subcommittee. He has been a frequent guest panelist on The White Horse Inn, a nationally syndicated radio program and podcast on theology and culture. He is a fellow of the International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism, and Human Rights in Strasbourg, France and a member of the WELS Institute for Lutheran Apologetics.


1 This article is the first in a series of three that evaluates free text series preaching, not the kind of lectionary-based series featured in the new hymnal’s Commentary on the Propers and offered in The Foundation at welscongregationalservices.net/the-foundation.
2 This concept was coined by academic theologian L. Gregory Jones, former dean of Duke Divinity School and provost of Baylor University.


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Worship and Outreach – In Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin

“I suppose you’re doing ___________ worship.”

In the summer of 2013, a group of about 25 Christians met in a renovated storefront space in a strip mall in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, for the very first time. They called themselves “Good News Lutheran Church.” Most of them had previously been members at the WELS church in nearby Verona. For the first year that they gathered on Sunday, the pastor from Verona, Nathan Strutz, would also lead the service in Mt. Horeb. Eventually I was called to serve as the first full time pastor of Good News and arrived in Mt. Horeb in the summer of 2014.

Not long after I arrived in Mt. Horeb, a man I had met and crossed paths with a few times found out that I was the pastor at that new church that was meeting in the strip mall. After a few polite questions about how things were going at our church, he commented, “I would imagine you’re doing _______________ worship over there, huh?”

The specific adjective he used in front of “worship” doesn’t matter a great deal. Much more important were the logical dots he was connecting in his mind. We were a new, i.e. small, church. We wanted to, i.e. needed to, get bigger. We wanted to reach the individuals and families in our community who weren’t currently attending one of the six churches that already existed in our town. Therefore, it stood to reason that __________________ worship would be the key to reaching them.

Again, the specific adjective he used is beside the point. In the nine years that have followed since hearing that comment, I’ve talked to many unchurched people in our community. I’ve had those unchurched people ask a variety of questions about our church. Those questions have ranged from the deep and theological to the superficial and mundane. Sometimes I’m amazed by things that are on people’s minds as they contemplate going to church. It’s often things you would never think of as being important.

I’d be lying if I said that no one has ever asked about our style of worship. But I’m confident I could count on one hand the number of times that specific question has been asked. When it has been, it usually involved someone who had recently moved to town, who had previously had an active relationship with a church in their previous community, and who was looking for a church in our town that was similar.

However, that’s a rare profile in Mt. Horeb. The much more common profile goes something like this: A person had some sort of religious upbringing as a child, likely Mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic. When they graduated high school and moved away from home, they lost their connection to a church. At the same time, they were likely attending a large, public university where they were exposed to strong influences of secularism. When they entered the workforce, they lived in a fairly urban setting, likely Madison. At some point they met someone and got married. Eventually they had kids. When those kids approached school age, they started looking for a smaller, quieter community with good schools to buy their first home in and continue to raise their family.

So by the time they settle in Mt. Horeb, it has likely been well over a decade since they had an active relationship with a church. The weight of parental responsibility may mean that they are open to the idea of going back. But because of everything they’ve seen, heard, and experienced in the meantime, they also need to sort through with their adult minds some of the things they had been taught and believed when they were children.

What caused them to drift away—and what will convince them to come back—has very little to do with any particular style of worship.

In other words, what caused them to drift away from church in the first place—and what will convince them to come back to church—has very little to do with any particular style of worship. You can fill in the blank however you want. Traditional worship. Contemporary worship. Formal worship. Casual worship. Structured worship. Spontaneous worship. Praise band worship. Polka band worship (yes, we have that in Wisconsin). It wouldn’t really make a difference. I would say, if anything, people seem to desire something that feels at least somewhat familiar to what they experienced when they were young.

If not, then…?

So if worship style doesn’t seem to play a huge role in helping us reach people and grow as a church, what does?

A bit more about our community…

The most recent demographic information for our community indicated that the average household income was north of $80,000/year. Your typical home prices range from $250,000-$400,000. Both the unemployment rate and the poverty levels are below 2%. More than 80% of households in Mt. Horeb have both a mom and a dad who tuck the kids in at night. In other words, life in Mt. Horeb seems to be pretty good, at least outwardly.

But even before the pandemic, mental health struggles among young people were a major focus of attention within the community, and for good reason. A string of suicides and attempted suicides among students suggest that all is not as well as the demographics seem to indicate. Young people aren’t the only ones who seem to have something missing in their lives. Adults may not be losing sleep over where they stand with God or where they are going to spend their eternity. But they do seem to be obsessed with demonstrating that they are worthy of the approval of their peers. There always seems to be some new moral/political cause that people want everyone to know where they stand on.

So if people in this upper middle class, suburban, family-oriented community are going to consider giving church a shot, it’s not likely because they feel as though they have the “Jesus thing” all figured out but are looking for help in making some incremental improvements on the more incidental aspects of life. Instead, it’s because they have the incidentals (job, education, career, etc.) pretty well figured out, but have been living with the results of the “Jesus thing” being entirely absent.

Lutheran worship has a weekly structure and an annual rhythm whose entire goal is to point people to Jesus.

As I get to know them and have conversations with them, it would seem completely unnatural to try to convince them to come based on any one facet or characteristic of our worship style. But it’s entirely natural to assure them that the approval, identity, peace, and hope that seems to be missing in their lives can all be found in Jesus. It’s entirely natural to talk about how Lutheran worship has a weekly structure and an annual rhythm whose entire goal is to point people to Jesus. It’s made me grateful to know that is one thing we can offer our community as well as any church in the world. When we were a new church of fewer than 30 people, there wasn’t a ton we could do in worship. We could, however, deliver Christ and all of the blessings he brings with him.

A bit more about our community…

For as long as I’ve been in Mt. Horeb, the contentious political issues that tend to trend on Twitter and soak up the airtime on cable news seem to keep popping up at the local level as well. Everything from climate change to immigration to school bathroom policies to pandemic policies to race relations has been a source of debate in our community. In a small town, the sides get drawn up pretty quickly. It’s often challenging to avoid getting caught on one side of the debate or the other. Everyone seems to want to weigh in, including Christians and Christian churches.

As a result, people often make assumptions about the political party or platform each church supports, including ours. While doing some canvassing one time, I ended up knocking on the door of our local representative in the Wisconsin State Assembly. We had a very nice conversation overall. But at one point she made the interesting observation that she assumed I wouldn’t be the biggest fan of hers as a politician because I was a religious person.

Living in such a politically charged climate has made it entirely natural to emphasize with people the difference between the church’s mission of winning souls for Christ’s kingdom and winning political battles. It’s been eye-opening—and door-opening—to share with people that the main message of our church is not a political position. In the past three years especially, I’ve found it natural and beneficial to be able to say (repeatedly): I’m not here to change your views about politics, and I’m not here to change your views about public health. When politics seems to dominate the conversation 24/7, it’s a relief for people to know that there’s at least 1 of the 168 hours of a week where the topic of conversation is something else (and far more important).

One last thing about our community…

Our community is situated in a county that was by far the most restrictive in our state and among the most restrictive areas in the country. Public schools in our county kept their doors closed for nearly a full year after the pandemic hit, much to the dismay of many parents. During that same time, online learning gave parents a fuller and sometimes surprising glimpse of what their children had been getting taught when they sent them off to school each day. Many companies kept their doors closed and their workers at home. Many churches didn’t have in person services indoors for well over a year. In other words, it’s an area where people seemed ready to go “all in” on all things online. As a result, it’s an area where many people have seen firsthand the detrimental results of doing so.

The good news is delivered by fully embodied persons to other fully embodied persons in fully embodied ways.

As a result, it’s been very natural to share with people how the good news at the heart of our weekly services is not just content we want them to passively or even virtually consume. Instead, it’s a message that is delivered by fully embodied persons to other fully embodied persons in fully embodied ways. It’s offered a natural talking point for why we opened our doors as soon as we could in 2020 rather than keeping them closed. It’s been natural to share how we hope that our services are places where the whole family shares and receives the gospel together, where we want parents to hear what we are teaching their kids about Jesus, and in fact where we want parents to be the ones telling them about Jesus through their active participation in the service.

Like just about every other church in the world, we started live streaming our services during the pandemic. We’re still doing that, but we try to communicate in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways that, even though we’re happy people can be “flies on the wall” watching from their home, we’d really love it if they were with us in the room.

Emphasize the difference between the church’s mission of winning souls for Christ’s kingdom and winning political battles.

How we fill in the blank

So while there doesn’t seem to be a pressing need to focus on the specific style of our services, there have been plenty of opportunities to share with people the substance of our services. They are Christ-centered and gospel-focused. They aim to effect change in the heart rather than in the ballot box. They engage the whole person, not just the mind. They are communal rather than individual.

None of that probably comes as a surprise. None of that is probably any different from the way any of our churches would describe their services. Maybe you’re wondering about the specifics.

I’m not sure how I’d fill in the blank with the word that best describes our style of worship. I’ve had people describe it as much more modern/contemporary than the traditional style they grew up with. I’ve had people describe it as much more traditional/structured than the casual style they experienced somewhere else.

I don’t think I’ve made many decisions about worship in an attempt to have any of those adjectives fit our style of worship. Perhaps the ways in which our worship might be the most different from what you’d experience in your typical WELS church could be described with words like “simple” and “stable.” In a church where most people don’t have much of a WELS background and where all kinds of families with young children are learning to worship together, I’ve found that simple and stable are huge blessings. We do quite a few things seasonally. We use orders of service seasonally. We often use seasonal opening or closing hymns. We’ll use the same psalm refrain seasonally while speaking responsively the verses of the Psalm of the Day in between. Overall, our repertoire of core hymns is quite small (~125). The different settings of the service that we use is even smaller (two with seasonal variety, especially during the festival half of the Church Year). Simplicity and stability continue to pay dividends. It’s a great joy to see new worshipers get familiar with our service quickly. It’s a great joy to hear children who can’t read yet belting out the simple melodies and texts they hear week after week.

Simple and stable are huge blessings.

Other than that, it’s pretty standard fare—prepared and delivered as well as we possibly can. Yes, it’s printed in the service folder so that people can follow along easily. But when we first started, it was pretty much what you’d find in the red hymnal. Now it’s pretty much what you find in the blue hymnal.

However you might describe our worship, it served us well while we were a group of 30 gathering in a strip mall. It had evolved and expanded a bit by the time we were a group of 80 gathering in our second temporary location: the basement of a multi-tenant office building. And during all that time while we gathered in those temporary spaces with cobbled together chancel furnishings and audio equipment and hand-me-down paraments and banners, it was also preparing us for services in a space that’s actually designed for the very things we’ve been doing all along.

Whether in a strip mall, a bank building basement, or a newly constructed sanctuary, whether the specific style of worship was everyone’s favorite never seemed to matter a great deal. What mattered is that they knew it. What mattered is that they could do it. What mattered is that their kids had something they knew and could do as well. And at the end of the day, they decided to come (and decided to stay) for much different reasons.

(For additional photos of the new church, see 119a. Supplemental Photos at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-worship-and-outreach.)

By Jonathan Bauer

Pastor Bauer graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2008. His first call was to Emmanuel Lutheran in Tempe, AZ. In 2014 he accepted the call to Good News in Mount Horeb, WI, a mission church that recently completed its first building project. Jon serves on WELS Commission on Congregational Counseling and the Institute for Worship and Outreach. He served on the Executive Committee of the WELS Hymnal Project. His keynote address from the recent leadership conference contains some thoughts that are complementary to this article and is available at vimeo.com/801975492.

 


 

 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

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Preach the Word – Insights from Being Open to Feedback

Preaching with Outsiders in Mind

Insights from Being Open to Feedback

Editor’s note: This issue concludes our series on preaching with those outside our church membership in mind. Since 2011 Pastor Caleb Kurbis has served at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Asheville and Hendersonville, NC. Living Savior has two locations as one church in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina. In this mission setting there is never a shortage of opportunities to interact with numerous Sunday visitors and other outsiders. Living Savior’s ministry context includes a majority of members who have never been Lutheran in a region that is less and less Christian with hardly any Lutheran presence.

Introductory thoughts from Pastor Caleb Kurbis

“Pastor, did you know that A.I. could write your sermons for you?”

I had to smile and nod a bit even if my poker face hid the fact that it sounded stupid. Then again, should we be surprised when technology starts to do things that we thought were off the table? I guess I should be thankful that this kind 20-something didn’t tell me this on a Sunday morning. I could have inferred more: “Hey Pastor, maybe you should have artificial intelligence write your sermons.” (Or maybe he was saying that? Shoot!)

“Pastor, did you know that A.I. could write your sermons for you?”

If you want a rabbit hole, search “A.I. and sermon writing.” You’ll find everything from interesting to entertaining to absurd. We could enter some key words, the proper for the day, and some sources. Then we could read through to double check for heresy. Voila! And all that time saved could go toward more ministry and reaching more people. Right? Ha! Of course not. We would miss the benefits of wrestling with the Word. Worse yet, A.I. can’t process the people we’re thinking about and the souls sitting in God’s house. And what about the conversations we’ve had with prosects, considerations for reaching the searching, and wrestling with nuances for those who aren’t only new to our church but even new to the faith?

This series is about preaching with outreach and outsiders in mind. It probably goes without saying, but these articles on reaching the unchurched have some basic assumptions.

  • We want to preach to outsiders and the unchurched.
  • We are doing what we can to reach the unchurched to bring them closer to the Word.
  • We recognize that worship, although maybe trending less today than with previous generations, is a great avenue to bring people closer to the Word and to God’s people.
  • We want to make sure that they get “every good and perfect gift from above” as we ask God to help us communicate his truths clearly.

That last point is the basis for much struggle for me personally. Over the last couple of years, I have grown to feel dumber and dumber as I wrestle with this question: “Am I sure that these people, especially new people, are hearing what I want them to hear?” That’s not intended to sow self-doubt in every corner. It’s intended to encourage double-checking the sermon preparation and communication process. The more I think, the more I wrestle. And the more I wrestle, the more it makes me want to talk with people and work on the “stuff” that makes a sermon.

Am I sure that these people are hearing what I want them to hear?

Four ideas to help connect what we say with what they hear

  1. Speaking of “stuff,” there was a young couple with two little kids who wanted to talk about “church stuff” as they just started attending Living Savior. He was Catholic before he became “close to nothing.” She described herself as having an “eclectic denominational path.” It was the season of Easter. They kindly emailed a question ahead of time. “We heard you say that we have this ‘life’ right now and not just eventually in heaven. That doesn’t make sense. And this world? Ugh! We may have missed something. Can you please explain?”

Thank the Lord for people who ask. (And imagine the many who don’t!) I looked back at my sermon on Revelation 21. I was trying to make the point that this vision of heaven is not only for the future; the life found in and through the Lamb belongs to us right now. But what questions would newbies ask? My sermon draft might say “life” after hours of work. But do I think deeply enough about the questions they (might) have? The more we ask about what specific people might think, the better we become at speaking clearly. And whether we know or think that we know or don’t know at all, it’s always helpful to ask. If we ask what someone thinks about a challenging subject in our sermon, would they refuse to answer? Who says they have to be members of our church? I was once encouraged by a wiser, older pastor to ask for feedback from outsiders in order to make my sermons better for outsiders. That starts with me seeking them out. Whether they become prospects is irrelevant for my feedback goal. Then again, we may be given the blessing of new people who will ask us on their own. “Can you please explain?”

  1. I’m kind of a fast talker. I’ve slowed down over the years, but I need more work. Especially when I talk with sooomme of myyyy olllder suuuthrrn’ fooolks. Okay, not that bad. (Or fake!) But I remember many years ago when a very intelligent and emotionally sharp woman in my church told me, “You’ve been thinking about this a lot! Can you give us a little more time to think about it too?”

I had just preached on Luke 15 in the middle of Lent. Does it get any better? The challenge isn’t finding meat in that text. Rather, the challenge is to select and prepare small, choice cuts in a way that’s easy for God’s people to savor and digest. It seems that my sermon came across more as force-feeding. Yikes! She was right. Add that to the reasons that we pray with Luther, “… if you had left it all to me, I would have ruined it long ago” (Luther’s Sacristy Prayer). It gets better (read worse).

There was already an appointment on my calendar that week to grab coffee with a prospect that I had been working on for a long time. The conversation eventually got to the sermon the Sunday before. He said, “I need to go back and listen again.” The translation in my head sounded like this: That is a really nice way of validating what that lady said. You’ve got some work to do.

It reminds me of what a good pastor friend once said. “We slave over our sermon all week. Every sentence, logical structure, and sound. But the people? They have one second to get a thought, or they don’t.” Add to that listeners who don’t know context or terminology or Bible history or inside jokes or Lutheran-ese, etc.

Think about how new listeners process deep content, logical leaps, and a speedy pace. When we slave over what to say, we need to remember that how we say it happens quickly to the ear. That doesn’t just mean that we need to slow down. That leads to other questions. If I heard this for the first time, would I get it? If I summarized my last several paragraphs with one sentence each, is the logic simple and clear? What would I change if I had to explain this to a child?

We need not shy away or be distracted from saying the simple things.

  1. A young man in his early 30s had been an atheist. Now he’s more of an agnostic. He said that he relates to the Stoics quite a bit. He doesn’t want to come to church quite yet because he doesn’t know much. He doesn’t want to sit there and have things sail over his head even though he is intelligent. I assume that you, like me, start thinking about how simple and clear the gospel is and how hard we work (and we must) to keep it simple.

Our professors encouraged a serious and robust devotional life. One professor at the Seminary said, “If you don’t have a personal devotion first thing on Sunday morning, what are you doing? Truly, what are you doing?” True, wise, instructive, and beneficial. But one Sunday hit me upside the head.

The sermon was done. First things first, a devotion from Our Worth to Him by Mark Paustian.1 The one on Easter. He notes that maybe on Easter we could avoid getting into all the apologetical tidbits of the resurrection and simply focus on the true blessings and eternal benefits of Easter for God’s people. In short, it’s okay and maybe even often preferred to say the simple truths. It hit me because I read these words on the Third Sunday in Easter, and I had erred in the other direction.

Of course, Prof. Paustian isn’t suggesting an either/or scenario all the time. Anyone who has heard him speak or read his writing has witnessed the benefit of weaving together both clear biblical truth and apologetics. It is an art worth aspiring to. Rather, when it comes to the truths that matter most, we need not shy away or be distracted from saying the simple things.

It shouldn’t go without saying that simplifying our preaching is not just for newbies but also for those who have been in church almost every Sunday for their entire lives. (On this point Nathan Nass’s Preach the Word series is worth rereading.2)

We need to say the simple thing as clearly as possible. Of course, we want to give our people meat. We also want them to have milk. But nothing says we can’t communicate steak-like truths in a milky way. Truths that are out of this world can be shared on a rudimentary level. Sharing the simple truths leads to deeper applications. In other words, think not either/or but both/and. It will benefit regular members and certainly also outsiders.

Some further questions pertain to resources. What devotional resources do you use? How do you view yourself as a listener to the author/speaker? What resonates with you? Maybe you prefer deeper devotionals like The Daily Exercise of Piety by Johann Gerhard. Or maybe you like what fellow brothers write in NPH’s Meditations. Or you’ve found treasure in Paustian’s Our Worth to Him. What is there in the simplicity of our devotional resources and lives that can easily translate into our sermon preparation and even our preaching?

  1. I recently got back into officiating high school basketball. No, I don’t like getting yelled at and called names for fun, although there is something to be said for testing the thickness of our pastoral skin in some ways. But this outlet and pathway for connecting in my community can get serious. The supervisor provides critique. And it’s really interesting seeing how people receive it, or not. The supervisor confided in me about pushback from someone by saying, “Reffing is very subjective. Subjectivity is personal. So, people either take it personally or they improve.” Would you agree that preaching is highly subjective? Do we welcome constructive criticism to improve? Or do we take it personally or avoid it altogether?

A member in my church works in an economic realm of our world that is way beyond me. He works with elite people who exhibit the highest levels of professionalism. But you wouldn’t know if you met him because he’s a very gracious man. Years ago, he asked me who I’m trying to reach with my sermons. I said they’re for everyone. I waited, knowing he had more to share. He asked, “Pastor, do you pursue constructive criticism on your sermons?” I told him that I have a couple of guys whose feedback I seek. And sometimes I’ll hand members an anonymous feedback form. Notice he asked if I pursued it, and not just received it. Why? We’re always improving.

I don’t know of any line of work or any craft where someone can improve significantly without some form of criticism. That’s true for this man’s line of work with upper-crust business folks. That’s true for some bumpkin preacher in the mountains of Western North Carolina. And that’s true for you. Of course, the fact that you’re still reading this is one clear indication that you know this. Even so, when it comes to preaching with outreach and outsiders in mind, isn’t it worth pursuing feedback from fellow preachers and others whom we trust?

I wonder what it would be like if we started asking each other some of the following questions. If you brought your unchurched neighbor to my church, what is there about my recent sermons that I should keep doing? What would need improvement? Can you read/listen to/watch a couple of my latest sermons through the perspective of first-time guest and let me know what was clear, confusing, churchy, and/or comforting?

Don’t be afraid of criticism and feedback for the goal of improvement. In fact, be concerned if you resist it.

Applying the Word to people who are veterans and to those who are new or outsiders is worth our best efforts. We deeply desire for their hearts to gain clear insights from the Word. That’s not something A.I. can produce, much less bless. But that is certainly the area code where God works blessings and will produce growth for our good and for our people. He has and he will!

Don’t be afraid of criticism and feedback … be concerned if you resist it.

Timeless Reminders

Editor’s note: This issue’s timeless reminder comes Rev. Tom Jeske’s introductory article in Preach the Word: 8:1.

I like the advice of a classmate who endured a rough chapter of ministry. When I asked him how it was going, he said “Nothing I can’t handle with a good night’s sleep… and some devotion time in the morning.”

Lutheran Preacher, start your day by reading the Scripture! Set your alarm. Get by yourself. Graze like a sheep in the pasture of the Word. You can’t preach to anyone else if you are gasping for air. I try to read four chapters a day. I don’t always make it. (Especially for you younger pastors: Did you know that if you discipline yourself to read four chapters a day, you read through the whole Bible every year?) Isn’t that a worthy and reachable goal? No one has to be a great scholar or have outstanding gifts to do this. You put yourself before the living words of the Holy One of Israel. How can something not happen to you?

After I finish reading, then I pray. We all know that prayer is not a Means of Grace. First the preacher listens, then the preacher speaks. I made a little pattern to help me. Of course it’s not original with me—just ask Peter the Barber. And yes, I can actually pray without it. But I’m a person who easily loses his concentration. This little outline helps me in a way that I suppose is akin to how journaling helps some people think. I list four matters on my conscience and confess them. I list four specific gifts for which to thank God. I make myself write down ten names or initials. The last section is a hodgepodge of hopes, dreams, needs, and half-baked ideas. Brother, you do it your way and improve on my idea. But hear Luther:

“Whenever I happen to be prevented by the press of duties from observing my hour of [Word and] prayer, the entire day is bad for me. Prayer helps very much and gives us a cheerful heart, not on account of any merit in the work, but because we have spoken with God and found everything to be in order.”

You know that by “prayer” he meant “Word and prayer.” Preacher, your morning Word and prayer will serve you well as you present devotions in meetings of every type, hospital visits, confirmation Bible classes, unexpected phone counseling, difficult face-to-face conversations, and finding the love to make outreach a part of your week.

The best part of a morning devotion is the sweet experience of a clear conscience. “Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love,” (Ps 143). Battered and fearful hearts know no finer way to spend time. Perhaps the second-greatest benefit of a morning devotion is its cumulative value for your preaching. Your preparation, your product, and your confidence to step before God’s people to preach are going to grow steadily.

Written by Joel Russow


1 online.nph.net/our-worth-to-him-devotions-for-christian-worship.html
2 Vol. 23 at worship.welsrc.net


WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

 

Worship and Outreach – In Salt Lake City

St. Francis on being a winsome witness: “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”1

We know it’s difficult for people to walk into a church for the first time. Many have wounds from another Christian or church. Many have heard that “the church” is at least complicit, if not one of the great offenders, in this world’s evils. “The church” has a history of judgers, haters, chauvinists who are intolerant, and holding back progress.

Anyone who walks in the door on Sunday is a miracle and answer to prayer. We’ve got a little over an hour to love them in the very best way we can.

One miracle is Darrel. I know what I want for him. I want this Sunday morning to open the possibility of another story for Darrel, so much bigger than whatever the world has preached. I want his life to be interrupted—he’s going to be in the presence of God and among divine things. I want him to notice that the front entrance and landscaping are nicer and newer than he expected, a good first impression. I want him to be welcomed at the door with a smile and an easy conversation. Then to be handed a worship folder by someone who is obviously glad he’s here. I want him to be taken aback by the beauty and arrangement of the sanctuary, a space different than he’s used to. I want him to wonder about things: what is that for, how many kids does this church have, will I be able to follow along? But not too many questions. I want him to see the pastor reverence the altar and realize he takes this time very seriously but then to hear a warm greeting from him. I want the bulletin to strike him as simple and attractive and the opening hymn to speak clearly and be sung well enough for him to join in. I want him to hear God named, to be a bit shaken by a confessing of sins and then a touch jarred by the absolution. I want him to wonder about that good news. I want him to sense that this is something the pastor lives for. I want him to recognize he was made for this—to be in communion with God, being filled by the Lord and saying back, “I love you too.”

I want him to not be able to leave without understanding the subject—verb—object combinations that save and define us: Jesus loves you. God forgives you. He has mercy on us. He takes away the sin of the world. He lives and reigns, now and forever. His body is given for you. He shines his face on you and blesses and keeps you. No sacrificing to appease. No bargaining for favor. And what that enlivens us to: we praise and bless and glorify God, proclaiming his death until he comes again.

I want to see Darrel with those people who can talk to anyone, and I want six other people to smile at him. I want Darrel to feel like this is a community where he could belong, and this place could be a home for his soul. In other words, I want Darrel to hear the gospel in words and see it in the love of saints. I want him to come back. Who doesn’t?

Pastoral and practical questions then. What has Darrel really been thinking? Where does this most likely fail? What can I make happen and what will I fight for? Darrel did actually visit us, invited by a friend. He described himself as an atheist, formerly a zealous Mormon missionary. I asked him about visiting our congregation. I share his thoughts below.

Liturgy as Outreach in Salt Lake City

Prince of Peace was planted in Salt Lake City fifty years ago. Today the neighborhood is roughly 50% LDS. Our property is literally adjacent to a Mormon church building. We need a liquor license hanging on the wall in order to have wine at Holy Communion. Many go to churches here that include Jesus’ name but have never prayed the Our Father out loud with others.

Whether they know it or not (and some do), they’re looking for freedom.

I suspect that you know the challenges of speaking the gospel to a Mormon. For example, they use the same words with different meanings. They judge truth by inner witness of the Spirit, a “burning in the bosom.” Many American Christians are looking for something similar. More than once a visitor from a non-denominational background has said, “I felt the Spirit here today.” They’ve been taught to look for a sensation in order to know the Spirit is at work—that feeling authenticates a “real worship experience.”2

Here’s Paul, formerly LDS, later in the worship band at a Reformed community church, and now worshiping with us:

“Years ago we attended one of the services. It was my first time in a liturgical service. I remember being kinda weirded out that everyone was reading out loud in unison. I told Emma, “Seems a little cultish.” Ha! The things we’ve been taught formed in us an expectation that liturgical worship is inferior, that such people must have a dead faith because there aren’t shouts of amen, crying, or swaying back and forth with hands raised in an emotional frenzy of enthusiastic piety.”

Mormons and Evangelicals both attack the means of grace. So what’s the best way to love these restless souls? They’re not visiting for a “spiritual moment” or for moralistic preaching; they’ve had those things in spades. Whether they know it or not (and some do), they’re looking for freedom. You know how soul-stirring it is to watch the gospel find the cracks and work its way in! God be praised.

The liturgy of our divine service is a strong witness; it’s noticeably different than LDS or Evangelical worship, distinctly Christian and Christ-centered. If you’ve come from legalism, Lutheran worship is an escape from the treadmill, for your joy. Everything commanded is done. Enjoy your forgiveness! If you’re used to a service inherited from revivalism where the climax is commitment or decision or testimony, Lutheran worship shocks you with a different telos: it’s all gift! Jesus is here for you, not potentially, but really, already. If you have no worship background, you experience the gospel, historical connection, transcendence, and community—each of which could be an article unto itself.3

Jon Bauer concluded an insightful article in this publication with these lines that are so worth repeating: More than anything else, liturgical Lutheran worship is designed to proclaim the gospel. Our rites tell the basic gospel story weekly. […] Our heritage of hymns aim gospel truths and gospel events squarely at people’s hearts by setting them to poetry and music. Lutheran worship brims with the gospel.4 Lutheran worship preaches the gospel at all times, using words.

Lutheran worship is an escape from the treadmill.

Paul again, who thought our worship “a little cultish” at first:

As the Lord has drawn us in, some of the things that rubbed us the wrong way or that we were weirded out by have become the most precious. A big one is the confession absolution. I was really thrown off by this at first. But as we’ve grown in understanding, it’s become so beautifully comforting. Another topic is the primary direction in worship—from God to us. The main thing isn’t what we do. No, we come in need of being served. We come empty and Christ fills us through the word and sacrament. It’s so different from what we’ve known, upside down. So rich and full and right.5

“It’s so different from what we’ve known, upside down.”

Belonging

Consider some thoughts on two things that are rather universal and work toward what I want for Darrel. These things are part of putting flesh on Christ’s love and preaching the gospel, with and without words: belonging and being real.

Somewhere I heard James K.A. Smith say that in seeking to reach out you may be answering questions that people aren’t asking.6 For example, you speak about the significance life has in Christ, but unbelievers may believe they already have a life of significance and meaning. Maybe they’re involved in a political ideology or social cause; they’re making a difference. They’re not looking for more significance. But ask if they ever feel alone, unloved, or anxious. While not our most unique and important gifts as Lutherans, a sense of belonging and being real seem to resonate with the actual life questions of the guests we’re trying to love.7

It’s hard for someone to visit worship for the first time. We all know this, but it bears emphasizing: a culture of hospitality is love. It is Christlike. It is the gospel preached without words, and it must be part of our culture if we don’t want to hinder our outreach.

I promised the real Darrel’s thoughts. He shared this with me about his first visit:

The liturgy is certainly something I wasn’t familiar with, but it was easy enough for me to feel comfortable with it.

For confession and absolution, I stood out of respect, but I did not participate. I felt as a non-believer at the time it would have been disingenuous. But I remember this being in large part the first e-mail I wrote to you because I felt it very bold to forgive sins in God’s name.

I most remember how everyone went out of their way to make me feel welcome, even though at the time I had no intention of joining.

But he came back. He felt welcomed—even though a bit jarred by the absolution. He had no intention of joining, but the Lord had other intentions. Darrel became part of our liturgical life together first, then a few rounds of BIC. He was baptized and confirmed two years ago and now serves the Lord here in a number of ways.8 He wrote:

The liturgy is awesome because it isn’t what I can do for God; it’s about what he does for me.

Hooked by the gospel, Darrel belongs to our Lord and to us.

Being real

Many visitors come skeptical. Younger people, especially, can smell hypocrisy a mile away. It’s important for us to be real, to be authentic.9 Mitch and Alyssa migrated out of Mormonism and are in BIC with my associate. They came to us after they had vetted us by watching online services. Unsure of the liturgical service, they still ended up visiting, they said, because the preaching is about Christ and what he has done. They added, “It’s obvious you mean it.” It’s one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever had as a preacher. It’s as the pastor’s wife always says: “preach from your heart.”

Younger people can smell hypocrisy a mile away.

It’s a reminder that the office of the ministry is not incidental to worship or outreach, but integral. The Lord has chosen this earthen vessel with his particular gifts and personality to deliver God’s gifts. Those reading this have, like me, failed in more ways than we can know. There’s no excuse for laziness. But lest we despair, the Lord picks us and lets us participate in his gathering. And love covers over a multitude of sins. One of the harshest criticisms I ever heard of ministry was from another pastor’s wife: “You preachers are good at preaching it. You’ve gotta work on believing it’s for you too.” The pastor must love the worship, convinced and confident that the Spirit is alive and present and touching lives. Take in the gifts, preacher. Be taken by the gospel.10

I’m not making suggestions in what follows. I just want to give you a sense of Sunday morning at Prince of Peace.

We have a paschal candle, hymnals, and vested acolytes. Some people have coffee mugs in the pews. I often use humor in a sermon to connect with God’s people. I wear a clerical collar. A modern ensemble sometimes leads the singing. We carry a crucifix in procession for select services. Our average age in worship is 35. We celebrate the Sacrament every Sunday. We invite anyone to come forward and receive a blessing if they’re not a member. We can go weeks in a row without a visitor but also had a service once with at least one Muslim family, one Mormon family, several Hindu families, plus Pentecostal and Evangelical families (all part of our school ministry).

I expect that much of the above has neither drawn people in nor pushed them away. I’m grateful to be at a season in life where I’m not interested in criticizing my brothers in ministry. I’m well aware of my weaknesses and share my story knowing that some details might not seem useful for you. What I can say is that this is me honestly trying to serve these people in the best way I can. I hope that our practices make people ask a good question: why do we do that? If they don’t ask, I find ways to explore the question anyway. One member said this about being real: “If our service is too far ‘high church’ or too far ‘casual entertainment,’ most people are probably going miss the message.” Different may be good; inauthentic isn’t.

One more joy of the liturgy is that bodies move. In contrast to worship as a cerebral exercise, a Bible study, or a concert hall, liturgy is multiple modes of participation: sitting, standing, folding hands, coming forward, eating, singing, speaking. These, too, are worship. God chose to redeem us through the incarnation of Christ. He is incarnate to redeem not only my thinking but also the hands I fold and the backside that sits in the pew. Salvation is not an idea ‘out there’—it is Christ, really here among us and in us, his body. A couple in their early 80s were recently confirmed, and the woman hugged me on the way out of church. She said, “You told us we’re the body of Christ, and I think that calls for a hug.” More profound than she realizes. In any case, liturgy encourages bodily worship.

Joel Oesch wrote: “As the Age of Excarnation continues to hypnotize us with shiny new toys and grand promises of pixel-induced bliss, the Christian confession can offer a narrative on human identity that actually addresses the whole person. Our neighbors are not simply minds. They are much more than complicated computers that produce outputs.”11

There’s much here to sort through philosophically and theologically. But this seems easy enough: liturgical worship is in touch with who we really are as the human beings God designed, body and soul. It’s purposefully a rather formal way of worship, but it’s real things, real people, real presence for people who are bombarded with virtual “realities.” It is a habit that forms us, consciously or unconsciously or both.

Loving them in the best way

I know what I want for a visitor. I can’t do the whole list. I wish I were more consistent. I complain about some things and I still do them. I pray it’s something like golf—one good shot might be enough to bring you back. Can I make sure something on that list of what I want for Darrel happens? Obviously.

Make liturgy live. Enjoy it. Jesus is there!

Do I have any tips for you? I’ll share with you what mentors have been saying to me for decades. Make liturgy live. Enjoy it. Jesus is there! If worship has become dull, consider your sacristy prayers. Do the old exercise of sitting in the sanctuary on Saturday night and imagining the struggles of the people who will be there in the morning. Have accessible worship folders, comfortable singing, and strong preaching.

“Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.” One of the best intersections of outreach and worship is a Sunday morning where we do both.

By Tyler Peil

Tyler Peil is one of the pastors at Prince of Peace in Salt Lake City, Utah. He serves the Nebraska District as secretary and the WELS Commission on Evangelism as an Everyone Outreach coordinator. He was a member of the new hymnal project’s Scripture Committee.


1 If St. Francis actually said it.
2 Lutheran pastors know about the spirit of the enthusiasts, but I didn’t see the worship connection so clearly before reading Bryan Wolfmueller’s Has American Christianity Failed?
3 Of course, it takes time to grab all of that, as most good things do. I’ve seen it sometimes play out this way: confusion, boredom, curiosity, appreciation.
4 Worship the Lord #106, January 2021.
5 Paul and his wife Emma were confirmed in the Lutheran faith this year, and their three boys were baptized into Christ.
6 Most of his presentations and writing are insightful for a pastor trying to reach this culture with Christ. He’s a Christian philosopher who clearly puts his finger on the zeitgeist.
7 These don’t supersede the richest gifts: full strength gospel, Scripture alone, Christ at the center, sacraments, honesty, history as the holy, apostolic Church, pastoral care, etc.
8 I’m not making an absolute statement here, but I’ve noticed that most often those who are first part of worship regularly and have been loved and found friends here (they belong) are less likely to trail off after confirmation. It’s okay if BIC isn’t immediate; formation in faith and discipleship is more than handing over data, even if that data is the Word of God. Liturgy forms a rhythm of life in Christ—Jesus words, baptismal life, repentance, absolution, prayer, vocation, etc.
9 Jon Bauer referenced this in the article mentioned in endnote 4. Check out Barna polls as well.
10 I’m afraid some Sundays I’ve exuded all the joy of a flight attendant rushing through the safety demonstration for the third time today. It’s definitely possible to see liturgy as something to be used instead of something alive by its content. Lord, have mercy.
11 “Embodied Living in the Age of Excarnation” at www.cuw.edu.


 

 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

 

Preach the Word – Insights from a Pastor Reaching Unexpected Prospects

Preaching with Outsiders in Mind

Insights from a Pastor Reaching Unexpected Prospects

Editor’s note: This issue continues our series on preaching with those outside our church membership in mind. It provides insights from Pastor Ben Kuerth, from Divine Savior in Doral, Fla., a northwest suburb of Miami. Prior to his ministry in Florida, Kuerth started a mission church, Victory of the Lamb in Franklin, Wis., where he served for twelve years.

Divine Savior operates an academy with 1,150 students and a special needs school with 40 students. A unique challenge is preaching to 65 WELS called workers who are mostly from the Midwest while also connecting with many who have never heard the pure gospel. Doral is home to immigrants from Venezuela, Colombia, most of South America, and many other countries since those who want to do business in South or Latin America have offices in Miami. This presents opportunities to share the gospel with souls who have little Bible background and for whom English is often not their native language.

Ideas from Pastor Ben Kuerth

Four examples or thoughts on how outsiders have impacted your preaching preparation:

The first three examples are of people in suburban Wisconsin—one from the early days of renting a Polish beer hall, one from our days in a movie theater, and one from our new ministry center. The last example is from Florida.

A tough father. He did MMA fighting at a local gym—not a big guy, yet wiry and tough. I sat next to him at the closing picnic for our soccer Bible camp which his daughter had attended. I invited him to church. He smirked and said, “Nah, church is for wimps.” I ended up daring him to come to church for the sake of his daughter and prove to her that he was a tougher and better man than Jesus. He said, “Okay, you’re on!” To my surprise, he actually came that Sunday . . . and faithfully almost every Sunday after that. Baptizing him and his daughter was a special moment. He thanked me for making church feel like a place where guys like him who were rough around the edges could come and not feel weirded out. He helped me realize that a lot of guys deep down are craving someone to call them out and call them to something more, Someone bigger.

A lot of guys deep down are craving someone to call them out and call them to Someone bigger.

A tearful mother. One night the phone rang. The woman was in tears because her son had committed suicide the day before. The reason she called me was because three years earlier I had knocked on her door while canvassing and invited her to church. She never came. What I didn’t know is that she had been watching our services online for years. Even though I barely knew her, she knew me and considered me her pastor. On the phone she told me the previous night she had watched one of our services on repeat over and over from 2:00 to 4:00 a.m. God’s Word was the only thing that soothed her broken heart. She reminds me of something now whenever I see the camera at the back of church: somewhere at the other end of that camera lens’s tunnel is someone else just like her—a soul hungry for what only God’s Word can give, someone who at some point will likely look to me as their pastor.

She had been watching our services online for years.

A trembling woman. One Sunday I noticed a car I didn’t recognize. It was parked some distance from the doors of our ministry center. For 15 minutes it just sat there. No one got out. Worship was about to start. But I felt I needed to go out there. I introduced myself and said, “Can I walk you in?” The woman in the car was trembling. She said she’d been battling depression. She had prayed to God for a sign—either to get out and actually go inside or to go away for good. She had recently considered ending her life. She then said something I’ll never forget: “I came here thinking maybe I’ll first give church one last shot.” I think of her often on Sunday mornings even now as I pray, “Lord, help me today to speak and act as if someone here is giving church one last shot.” This has had a lasting impact on me.

A grieving son. Recently in Doral I’m grateful for Bruno who has started bringing his two daughters to church. A few years ago, his dad died of cancer, and it was brutal for him to watch. How his dad faced death without hope did a number on him. During the pandemic he began seeking God, thinking that there must be more than this material world. Thoughtfully he wondered, “There has to be a God since I have this desire to be a good person and want to make the world a better place.” So out of the blue, he came to our church. From his home office he can look out his window and see our “Divine Savior” sign—a sign from God he now calls it! I can still see Bruno leaning in, intensely listening as I preached that first Sunday. Over a strong cup of Colombian coffee two days later, Bruno shared what had hooked him: “It’s like you were saying, ‘Let’s get back to the basics . . . but in a good way.’” My sermon that previous Sunday was nothing special—except for the simple, clear law and gospel with Jesus at the center. But, of course, (silly me) that’s exactly why it was so special for him! God brought Bruno into my life at just the right time when I needed to be reminded that I don’t need to carry the burden of always being super creative or needing to come up with “new-to-me” content. What people need, more than anything, is the clear, Christ-centered truths of the Bible communicated simply and sincerely. That is sorely lacking in so many South Florida churches. Is it also by you?

I don’t need to carry the burden of always being super creative or needing to come up with “new-to-me” content.

Three encouragements to preachers for keeping outsiders in mind in sermon preparation:

  1. Clear beats clever. Sometimes I try and get too clever, and I end up confusing people. Clear and clever? That’s great when you can pull it off. Sometimes the occasion calls for it, perhaps. But if you’re trying to communicate with people whose first language is something other than English, or with people who are brand new to Christianity (or both!), being clear is the vital task. The more people I meet from other countries, the more I’m starting to realize this.
  2. “There’s a soul at the end of that tunnel.” I tell myself this whenever I look into the livestream camera lens. There are potential pitfalls to preaching when you’re aware of people “eavesdropping” anonymously from anywhere in the world. Yet over and over, for years now, I’ve met or interacted with people who’ve reached out to me as their pastor even though I had no clue I was pastoring them. This is simply because someone invited them to watch online, linked them to a particular message, or they stumbled onto our website where at some point the Spirit prompted them to take a next step. So, keep them in mind. Consider greeting those who are worshiping online. Invite them to reach out to you if and when they’re ready. Simply acknowledge their “presence” with gratitude whether or not you know if anyone is actually out there watching. With archived services and messages online, it’s virtually guaranteed that someone will be eventually. It’s also a great way to establish a culture that communicates, “We are a church that is always expecting guests.”
  3. Imagine someone present in person or online who is giving church one last shot. Between people disillusioned with some church experience and those doing the trendy thing of “deconstructing” their faith, this is a huge segment of people. When you prepare for a service imagining that such people will be present, it changes how you plan to greet people in the parking lot, host the service, conduct the liturgy, and communicate during the sermon. At least it has for me.

Consider greeting those who are worshiping online . . . to establish a culture that communicates, “We are a church that is always expecting guests.”

Two sermon excerpts of preaching with outsiders in mind:

Here is an excerpt from Pastor Kuerth’s sermon on 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10. You will hear his theme “Only Jesus Provides Eternal Home Security” echoing in the excerpt below.

The Thessalonians knew that ultimately only Jesus provides eternal home security. They knew that only in Jesus would they be kept safe from God’s judgment against sin. How about you?

There is a danger today, I think, that we would be so lulled into a false sense of earthly security that we forget about our real need for Jesus and his saving grace. There is a danger today facing everyone in Doral that if we just have enough money, or toys, or technology . . . and that if our earthly lives and houses feel safe . . . and we have the sense that we’re in control and if we keep our lives so busy that we don’t even really think about death or God’s judgment or wrath . . . then everything must be okay, and we just assume we’ll be safe forever and ever. There is a danger today specifically for Christians too that we would compromise the convictions of our faith and the teachings of the Bible in order not to experience conflict with the world. There is a danger that we would make our own personal comfort a higher priority than taking up our cross and following Jesus no matter the cost rather than be made fun of by our friends who don’t believe what we do.

But no matter what the cost, no matter how heavy the cross we have to carry in life or how much conflict we face, to those who cling to Jesus, he promises relief. Paul says, “He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well.” This is why the Christian church is the only place where you are perfectly safe. You’re safe here not because this earthly building is built impossibly strong. You’re safe here not because nothing bad could ever happen here. You’re safe here because only Jesus Christ provides eternal home security. Like Paul told the Thessalonians, “This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.” . . .

Everything Jesus accomplished as the stand-in for sinful humanity, he did for you. When he died on the cross, those were your sins he was paying for. When he rose from the dead, that was your victory over the grave that he won. When he comes back in glory, he will come to bring you safely home and glorify you with him forever. It’s something we can look forward to. Only Jesus provides eternal home security until the day he says, “Welcome home.” Then we will be forever safe from all violence, selfishness, exploitation, and greed. Then we will be forever safe from all the consequences of sin and from endless ruin itself.

Here is an excerpt from Pastor Kuerth’s sermon on Matthew 1:18-25 with the theme, “Jesus Gives Us What We Need.”

So how could (Joseph) be sure (of what the angel told him and if he was equipped for the task of raising and protecting the Son of God)? Because he simply took God at his word. He went all in trusting God’s Word instead of his initial feelings. There’s a great lesson for us. That’s why months later Joseph followed through and named that little boy Jesus. Even after he had time to think things through, he was still sure. Even after the emotional high of a personal visit by an angel had long worn off, Joseph kept hanging on to God’s Word. He knew that God was with him.

And you can be sure of that too, no matter what you’re going through right now and no matter what surprises you will find in the future. For even though life often takes us by surprise, nothing takes God by surprise, and his presence in your life means you have nothing to fear. In our world there are lots of uncertain things. Pop up ads promise you too-good-to-be-true deals if you just click on them right now. Weather predictions are sometimes right and often not. The stock market is volatile and not even the experts seem to know whether it’ll go up or down. You might not be sure what the next year is going to hold for you and your family. You might not always be sure where you’re going to find the courage to deal with the different people and situations you face.

But you can be sure of Jesus. You can be sure he came to pay for your sins as the only one perfectly qualified to do so because he is both fully God and fully human. You can be sure that he lives to take you to be with him forever heaven. You can be sure that Jesus is your Savior God who is with you as you go forward into the future. Because he is Immanuel.

One preaching resource (besides the Bible and Confessions) in your library and why you have found it valuable:

I need to talk through the ideas in my head with others in order to sift out the wheat from the chaff, so for years now the most helpful resource in preaching preparation has been to meet regularly with other pastors to share key insights, applications, and ministry stories of the real people we’re thinking of as we prepare a sermon on the same text. I feel blessed to get to do that via Zoom with other Divine Savior campus pastors as part of our multi-site ministry.

A preaching book that I regularly consult is Stories with Intent by Klyne Snodgrass. Prof. Paul Wendland suggested this in a satellite summer quarter class on preaching parables. The book provides useful insights into story structure, historical context and interpretation, and relevant modern applications. I’ve realized that I could improve how I tell stories, so the book has been a help in thinking through the ways Jesus used stories.

Timeless Reminders

Editor’s note: This issue’s timeless reminder comes from Prof. Emeritus James Westendorf’s article, “Passionate Preaching for Impassioned Preachers.” You can read Prof. Westendorf’s article in its entirety in Preach the Word 4:1.

Know Your Text. Often when you go up to a person you didn’t know very well before and start asking him questions about himself, rather than simply listening to what other people have to say about him, you find out some very interesting things. You may get to know the person so well that you want to introduce him to your friends. The same thing can happen with texts. You begin a dialogue with a text, asking questions of it and listening for its unique answers, given in a way that perhaps no other text can give, and you start getting excited. The conviction begins to grow in mind and heart, “Wow, this text has some amazing things to say, and it says them so marvelously. I can’t wait to introduce it to my people next Sunday.”

Know Your Pulpit. The sermon is our chance to tell others what we have seen and heard from the mouth of God himself. I wonder with what feeling Philip spoke the words to Nathanael, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph”? I don’t think those words were said matter-of-factly because what they revealed was so mindboggling and amazing. You are in the same situation when you preach, only you don’t have to find the people first. They have come to you! Don’t hide the excitement. Let the enthusiasm that is in your heart show!

Know Your People. The impassioned preacher is not just a visiting pastor, he is also a listening one. He does the hard work of actually paying attention to what his people are saying. He makes mental notes of the fears, disappointments, doubts, and hopes which his parishioners describe. . . . When he is in the pulpit, all those conversations come flooding back into his memory. In his voice can be heard his unrestrained joy that says, “Boy, do I have something wonderful to tell you.”

Know Yourself. I’m sure you have been told more than once in your career, “Preach every sermon and apply every text to yourself before you take it to your people.” When that is done faithfully and regularly, the enthusiasm to share grows. . . . There are no magical formulas and no artificial contrivances that can keep the fires burning and the juices flowing, but that doesn’t mean there are no solutions to the absence of passion in our hearts and in our sermons. You are regularly working with the Spirit’s own instrument. Let it have free course in your heart. The passion will be there; passionate sermons will be the result. You and your people will reap the benefits.

Written by Joel Russow


 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

 

Worship and Outreach – In Suburban Metro Atlanta

I often describe Covington as “Metro Atlanta meeting Old South.” It’s a place where you’re either from here and you remember when the six-lane highway was a dirt road, or you moved out from Atlanta to here because it’s cheaper and you might even be able to have a yard. When I got here 20 years ago, it was one of the fastest growing counties in the state. Countless subdivisions were being cut out of the forest and farm fields, and the neighborhoods were quickly making the county more diverse. Covington is in the heart of the Bible Belt, and those from here remember getting picked up by the buses on Sunday morning and going to the Baptist or Methodist or Pentecostal churches regularly, but then fading away. When Abiding Grace started, we were worshiping next door to one of the longest running annual camp meetings in the nation (think tent revival), a staple to the community since 1828. If you were used to church, you were used to a Spirit-led, Bible-based, fire-and-brimstone worship that lasted all day. But most had walked away from that scene years earlier. Then you add so many start-up churches following the population boom that the county had to make rules about how long they’d allow a church to rent space in their schools.

I’m giving you this background because I’ve been asked to describe worship and outreach in my setting, so it might be helpful to know that setting at least a little. Although, truth be told, worship and outreach are simpler than we usually make them out to be, so the truths we’ve experienced here will likely have application to just about any setting.

So, what does worship look like at Abiding Grace, and how does that work for outreach? Here are some ways our worship has been described.

“Very Traditional” and “Kinda Contemporary”

I know these two are usually seen as opposite ends of the spectrum, but it really depends on where you’re coming from. We use the Western Rite (the hymnal liturgy) and aren’t afraid to have regular variety in the parts of our service, alternating several settings for the Kyrie, Gloria, Gospel Acclamation, etc. We’ll occasionally use gathering rites and our choir tries to present various styles of music to carry the message. We include a children’s sermon in each service and write a local Prayer of the Church, often borrowing sections from those provided in the hymnal resources but including special petitions about what’s going on in the community and in the lives of our members and prospects.

I appreciate the clarity with which grace is proclaimed throughout our liturgy.

Different

This is probably the most common response I get when I show up on the doorstep of the first-time visitor and give them my standard line: “We’re so glad you came to worship with us. I know that sometimes when people worship with us for the first time, it’s exactly what they were expecting. But for others, it’s totally different. So, I just wanted to see if you had any questions about our worship and find out what you thought about it.” More often than not, they cut me off before I get to end of my spiel and tell me it was totally different. That’s when we get to talk about why different is a good thing. After all, they aren’t connected to whatever church they used to be going to, probably for a reason. Would we want to be exactly the same?

We get to talk about why different is a good thing.

But it’s more than that. Church is a different place from the world around us. Our message is fundamentally different from society’s and from most of the churches in our county. Several years ago, after a lesson of Bible Information Class, a retired prison guard pulled me to the side and told me with tears in his eyes that he had been going to church and been around God’s Word for more than 70 years and until that night, he had never understood grace. He wasn’t the first or last person to make a statement like that. I’m constantly amazed at how amazing grace is to those who have grown up with the “obedience” understanding of religion that is so prevalent in churches that claim to preach the Word. Hearing that makes me appreciate the clarity with which grace is proclaimed throughout our liturgy, from the reminder of the gift of Baptism in the Invocation to the power of the Absolution, to the thrill of the Supper and the peace of the Benediction. That’s a good different from worship that is all about me and my response.

When visitors see something different than what they are used to, I hope they ask why. In fact, that was one of the key principles our building committee kept in mind as we worked to design our church building. We didn’t want it to look like everything else in the community. We wanted people to notice that we were different, that we took God’s message for us seriously, that we had a big God and a God of love. In a county full of white clapboard churches with the narrow steeple or movie-theater looking contemporary structures, the powerful stone exterior and stately belltower proclaim that we worship a powerful God that is worthy of reverence, and the stained-glass windows and open doors proclaim that he is a God of love.

So, yes, I’m okay that we are “different.” But that’s not all. Our worship has been described as…

Accessible

We understand that what we do is unfamiliar to some, so we strive to make it accessible. That meant, from early on, printing everything in the bulletin so that it was easy to follow along for those who were new to our worship and for those parents who had simultaneous kid responsibilities. They didn’t need to turn pages in the hymnal and switch sources.

In BIC people are regularly encouraged to ask about whatever they don’t understand in worship.

That means explaining church-speak whenever possible. We regularly put notes in the margins of the bulletin describing why we do what we do and explaining the parts of our service and how they communicate the gospel and tie us to the Holy Christian Church. In Bible Information Class people are regularly encouraged to ask about whatever they don’t understand in worship. I often tell them that everything in worship is designed to communicate the good news of Jesus and his love for us. I’ll say, “If we do something and you don’t know why, it’s not doing that. Please ask. Then either I’ll be able to explain it, and every time you see it from here on out you’ll be reminded of God’s love for you. Or I won’t be able to explain it, and we’ll need to rethink why we do it or if we should.”

The repetition the liturgy provides helps make what we do here quickly comfortable, even as the texts and applications of the Proper change. Our sermons strive to consider the biblically illiterate, explaining our references and including them in the audience. We want to help them realize this is a great place to grow in that knowledge of the Word. We invite the children up for children’s sermons and give them opportunities to serve in the service. Even in our announcements we make sure not to use shorthand (explaining WELS or LWMS every time they are mentioned), encourage all to be involved, and thank the guests for coming.

We want them to know that they are coming to something that is worthwhile, so our worship is also…

Transcendent

In the first year of our work, I remember a pivotal moment in our history. It was a statement made by a lady who had grown up in a Muslim home but had taken us up on a canvassing invitation. Long story short, she was baptized and confirmed and then accepted an invitation to come to our planning meeting for this young church. We had been worshiping weekly from the very beginning of the mission work in Covington, so we were having a meeting about how we worshiped, about what we needed to change to reach the unchurched in our area. We also wanted to maintain our Lutheran heritage and doctrine as we were reaching out to a community who most often responded to our name with the question “What’s a Lutheran?” Several of our mostly white core group were there and a couple of our new confirmands, one black and one Hispanic, to give us the “outsider’s view.” We were talking about the music in worship and lamenting that our music was foreign to the ears of those who didn’t grow up Lutheran (which was more than 99 percent of our target area, really!). People were throwing ideas around about finding what music we should use and how we could sound like what was familiar to our community. One lady said we could grab some of the Christian songs from the radio and play them. The people in our community would recognize them at least. That’s when Najia said it, “I don’t think we need to do that. It’s okay for it not to sound like what’s on the radio when I come to church. It’s church. It’s supposed to be different from what I hear day in and day out. I hear what I hear every day. When I come to church, I want to hear what I need to hear. Church is supposed to be special.”

Plus, the message is different. Our hymns proclaim the greatness of God, not our obedience. The robe, the candles, the acolyte, and banners all have something to say, and a big part of that message is that God is God. He is worthy of our respect and honor, fear and reverence. “Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28).

“It’s church. It’s supposed to be different from what I hear day in and day out.”

Yet even though our worship strives for transcendence, we pray it is not aloof, cold, or detached. It is our goal that worship is also…

Authentic

It’s worship. It is real people coming before God because he is worth something to them. It is a conversation between sinners and a holy God. Satan wants to make it a show, a “going through the motions.” The sameness of liturgical worship makes that a real temptation. The business side of church makes it possible for people to see our outreach in that way too.

A story.

Melvin was a prospect for years. He was always friendly, so I kept coming back and showing up at his door for another conversation. He regularly told me he’d come to church…sometime. And then he didn’t. This went on for years. Then Bill showed up (remember the septuagenarian prison guard above?). I’ll tell it from Melvin’s point of view. I just heard him tell the story again because every time I bring a new vicar to introduce him to Melvin and Melvin’s bed-ridden son, Melvin tells the story about how he got connected to Abiding Grace.

“This guy was bugging me for years. Every time he showed up, I told him ‘Yeah I probably should get back to church.’ Every time I told him, ‘I’ll show up one of these days,’ and then Sunday would come, and I just didn’t. Then he sent the closer. That’s what I call Bill, because well, I couldn’t not come when Bill invited me. I figured Pastor had to do that stuff. He was the pastor, but then Bill shows up and tells me how good it is to go to church there and I told him I’d come, so I just had to. I thought it would be just one time and I’d be able to say I did it.”

The robe, the candles, the acolyte, and banners all have something to say.

The best part is when Melvin talks about what he thought about worship. “Now, don’t get me wrong. It was weird, but Bill seemed to like it and I realized that everything was based on God’s Word, so I came back, and before you know it, I’m in the class and then I’m a member.”

Did you notice what he noticed about worship? It was weird, but Bill, this real man, this “good guy,” was into it. It was real people worshiping a real God using their own gifts, not someone else’s. I guarantee you that on the Sunday he came, the choir wasn’t perfect. The piano had a wrong note or two, and I’m sure I tripped over a word more than once. But it was real. The pattern of the church year, the familiarity of the liturgy, the gifts of God’s people allowed us to worship.

Going along with that, worship at Abiding Grace is…

Flexible

Like I’ve said before, we use the liturgy. We preach on the church year. We make use of many of the resources in the hymnal, we follow the rites and rubrics suggested. Unless we don’t. For a reason.

When we were still in the middle school cafeteria, Linda came to worship with us. We had been visiting her for a while and had great conversations. Then, she promised to come worship with us. This was going to be great. Then she showed up. She worshiped. We talked about it. It was great. She came the next Sunday. Then she didn’t. She missed a couple in a row, so I went to talk to her. She told me she really liked that we were so focused on the Bible and enjoyed worship, it was the kind she had grown up with—but she just can’t do it. The standing and sitting doesn’t work for her. Last Sunday she had grabbed onto the folding chair in front of her to help her up, and she stumbled and almost fell. She wouldn’t have been able to handle that, so she was done. I told her she didn’t have to stand when everyone else did. She told me that would make her stand out and embarrass her. I told her if she came back, we’d stay seated the whole service. She said okay, thinking she was calling my bluff. I emailed my council the heads-up and they said, “Go for it.” So for the next month we didn’t stand for the Invocation or the Gospel or the Creed or the Prayer of the Church. The congregation was happy to help make her feel comfortable. Since then, we’ve brought back standing for the Gospel and the Creed—with Linda’s okay.

Worship is the family of faith being the family of faith. It’s more than you can get from a screen at home, even though that is a nice option to have when necessary. Worship is more than receiving a message or hearing great music. Worship is the family of faith being the family of faith, and that is attractive to those who need a family of faith. In other words, that’s attractive to everyone. Study after study, anecdote after anecdote, social media site after social media site show that we long for connections. We are wired for it. That’s what God said was “not good” about the first perfect human created. He was missing connection. He needed connection. So do we. What suburbanites in the Southeast and people everywhere need is the “gathering together” the writer to the Hebrews tells us not to give up (Hebrews 12:25). Our neighbors can find from other sources more entertainment value than we can provide. They can find plenty of talking heads to tell them they are giving them God’s Word. What they need, and deep down they know it, is a connection with God and his people rooted in and flowing from God’s love for us all.

May God use our congregations, and each of us as individuals, to give people exactly what they need. And may he bless all our efforts to connect with our neighbors and our communities.

By Jonathan E. Scharf

Pastor Scharf serves Abiding Grace in Covington, GA. He is also Circuit Pastor of the Peachtree Circuit and chairman of the following: the seminary’s governing board, the Cottonbelt Conference’s Program Committee, the South Atlantic District’s Commission on Evangelism. He is an advisor for the Synod’s Commission on Congregational Counseling. He was a member of the new hymnal project’s Scripture Committee (lectionary). He has been privileged to serve many new Christians (an average of 25 adult confirmations per year since 2011) in an area where Lutheran worship is rare.


The Service: Settings 2 and 3

Instrumental parts and more for both modern ensemble and brass/timpani are now available from the Musician’s Resource (top right on NPH’s home page). Find these by selecting “Setting Two” or “Setting Three” from the Rites dropdown. For more information, including comments on why Musician’s Resource content isn’t coming at a faster pace, see the Hymnal Highlights from September 30 and October 14 (welscongregationalservices.net/hymnal-introduction-resources). September 30 also includes links to Google lectionary calendars.


 

 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

 

Preach the Word – Insights from Multiple Ministry Settings

Preaching with Outsiders in Mind

Insights from Multiple Ministry Settings

Editor’s note: This issue continues our series on preaching with those outside our church membership in mind. This issue provides insights from Pastor Tom Engelbrecht, who has served in multiple ministry settings: six years at a mission restart called Amazing Grace in South Beloit, IL, then six years as assimilation pastor at Christ in Pewaukee, WI, a large congregation, where he also was involved in starting a second site. He currently serves at Christ Our Redeemer, Aurora, CO, which is a small to medium sized congregation with a Lutheran Elementary School. Pastor Engelbrecht is married to Jackie and together they have four children.

Ideas from Pastor Tom Engelbrecht

Four examples or thoughts on how outsiders have impacted your preaching preparation:

  • A caution to remain clearly biblical. I’ve always wondered, as have most pastors, I think: What would happen if you interviewed the members in my congregation on basic points of doctrine? How would that go? I try to keep that in mind when preparing sermons—perhaps many of the “insiders” are kind of “outsiders.” Because of that, my first example of an “outsider” impacting my preaching isn’t an outsider at all. I was at a large congregation and asked a retired pastor to offer feedback on a particular sermon that I knew I had tried to gear toward outsiders. He said something to the effect of “It didn’t sound very Lutheran.” I remember I had intentionally tried to avoid jargon and technical words. I wanted to be as simple and clear as possible. To this day, I’m not entirely sure if the pastor’s observation was positive or negative, but it sticks in my mind as a caution to remain clearly biblical (Lutheran) in my attempts to reach outsiders where they are at.

What would happen if you interviewed the members in my congregation on basic points of doctrine?

  • Specific law fully, yet wisely. I was preaching at the brand-new second site of our large church. We were trying to reach out to the families who sent their kids to the public school in which we were worshiping. There were about thirty people in attendance, and a couple of the families were from the school. I remember making a law application that had to do with online pornography. Following the service, one of the women, who was there with her 11-year-old son, said that she didn’t expect that her son would be exposed to talk about pornography at church. They didn’t return. I don’t think I would have preached the sermon any differently if given a second chance, but I think about that interaction as I seek to preach specific law fully, yet wisely, for the sake of the listeners.

She didn’t expect that her son would be exposed to talk about pornography at church.

  • Good news for the anxious. Have you seen the first-time guests that come in with the “deer in the headlights” look? We recently had a woman visit us for the first time with that look on her face. It made me wonder what was going through her mind. It also made me wonder if anything was getting through at all because of the stress of her unfamiliar surroundings. It impressed upon me the importance of the clear proclamation of law and gospel so that even those who may be anxious or distracted will hear the good news that their sins are forgiven in Jesus.
  • Share…no matter how people react. I was preaching for a funeral of a young girl. I didn’t dwell too much on the life of the girl, but rather on the hope that Jesus gives—especially through Baptism. I was a little surprised to see a woman frowning at me and shaking her head during the sermon. I didn’t have the chance to talk to the woman after the service and find out what was bothering her, but it sticks in my mind as an example of those who don’t appreciate the hope we have in Jesus. Funerals seem to be where I have the chance to address more outsiders than any other service. What a privilege we have to share the foolishness of the hope of the resurrection, no matter how people react! And what an opportunity for outsiders to confront death and hear about True Life.

Funerals seem to be where I have the chance to address more outsiders than any other service.

Three encouragements to preachers for keeping outsiders in mind in sermon preparation:

  • Smile. Yes, smile. And give people reason to smile. A mission counselor taught me that when he critiqued one of my services. One of the only critiques he gave was, “You should smile while you’re giving the Benediction.” It’s very simple but not always easy to do when we’re focused on leading a service. Smiling and giving people a reason to smile sets people at ease and draws them in to listen.

“You should smile while you’re giving the Benediction.”

  • Call, talk to, and spend time with your members and your prospects. I’ve had the privilege of serving at a mission restart, a very large congregation, and a smallish congregation with a school. I’ve always been able to find reasons to stay in my office. That’s when sermon writing has felt stale and out of touch. Spend time with people. Their joys, burdens, blessings, and challenges are the same things that outsiders are experiencing. If we listen, people will let us know what’s going on. We’ve got the message that addresses what’s going on.

I’ve always been able to find reasons to stay in my office. That’s when sermon writing has felt stale and out of touch.

  • The law and the gospel are the two main messages in the Bible. Through the law God crushes the self-righteous and through the gospel God heals the broken. We all know this, but not everyone knows this. A law/gospel sermon isn’t necessarily going to be simplistic. It might be exactly what that outsider needs. They almost certainly will not have heard a clear law/gospel message before. You get to be the one to share it with them.

Two sermon excerpts of preaching with outsiders in mind:

Here is an excerpt from Pastor Engelbrecht’s sermon on Romans 7:14-25, where he focuses the listener on our internal struggle against sin and then points hearts to the One who rescues sinners from themselves.

Why do you do what you do? How many times a day do you ask yourself that same question? You tell yourself you are going to be more positive today, but the first chance you get, you complain. Why do you do that? You want to keep your cool with your kids, but you fly off the handle. Why do you do that? You aren’t going to get online and visit those illicit websites tonight, but you grab your phone or computer and sink right back into the filth. Why do you do that? You are going to show love to your wife or respect to your husband, but you snap at them the first chance you get. Why do you do that? You are going to stop participating in gossip, but the moment you hear that juicy morsel you can’t help but pass it along. Why do you do that?

That’s exactly what Paul is talking about. Paul confessed that he didn’t do what he wanted to do. He did the very things he hated…. Paul puts a name to “myself,” the part of me that will not do what I want. He calls it the sinful nature. Every one of us is born with a sinful nature that we’re stuck with until we die. The old man in our lives is always catching up to us and crashing into us to ruin the things we want to do. The other night in Bible study someone gave a great example of the old man ruining the things we want to do. He said that he works downtown and occasionally he’ll see people begging for money on the street corner, so he’ll often give them whatever change he has. He said he does that simply out of faith in Jesus. But he said that almost every time he does it, there’s a part of him that hopes someone else saw him do what he did so that they think he’s a great guy. What was a selfless act turned into a selfish act. I appreciated his honesty and completely agree that when we want to do good, evil is right there with me! Myself is always against me….

The struggle between “me” and “myself” finally brings us to the “I.” I am wretched. I need to be rescued from myself. If you’re anything like me, my dear friends, that’s often where you stop. I am wretched. I don’t understand what I do. But we can’t stop there. Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! Jesus always wanted what God, his Father, wanted. He always knew what his Father wanted. He always did what his Father wanted. That doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t struggle. He was tempted in every way, just as we are, but he was without sin. That means he was righteous. This is why Paul brings up Jesus Christ into the midst of the battle of me, myself, and I. We don’t know what we do, but Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He knew exactly who he was doing it for. He did it in exactly the way it needed to be done to rescue us from us.

Here is an excerpt from Pastor Engelbrecht’s sermon on John 20:1-8, where he highlights the main character in our lives to explain the impact of the resurrection on insiders and outsiders alike.

When it comes to the account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, I’ve always operated under the assumption that Jesus is the main character of the resurrection. What you’ll notice is something that surprised me…. We might go so far as to say that John makes the main character of Easter morning the empty tomb. We should begin by asking the question, “Why would John make the tomb the main character of the resurrection morning?”

Probably the best answer for why John makes the tomb the main character of resurrection morning is because everybody else made the tomb the main character that morning…. When (Mary) saw the tomb was opened, what did she assume? She didn’t assume that Jesus must be risen from the dead just like he said. Instead, knowing that he wasn’t in the tomb, she came to the conclusion that his body must have been moved to another tomb…. She ran and told this to Peter and (John). When they heard her story, they took off running. You have to admire their urgency, but where did they run. They ran to the tomb! Why did they run to the tomb? As far as they were concerned, Jesus was dead…. Their thoughts and lives were governed by death. So of course, they went to the tomb.

What is the main character in your life? Mary, Peter, and John probably thought their main character was still Jesus, but their thoughts were consumed by the stuff of death. Their footsteps that morning led to the place of death. You might think I’m overstating things, but when our thoughts are consumed by any other main character in our lives than Jesus, our footsteps are leading to a place of death.

Think about what types of things become the main characters in our lives. We get consumed by success at work or our children’s happiness or a healthy body or more material things in our lives. What is the inevitable destination if our footsteps lead down the path in pursuit of those things and other things like them? The destination is death. We don’t always think about it that way because those are good things in our lives. But they can’t be the main character in our lives because they end in death….

(Mary, Peter, and John) saw the stuff of death in the tomb. What didn’t they see? They didn’t see Jesus. Why didn’t they see him? Because he was alive…. The tomb is no longer the main character, because the tomb is changed as well. Now the tomb is the empty tomb. It’s not Jesus’ tomb anymore. It’s the empty tomb. Which means it’s never going to be the main character again. Jesus’ empty tomb is the promise and the proof of all our empty tombs. Jesus’ empty tomb is the promise of life for all those who have Jesus as the main character in our lives through faith. With Jesus as the main character in our lives, everything changes.

Jesus’ empty tomb is the promise and the proof of all our empty tombs.

One preaching resource (besides the Bible and Confessions) in your library and why you have found it valuable:

Early on in my ministry I very much appreciated Franzmann’s Bible History Commentary. It was valuable for helping me make sure that I didn’t go off track about a narrative text. Most recently, I was thankful for Michael Horton’s Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Reckless World. It was a helpful reminder that God continues to use the ordinary means that he’s always used to reach and strengthen people: the gospel in Word and Sacrament. As we do our best to use God’s ordinary means, he will bless it as he sees fit.

Timeless Reminders

Editor’s note: This issue’s timeless reminder comes Rev. John Vieth’s article, “The Value of the Four Divisions of Theology for Our Preaching.” You can read Pastor Vieth’s article its entirety in Preach the Word: 5:6.

Pastoral theology classes occupy an important place in our own seminary training. They do not, however, comprise the entire curriculum. Our well-balanced training in the disciplines of Biblical Theology, Historical Theology, Systematic Theology—as well as Practical Theology—prepares us for not only the general demands of pastoral life, but also for our pulpit work in particular…

Biblical Theology
We can’t share what we ourselves don’t have. If our purpose in preaching is to share with our congregations the words and promises of God, a thorough acquaintance with those words and promises on the part of the preacher is paramount. God did not call us to preach and then ask us to create interesting, comforting, or motivational messages of our own. He has called us to preach the interesting, comforting, and motivating message of his Holy Scriptures…

Historical Theology
While we do well to heed Harold Senkbeil’s warning, “…it’s always dangerous to run a church by archeology” (Dying to Live: The Power of Forgiveness, p. 78), our study and review of the controversies and heresies that troubled the Church in the past can prevent us from saying things we don’t want to say when we stand up to preach…

Systematic Theology
Since systematic studies equip us with a ready grasp of the great truths of the Bible and how they fit together, our training in dogmatics can help prevent us from developing novel interpretations of Bible texts that are contradictory to the rest of God’s word. Preachers with defective or deficient doctrine can unwittingly fall prey to pitting one text against the rest of God’s revelation.

A second advantage of thorough instruction in systematic theology is that it can alert us to preaching values in texts which serve as the sedes for certain Christian doctrines. When the Church has historically identified certain passages as key proofs of particular Christian teachings, those teachings deserve consideration in sermons based on those texts.

This is not an exhaustive listing of the value our theological training has for our preaching. Hopefully it reminds us to take up and dust off some parts of our training that we have let lie on the shelf for a while. Listen again to the encouragements of August Pieper:

In the parsonage, in the pastor’s study, in his little den are the sources of the church’s strength. If this little den becomes cold and empty, or if it is dedicated to the Old Adam and the spirit of this world, the church’s strength will evaporate, and the spirit of the world will overwhelm it. If, on the other hand, the Spirit’s fire burns in the pastor’s praying and studying, new streams of the Spirit will flow out daily to God’s people (WLQ, Vol. 84, No. 4, p. 276).

Written by Joel Russow


Prof. Russow at the National Conference on Lutheran Leadership

Preachers can enrich their preaching with non-members in mind by attending his session in January at the Chicago Hilton. Here’s the description of his session, but note that it’s not only for preachers!

St. Paul ask the believers in the church at Corinth to think about what they do if they are gathered for worship and “an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in…” (1 Corinthians 14:24). So, Paul tells those believers to expect that “non-members” will show up and to think through what happens in worship because of that fact.

In our WELS congregations, we hope to increasingly have “unbelievers and inquirers” visiting our worship at the invitation of a Christian friend. Over half of unchurched people say they would seriously consider accepting an invitation from a trusted friend to visit church. So, imagine WELS members take this all to heart and begin regularly inviting unchurched neighbors and family members to worship. Some of them actually show up! Now what?

What would you want the preacher to keep in mind as he preaches to these guests for the first time? Preachers, how should the presence of visitors impact your sermon preparation and proclamation? How deep can (or should?) a sermon go with listeners who know little about the Bible?

The reality is that our sermons will strive to keep two audiences in mind—church members and non-members. This presentation will especially wrestle with keeping the non-member audience in mind, but the encouragement shared will also edify the members too. Church members and preachers alike can benefit in this presentation as they seek to grow wise toward outsiders and make the most of every preaching opportunity.

Learn more at lutheranleadership.com.

 


 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

 

Worship and Outreach – In a Southwestern Suburb

God had Isaiah say it first, but Peter quoted him. “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever” (1 Peter 1:24-25).

Many people have favorite verses or stories in the Bible. This passage has always spoken to me. It has it all: original sin, man’s mortality juxtaposed against God’s eternity, means of grace, and preservation in faith. When you add that Isaiah originally put those words into the mouth of John the Baptist to prepare the way for Christ, you also have the summary of our Law and Gospel witness.

Perhaps that verse suggests the nexus of outreach and worship, too. The lifelong Lutheran with a “WELS” tattoo needs to hear “all people are like grass” just as urgently as the “none” granddaughter. The serious-looking octogenarian in the second row needs to hear “the word of the Lord stands forever” so that his heavenly hope rests on God’s eternal word. So does the postmodern millennial who is looking for an anchor in the storm of 21st century culture.

All the souls in your parish and community will wither and fall. Will they do so with the Lord’s eternal promises in Christ? You already know that the application of our gospel witness looks a little different from place to place depending on context in ministry. This is a part of what it looks like in Marana, Arizona.

Context

Redeemer is located in the northwestern suburbs of Tucson, Arizona. Tucson stretches across a valley floor to the foothills of five mountain ranges. It is located roughly halfway in between Phoenix to the north and Mexico to the south. In 1950, Tucson’s population was about 80,000. Today, it has surpassed 1,000,000. The University of Arizona is here. And, because the sun shines here more than it does in Florida, so are a lot of retirees looking to escape the cold and snow. That makes the city an eclectic mix of young and old, as well as a melting pot of people from every corner of the country.

Parish demographics reflect our community. We are close to equal parts ages 0-25, 25-55, and 55 and up, and reflect many different races and ethnicities. We have native Tucsonans, transplants from the west coast, the Midwest, and the east coast. Of our more than 500 parishioners, maybe 40 percent have a WELS background. Among our numbers are many new Christians, recent converts, de-churched who have found a new home, and others who have come to us looking for orthodoxy.

An important part of our context is Marana’s rapid population growth. When Redeemer relocated to our current location in 1998, we didn’t have a lot of neighbors. Now, thousands of homes have been built, and thousands more are planned. On any given Sunday, we will welcome six to eight brand-new first-time guests to worship. In a year we’ll total between 400-500 first-time walk-in guests. Many of them are new to Arizona, new to our area, and are looking for a church home.

Culture

Some congregations are not ready for outreach. That culture needs to be built. My former congregation in Indiana wasn’t ready. Their congregational roots dated back to 1972 when a splinter group left LCMS because of frustrations over Seminex. Feeling burned by their former church body shaped the congregational culture. Their attitude was, “It’s us against the world!” Anytime a guest visited worship, you could feel the coldness and see the suspicious looks from across the chapel. They needed patient teaching that helped them make peace with their past before they were ready to make peace with worship guests.

A similar situation existed when I arrived in Tucson. Redeemer enjoyed rapid growth in the early 2000s, expanding their pastoral staff to four full time men and daughtering a mission congregation. That came to an abrupt halt when the market corrected and the economy stalled in 2008. The so-called “Great Recession” hit Tucson hard. Housing starts stalled. Many who were upside-down on their mortgages were forced to sell at a loss and move to a new city for employment. The parish that had seen impressive growth was halved. By the end of 2011 all four pastors had taken calls away, leaving a once thriving congregation looking forlorn. Some were downright angry. And when you walked into church, you felt it. They needed time to heal. They weren’t ready for outreach.

“It’ll take five years before the congregation trusts me. We need time to heal.”

How do you change that? How do you change a congregation’s culture and prepare them for outreach? You make haste slowly. Just after I got to Tucson, I remember talking to a very faithful man. He was a retired businessman, and bored. He was so excited to have a pastor after an extended vacancy that he walked into my office and wrote me a blank check. “Anything you want, pastor, I will do it.” His noble enthusiasm was tempered by my curt response. “Jim, I accept your offer, but it’ll take five years before the congregation trusts me. We need time to heal.” He looked at me in disbelief! He was ready to go. Why didn’t the congregation share his enthusiasm?

The first thing we worked on was attendance. In Indiana, you always knew who was there; the numbers were smaller. Redeemer was at least five times larger than that parish. I was new and didn’t know anybody. Add to that Redeemer had no system of tracking attendance or differentiating members from guests. After about a year, I called Jim into my office. “I’m still getting to know the people, but it sure looks like we have a lot of outreach potential.” Outreach? He didn’t think so. Neither did many of the other leaders in the congregation. In the absence of accurate data, who really knew?

One of the tools we agreed to use early on was a Friendship Register. Leaders were dubious whether it would be embraced or be perceived as an intrusion. To avoid the latter impression, we came up with an idea. Rather than ask a serious looking usher in a blue blazer to hand them out, we assigned the task to four smiling children in elementary school. Even now we rarely get 100% to participate, but when a pigtailed little girl in a sundress hands you the register, even the most curmudgeonly will usually cooperate. It took time and patience, but eventually it caught on. After we collected attendance data for a season, we discovered that on any given Sunday 25% of the worshipers were non-member guests, either first time worshipers or repeat attenders. Leaders were stunned! We had a mission field right inside our chapel and no one had any idea!

When a pigtailed little girl in a sundress hands you the register, even the most curmudgeonly will usually cooperate.

As leaders began to acknowledge the open door of outreach God was driving into our chapel, we began work on our worship welcome. That meant addressing our Sunday morning culture. As you address culture, this point is critical: the pastor sets the temperature for the congregation climate. Many people already operate with a stereotypical view of pastors that we have to work to overcome; they are stuffed shirts; they’re overly serious, not down to earth or relatable. Many people never see their pastors other than in the pulpit, even on Sunday mornings. Do your congregation a favor and work hard to dispel those stereotypes! Set the temperature. Be visible on Sunday from the time people arrive. Meet them in the parking lot; welcome them in the entryway; visit with them in the nave. Call everyone by name, look them in the eye, and greet them warmly. Carry their burdens. All people are like grass, pastors included. Show them you’re human. Smile, joke, and laugh. When you practice the golden rule, treating people like you genuinely love them, they’re much more inclined to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd.

An evangelism professor from our Seminary once noted that guests make up their minds about whether they’ll return to your church in the first two minutes of their visit. Before they hear your carefully rehearsed choir, before they see your professionally produced service folder, before they listen to your homiletical prowess, they’ve already made up their minds. Creating a friendly and welcoming atmosphere is worth the effort. After the pastor leads by example, put your people to work. We placed greeters outside the chapel doors to welcome people with a smile and a hearty “Good morning!” Ushers were carefully trained to answer questions and assist with special needs. We tapped five of our most bubbly parishioners for a special task. Get to church a half hour early, and personally welcome every new face you see in the chapel, whether young or old. Over time, something better happened. The whole congregation began to participate. Now, it’s common for first time guests to comment before they leave, “This is the friendliest congregation I’ve ever visited.”

We tapped five of our most bubbly parishioners for a special task.

Chapel

Our chapel was dedicated in 2002. When I arrived ten years later, our property team noticed the carpet bubbling. “We should fix that.” A year later, transplants lamented that the acoustics were lousy. “Can’t we fix that?” Another year passed, and I followed up on guests who hadn’t returned. They explained they couldn’t see the chancel because of the placement of a load bearing pillar. “Can’t you fix that?” In 2015, a parent who attended school chapel bemoaned how washed out our screen projectors were. “Can’t you fix that?”

Although our chapel was very usable, there were enough needling limitations that congregational leaders resolved to address it. They planned a tasteful cosmetic update that would be done by fall 2019 in time for our 75th anniversary. We selected a designer, made plans, but missed a key vote and our anniversary deadline. The following spring, COVID complicated everything. That turned out to be a gift. Since our timelines were pushed back, we revisited our plans, adjusting its scope to prioritize the chancel. After we suffered through supply chain constraints and constantly pushed off deadlines, our project is now complete.

A stunning makeover that powerfully influences both worship and outreach.

Our color scheme changed from the greens and purples of a Tucson sunset to something warmer. We replaced the carpeting with luxury vinyl tile. The pews were reupholstered. We purchased new LED light fixtures, and the entire chapel was painted white. The music space was reimagined. The biggest improvement, though, was in the chancel. The screens were removed, so now the eye is centered on the powerful visual of a free-floating cross.

What began as an innocuous project to address a punch-list of irritations turned out to be a stunning makeover that powerfully influences both worship and outreach. Our previous chapel was utilitarian, but “meh.” The remodel has a wow factor. It is difficult to describe just how impactful good lighting is on people’s demeanor, their mood, and their willingness to engage in worship. A bright space makes for happy people who want to engage. Replacing the carpet with tile has significantly enhanced our singing. It’s a live room; sound jumps. A retired LCMS pastor who worships with us occasionally commented, “I always knew your people could sing. But now they raise the roof! The new acoustics are a real game changer.” Prior to the remodel, nobody commented about our chapel. Now it’s often one of the first things people notice: “Your chapel is just beautiful.” Happy people, vigorous singing, and a friendly culture connect worship to outreach.

Happy people, vigorous singing, and a friendly culture connect worship to outreach.

Consistency

One of our oft repeated internal sayings is, “Whoever shows the love gets the soul.” You have probably already done the math. With as many walk-in guests as we see annually, shouldn’t we have 4,000 members by now? That’s our next mountain to climb. We’re working on building a consistent, repeatable follow-up program to worship. Here is what we’ve built so far.

Whoever shows the love gets the soul.

Every Monday, a lay-led team visits those first-time guests at their home. They deliver a welcome bag filled with devotion books, coffee cups, magnets, and church information. What’s in the bag is irrelevant. The initiative and the personal, face to face visit is what matters. Since they did us the honor of visiting our chapel in person, the least we can do is say “Thank-you” in person. By the end of the week, a team of ladies with good penmanship has sent off a handwritten note. About ten days after their initial visit, the chairman of the outreach team reaches out by phone or email. The hottest prospects are referred to the pastor. The simple logic behind the effort is that you never know which personal touch will resonate. Whoever shows the love gets the soul.

About a year ago, Joe walked into church. He’s an 80-year-old Marine. His idea of fun is to wake up at 2 a.m. and bicycle 40 miles up Mt Lemmon. After that he lifts weights and rides his motorcycle. When Joe walked into church the first time, he told us he hadn’t been in church in 50 years. But his wife had just died; he was looking for answers. “All people are like grass.” I didn’t meet Joe that day, but our follow up teams ran their program: doorstep, handwritten note, outreach chairman, pastor. A vicar eventually took him through instruction and today he’s an active member. Just yesterday, this 80-year-old Marine approached the woman who delivered the initial follow up bag. He was weeping. “I am so thankful that Redeemer reached out to me. You have no idea how special this church is to me.” Whoever shows the love gets the soul.

This 80-year-old Marine was weeping.

I love that story because I had nothing to do with it. Joe is a victory of our parish, a victory of the consistency of our process, of the Golden Rule. You know that there are no silver bullets in ministry, but this is as close as it gets. Work hard. Take initiative. Be consistent. Follow up and follow through. Show love. Delegate, and train your people for ministry. And then get out of the Holy Spirit’s way.

Conclusion

Nobody has ever been converted because of a shiny new chapel. Nobody repents because of a solid greeter or usher program. No saint who is now in heaven credits the bubbly brunette or the glad-handing pastor. It’s the Word that works.

Consider the alternative. A gloomy environment, dour people, or an aloof pastor are a turn off. Any one of them can undermine a gospel witness, casting a pall over the God we praise. Of course, God can save people in spite of us. Is that really what we’re aiming for?

Understanding your context in ministry matters. You’ve got to play the cards God dealt you in your backyard. Working to improve your ministry culture helps to prepare souls to meet Jesus. That’s what John did. He prepared the way for the Lord by eliminating barriers. He made the path straight. He raised the valley up, he brought the hills down, he smoothed out the rough ground. He made it easy for people to meet Jesus.

Isaiah said it first. “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.”

“And this is the word that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25).

By Adam Mueller

Since 2012 Pastor Mueller has served Redeemer, Tucson, AZ. Previously he served in Kokomo, IN where he also helped start missions in Lafayette and Greenwood, IN. Besides parish ministry, he has served in various roles on the district level including evangelism coordinator and circuit pastor. On the synodical level, he has served on translation review teams, the Commission on Congregational Counseling, and as chair of the Hymnal Introduction Program.


“The remodel has a wow factor.” The photo to the right shows before the remodel. The after picture is at the beginning of the article. Additional photos are available online in #116a at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-worship-and-outreach. Pastor Mueller also led a significant renovation project in Kokomo, IN. It was featured in #19 at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/wtl-church-architecture.

 


Recent Resources

The Foundation Year A worship planner – PDF and Excel files for the full year were posted in mid-August after Advent through Epiphany was posted earlier in June.

Hymnal Highlights – The June 17 post includes ideas for fall or long-range planning. You can subscribe to receive them, along with other information, at welscongregationalservices.net/subscriptions.

Christian Worship: Service Builder – Six tightly scripted videos are now available at: christianworship.com/resources (under Articles) and at welscongregationalservices.net/hymnal-introduction-resources. These videos are useful both for those already using Service Builder and for those just exploring—and to help congregational leaders to see the value and potential of Service Builder.


 

 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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Preach the Word – Insights from an Urban Setting

Preaching with Outsiders in Mind

Insights from an Urban Setting

Editor’s note: This issue continues our series on preaching with those outside our church membership in mind. The previous issue provided insights from a pastor serving in rural Nebraska. This issue provides insights from a pastor serving in the greater Seattle area.

Pastor Daniel Lange shares insights from his ministry at Light of Life Lutheran in Covington, WA, where he has served for twelve years. Pastor Lange also serves as the first vice president of the Pacific Northwest District.

Ideas from Pastor Daniel Lange

Four examples or thoughts on how outsiders have impacted your preaching preparation:

Preschool parents – Every week I see the moms and dads dropping their kids off at our preschool. They are outsiders who could visit church any given Sunday and sometimes do. In my conversations with them, I’m often reminded that they are busy, stressed, worried for their children, filled with questions or guilt about parenting, and looking for deeper peace and purpose in life than living the “American dream” in the suburbs of Seattle. (I confess as a parent living in the same community that I struggle with much of the same). What would I want to say if a family from our preschool stepped in this week? “God use these words for them. May they find the Savior who invites them to find rest for their weary souls.”

The conversation died when I said I was a pastor.

My neighbors – Last year, two young professionals moved in next door. As we greeted one another, the conversation died when I said I was a pastor. Since then, as I’ve poked around different topics, I would describe their worldview as many living on West Coast—atheist, humanist, and secularist, with a splash of anti-religion. They care deeply about social issues. While they haven’t come to church yet, my prayer and goal for them is that someday they will. When I see opportunities to touch on current events in my sermon, I ask myself, “How would I say it if I knew they were coming? Or how might I say it if we were talking to one another in the backyard?” When looking at issues in the world, we may not agree on the cause, but we can agree that the symptoms are ugly. I, too, see the devastating effects sin has on our society. How can I connect those problems to the Problem and finally to the Solution of Jesus?

The drug-addicted welder – I met a man in my community two years ago. He was more open with me than anybody I’ve ever met. After finding out I was a pastor, in the first five minutes he confessed to me he was addicted to drugs, alcohol, pornography, and sometimes slept with prostitutes. He said he had recently been trying to quit it all. With tears starting to run down his cheeks, he wondered if I had time for a question. He wanted to know if his baptism still meant anything. I was able to talk him into a Bible Information Class but still have not convinced him to come to church, although he has promised many times to show up. He is a reason I sometimes ask myself, “Is God’s grace clear in this message? If this is the Sunday he arrives, will he see the Jesus who forgives him still, loves him still, and, yes, whose baptism still promises eternal life?”

Many of them are burned out by heavy preaching which presents Christ only as example.

The drifting de-churched – The collapse of Mars Hill in Seattle left 10,000 Christians without a church home. A few of these families have made their way to our congregation, joining some others with a non-denominational background. Many of them are burned out by heavy preaching which presents Christ only as example. They remind me to preach the law with all its deadly force and the gospel with all its life-giving power.

Three encouragements to preachers for keeping outsiders in mind in sermon preparation:

  1. Regularly pray for first time visitors at your church. I live in an area where we don’t get walk-in visitors on a regular basis. When we do, one thought I don’t want to have is, “I wish I would have put more time into my sermon this week.” I’ve heard this from several others: the best outreach a pastor can do is to have a good sermon every week. Praying for regular visitors is an exciting pastoral practice. It’s exciting because God often says, “Yes,” to those prayers. It also helps me keep the outsider in mind when preparing the sermon.
  2. Trust your sermon preparation process. Sometimes when Easter, Christmas, or VBS Sunday is coming, I find myself falling into the trap of focusing on the audience before I have spent enough time in the Word. At some point, we do turn from gazing into the Word to gazing at our audience, but don’t make that turn too quickly. Stay glued to the text, soaked in the Word, and keep digging, just like any other week. When the speaker is captivated by what he has discovered, the audience (both insiders and outsiders) will be listening.
  3. We have THE STORY. In the age of information, where people are bombarded with disinformation, fake news, biased views, and thousands of stories every week, what comfort to know that we have THE STORY. Even though we may not know the personal story of every outsider who comes into our doors, we know that God’s STORY includes them. What a privilege to share, even if it’s just one time.

Two sermon excerpts of preaching with outsiders in mind:

Here is an excerpt from Pastor Lange’s sermon on Genesis 1, preached during the summer of 2020 when protests and riots gripped Seattle, Portland, and much of the nation. Lange comments that the sermon attempted to connect social issues people are passionate about to the greater problem of sin.

“Why is our world broken?” Be careful as you answer that question. Some might say, “Because of racism.” I wouldn’t disagree. Some might say “Because of lawlessness.” I wouldn’t disagree. “Because of selfishness, because of hatred, because of greed.” I wouldn’t disagree. But the reason I urged you to be careful in answering the question, “What is wrong with our world?” is this: everything we see happening right now is connected to a problem that runs much deeper than anything you see in the headlines. Like a river of pollution and filth THE PROBLEM runs its ugly course through every part of our existence. It’s source, the headwaters, begin flowing into our world just 2 chapters later.

I find myself falling into the trap of focusing on the audience before I have spent enough time in the Word.

Genesis 3. The tragic account of how God’s beautiful creation fell apart. Tempted by the devil at a tree, the first human beings reached for something they could never attain, they believed the serpent’s lie that they could become like God himself. And rebellion, evil, and sin went viral. Spreading like a cancer into all of God’s creation. Racism is an evil that flows from this event. Lawlessness is an evil that flows from this event. Injustice, violence, hatred, fear, greed, selfishness, apathy—all of it flows from what took place at that tree.

It’s very likely that because of your background and upbringing, one of these issues angers you more than another. And because of that, you are likely drawn to one side more than another. And if you are drawn to a side, you then have the target: the other side. To point out how they are so wrong and how your side is so right. And like blinders on a racehorse, our anger focuses our attention on the issue and against the other side and we forget something. We often can’t see it, but since the fall into sin there is not a single person living on earth who is completely right. Not even close to it. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). I’m not saying there isn’t a time to speak up and speak out and stand for justice and righteousness, but I fear we often do so without acknowledging and confessing something first—that wicked and evil river of pollution flowing from the tree in the Garden of Eden has flowed right into my own heart as well. As children of Adam and Eve, we were born with hearts of darkness. You were born with a heart of emptiness. We all enter this world with hearts filled with chaos, emptiness, and disorder. We are all guilty and deserve God’s righteous and true anger to come down upon us.

The scene is set again for one of the greatest demonstrations of God’s power and love. He looks at this mess of a world and he sends his Word again to bring peace, order, justice, and life. This time he didn’t just speak the Word, he sent the Word. The Word of God took on human flesh. Born of a woman and placed in a manger. The Word grew up and walked the earth. He, and only he, lived righteously and walked perfectly. He, and only he, was always in the right. He, and only he, was truly in a position to look down on everyone else in righteous anger, but he didn’t. Instead, he looked up to his Father and said, “Let it be me! Let your anger come down upon me! Not them. Let all this mess fall squarely upon my shoulders.” And so, we go to another tree. The tree where the innocent Son of God, took up all our pain and misery and suffered injustice for us once and for all.

Many guests would be used to preaching heavy on sanctification and light on justification.

Here is an excerpt from Pastor Lange’s Palm Sunday sermon on Philippians 2. This sermon was preached on a Sunday when many preschool guests would be in attendance. Lange comments that this sermon attempted to speak to the de-churched with a non-denominational background. Many guests would be used to preaching heavy on sanctification and light on justification.

Remember what was said at the beginning (of the text), “In your relationships with each other have the same mindset Jesus displayed.” God commands us to be humble just like Jesus. And if I said, “Amen,” right now and you left, you might be thinking this was the sermon summary: “1) Jesus was humble, 2) God commands us to be humble just like Jesus,” and you might be fine…for a while. You might go to IHOP and get your pancakes, go to Home Depot and buy your hanging flowerpots for the deck, but sooner or later this question would catch up with you today or this week, “Have I been humble like Jesus? Am I in my life being humble like Jesus? Can I ever be humble like Jesus?”

Why is it that my heart enjoys having the advantage over others? When people treated Jesus like nothing, he carried on in love without complaining? But why is it that when people dismiss me or treat me like nothing, I want to say, “Excuse me, don’t you know who I am? How significant I am? You can’t treat me like that!” And being a servant? Why is it that after a long day of work, the dishes get done, the house gets picked up, and finally a quiet hour for me, and right when we sit down, we hear from upstairs, “Mom, Dad, I need you.” Why is this heart of ours is so slow to serve? This is not a “Look at Jesus and be humble like him!” kind of sermon, this a “Look and first be humbled!” kind of sermon. Be humbled by the truth we haven’t loved this way. Be humbled that God commands us to love this way, but we can’t. We have broken his commands. Someone had to pay for our pride and our selfishness, someone had to pay for the times we haven’t loved others. Someone had to pay for all of our sins. That is what Jesus came to do. It was the reason he came to the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. To rescue us from sin. He didn’t bring an army. He would win victory over sin by surrendering himself. His humility is our hope!

There is no greater act of humble love. The exalted one, who by nature is God, allowed sinful humans to pin him to a crossbeam with nails. The most powerful being to ever walk the earth rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and offered himself to die. The one equal to God didn’t consider using that advantage for himself, even when the other crucified criminals mocked him telling him he should save himself. He stayed. He didn’t even think of saving himself, because all that was on his mind was saving you. The payment we owed God the Humble Servant has given.

One preaching resource (besides the Bible and Confessions) in your library and why you have found it valuable:

One resource is my blank sermon writing template page. Every week I open this document when it is time to begin a new sermon. It has prayers, reminders, tidbits from homiletics class, quotes from other preachers, sermon diagnostic questions, etc. Here is a sampling of what is on it right now:

  1. Begin with prayer. Remember: It is a privilege to stand in pulpit. Enjoy the process!
  2. Catch ME in the Gospel net this week!
  3. Holy Spirit, use this message despite me!
    • Text: Theme of Day: Prayer of Day: Lessons: Initial Ideas:
    • Law: “How can I preach the Law to the secure sinner?” (CFW Walther, Proper Distinction)
    • Gospel: “How can I preach the Gospel to the crushed sinner?” (Walther)
    • Other thoughts and questions:
      • Where is Christ in this text?
      • What lie is the devil telling? How does this portion of God’s Word expose that lie?
      • OT questions: What does the text reveal about God and his will, God’s acts, covenants, law, grace, etc?
      • What is the narrow and broad context of this text?
      • Don’t forget the “So What?” factor.
      • With this sermon I pray that the Holy Spirit will ____ my listeners to…
Timeless Reminders

Editor’s note: This issue’s timeless reminder comes from sainted Prof. Daniel Deuschlander’s article, “Preaching Old Testament Texts.” You can read Prof. Deutschlander’s article its entirety in Preach the Word 7:2.

Perhaps it will help if we start with the simple and so useful assumption: Every text is unique. It makes no difference whether the text is from the Old Testament or the New, keeping that assumption in mind may help to guard against preaching the same sermon every Sunday or from using the same application, no matter what the text: This is the Word of the Lord. Now let’s go out and share it with our neighbors and relatives. Just as the miracles of Jesus are all the same only different, so too are the Bible stories of the Old Testament. Jesus’ miracles all prove that he is the omnipotent Son of God who cares about our human condition. But each recorded miracle is at the same time unique, containing in its telling a lesson found nowhere else in quite the same way. So also the Bible history of the Old Testament. Each story makes the point that God is serious about his Word, both the law and the gospel.

The preacher is always looking for what makes these inspired words, this particular story, unique.

Each story illustrates the truth that grace is always undeserved, that we live by faith, and that we walk as pilgrims under the cross. And at the same time each story is unique and sharpens our understanding of those eternal truths just a little bit more. It is part of the art of the preacher of the Word that he is always looking for what makes these inspired words, this particular story, unique. He is always asking the text: What are you doing here? Of all the things that God could have said, could have told us about, why this?

Written by Joel Russow


The Foundation – Year A

The worship planning spreadsheet (and PDF version) for the entire year has been available since mid-August. Advent through Epiphany had been posted in early June. Some materials such as the Preacher Podcast and graphics are still being provided as they become available.

To receive earliest notice of such materials, be sure to sign up for email notification of new resources at welscongregationalservices.net/subscriptions/. Pastors might want to encourage musicians to sign up for the Hymnal Highlight series, which offers practical and helpful ways to introduce new hymns.

Are you just now considering The Foundation for the first time? Be sure to review the introductory video at welscongregationalservices.net/foundation-yr-a/ and also Worship the Lord #111. A link is just under the video. Note that you can use The Foundation even if you don’t have the new hymnal. You can easily adapt the worship plan for CW21 in the Year A Planner to CW93. The new lectionary is available in the free test drive version of CW Service Builder (builder.christianworship.com) and for purchase from Logos. Since the Gospel readings in the new lectionary are almost always identical to the old, you can still use Planning Christian Worship (worship.welsrc.net) for hymn suggestions if you’re still using CW93. Just watch for any hymns that focus on a First or Second Reading that might have changed in CW21.


 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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Worship and Outreach – In a Large Midwestern Parish

Worship and Outreach

In a Large Midwestern Parish1

Introductory Matters

Every article has a context. A brother’s words still ring in my ear from a past Call deliberation: “You recognize, don’t you, that the public worship life of the church has been in disarray throughout the course of history?” The topic at hand has been surrounded by conversations, some of which have caused harm and division in church bodies past and present—of this I am fully aware.

If any of this is compelling, God bless it. And, if not, God bless you, dear brother.

So I need to say clearly: I am no expert. My musical gifts are laughable, and I have no advanced degrees in either worship or outreach.2 Nor is this a persuasive essay. I write as a pastor, recognizing the gospel is the lifeblood of the church.3 I am a pastor, daily and increasingly aware of my own shortcomings, and growing, I pray, ever more charitable and enjoying the dialogue with those who think differently about why I do what I do, especially in the areas of worship and outreach, and where they intersect. I don’t claim to have this all figured out, nor do I serve 1,250 parishioners and a number of weekly visitors to the Sunday Service who are completely united on this matter, either.4

My prayerful aim in these few short pages is to give a brief glimpse into how one larger, midwestern parish has sought to serve the lifelong WELSer and the newcomer with the same unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ, to his unending glory.5 If any of this is compelling, God bless it. And, if not, God bless you, dear brother, Called to serve real sinner-saints in your own context. I am thankful that this article and the ongoing conversations have given me a new opportunity to think through these items and to pray for you and your ministry, as well.

“The terrible sin of pessimism, which is the pastor’s greatest temptation, is finished with.”

In No Particular Order
  • Hermann Sasse: “The humble preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the simple Sacraments are the greatest things that can happen in the world. For in these things the hidden reign of Christ is consummated. He himself is present in these means of grace, and the bearer of the ministry of the church actually stands in the stead of Christ. That certainly puts an end to any clerical conceit. We are nothing. He is everything. And that means that the terrible sin of pessimism, which is the pastor’s greatest temptation, is finished with as well. It is nothing but doubt and unbelief, for Christ the Lord is just as present in His means of grace today as He was in the sixteenth or the first century. And ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’ [Matt. 28:18] is just as much His today as it was when He first spoke that promise to the apostles. And it remains so into all eternity. Do we still believe this?”6 This has something to say to our time together on Sunday morning, I do believe. For our members. And for those that you have prayed for or worked with, who saw a Facebook ad, who are down on life, or who simply took a friend up on an invitation to join them in worship.
  • Paul ambled up to me after my first Sunday in Mukwonago. “Thanks for the Service, but the problem is this: you had us stand way too much.” If I remember correctly, it was pretty standard fare, a Service from the hymnal; singing “How Great Thou Art” and probably “On Eagles’ Wings” as well7, I was no glutton for punishment! The next week Paul nodded as he passed by: “That was much better.” Same service. Same rubrics. Lesson learned: “How we’ve always done things” is a flexible conversation. Lesson learned: let’s spend a lot of time talking about why we do what we do.8

Do you display care and concern for the entirety of the Service or just the sermon?

  • Sainted pastor and former district president Herbert Prahl was quoted in Preach the Word 26.1 (May/June 2022). “Love your hearers as Jesus loved them.” He also gave the reminder that the sermon must answer a big question: “So What?” I maintain the same goes for presiding. Members and visitors know what is important to you, dear pastor. Are they aware that you want to be there? Do you display care and concern for the entirety of the Service or just the sermon? Have you thought through your movements and your words? Practiced your pace? Does the joy show of standing in the stead of Christ and absolving the sinner in front of you? Would they know this is one of the high points of your week? “Dignified without being stuffy” is a compliment I once received. We’re handling other-worldly things in this place, in this hour. Let them see you reduced to tears as you explain to them the meaning of the salutation; as you marvel at God’s grace to you to serve in the place where he would have you serve; as those sitting there love you in return; to the glory and praise of God. Let them see you tremble as you baptize that child. Let them see you smile as you commune that couple you were quite sure weren’t going to make it; or as you commune that dear widow; or that dear young woman on Mother’s Day who has suffered miscarriage after miscarriage. (A dear brother in associate ministry for the first time: “Today was the first Easter in my ministry where I have not preached. But I did absolve; I read; I prayed; I distributed holy body and holy blood; I spoke the blessing. That isn’t nothing!”) Let them see this as the greatest hour of the week, and that you would not want to be anywhere else!
  • “Sharp elbows cause problems in pick-up basketball games and in church narthexes and in meetings.” What does this have to do with worship and outreach? The visitor can sense when things are on edge. Members, too. Forgiveness and mercy are the rule of the day. The Eighth Commandment looks good on you. If I remembered where I heard it for the first time, I’d surely give credit: “You have found the right church when you can have a little laughter; when you don’t take yourself so seriously.” The gospel is serious business, yes. The work of the church is serious business, yes. But to have a little fun this side of heaven, in bounds, and in service of the gospel, this too is a gift of God. “Oh, how good it is … where the bonds of peace, of acceptance and love, are the fruits of his presence here among us.” (CW 731:1)

To have a little fun this side of heaven in service of the gospel is a gift of God.

  • The children matter. We’ve learned to embrace their chatter. We tell young parents: “Don’t worry, we don’t hear your kids.” We provide a cry room and seats in the entryway if that’s where they find their comfort. But we do all we can to encourage them to have their children with the rest of the church family in the Service. If they learn it for hymnology, I try to remember to have it sung on Sunday. We don’t frown at parents if they sit towards the front and let their kids ask questions. The little ones receive a blessing as their parents commune. We teach the sign of the cross, that is free to be used, or not, at appropriate times in the Service. An ill-timed “Amen” and a “Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!” from the lips of these little ones are welcomed in the ears of Jesus and in our midst, as well.
  • Every one, bring one. Pastor David Rosenau’s “One by One”9 presentation at the 2020 Leadership Conference resonated with how we’ve approached outreach. Everyone Outreach10 from Congregational Services strikes the same chord. When people come through our doors, if they do not have a pastor, we consider that our role until they tell us not to be their pastor. If a parishioner tells us about a family member or friend is in the hospital, we ask if they have a pastor serving them. We have invited some folks to the Adult Instruction Class a dozen times before they have said yes, and many more still keep saying “no.” We recognize that some of our greatest outreach happens before, during, and after the Sunday services.

If a parishioner tells us about a family member or friend is in the hospital, we ask if they have a pastor serving them.

  • March 2020 brought two specific blessings to our worship life. Online Morning Prayer and an online “Prayer and Conversation” meeting emerged. Two-plus years later: a ten-minute Morning Prayer is made available Monday through Friday on our YouTube page. I cannot tell you how many parishioners and non-members have commented how this has changed their daily routine. “I thank you my heavenly Father” and “Lord, have mercy” are on the lips and hearts of dozens every morning. We have now added to this a “live” Morning Prayer on Wednesday mornings during the Advent, Lent, and Easter seasons. It works for some retirees, and for some on their way to work, and for a few school families. The faculty stops in. As the online “Prayer and Conversation” meetings waned, we decided to add a monthly Prayer at the Close of Day Service.11 We’ve used this Service to introduce some of the newer hymns and psalmody. God’s children (and their friend, if they’ve brought one, as they’ve been encouraged) often go home with “I will wait for you through the storm and night” from Psalm 130 in their ears. Blessed be those old words made new again! Some months ago, we brought in a speaker for an evening lecture beforehand.12 I recognize this is not in everyone’s wheelhouse, but if the midweek “Bible study” has become an accepted norm (for which I’m thankful!), I maintain that a regular gathering for Morning Prayer and Prayer at the Close of Day could be an accepted norm, as well.
A few more lessons I have learned

Some people have strong opinions about what they want in worship. Over the past eight years, out of the hundreds who have come from outside of our fellowship to join us, I can count on one hand those who had strong opinions already formed regarding worship. It’s worth a conversation. To the lady with a nominal background in Methodism, I asked her: “Tell me your favorite hymns,” and lo and behold, some of them fit, and I gave attention to those in my next round of worship planning. The new confirmand from Roman Catholicism says: “I’m thankful that I don’t have to give up the sign of the cross—and to now know what it means!” Each denomination, and congregation within a denomination, is going to land somewhere on these questions. “We’ve always and we’ve never.” You could write a book! Our congregation has landed in a place where we are not going to try to “out Baptist the Baptists” or “out Catholic the Catholics.”

A ten-minute Morning Prayer is available on YouTube. I cannot tell you how many have commented how this has changed their daily routine.

This article isn’t a sales pitch for the new hymnal—no royalties for this guy! But what Pastor Michael Schultz says in his Introduction to Christian Worship has been true and, we pray, will continue on in our congregation: “There is something for everyone to appreciate and to use: seasoned worshipers, newcomers, and a generation yet unborn.”13 Our experience has been that liturgical worship and a frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper is not a deterrent to our outreach efforts, but rather, combined with intentional education and “every one reach one” outreach efforts, has been a tremendous blessing, to member and non-member alike!

We are not going to try to “out Baptist the Baptists” or “out Catholic the Catholics.”

Dr. Wade Johnston, writing about preaching, says something that can be applied to our worship and outreach as well: “The church has time, but sinners do not. So we should stop wasting their time. There’s only so long to hear, and so what gets put in their and our ears is crucial. Christ knew that and gave the paralytic what he needed first, whether or not the paralytic or anyone else realized it. There’s a freedom in that realization for the preacher, that everyone’s need is the same: forgiveness.”14

God bless your worship and outreach to that end!

By John Bortulin

Since 2014 Pastor Bortulin has served as one of the pastors at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Mukwonago, Wisconsin. In the past eight years, St. John’s has seen over 250 adults join the church family through her Adult Instruction Class. This has created the dynamic of a large, established, congregation with many in the pews who were not previously familiar with liturgical worship. Additionally, John is the Worship Coordinator for the SEW District, serves on our synod’s Board for Ministerial Education and Joint Mission Council, and was a member of the Rites Committee for Christian Worship.


St. John’s intentional teaching of Why We Do What We Do
  1. Every AIC lesson is connected to a part of the Service. The same goes for youth catechism. The catechism student’s sermon study form also asks them to list their favorite hymn and anything in the service that drew their attention. Where do I see this truth when I come to worship? Where does this truth and this worship intersect with daily life?
  2. Lesson four in the AIC starts out: “Any questions about that Service you just sat through?” It’s a good temperature check. Sometimes that lasts an hour. Sometimes it leads to the next lesson, a step-by-step walkthrough of the Divine Service.
  3. Sunday morning Bible study often starts with “Any questions about worship today?”
  4. Utilization of explanatory notes in the Service Folder.
  5. Sermon connections to various parts of the Service, when appropriate.

Recent Resources

Are you aware that the Musician’s Resource (MR) is now live at nph.net? See the upper right-hand corner. Next to “Login” find “Musician’s Resource,” a link to a search tool and simplified site view to streamline the search experience solely to MR resources.

Christian Worship: Service Builder: Another of Caleb Bassett’s tightly scripted videos was posted in mid-June, A Powerful New Paradigm, available at: christianworship.com/resources (under Articles) and at welscongregationalservices.net/hymnal-introduction-resources. These videos are useful both for those already using Service Builder and for those just exploring—and to help congregational leaders to see the value and potential of Service Builder.

Another new resource: Rethinking the Role of Digital Displays in Worship. Find the article under “View Presentations” at the hymnal intro page above.

Have you seen the Hymnal Highlights? You can subscribe to receive them, along with other information, at welscongregationalservices.net/subscriptions. Or visit the hymnal intro page above. The most recent one (the title includes “In This Holy, Blest Communion”) includes lots of ideas for fall or long-range planning.

Also helpful for future planning: the Year A worship planner PDF and Excel files for Advent through Epiphany were released on June 17.


1 Some of this article flows from previous presentations at the National Worship Conference and at the Mission and Ministry Seminar held at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Drop me a line and I’d be happy to share those presentations in outline form.
2 I am, however, indebted to the brothers who have done advanced study and have expertise in both areas. I am the richer for the ongoing conversation.
3 Augsburg Confession V.
4 I write this article smiling about two recent conversations. The first, from a soon-to-be adult confirmand: “You guys sing some weird stuff.” The second, from a midweek Bible study, when a series of comments about the recent selection of hymnody left me feeling pretty good about myself: “Pastor, we just love the new hymns we’ve been singing,” and then quickly brought back down to reality from the back of the room: “You could pick some of the old familiars, you know!”
5 The context matters. St. John’s is a parish founded in 1890. In the past eight years, one-fourth of our membership has come from outside of WELS, many from Roman Catholic, Evangelical, un-churched, and de-churched backgrounds. “How we’ve always done it” and “What I’m used to in worship” could fill volumes.
6 Hermann Sasse, The Lonely Way, Vol. 2, p. 139.
7 I work to find hymns that fit the theme of the day. I also recognize that the parishioner and the visitor will likely appreciate the familiar rather than the hymn that makes a great connection with the second reading in the third stanza. My philosophy here: Do the one without leaving the other undone. I’m guessing a couple dozen favorite hymns get sung 4-6 times/year. The ones that are their favorite and not mine happen to get sung while I’m on vacation.
8 The more I’ve learned about worship, the more I enjoy leading the Service and teaching the Service. If the old advice is helpful, “Read Walther’s Law and Gospel yearly,” I gladly add to that: “Read something decent on worship every year.”
9 welscongregationalservices.net/one-by-one
10 everyoneoutreach.com
11 Pastor Jon Zabell at St. Paul’s, Green Bay has been doing this for years. I think he would tell the same story: this has been a rich blessing for many. A new book, Prayer in the Night, by Tish Harrison Warren has served as an eye-opening guide to the prayers of this service.
12 Topics have included: Vocation; the Family Altar; Witnessing to Mormons; Psalms in the life of the Lutheran Church; Galatians.
13 Christian Worship, iv. One would also benefit from a re-read Pastor Jon Bauer’s article in Worship the Lord (#106, 2021) available at worship.welsrc.net.
14 Wade Johnston, Let the Bird Fly, 1517 Publishing, pp. 45-46. Johnston is on the faculty at Wisconsin Lutheran College.


 

 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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Preach the Word – Insights from a Rural Setting

Preaching with Outsiders in Mind

Insights from a Rural Setting

Editor’s note: This issue continues our series on preaching with those outside our church membership in mind. The next two issues provide insights from pastors in differing settings—a pastor serving in a rural town and a pastor serving in a big city.

Pastor Frederic Berger shares insights from his ministry at St. Paul’s in Plymouth, NE and from preaching at Christ Lutheran in Beatrice, NE. Pastor Berger previously served at St. Paul’s in Livingston, MT and currently serves as the chairman of the Nebraska District Mission Board.

Ideas from Pastor Frederic Berger

“Funerals are one of our best forms of outreach.”

Four examples or thoughts on how outsiders have impacted your preaching preparation:

I come at this from the rural ministry perspective of a longtime established congregation. We live in a town of 400 people (Plymouth, NE). That means that on a typical Sunday we don’t have a lot of “outsiders” randomly coming for worship. But that also means that it becomes easier to key in on the types of services that we absolutely know there are going to be outsiders. Here are a few examples:

People are longing for these types of relationships, and they are in short supply among pastors in our country.

  1. Funerals – When I arrived in Plymouth, one of our elders commented, “Pastor, funerals are one of our best forms of outreach.” He wasn’t wrong. Everyone here knows everyone. People take time off to attend funerals. They bring food in abundance to share at the luncheon. They stay after for fellowship. They pay attention to the service, the building upkeep, the small details, and the sermon. Unlike other churches in our area, they have noticed in the sermon that the pastors have a close relationship with those who are now in heaven and with the family. The sermon is all about Jesus, but it’s always wonderful to share in the sermon how our church has connected the person who is now in heaven to the message of Jesus in immense proportions through Word and Sacrament over his/her life, while they were able to come to church, while a shut-in at home, and even in the last moments in the hospital. People are longing for these types of relationships, and they are in short supply among pastors in our country. Using relationships to connect people with the means of grace is our bread and butter in the WELS, and outsiders notice this.
  2. Weddings – At least in our area, and this is probably a widespread phenomenon, weddings even in churches have turned into a quasi-service, with officiants becoming ordained online for twenty bucks or acting like it. We have had several people take the Bible Information Class (BIC) who first came in contact with us as a guest at a wedding. And so even though I have found wedding sermons to be some of the most difficult to write, it gives an excellent opportunity to share law and gospel with many “outsiders.”
  3. Confirmations, Baptisms, Big Anniversaries, and Birthdays – Again, due to the strong family ties (often multi-generation families that stay in the area), when there is a family event, all the uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, etc. who are churched and unchurched attend the worship service. It might be for a special prayer or bouquet of flowers in the front for mom’s 80th, and 40 “outsiders” will be in attendance. I try to keep this in mind during sermon preparation. How can I take the truths of God’s Word and convey them in a simple, straightforward way? An introduction to catch their attention. A comment about Bible Information Class. A time in the sermon for them to actually ponder (and share with people sitting next to them) what this means for them. At this year’s confirmation service, one of the younger church council members commented to me, “That sermon was perfect for all the guests who were here today.”
  4. Christmas and Easter – These are Sundays for “outsiders” in all settings. I always think it is interesting to tailor your illustrations to your audience, which is quite easy when you are speaking to a congregation that understands farming and agriculture, because God often uses these illustrations.

Good preaching for “outsiders” is probably also good preaching for “insiders.”

Three encouragements to preachers for keeping outsiders in mind in sermon preparation:

  1. A good sermon is a good sermon. Good preaching for “outsiders” is probably also good preaching for “insiders.” As you spend time crafting a clear message, using pertinent illustrations, making applications to everyday life from God’s Word, sharing law and gospel, reviewing biblical accounts for the biblically illiterate and for the long time Bible reader who needs a refresher, defining terms such as justification, sanctification, repentance, redemption, etc., working on delivery, memorizing, it’s going to be a faithful sermon for all. Study the text. Write it. Memorize. Go and preach it like you mean it.
  2. Try to put yourself in their shoes. It is scary coming into a church for the first time, especially to an established one in a rural setting. People are going to notice you. So, from start (greeting) to finish (greeting) and everywhere in between (liturgy and sermon), do everything you can to make the service easy to follow and make them feel comfortable and welcome.
  3. In our setting, strong relationships and rapport already exist between members and non-members, which allows our members to easily invite non-members to worship, and, even better, to BIC. Take advantage of that. Sometimes our established rural congregations can be greatly benefited by using some of the same ideas that our new mission churches are using. Borrowing an idea from a mission church in our area, we offered a BIC at a brewery. This non-traditional idea especially sparks a lot of interest in a setting where only the traditional is expected. We had 125 various insiders and outsiders join us over the 18 weeks. In a rural setting, our members have an already established strong network for friendship evangelism.

We offered a BIC at a brewery.

Two sermon excerpts of preaching with outsiders in mind:

Here is an excerpt from Pastor Berger’s confirmation sermon. Times of celebration prove to be wonderful opportunities for outreach at St. Paul’s. Pastor Berger notes that his small rural congregation had 388 in attendance for this confirmation sermon on 2 Timothy 3:14-17.

I’m going to start by asking you a fairly ridiculous question, but I want an honest answer: If God told you to chew a piece of Trident original flavored gum every day, would you do it? It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? It takes us out of the hot topic of religious discussions and simply gets to the heart and core of this matter: If God tells you to do something, do you do it? Looking at a ridiculous question helps you to understand your attitude towards listening to God or not listening to God.

Which is so different than everything else in life, isn’t it? If you do not listen to someone’s good financial advice, you might not have as much money as you could have. If you do not listen to someone’s fashion advice, you might not look as stylish as you could have. If you do not listen to someone’s lawn advice, your grass might end up looking like mine—half dead. But if you do not listen to God, those stakes are so much higher. It finally ends up being heaven or hell for all eternity.

My guess is that you’re here today because you recognize that. My guess is that you do care what God has to say. Do you do it perfectly? No, none of us do. That’s why we confessed our sins at the beginning of the service. That’s why we need and why we have a Savior named Jesus. But my guess is that you’re here today because you care about what God says in his Word, and you’re here today because you want to encourage these confirmands to do the same.

The truth is, God doesn’t tell you to chew a piece of Trident original flavored gum everyday…. But God’s Word does tell you to do something…. God’s encouragement for each of us: CONTINUE IN WHAT YOU HAVE LEARNED…

(Continuing in what you have learned involves having) a devotional plan. If you need one, talk to me or Pastor Dauck. We would love to be your personal devotional trainers. Make Sunday morning the priority. I know that stuff that can come up, that you can get sick, that you might have to be out of town. But make it the priority. And I’m talking the Sunday morning package—45 minutes in Bible Study, it’s awesome. An hour in worship. And if you have some hang up, some reason that is preventing you from coming, talk to me, Pastor Dauck, or the elders. If someone says that they aren’t coming because the pews are uncomfortable, let us know. We will remove a pew and put in a Lazy Boy for you…. That’s how much we want you to be here with your brothers and sisters, remembering your baptisms, hearing the Word, and receiving the Lord’s Supper.

(God tells us to continue in what you learned) for a really important reason. Because he says in verse 15 that the Holy Scriptures are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (The Holy Scriptures) make us, who are born spiritually dead, spiritually alive. They share with us this incredible message—that because Jesus, God who took on human flesh, lived a perfect life, died on the cross, and rose from the dead, our sins are forgiven … and that when we die, we live with God for all eternity in a place he describes as Paradise….

We will remove a pew and put in a Lazy Boy for you.

And contrary to common thought, it’s not just for the future—not just for after death. No, God wants us to continue in what we have learned because, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

When you become the famous athlete, continuing in God’s Word prepares you for fame and what you’re going to do and say in your 30 seconds in the spotlight. When you’re diagnosed with a horrible disease, continuing in God’s Word prepares you for processing that difficult news. When you become extremely wealthy, continuing in God’s Word prepares you and helps you understand where it came from and how to use it faithfully. When you’re struggling in school, when you’re dating that special someone, when marriage gets tough, when family grows or doesn’t grow, when you’re struggling with an addiction, when your loved ones are being called Home, in every circumstance that you can ever think of in life, continuing in what you have learned prepares you for it.”

Here is an excerpt from one of Pastor Berger’s funeral sermons on Revelation 7. He exhibits what he commented on earlier—preaching Christ-centered funeral sermons as a pastor who has a close relationship with his people.

Your sins, the things you have done wrong in your life, the ways that you have disobeyed the Almighty God—they are forgiven! That secret something that you did in your younger years, that very few people know about, that burdens your conscience to this day and still you lose sleep because of it, Jesus tells you, “I suffered for that sin on the cross. It is finished. The price has been paid!” One day, on a day only God knows, you will stand before his judgment throne and you will hear the two most beautiful words, “NOT GUILTY!”…

This is a short summary of things Frank, Tudy, and I would talk about around their kitchen table. And Frank, when he’d hear that gospel message, that good news that heaven is secured for him not because of anything he could possibly do but because of what Jesus has already DONE, COMPLETED, and FINISHED, you’d see his face just light up. Because this meant that one day when he died, he would be with the Lord in paradise with 100% certainty because what was necessary for his salvation was already accomplished.

One day having talked about the Bible’s clear main message, the gospel, I gave Frank and Tudy bread, which Jesus says is his body. And then I gave Frank and Tudy wine, which Jesus says is his blood. And I told them, “Frank and Tudy have peace today knowing that your sins are forgiven, and heaven is won for you.” And Frank gave that Frank Imes’ laugh and said to me, “Pastor, that’s the best news in the world!”

Why did Frank say that? Because he knew his sin. Over his 80 years, he knew his thoughts, words, and actions did not always line up with God’s will. He knew that he fell far short of God’s standard, which is perfection. But this good news about what Jesus did for him—taking upon himself Frank’s sin and giving to Frank his perfect record…. Yes, that wonderful message of the gospel changed everything for Frank. It meant peace no matter what happened on this earth. The best news in the world meant that Wednesday was the best day of Frank’s life because God whispered in his ear, “Today you will be with me in paradise” and then peacefully took him there. And John in Revelation 7 gives us a glimpse of what Frank is experiencing right now.

“It’s good for the shepherd to smell like his sheep.”

One preaching resource (besides the Bible and Confessions) in your library and why you have found it valuable:

A longtime District President is a member in my congregation, and he often stops by the office and says, “I always worry about a pastor spending time in his office.” I usually respond back, “I find myself worrying about you a lot too,” mostly because I don’t know how else to respond to that. But I think he makes a good point. Or as another pastor once said, “It’s good for the shepherd to smell like his sheep.” Probably more than another book to read in our offices, my best preaching comes after spending time with those I’ve been Called to serve. The more I get to know them, the more I know in what ways the text I’m preaching on will apply to the joys and difficulties they are facing in their life. Not only will interacting with our members give good flavor to our sermons, it will also give them encouragement to be with the church family around Word and Sacrament on Sunday mornings.

But if you really want a book, Just Say the Word!: Writing for the Ear (by G. Robert Jacks, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996) is a good resource to transition seminarians from essay writing to sermon writing. But otherwise, put down the book, close Facebook, and spend time with your members and prospects.

Put down the book, close Facebook, and spend time with your members and prospects.

Timeless Reminders

Editor’s note: This issue’s timeless reminder comes from Rev. Daniel Leyrer, currently serving at St. Marcus in Milwaukee, WI. You can read Pastor Leyrer’s three articles, “Full Strength Law and Gospel Preaching” in their entirety in Preach the Word, Vol. 6:1-3. This excerpt comes from “The Pastor Preaches Full Strength Gospel” (Preach the Word 6:3). All back issues are available at worship.welsrc.net/downloads-worship/preach-the-word.

One of my favorite lessons on preaching comes from the story of the minister who was scheduled to conduct worship at the state penitentiary. The day before the service he walked around the chapel with the warden to “get the lay of the land.” As he viewed the seating arrangements, he noticed that one of the chairs was draped in black cloth. The preacher asked the warden about the chair. “The man who sits in that chair tomorrow morning will be executed tomorrow night,” the warden explained. “His chair is draped for death. Your sermon will be the last one he hears.”

Every time I mount the pulpit I may very well be preaching to someone sitting in a pew draped for death.

That story reminds me that every time I mount the pulpit I may very well be preaching to someone sitting in a pew draped for death. My pulpit might be draped for death for that matter. The point is we never know. We preachers never know if this is the last sermon a parishioner will hear or the last one we’ll have a chance to preach. Seen from that perspective, preaching a sermon is urgent business.

If you knew it was the last sermon for somebody, what approach would you take? It would be a good time to remember one of our titles: minister of the gospel. Given one last chance to preach a sermon, we would present the gospel as clearly and personally as we knew how. This is full strength gospel preaching—speaking not so much about Jesus’ word of forgiveness but becoming Jesus’ voice to speak that word of forgiveness.

Written by Joel Russow


 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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Preach the Word – Insights from Unique Ministry Settings

Preaching with Outsiders in Mind

Insights from Unique Ministry Settings

Series Introduction

“I’m clearly not a part of their target audience.” After a busy day, I flipped through a few television channels one night. I settled on an old movie and soon the plot suspended for a brief commercial break. Over the next ninety seconds, advertisers tried to sell me adult diapers, fiber supplements, and a lifeline medical alert system. The commercials presumed a demographic audience other than a thirty-something pastor who was watching that night. I snickered to my wife, “I’m clearly not a part of their target audience.”

Would listeners snicker similar thoughts about our sermons? Dr. John Brug writes in The Ministry of the Word, “The church has not two ministries but one—to preach the gospel. This one gospel has two audiences—members of the church and nonmembers” (p. 61). Does our sermon preparation keep both audiences in mind? Or would the often easy-to-overlook nonmember audience snicker, “I’m clearly not a part of this preacher’s target audience?”

Reflecting on my own preaching, I tried to be mindful in preparation for major festival sermons of the visitors who would be listening to Lutheran preaching for perhaps the first time. But shouldn’t a Lutheran preacher keep that audience in mind in all his sermons? Different worship visitors informed me that before they ever came in person, they had been listening online “for months.” Pandemic preaching had its challenges, but it also opened up opportunities. Many preachers found themselves proclaiming to a wider audience through livestreamed services, recorded sermons, and printed messages. It forced this preacher to wrestle more zealously with important questions like: what can a preacher do in sermon preparation to communicate the one gospel to the two audiences? What encouragements would other preachers offer to proclaim the gospel with those outside the church?

“This one gospel has two audiences—members of the church and nonmembers.”

This series of Preach the Word articles will wrestle with preaching with those outside of our church membership in mind. Through interviews, sermon excerpts, and timeless reminders, we will aim to grow in being wise toward outsiders and seek to make the most of every preaching opportunity to them. I pray our conversations will be full of grace and seasoned with salt so that member and nonmember alike will recognize, “I’m clearly a part of this preacher’s audience!”

Ideas from Pastor Thomas Spiegelberg II

Editor’s note: Spiegelberg served as a preacher and an exploratory missionary in Boise, ID for five years. He then served as a preacher and missionary in a cross-cultural setting on the island of St. Lucia for sixteen years. He has been serving as a preacher in his current mission field of Mobile, AL for the past four years. He draws on his wide variety of ministry experience and sermon audiences to share the following thoughts. While the specific examples of his efforts to connect with those outside the church may not apply to your situation, I hope that you find his passion to do so inspiring.

My own council once tenderly criticized my sermons.

Four examples or thoughts on how outsiders have impacted your preaching preparation:

  1. In door-to-door canvassing, I met and kept conversing with an atheist in Boise. We came to a mutual agreement. I would read a book he suggested. In exchange, he would come to our Easter worship. The book he suggested was Why Christianity Must Change and Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile, by John Shelby Spong. It was one of the most painful books I ever had to read. (And no, I would not recommend it). But I understood what the man was looking for—he wanted me to look at Christianity from a perspective which he found noteworthy. He also followed through on his end of the agreement and attended Easter worship. I seized the opportunity that Sunday to preach on the credibility of the resurrection and its basis for our faith. The man didn’t come back, but he heard Christ crucified and risen.
  2. My barber in St. Lucia never went to church. No way! He explained that he didn’t even want to know or trust in Jesus. “That is white man’s religion,” he said. (St. Lucia is an island of predominantly African descent). But even with his aversion to Jesus, my barber wanted me to know that he prayed. Curious, I asked, “What do you say? Why do you pray? To whom do you pray?” Our conversation prompted a sermon on prayer and some reading up on books to address his understanding of prayer. My barber never came to church, but he did listen to what I had to say every time I got my hair cut.
  3. My own council once tenderly criticized my sermons. After a huge upswing in violent crime in the area, they asked why I never addressed or mentioned crime in my sermons. Interesting. In my mind I thought, “Because the pericope doesn’t line up with current social struggles. I will get to it, but not until after Pentecost.” As a result of our conversation, I did two things. I began reading the local newspaper and tried to incorporate one thing happening in either the application or introduction of the sermon.
  4. A reporter came to church, and I interviewed him. I asked him to make me a list of the top ten things on which his news station reports. He did and it was great! Sermon fodder flowed out of that list. One series was called, “Get a Job, Uh.” (Uh is a St. Lucian expression that they add to the end of a sentence to emphasize it). It was a series1 on work and Christian vocation addressed from a law/gospel perspective. It got so much attention, we actually were interviewed by the local news station on how we as a church were trying to help the unemployment and poverty problem in the country. We also had people show up in the following months thinking we were giving out jobs.

The sermons got so much attention, we actually were interviewed by the local news station.

Three encouragements to preachers for keeping outsiders in mind in sermon preparation:

  1. Talk to those outside the church and read with them. This is really hard and can be extremely painful, but it will give you a better understanding of where people are.
  2. Address the struggles people are going through and apply the Word of God to those struggles. Maybe the struggles addressed won’t resonate with everyone, but in the process, you are helping your congregation in how to dialogue with the unchurched. This can be extremely valuable especially if most of your church members’ lives are lived in the context of the church.
  3. Think of sermon preparation like writing your sermon for your homiletics professor first, but then rewriting it for your unchurched “Alabama fan neighbor.” The same points will be drawn out, but hopefully with a different delivery.

Two sermon excerpts of preaching with outsiders in mind:

Here is an excerpt from Pastor Spiegelberg’s sermon on Easter Sunday with the atheist in attendance. He acknowledges some of the “nonsense” that might be stirring around in his listeners’ minds and takes the listener back to the impact of the empty tomb and the sure and certain word of God:

… When we got to my grandfather’s funeral, I was never able to bring myself to look inside the casket as if looking at him would prove that he was really gone. There is just something so final about death that it is hard to accept. And if I didn’t look at him, maybe it wouldn’t be over. And then they closed the lid. Irreversible. Final. It’s a story that I bet every one of you can tell. The loss of a loved one. The quietness in the house the following weeks that they are gone. The rest of the world goes on with what they are doing, and yet the finality takes a long time to sink in.

Sometimes we celebrate Easter with such repetition and familiarity that I wonder if we fail to imagine what life would be like if it wasn’t true. We have grown up believing that there is a heaven and there is a resurrection for those who believe. It is the central belief in Christianity. Paul sums it up when he says in Corinthians, “If Christ is not arisen then you are still dead in your sins. Your faith is worthless.” If Christ is not risen, then it is all nonsense….

It is not difficult to understand why no one believed the women. At that time, women’s testimony was not even allowed in court, but a more obvious reason was the nature of death. Irreversible. Final. Who argues with those basic facts of life? It made no sense. People don’t come back from the dead…. So why do I believe? I know death. I’ve seen it before. It’s always the same. Why should I believe that Jesus conquered it?

… I have gotten to know God and how he works. Not because I have any deep insights into the divine, but because God wrote a book about himself and that tells me a lot of who he is. And from what I can see, that’s how God works. This is his style. He always works through the slow and difficult. He doesn’t just zap the evil away, but he allows the evil to exist, and then twists it for our good. He doesn’t remove evil, he transforms it. God allowed his Son to die that we might live!… I have gotten to know God in his autobiography, I know he is more than a powerful God but a God of love. I believe that he created me and genuinely wants me to be with him. I believe he created my loved ones too and he wants them in heaven with him too!

… There are two ways to see human history. One as a long list of violence and pain, difficulty and unpleasantness that we experience with Easter being a once-a-year fairy-tale exception—something with a happy ending. Just another Sunday in which we celebrate hopeful thinking that there is a heaven and one day we might be there.

But the other is this. Seeing Easter as the starting point in our lives. If God could conquer death which is irreversible, then just maybe he can take care of me in my life. Just maybe I will shake the hand of Rev. Ed Weiss, my grandfather, once again. Then maybe God can and does do everything he says he does. That’s what the empty grave is all about. Look into it and believe that God can and he does. I believe.

Here is an excerpt from Pastor Spiegelberg’s sermon on Luke 10:25-37 (the Gospel for Proper 10, July 10 this year). He implores his listeners to love the neighbors God placed into their lives:

We are planted with people in our neighborhoods, workplaces, families, schools and the question we have to ask ourselves is, so how do we show God’s love? Here is why neighboring is maybe a bigger question in our world today than ever before. The average American moves more than eleven times in their life. On average, 40 million of us move in any given year. Some of those moves are large. Some are small within cities, but that’s a lot of movement.

Bringing it closer to home, let’s talk about Alabama…. Baldwin County is one of the fastest growing counties in the state at a growth rate of 16% annually…. People move, and with every move, relationships are uprooted. If you are in the military, you know that full well. It takes work to develop new relationships. One of the sad side effects is that the cohesiveness and responsibility we feel toward our neighbors and our communities become fractured….

Notice, the lawyer asked who his neighbor was, and Jesus did not define it as what side of abortion you are on, your political orientation, or your color of skin. He doesn’t say it is people who look like you, who act like you, who talk like you. He doesn’t give us the option to be selective on the who. It is anyone we are planted around and who needs us….

There is no way that he or any of us can walk away saying, “Yeah, Jesus. I nailed that one.” Instead, what he wanted the lawyer to realize, what he wants us to realize is, “Lord, I need a perfect neighbor like that.” See, what Jesus was saying is that we are the man in the ditch that needs someone who recognizes our need. We need someone who is willing to give all for our good. We need to be healed. We need a perfect neighbor. And Christ is the one!…

“Can you name all your neighbors?”

I have just two applications for you this morning as we go from God’s house…. Take your bulletin insert this week and draw your street. Include a little box for all your neighbors. Can you name them all? Maybe you can. If you can’t, commit yourself this summer to figuring out who they are. Go introduce yourself. Bring them some cookies. Mow their lawn. Say hi to them when you drive by. Even the grumpy ones. And get to know your neighbor.

The next step. Give. Be the kind of neighbor you wish you had always had. Put yourselves in their shoes. There are more dispossessed people around us than we realize. God has planted us here at this time to be life where we live. Let’s share the love of Christ. If you want to know what to say, sit in on our Bible class over the next couple of weeks as we explore what to say. But as we live, love locally. Start with the State Farm mentality: Like a good neighbor, be there.

“Learn a lesson from the profound simplicity of Jesus’ sermons.”

One preaching resource (besides the Bible and the Confessions) in your library and why you have found it valuable:

They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching, by Frank Thomas, United Church Press, 1997. When I got to St Lucia, one of my members always gave me a run down on whether my sermon was lively enough for St Lucians. It got me thinking that preaching to fit a cultural setting does make a difference. So, I started reading a couple of books on African-American preaching. Obviously, there are some theological discrepancies with this book, but in a celebratory preaching style, you are drawing a listener to the joy of salvation. You are leaving the listener with something to be joyful about. For a Lutheran pastor, that is an easy goal.

Timeless Reminders

Editor’s note: Each issue of this series will conclude with timeless reminders from the Preach the Word archives. This issue’s reminder comes from Rev. Herbert H. Prahl, who joined the saints triumphant earlier this year. You can read Prahl’s article, “From God’s Word…Through Your Heart…To Their Lives,” in its entirety in Preach the Word 3:5.

Sermon preparation is our top priority. We are entrusted with the task of proclaiming God’s holy Word, not ourselves. God’s people expect and deserve, our best and nothing less….

Don’t put yourself above your hearers or talk down to them. Talk at their level. Don’t get too technical. Learn a lesson from the profound simplicity of Jesus’ sermons. Love your hearers as Jesus loved them. Put your pastoral heart into your message to them….

Good application is probably the number one request of members when it comes to sermons. It might not quite be the way you as the exegete or homiletician view the text, but unless you “connect” with your hearers, they easily tune you out. Their plea is: “Show that you understand us, that you have us on your heart, and that you understand our day-to-day lives when you study the text and write your sermon.” One pastor has taped the words “So What?” in his pulpit, visible to his eyes above his Bible each time he preaches. He uses it as a reminder to keep the law and gospel relevant to his congregation.

Written by Joel Russow

A new series editor: Joel Russow began serving as professor of pastoral theology and systematic theology at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in January of 2022. Prior to that, he served as a parish pastor in Tallahassee, FL.


Thematic groups in the season after Pentecost

“[Jesus’] words establish our faith, transform our hearts and minds, and guide our lives in him. During the Sundays after Pentecost, we gather to let the Holy Spirit do the work Jesus promised he would do in the way Jesus promised he would do it.

“Because the season after Pentecost is quite long, it may be helpful to break these Sundays into thematic groups. The groups and individual themes suggested below seek to pick up on the cues given by the gospel writer Luke.”2

  • June 12-19. Jesus’ words possess Jesus’ power. (Due to the late date of Easter this year, Propers 3-6 are omitted.)
  • June 26-August 14. Jesus’ words focus Jesus’ followers.
  • August 21-October 2. Jesus’ words confront us with challenging truths.
  • October 9-23. Jesus’ words produce the faith he seeks at his return.

1 An occasional topical series apart from the lectionary can be useful. But it is also possible to craft a series from the lectionary. Examples are in The Foundation (welscongregationalservices.net) and in Commentary on the Propers, Year C on which The Foundation is based. See the sidebar.

2 Bauer, Jonathan. Christian Worship: Commentary on the Propers, Year C, 213. NPH 2021. The thematic groups from this book differ slightly from those in The Foundation.


WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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Worship and Outreach – A New Mission Congregation’s Perspective

This issue begins a new series on worship and outreach. The goal is simple: to encourage all congregations to do their very best in both realms. But isn’t it fair to assume that they already are? Doing their best? By some measurements, yes. But it’s also clear that our churches face various challenges. If improvements can be realized, we are likely under God to see greater blessings in both worship and outreach.

So, this series will share perspectives and ideas from a variety of congregations, hoping to inspire ongoing attention to these twin priorities. Of course, a series of articles alone will not provide all the resources needed. This series joins other resources: a new hymnal suite of resources, welscongregationalservices.net, and much more. As part of this emphasis, readers are also encouraged to review materials from the 2010 symposium on worship and outreach: wisluthsem.org/symposium-archives.


When I was young, my dad listened to talk radio. I used to think, “This is so boring! How can anybody listen to this and not fall asleep?” Yet, ironically, I find myself really getting into podcasts, some over an hour long. The ones that I find most useful are those that pull you into a conversation. The podcast hosts are not trying to give you a prescriptive way to do something, but they are giving you the opportunity to be a passive member of a conversation. As the conversation goes on, you are thinking through your own thoughts on the subject matter and how you might apply things in your specific context.

In a similar way, I’d like to pull you into some of the conversations of a new mission church as they thought through worship, how worship would interact with outreach, and how a church could thoughtfully accomplish several things with a worship service. I pray that it may be edifying for you as you think through worship in your context. Certainly, much that follows is descriptive and not prescriptive. (Goes without saying, but I say it anyway.)

Word-Centered Worship

In an introduction to a New York Times Magazine article, Nausicaa Renner wrote, “There’s nothing more persuasive than the obvious. To appeal to it is to ask people to be bigger, better, more noble—to take a sweeping look at the facts, admit what is plain and do the right thing. Tell me with a fixed gaze and an air of confidence that something is obvious. I will be tempted to believe you, if only to join in the clarity and sense of purpose that comes with accepting what is staring me in the face.”1

Now certainly this author was, in no way, speaking about the Church, the Bible, or anything remotely religious. Yet, this quote makes a case for stating the obvious. In the beginning stages of planting a new church, sometimes it feels as if you are consistently stating the obvious. Let me tell you what I mean.

As a new mission church, we gathered together for almost an entire year before we had our first worship service. This was a unique time in the life of our church, but a vital time. We’d gather for meetings that were part Bible study, part mission meeting, and part fellowship. They were an opportunity to have conversations about the ministry that we hoped to carry out in our area.

Although this Core Group (as we called it) was made up of mostly long-time WELS members, these discussions always started with stating the obvious, grounding ourselves in the obvious. And what I mean by that is the obvious truths from Scripture.

Here is an obvious truth that pervaded our conversations: the Word of God needed to hold the center position of our ministry. We wanted to be and needed to be a Word-centered church.

If we truly believe what we do about the Word, why wouldn’t we make it the center? If we believe that faith is created and strengthened through the Word (Rom. 10:17), then it really ought to be the focal point. If we believe that the Word is active and powerful (Heb. 4:12; Rom. 1:16), then it ought to be utilized liberally.

That certainly has many applications in the life of the church, including its application to the worship life of the church. Whether it was the songs, the readings, the responses, or the sermon, they had to be centered on the Word. Word-centered worship will not only reach out with the power of the Spirit to the new guest, but it will also strengthen and prepare the long-time member to reach out with the gospel that is proclaimed and explained among them.

Through Word-centered worship, both in-reach and outreach may be accomplished. The Holy Spirit works through the Word to create faith in the unbeliever who wandered into your church, to restore faith in the de-churched person who came back, or to strengthen faith in the person who has been in church all along.

We wanted people to know from our worship that the Word of God defines this congregation. We don’t just claim the Bible is important in the “About Us” section of our website, but we  actually carry that out in a real, tangible way.

In a survey sent out to our congregation about worship, it was asked, “What do you think a new guest might take away from our worship services?” One member gave an answer and an anecdote from a different WELS congregation, “[The guest] can see that the Bible is a part of the entire service. I met someone at one of our WELS churches a few years ago that had gone through the BIC and became a member at the church because he had come as a visitor and had never had a church that would back up so much of the sermon with the Bible.”

In this case, it is definitely worth stating the obvious: the Word of God needs to hold the center position in our worship.

I was surprised to find some insights about liturgy-based worship.

Liturgy-Based Worship

I preface this aspect of the conversation by saying that some people in our region are familiar with historic liturgy. This region of South Dakota is largely Catholic or Lutheran, so some people who walk into our services are used to having a set order of worship and likely know many of the components, like creeds, Lord’s Prayer, etc. Yet, as I observed our Core Group’s conversations and sought input from people with zero connection to our church, I was surprised at some of their insights about liturgy-based worship.

#1 – Millennials and Gen Z see great value in things that are historic.

Speaking as someone who does own a record player, I was not surprised to find this article title and subtitle in an online culture page: “Why Are Old Things Increasingly Popular with Young People? Vinyl, calligraphy, and vintage are three of a handful of trends that have little place in the tech age, but are enjoying a resurgence nonetheless.”2 Certainly it was not the goal of our church to jump on something because of a trend or a fad, but it was worth considering: why is there a desire to be connected to something old or historic?

What I found in talking with people inside and outside our church is that they see value in being connected to something that is bigger than they are. When it is taught that the historic liturgy that we use “has been shaped throughout 2,000 years of Christian history,”3 there is this sense that we are connected with Christians of the past and that connection is appreciated.

However, as a congregation, we realized that if someone were to walk in our doors and not understand the connection to historic Christianity, then we are failing to provide them with the opportunity to appreciate it. We’ve found small ways to accomplish this with notes included in the bulletins or explanations in the back of the bulletins or we’ll take time during the service to explain something (even if we’ve explained it before).4

From the survey of our members here is one response: “I appreciate the effort to be connected to past generations of Christians while at the same time speaking to challenges/opportunities unique to this century.”

#2 – In a world that is constantly changing, the stability of the liturgy is cherished.

This point is not unrelated to the previous point. The historic aspect of the liturgy communicates stability because it has endured through centuries. For many this is a precious quality. In a tech dominated world, things are changing so quickly. Stability is coveted and seemingly elusive to many people.

Yet it’s not just the historic aspect of the liturgy that communicates stability. The repetition aspect also communicates stability. The lives of your parishioners may have a lot of instability, and they may go through many changes, but there is a stableness to the liturgy that is different from the world around them.

One of our members said, “I like knowing what to expect when I come to worship. When everything else may be out of control, I know that when I come to worship, I’m going to hear the Word and I know how the service will go.”

Jonathan Bauer made a similar point about how worship can offer a respite from the instability of people’s lives, “Rather than engaging people with the gospel using forms that mirror what people find comfortable and familiar, perhaps the real opportunity presented by modern life is to highlight and excel at the features of historic, liturgical worship that offer people a respite from what is comfortable and familiar.”5

#3 – Repetition is beneficial to the new Christian.

Around Easter of 2021, a single-mom and her son visited our worship. She had grown up around church but hadn’t been back for a while. Her son was baptized but had never really attended church.

This single mom (we’ll call her Sandy) took our Bible Information Class and joined the church. Sandy’s son, Michael, who was 15 years old, started taking Catechism classes individually with me. I had the opportunity to talk with him about our worship from his perspective. Here are a couple of his comments:

“I actually really like the repetition that we get at church because even if something is difficult for me the first time, it gets easier the next time. It doesn’t take too much time to catch on.”

“I also like the repetition, because without even trying to memorize it, I feel like I already know the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed.”

We are connected with Christians of the past and that connection is appreciated.

#4 – Participatory worship is beneficial.

Christianity Today released a special pastor’s issue in the early spring of 2022. One of the articles was “As Pastoral Credibility Erodes, How Can We Respond?” The article included several stats including answers to this question: “Would you consider a pastor to be a trustworthy source of wisdom?” This study found that 19% of all adults surveyed say “no,” and on the flip side, only 23% gave a definitive “yes.”6

While you could apply the results of this survey in different ways, here’s one takeaway to consider: If pastoral trustworthiness is eroding, then does it make sense to lengthen the sermon where only the pastor is speaking and as a result shorten the parts of the service that are participatory? The answer would appear to be no. It would seem all the more important to make the Word the center of worship and to get the parishioners involved in the service. We certainly aren’t dismissing the importance of the sermon and its role in the service, but we are encouraged to hear a crowd of voices in worship.

Does it make sense to … shorten the parts of the service that are participatory?

Jim Belcher, author of Deep Church, connected this concept to the universal priesthood of all believers. He wrote (regarding worship), “As priests, we are all required to be involved. There are no spectators. Thus, the liturgy should be as interactive as possible. It is a dialogue between the people and God. God speaks to us through his Word and we respond. Throughout the service, God engages us in the call to worship, multiple Scripture readings, the sermon and the words of blessing, and each time we respond in prayer, song or action. It is dynamic, action-packed, thrilling.”7

In our member survey, one person said this, “There is no dominant personality in the room and therefore none are pushed to the margins. All matter.”

Guest Awareness in Worship

When we first started worship in September of 2020, we didn’t have much happening besides worship. We had a BIC starting soon and one other Bible class, but we had zero programs and no big events on the horizon. So, in a lot of ways, worship was it. It was the focal point. This was what our members were inviting people to come and see.

So, the natural consequence of that was to plan and carry out worship assuming that you will have an unchurched or de-churched guest sitting among the congregation. We always wanted to try to see the Sunday morning experience through their eyes. Were they greeted by a smiling face in the parking lot or at the door? Was someone there to direct them to the coffee or give them a worship folder? We considered questions like that, but we also considered what they would see in the actual worship service.

While granting that someone might not understand some element of the service at first, we wanted to make sure that the service was accessible. One way we do that is by offering two methods of following along with the service, both printed in the worship folder and projected on a screen.8

We have also utilized the worship folder to explain why certain things happen in the service. For example, sometimes we include footnotes to indicate the biblical source for some items (e.g., responses, the Lord’s Prayer, the Gloria or the Sanctus). Other times footnotes explain historical connections (e.g., the Nicene or Apostles’ Creeds).

The worship folder also helps people to focus on the sermon. We encourage people to take notes and include guiding questions that help them follow along. These questions are also used as a devotional resource outside of worship. We have also provided information on the sermon page of the worship folder to aid understanding. For example, on Transfiguration Sunday the sermon referenced the Old and New Covenants and words like condemnation and righteousness. While these were also explained during the sermon, we also provided a concise definition on the sermon page so that no one would feel lost.

“I like when we take time to explain why we do some of the things we do during a service.”

While these measures were specifically meant to target guests, even long-time members have appreciated such resources. One member said, “I like when we take time to explain why we do some of the things we do during a service. I learn new things or am reminded of things I’ve forgotten.” Another said, “I really enjoy the questions to think about in relation to the sermon. It helps me to take notes, which helps me to retain things better.”

Conclusion

What a blessing! What a blessing that we get to wrestle with how best to carry out a service where God gives his gifts to his people! What a blessing that we get to communicate the gospel of free forgiveness to people who need it! Such a blessing and also an important responsibility.

Since it is such an important responsibility, I pray that the worship conversation continues and that we continually strive to bring God’s gifts to his people. Blessings as you administer those gifts, brothers.

By Craig Wilke

Pastor Wilke graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2019 and was assigned to start a new mission in Brandon, SD. In September of 2020, after a year of preparatory work, Sure Foundation launched every-week worship with 75 people in attendance at their first service.


1 Renner, Nausicaa. “How Do You Explain the ‘Obvious?’” The New York Times Magazine. August 21, 2018.
2 Pritchett, August. “Why Are Old Things Increasingly Popular with Young People?” Study Breaks, June 10, 2017. studybreaks.com/culture/past/#:~:text=Theres’s%20a%20loss%20of%20quality,a%20way%20to%20stand%20out.
3 Strey, Johnold J. Christian Worship: God Gives His Gospel Gifts. (Northwestern: Milwaukee, 2021), 82.
4 See “Worship Service Notations – Sharpsburg 2014” at worship.welsrc.net/downloads-worship/worship-education.
5 Bauer, Jonathan. “Worship and Outreach.” Worship the Lord. No. 106, January 2021, 3.
6 Packiam, Glenn. “As Pastoral Credibility Erodes, How Can We Respond?” Christianity Today: CT Pastors Special Issue. Spring 2022, 34-35.
7 Belcher, Jim. Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional (InterVarsity: Downers Grove, 2009), 139.
8 A comment from the editor: If you are not already committed to projecting hymns and liturgy, give careful thought to whether this is really an improvement in your setting or not. Just because Service Builder will export a slide deck doesn’t mean that this is recommended in every situation. See “Projection in Worship” at welscongregationalservices.net/hymnal-intro-presentations, especially the video linked in the final bullet.


 

 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

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Preach the Word – Taking Up the Challenge

Preaching on the First or Second Reading with the Day’s Gospel in Mind

4 – Taking Up the Challenge

Many Cultures, One Lord is Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary’s annual effort to observe the Martin Luther King holiday. I preached at the service in 2015 just as the Black Lives Matter movement was exploding. There is no official Proper for that service so I could choose my text without considering the other readings. I chose Acts 10 and 11 because I felt the early church’s prejudice over against Cornelius and the Gentiles and the Spirit’s response addressed the issue on our campus. I quoted passages from the entire event; the sermon had no formal theme. I concluded with this:

The story of planet earth since the fall is filled with battles between races and cultures and lifestyles. Today our nation stops for a moment to ponder solutions to these conflicts. In the end, only God’s solution works. The encounter with Cornelius was a critical moment in Peter’s life, and it is critical for us as well. As you remember this story, note the struggle in God’s men and note the power of God’s grace. Note the struggle and confess your sins. Note the power and trust the absolution. Right there is the solution for prejudice, there is the key to outreach and evangelism, and there is the path for your life and your ministry.

Four years later, in 2019, I encountered the Peter/Cornelius event again. Acts 11:1-18 is the First Reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter in Year C (May 15 this year). Both this reading and the Second Reading, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, are new to the lectionary. It’s instantly obvious that the Second Reading was selected to match the theme of the Gospel, John 13:31-35.

As I thought about which text to preach on, I hesitated to let the Gospel go since Jesus’ command to love one another is so critical to the Christian life. The Acts 11 reading was intriguing because it addresses the issue of prejudice at a time when this is a contentious issue in our world. So I asked the question: Can I preach on the First Reading with the day’s Gospel in mind? It seemed that Peter’s defense to the Jerusalem congregation was a legitimate application of the principle Jesus set down on the night he was betrayed.

I began with Thursday and set the stage that existed at vs. 35. Then…

And then Jesus said this: A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.

With these words Jesus is giving us our mission and our task for life: Love one another. He invites us to see his love for us and believe his love for us—love so deep that he died for us—and then he invites us to imitate his love as we live for others. Loving one another is the greatest and the grandest and most glorious task that we believers have—and we love because he first loved us.

Easier said than done, right? Knowing Jesus’ command is one thing; we all know it. Doing Jesus’ command is another; we haven’t done what Jesus calls us to do, not nearly as often as we should. We admit it, we confess it, we ask for forgiveness, we try to do better. Sometimes. Maybe most of the time. But if we think a little, we might be willing to admit that there have been times when we aren’t so convinced we need to love one another. We’ve been wounded, slighted, ignored, insulted. Must we love those who did it? We’re better, superior, higher up on the morality chart. Must we love those below us? We’re Christian, conservative, Bible-believing, Lutheran. Must we love those who aren’t?

Those are exactly the questions a lot of first-century believers were asking in the First Reading for today from Acts chapter 11. Their struggle isn’t so different from ours. They knew what Jesus said and so do we: Love One Another! What they wanted to know and we what we want to know is this: Are There Exceptions?

I explained the standard Jewish mind set and concluded:

God commanded his people that they must have nothing to do with Gentiles. Don’t marry them, don’t visit them, don’t eat with them. Bottom line: Stay clear of Gentiles.

Of course, the Jews understood that Gentiles could be saved. The Old Testament was filled with promises that the nations would come to see the light of the gospel. Plenty of Gentiles living in Israel heard Jesus preach and believed his message. The Jewish Christians were happy to accept the Gentile Christians. But here’s where the problem came in. The Jews who followed Jesus were convinced that the Gentiles who followed Jesus had to obey the Old Testament laws. That’s the way it had always been, but it wasn’t going to be that way anymore. God had to set the Jewish Christians straight.

In two lengthy paragraphs I shared the main points of Peter’s explanation in Jerusalem. Then came the application.

This was a big hurdle for the Jewish Christians. They got it right this time, but the struggle didn’t end here. We have our own hurdles with this issue. We all know whom we love. But there are some people we have trouble loving. I love my family, but I have trouble loving my nephew who’s into drugs and punk rock. I love my neighbors, but I have trouble loving the ones who have trash all over their front yards and junk cars in the back yard. How about you? Who are the people you find hard to love, the people you might consider exceptions to Jesus’ command? The co-worker who insulted you or took advantage of you? The relative who abused his wife and made her life miserable? The parent who was always gone and never had time for you or the child who never checks in? The homeless man who won’t work, the black woman who has children with a variety of fathers, the addict who spends his welfare check on booze and pills, the Hispanics who try to enter America illegally? How about the acquaintance who brags that he’s an atheist, your neighbor’s gay son or lesbian daughter, the Catholic or the Baptist or the Mormon you were taught to dislike already when you were young? How about people in Vietnam who long to know Christian truth, the same people who tried to kill you 50 years ago? Yes, yes, yes, love one another, we say, but there have to be exceptions! Jesus says, Love one another—no exceptions.

How can we solve this problem that we all share? We solve it by looking to Jesus. As I have loved you, Jesus said. As I have loved you. The disciples had seen Jesus’ love for three years, love for them and love for others. They were about to see the pinnacle of his love, the love that proclaimed his glory and that brought glory to his Father. I quoted Philippians 2:5-8 …he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Because he did, we have no conscience plagued by sin, no guilt over past mistakes, no weakness facing temptation, no worry about the future, no fear in sickness, no uncertainty at death. He did this all because he loves us.

Don’t look for flowers and candy. We’re not talking about that kind of love. We’re talking about the kind of love Peter had for Cornelius and his household, the kind of love Peter explained to the congregation in Jerusalem, the kind of love that led them to put away their objections, to praise God and say: So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life. So now? Forgive and forget what’s in the past. Understand and sympathize with those who struggle in poverty or sin. Feel compassion and concern for those who have fallen into temptation and error. Open your eyes, open your hearts, and open your wallets to help people longing for the gospel. You can’t show your love to all, but you can show your love to all you can, and you can love them all in Christ—no exceptions!

The sermon I preached on Epiphany 6 was based on 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10, Paul’s struggle with and solution to his thorn in the flesh. In the former Christian Worship lectionary this text concludes a lectio continua from 2 Corinthians (Pentecost 7B, paired with Mark 6:1-6, Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth). So this is a new selection for Epiphany 6C to accompany Luke 6:17-26, Jesus’ words about blessings and woes. I was intrigued by the new selection and wondered about the connection to the day’s Gospel.

I didn’t work alone this time. Before the new CW lectionary was introduced in Advent 2021, I had access to Jonathan Bauer’s Commentary on the Propers Year C. This volume has provided all kinds of interesting insights. (Some of this work is adduced in the Year C Worship Plan from Congregational Services, but the commentary has a wider scope and is wisely purchased.) The commentary doesn’t directly promote the preaching approach I’ve taken in this series of articles, but its efforts to theme the day’s Proper and to demonstrate the connection between the three readings are helpful. For example, comments on 2 Corinthians 12 include this: “Thus Paul had learned the paradoxical principle on which life in Christ’s kingdom operates: strength is found in weakness. Paul knew that as he boasted in that weakness, he was seeking shelter in the tent of Christ’s power” (Commentary, p. 96).

Commentary on the Propers Year C … has provided all kinds of interesting insights.

I had to work at finding connections between the Gospel and the Second Reading. Paul’s thorn seemed to match the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the hated noted in the Gospel: difficult and challenging aspects of life (does Matthew 5 explain Luke 6 more completely?). The strength and power of Christ which rest on Paul and τελεῖται in weakness seemed to match life in the kingdom of God, the satisfaction and joy that come with salvation, and the reward in heaven. Paul’s ability to boast and delight in his weaknesses seemed to reflect the blessedness that believers experience in their upside-down relationship with Christ. I themed the sermon: “Here’s to the Good Life.” I explored two truths: 1) the good life needs to be redefined and 2) the good life needs to be sought.

My introduction offered a few examples of the good life. I went on:

In one way or another we all want a slice of the good life. Good health, money in the bank, a close family—whatever. The slice I want might be different from the slice you want, but whatever makes us happy is the good life we want. Nothing wrong with that, nothing at all. Nothing wrong from God’s perspective, either. Truth is, God provides the good life in many ways. God loves to bless us, and he loves to make us happy.

The trouble comes when the good life doesn’t show up. And the trouble gets worse when the good life is the only life that makes us happy. That’s the problem Jesus was talking about in the Gospel today. Jesus was becoming a sensation in Israel. What he said was powerful and convincing. What he did was amazing; he healed diseases and exorcized demons again and again. People from all over the Holy Land were following him. They all wanted a slice of the good life, just as we do.

Jesus saw the hopeful faces of his followers. He looked into the eager eyes of his new apostles. He knew they wouldn’t find the good life they were hoping for, not if they stayed with him. The cross was coming for him and eventually for them. There would be no beaches, no cruises, and no job of their dreams. There would be suffering and persecution and death. The good life gone, vanished? No, not at all. Just different. And that’s what Jesus taught in today’s Gospel.

St. Paul wasn’t there when Jesus spoke to his followers that day, and he certainly wasn’t one of Jesus’ followers, not then. Decades passed before Paul wrote the words of the Second Reading for today. But what he wrote gives us a concrete example of what Jesus was saying in the Gospel. Despite all his troubles, Paul was enjoying the good life to the max. And so can we. So we’ll listen to Paul this morning, and we’ll all say be able to say: Here’s to the Good Life!

In exposition I summarized Paul’s experience with suffering and examined his thorn in the flesh. I concluded:

Paul certainly realized the good life was probably beyond him, but he was praying at least for a better life, a life that would let him work and sleep and live without this pain or this distraction.

Jesus said no. Paul wrote, But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So the thorn wasn’t going away; no good life, not even a better life. But Jesus didn’t really take the good life away; he just redefined it, he gave it a different meaning. The key to the good life, the key to completeness and contentment and happiness wasn’t to pull out Paul’s thorn but to fill Paul with Christ. The grace that covered Paul’s sins and the power that moved Paul’s ministry was better than being thornless. The Savior’s grace and the Savior’s power—that was the good life. And that’s the good life that Jesus gave to Paul. And so Paul wrote: Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me…

Application came naturally:

Does life disappoint and frustrate and sour us then? Is the joy of living gone? Life doesn’t have to be like that. No way! We still have the good life, but we have to redefine it, we have to explain it as Jesus did in the Gospel. The good life is to live in the kingdom of God where Jesus’ grace forgives our sins and where his power guides our lives. The good life is to be filled and overfilled with Jesus’ love. When Jesus serves us, we’re always satisfied. The good life is to anticipate the laughter of heaven where we’ll grin from ear to ear and giggle in grace forever. With Jesus, we sit back and smile and we say, “Here’s to the good life.” Happy, content, at peace with God. In the Gospel today, Jesus says that people who have this good life are blessed. He said, Blessed are you.

The second point of the sermon was to encourage the faith-filled euphoria Paul felt (I will boast… I delight) when he realized the purpose of his weaknesses. After explaining Paul, I summarized Jesus:

poor—not poverty stricken or destitute but… being hungry—not fasting or starving but… weeping—not with forced tears or fake tears but… insults: People who live in their own good life can’t stand people who live in the good life of Christ.

The conclusion followed:

This good life in Christ—this is the good life we want. If the Lord sees fit to remove our thorns or if he spares us the insults or the difficulties, great. We’ll be happy. But the happiness we really want, that inner joy, that deeper contentment, that lasting peace is a happiness that comes only with the good life in Christ. Only there do we find grace and power. So we seek the good life and we pursue it, and we find it by boasting and delighting in our weaknesses. We confess our sins, we long for forgiveness, we sorrow over our failings, we endure the insults. Like Paul, we live with our thorns—the pain, the humility, the regret, the enemies. But also like Paul, we believe that we are strong when we are weak and Christ’s power rests on us. So here’s to the good life, the good life in Christ.

The new Christian Worship lectionary presents an interesting and intriguing challenge.

The concept of preaching on the First and Second Readings with the day’s Gospel in mind isn’t for every text or every preacher. Gospel texts, of course, and other texts, too, beg for an independent approach. Some preachers love the challenge of finding every sparkling gem in a single text. The new Christian Worship lectionary, however, unlike any lectionary before it, presents an interesting and intriguing challenge: to preach on texts which have been specifically and thoughtfully chosen to match the focus of the day’s Gospel in a way that proclaims the unique truth of the text in light of the words and works of Jesus. I’ve enjoyed the challenge; perhaps you will as well.

 

Written by James Tiefel

Prof. Tiefel, now Pastor Tiefel, serves two small congregations in Mequon, WI, in semi-retirement. Over a 35-year career at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary he taught classes in worship and preaching. As an every-Sunday preacher once again, he is able to combine many of the concepts he taught in the classroom with practical experience.

 


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Sunday of the Passion

An option for worship on Palm Sunday, used by some churches even before the new hymnal, is to read the passion history. Here’s what some brother pastors say about this custom.

Jonathan E. Schroeder (Sharpsburg, GA): We do an opening procession of palms. Then the entire service is dedicated to the responsive passion reading broken up by hymns. We have done this for five years. The benefits are: 1) more congregants hear the passion history, which is not appointed for Sundays in the lectionary, and 2) one less sermon during Holy Week. I was convinced that having a larger percentage of our congregation hear the passion history was important. For many of our members who didn’t attend midweek services, their Sunday worship path took them from waving palm branches to shouting, “Christ is risen!” without seeing the cross in between. Passion Sunday was a completely positive experience. I had worried that the members who attended every midweek service would find such a practice repetitive. I shouldn’t have worried. Those were the folks who commented most often and most positively. I love to tell the story for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest. (CW 746)

Earle Treptow (Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary): We used this option for my last Palm Sunday in Denver. We began with a procession of palms, followed by a shorter sermon on a Palm Sunday text. Then the passion history. I expected that it would be appreciated by those who did not attend the midweek Lenten services. I heard positive feedback from them. They liked the different feel to the service and appreciated how it set the stage for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.

What I didn’t expect was the very positive feedback from those who had attended all the midweek services. They thought it was helpful to hear the passion history in one service instead of piecemeal over several weeks. They also felt it tied the entrance into Jerusalem a little more tightly to why Jesus entered Jerusalem. While I can’t imagine preaching a Palm Sunday sermon without speaking of that, the service made the connection for them powerfully.

The forthcoming Christian Worship: Foundations1 offers the following.

As God’s people arrive at the Sixth Sunday in Lent, their attention is drawn to two sets of related yet contrasting events. The first events are those that took place on the Sunday before Jesus died. On that day, Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey as the crowds covered the road with palm branches and shouted “Hosanna!” Our congregations have long commemorated these joyous events in their celebration of Palm Sunday. Many congregations have incorporated into their Palm Sunday services a re-creation of sorts of that first Palm Sunday procession. Just as the crowds surrounding Jesus on that first Palm Sunday processed into Jerusalem waving palms and singing Jesus’s praises, so God’s people today process into the church sanctuary waving palms and singing Jesus’s praises. Such a procession is a meaningful commemoration and celebration of our Savior’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

But the events of that first Palm Sunday are not the only events that grab the worshiper’s attention on this day. Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem had a purpose far beyond receiving the praise of those who accompanied him. As we sing in one of our Palm Sunday hymns, “Ride on, ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die” (CW 411). On the day on which the people of Israel selected their lambs for the upcoming Passover, Jesus entered Jerusalem as God’s chosen Passover Lamb. In a matter of days, he would pour out his blood to rescue the world from its slavery to sin. Our Lord’s upcoming passion also demands our attention on this day, for it was to suffer and die that he rode into Jerusalem on that donkey.

Since Pope Paul VI’s revision of the Roman calendar in 1969, many Christian churches have combined these two emphases into their worship on the Sixth Sunday in Lent, which also is known as Passion Sunday. Two Gospel readings are in effect appointed for this day. The first is the account of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which is read in connection with the procession at the beginning of the service. The second is the entire passion history as recorded in one of the synoptic Gospels. (John’s history of Jesus’ passion is reserved for Good Friday.) This Gospel is read during the Service of the Word. The juxtaposition of these two readings emphasizes for the worshiper that Palm Sunday led directly to Good Friday. Both days were part of our Savior’s saving work. While their tone could not have been more different, their purpose was the same: the salvation of all people.

The calendar and lectionary included in this hymnal provide options for congregations to observe the Sixth Sunday in Lent as either Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. Full propers for both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday are provided. Congregations are encouraged, however, to incorporate elements of both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday into their worship on the Sixth Sunday in Lent. In many of our congregations, it has been customary to read the history of our Lord’s passion during the midweek Lenten services. Attendance at those services has unfortunately waned over the years. As a result, it has become common for many of our people to proceed through an entire Lenten season without hearing the history of Jesus’s passion in its entirety. Including the reading of the passion history on the Sixth Sunday in Lent helps address that concern.

Celebrating Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday together can easily be done (without significantly lengthening the service) by following the pattern that is used in many other Christian churches. The service begins with the reading of the Palm Sunday Gospel, which leads into the procession with palms. The Service of the Word then takes place, during which the appointed history of Jesus’s passion is read. The reading can be read by multiple readers and can be broken up with interspersed hymn stanzas. The sermon can be shortened to accommodate the longer reading. In this way, God’s people have the opportunity not only to celebrate their Savior’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem but also to see the purpose for which he rode on in such majesty. In lowly pomp he rode on to die.

To assist with planning Passion Sunday, a Service Builder document is available here: builder.christianworship.com/share/cynJfAb6.2 This allows quick customization within the Service Builder program. The same document in RTF format is available here worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/service-folders-palm-sunday/ with two copyrighted hymns omitted. Those with the digital editions of CW93 and CWS can easily insert them. Additional sample Palm/Passion Sunday worship folders plus ideas for using multiple readers for the passion history are available at the second link.

Will your congregation observe Passion Sunday this year? It’s usually best to give longer lead time for planning something new than allowed by the timing of this article, especially if discussion with leaders seems best. So, if not this year, then maybe next. Either way, the rest of this article offers comments from those who have been observing Passion Sunday for a number of years. Names are attached to these comments in case anyone wants to seek further guidance.

Douglas Van Sice (Huntersville, NC): Many people here are either first-generation Christians or come from a non-liturgical church. So, when we first started doing this, almost none of them had seen anything like it. And now, it is one of the best-loved services we do. People like the Palm Procession (processionals don’t happen regularly here due to the odd configuration of our worship space). They like the flow of the service. One person told me last year, “Pastor, I had heard the passion history before. I grew up hearing it at mid-week services. But I had never heard it read all in one sitting like this. Please keep doing this service every year.” Another person (a relatively new Christian) said, “I knew Jesus suffered on the cross, but I didn’t really know everything that led up to it. Thank you for sharing this service and helping me understand it better.”

We do a Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday combination. We begin outside our worship space3 where everyone is handed a palm and a service folder. The service itself begins with the Procession of Palms (dialogue and the Triumphal Entry according to John’s Gospel). After the procession of palms, we move into Passion Sunday. We use the passion history according to the liturgical year we are in. Between each reading, there is a hymn or solo sung.

The benefits are great. Due to limitations put on us by our rental space, we cannot do all five mid-week Lenten services. So, Passion Sunday allows my people to hear the passion history in its entirety. The second benefit is closely related to the first. Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week. Having the entirety of the passion history read on the first day of Holy Week sets the tone for what is coming in the days ahead. While the tone of Passion Sunday retains the celebratory notes of Palm Sunday (“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and singing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor”), it also begins to move us into the quiet of the Upper Room on Holy Thursday and the solemnity of Golgotha on Good Friday.

“Please keep doing this service every year.”

Steven Lange (Louisville, KY): We had been observing the Palm Sunday Procession with Palms before we started observing Passion Sunday in 2015, so our congregation already was used to having a different kind of service on Palm Sunday. This made the transition to Passion Sunday rather easy since it wasn’t hard to connect Palm Sunday with a reading of the history of Jesus’ passion. I have received only positive comments about this from my congregation.

The congregation gathers in the fellowship hall and each participant is given a palm frond. We begin the service there with an opening dialog. We read the Palm Sunday Gospel and then process into the sanctuary while singing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” After the Prayer of the Day, we read the passion history from the Gospel appointed for that year, broken into sections with hymn stanzas interspersed. Then follows a sermon (shorter than usual). We omit the speaking of the Creed on this day. We conclude the service with the Prayer of the Church and celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We are able to keep the service to a little over an hour in length.

This practice gives everyone in our congregation an opportunity to hear the history of Jesus’ passion, regardless of whether they have attended the midweek Lenten services. It seems odd that our people could go through Lent and not hear the history of Jesus’ passion. And for those who did attend the midweek Lenten services and have already heard the passion history, I have heard no complaints from any of them that they did not appreciate hearing it again.

Johnold Strey (Hubertus, WI): We used the Passion Sunday concept for the first time in 2019 and then again in 2021, though modified for ongoing Covid concerns. Our choirs hadn’t resumed rehearsing and singing for worship yet. But that modification might give ideas for churches with fewer musical resources who still want to try the concept.

Our service begins with the Palm Sunday entrance rite. We don’t have people gather outside the nave. Rather, the assembly is seated like usual before the service starts. After the bell peal, I invite the assembly to stand and face the entrance of the nave. We begin with the Palm Sunday rite which includes the reading of the Palm Sunday Gospel. We then process to the hymn “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” with school kids carrying palm branches behind the ministers and making a “lap” around the congregation in some way. After the hymn is the Prayer of the Day and then a Palm Sunday anthem that the school kids sing from the chancel.

We use the Philippians 2 reading. It’s a nice transition from Palm Sunday to Passion Sunday. Then we sing the Palm Sunday Hymn of the Day, “Ride On, Ride On in Majesty.” If it’s a Sunday with the Sacrament, these two items may be omitted for the sake of time.

For the reading of the passion history, we use the appropriate synoptic for the year, broken into about 12 segments. Each segment is followed by a musical response—either 1-2 hymn stanzas by the congregation or a solo or choir anthem. The school kids and adult choir can repeat a Lenten anthem sung earlier in the year, often at midweek Lent services, so they don’t have to learn all new music for this service. For 2021, we relied on soloists. We used several of the old NPH Verse of the Day compositions for Lent as anthems woven into the passion history, along with two unison anthems from the old CPH Morning Star choir books. Most of these solo anthems were Scripture verses. For smaller churches with limited resources, this is a simple and practical approach.

We used four different readers for the passion history, which involves more members in the service.

Presenting the full passion history with anthems and hymns gives it a new dimension—not just listening to the text but pondering it more deeply with contemplative anthems and hymns.

Just as we don’t have enough Christmas services to sing all the great Christmas carols, so also even with midweek Lent services we still don’t have opportunity for all the great Lenten and Passion hymns. But hymn stanzas woven into the passion history help us to get more of those hymns on the lips of the worshipers.

One caveat: If a church uses the Passion Sunday concept, then they probably shouldn’t read the full John 18-19 account on Good Friday. Rather, go with the three appointed readings with the shorter John excerpt for the Gospel. Otherwise, two full Passion readings in the same week might feel redundant.

John Bortulin (Mukwonago, WI): We start with Palm Sunday and move to the passion. Without communion we break up the passion with an appropriate Lenten hymn verse between sections. With communion we read it straight through. The day’s sermon is just a commentary, 8-10 minutes. It comes right after Palm Sunday and before the reading of the passion.

We make a big deal out this Sunday. We do palm branches and get as many SS/LES to sing as we can. It’s a full, festive church, and it sets the scene for what’s coming. Our people enjoy the different flow and the “big picture.” After years of doing this, I can’t imagine this Sunday differently.

Jason Hacker (Waukesha, WI): We’ve observed Sunday of the Passion for six years. The benefit I have sensed is that since only about half of the weekend worshipers attend midweek services, many miss out on hearing the passion. The pastor and worship planners might feel that by Good Friday the passion “horse” has been beaten to death. But it does not seem to be that way to the worshiper. Passion Sunday sets the stage well for the celebration of Holy Week. We begin with the Introduction to Holy Week, the Palm Sunday Gospel, and procession with palms. The sermon is likely based on a Palm Sunday reading, but shorter, more devotional. We celebrate the Sacrament each week of Lent, so it’s always included.


“A Service of the Seven Words from the Cross” is another Service Builder item to note. This is found under Occasional/Seasonal Services. (Unlike the Passion Sunday service, it is available only in Service Builder.) It features the new hymn “The Seven Words” (CW 436) that WELS social media videos are highlighting during Lent. Note that one can access Service Builder content on a free trial basis (but without the ability to export content) at builder.christianworship.com.


1 At the time of writing, this pastor’s manual from the Christian Worship suite is not yet available. Don’t confuse it with “The Foundation,” the website from Congregational Services that delivers content to amplify worship as the foundation of the week and of the congregation’s entire ministry: welscongregationalservices.net.
2 This file illustrates the potential for sharing worship resources within Service Builder but including content from beyond Service Builder.
3 Beginning outside the worship space might be a more viable option in smaller congregations or in warmer climes!


 

 

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Getting to Know the Hymnal Really Well

By Bryan Gerlach (Director, Commission on Worship)

It was an unusual couple that inquired about getting married at the church I served—St. Mark, Citrus Heights, CA, a beautiful newer church large enough for their guest list and conveniently located in suburban Sacramento. Farhad was Iranian. He had left the country for grad school before the 1978 revolution and could not return. Samira was the daughter of an Iranian woman and an American Air Force officer. One reason they picked my church was because she thought she had a Lutheran uncle somewhere in North Dakota.

Farhad was a theist without a religion since he had abandoned Islam. I offered the standard encouragement: we’re eager to serve your spiritual needs not only on your wedding day but also before and after. That appealed to them. They signed up for the Bible Information Class and began attending worship. After they had been in worship two weeks in a row, I offered to meet with them to help them understand the logic and flow of worship. Farhad replied that it wouldn’t be necessary because the service was clear enough.

That reply surprised me. I’m sure that there was much he needed to learn—especially the spiritual truths. But I believed him when he said the logic and flow were clear enough.

While there is benefit in making it effortless to follow liturgical worship, there’s also benefit in helping people get to know the hymnal really well. A little effort toward this goal is a good thing. When I saw comments by Kirk Lahmann in the January Forward in Christ (p. 24), I asked him to expand on his thinking and rationale. If two Iranians could comfortably follow the order of service from the hymnal, longer-term Lutherans can as well.

Of course, many congregations will already have introduced the new hymnal by the time you read this article. Still, there are times when the Burlington strategy might serve such congregations: 1) when introducing a new setting of the communion service, or 2) on occasions when there is such little variety planned for the service (like an alternate psalm from the psalter) that the order of service is followed in a fairly straightforward manner.

If two Iranians could comfortably follow the order of service from the hymnal, longer-term Lutherans can as well.

The viability of worshiping “just from the hymnal” is also a useful reminder for those congregations that do not want to obtain Service Builder. With changes in the copyright and permissions landscape over the last decade, the new hymnal project is not able to provide TIFF files as with CW93 and CWS apart from Service Builder. And it is not legal for someone to create their own graphics by scanning something in the hymnal. See more detailed comments in “Service Builder, personal scans, and copyrights” available under Resources at christianworship.com.

Navigating the Book

By Kirk Lahmann (Pastor at St. John, Burlington, WI)

Late 1993. Time for Sunday morning worship, using the brand-new Christian Worship hymnal. Sing the opening hymn. Now find page 12 for the baptism. When that’s done, flip ahead to page 16 and merge into the Common Service at the “Gloria.” Find the First Lesson (and all the lessons) printed on the back of the simple “bulletin” handout. (Think letter paper, folded into a booklet: front page, pretty picture; back page, Scripture readings; middle pages, church announcements, and maybe hymn numbers.) Next, find Psalm 25 on page 74. Back to the bulletin for the Second Lesson; then return to page 18 for the Alleluias. Now things start to feel a little more familiar for a while, until after the Lord’s Prayer. There’s no Communion, so turn to page 25. But wait, there’s a hymn. Sing that, now turn back to page 25 for the concluding liturgy. Finally, page ahead to the closing hymn.

Confusing? A little like one of those choose-your-own ending books? That’s what it was like when the “new hymnal” came out in 1993.

At 10 years old, it didn’t take me very long to figure out how to navigate the book.

Actually, I didn’t think it was all that hard. At 10 years old, it didn’t take me very long to figure out how to navigate the book. I thought it was exciting for our church to be getting a new hymnal. But I remember some adults complaining about how confusing it was to navigate the book. Most of that was probably just a personal aversion to change. And plenty of people dearly loved the old blue hymnal. (Or was yours black? Or red? Our church had red.)

At almost 40 years old now, I’m young enough to have never led worship as a pastor with The Lutheran Hymnal, but I am old enough to remember the transition to Christian Worship. And I remember it well. Before the service started, my pastors would actually practice using the new hymnal with the congregation. Five minutes before the bells would ring, they would teach worshipers how to find and how to sing the psalm. Or the organist would play through “O Lord, Our Lord” or some other new liturgical music, and the congregation would practice singing it before worship. As a student in our Lutheran elementary school, I remember our teachers helping us learn the new hymnal. My class introduced the new “Magnificat” (pages 57-58) in a children’s Christmas service. In school we often used the general and morning devotions (pages 150-152), as well as the personal prayers (pages 134-139). In catechism class our pastors walked us through the Communion preparation page (page 156).

We learned how to navigate the book. We learned that the hymnal is not just a book of hymns, but a collection of devotional resources. Yes, there were some growing pains, and even some complaints. But we learned how to navigate the book.

Now it’s time to learn how to navigate another new book. With the new Christian Worship recently released, and congregations replacing the old red CWs with the new blue ones, it’s time for pastors to teach worshipers how to utilize all the resources the new hymnal provides, so that, whether in the sanctuary or in the home, we know how to navigate the book.

But how? What’s the best way to learn how to make use of this new resource? Should we just print the entire order of worship in a service folder, like we’ve done for several years? That would keep things simple and would eliminate the need to flip back and forth through the book: from this page, to that hymn, back to this page. And should we keep printing all the hymns in the service folder, as our church has done since COVID started? That would basically eliminate the use of the hymnal in worship altogether. And if we don’t even use the hymnal for worship, then why spend $12,000 to stock the sanctuary with almost 500 books? And, most importantly, how will we ever learn how to navigate the book?

Certainly there are lots of good ways to introduce the new Christian Worship hymnal to WELS worshipers. But here’s what my congregation is planning to do, with the goal of learning how to navigate the book.

Instead of printing full service folders, we will produce a simple worship outline. This outline will include the focus for the day, page references for the order of service, Scripture readings printed in full, and hymn numbers. It will be a simple, double-sided worship card, printed on cardstock, that will double as a bookmark, so that when you flip from the order of service to a hymn or psalm, you don’t lose your place. Instead of a large service folder being the primary worship guide with the hymnal as only an assistant, now the hymnal will once again be the primary worship guide, and the worship card will be the assistant.

… so that, whether in the sanctuary or in the home, we know how to navigate the book.

There are, admittedly, down sides to this approach. Full service folders are awfully convenient! And they weigh less in frail hands. And they are customizable. And it sounds like there are many digital resources in the Service Builder app, like additional service settings and many psalm settings from the new psalter, that we won’t be able to use when we print these worship cards.

But the main advantage to producing a simple worship outline, rather than using a full service folder, is this: we will learn how to navigate the book. We will hold the hymnal in our hands as we sing the opening hymn. Together we will turn to page 154 and walk through Setting One of The Service. The Scriptures will be right in front of us on the worship card. After the First Reading we will bookmark page 160, then flip back a few pages to the Psalm of the Day, then easily return for the Gospel Acclamation. Bookmarking will continue for the rest of the service’s hymns. And we will learn how to navigate the book.

We will be patient with one another as we learn the new book. The pastors will give more thorough explanations on which page to turn to next and will give people more time to get there. Maybe before (or during) worship, we will practice singing a new psalm or liturgical music setting. We will listen carefully and follow along with the notes in the hymnal as the organist plays (or the choir sings) the melody before we join to sing. But we will learn how to navigate the book.

We will give copies of the new hymnal to the children in our Lutheran school—many of whom have only ever known service folders for worship—and their teachers will help them learn the book. Maybe the students will sing the new “Magnificat” (page 219) for a children’s Christmas service. Maybe the teachers will lead their students in the Daily Devotions (pages 236-243) throughout the school day. In catechism class the pastors will direct their students to the Christian Questions (pages 295-296), walk them through the church year, and explain the lectionary (pages VII-XXVIII). And they will learn how to navigate the book.

And there may be some growing pains, even complaints. Change is hard, and many people have come to dearly love the red Christian Worship. The new hymnal is new to all of us, and it will take some time to get used to it. So we want to learn it together. We want to page through it together, follow the liturgy from it together, sing the hymns and the psalms from it together. We want to learn how to navigate the book.

For now, it’s time to embrace the wealth of devotional resources that the hardcover hymnal offers.

And we won’t use those worship cards forever. I’m sure we will return to printed service folders eventually. We don’t want to miss out on all the digital psalm settings from the psalter and the additional service settings that Service Builder offers. But we can grow into those over time. For now, it’s time to embrace the wealth of devotional resources that the hardcover hymnal offers. It’s time to teach our young children, our newer members, and our seasoned parishioners how to follow the liturgy in the hymnal. It’s time to learn how to use the new Christian Worship in our homes and in our public worship. It’s time to learn how to navigate the book.

Comfortably introducing new material

In the weeks when this article was being drafted and edited, a new hymn was sung for the first time. The accompaniment didn’t make it clear when to start. There was no soloist for stanza 1. An instrumental descant made it even more difficult for the non-music-reader to discern the melody. It went okay, but it could have gone even better.

A good principle to follow is not “What can I get away with?” but “How many people can I bring along?” Even in a congregation with higher-than-average musical literacy (more people can quickly learn a new tune), it’s best to use a soloist or choir on “stanzas one and three” or when first introducing a new liturgical canticle. Our concern is not only for the fast learners but also for those less able to enjoy their first exposure to something new.

The more we can diminish discomfort, the more every worshiper can concentrate on worship and benefit from the new music and the message proclaimed by new texts.

Pastor Adam Mueller, chair of the hymnal introduction committee comments: “Don’t eat the elephant in one bite, introduce carefully and with patience, use choirs and soloists, preview a new hymn in Bible class where you can also highlight some great thoughts in the text. Our excitement over shiny new materials needs to be tempered by pastoral concern for the person in the pew. We want to minimize frustrating people or leaving them behind.”

The Year C Planner was provided with careful pacing in mind, calling attention to hymns or canticles that benefit from extra introductory effort. It’s available at welscongregationalservices.net/the-foundation.

Avoiding a generic tempo

What is a generic tempo? Stated a bit simplistically, it’s treating quarter notes in every hymn as if they should be played at the same pace. But the pulse of a short common meter English hymn tune like ST. ANNE (820) is much slower than a 17th century German chorale like its neighbor, VALET WILL ICH DIR GEBEN (819). Their half notes are at 45 and 55 respectively.

This problem of singing some tunes too fast has been exacerbated by the idea that a hymn will be more appealing if played faster—more upbeat. It depends. Often the affect isn’t more upbeat but rather rushed or flippant. Hymn singing has been helped in this regard by modern hymn writers. While many modern hymns have an upbeat tempo, some have a slow and meditative tempo: “The Power of the Cross” (423), “Jesus, Ever-Abiding Friend” (536), “Lord, Have Mercy” (652), “Beneath the Cross” (710), “My Worth Is Not in What I Own” (753), “All Is Well” (802), “Now Calm Your Heart” (851). All of these might risk being played too fast without knowing the song or consulting the tempo indication. The same is true for the “Agnus Dei” in both Setting Two and Setting Three.

Organists and pianists can gain a sense of the intended tempo from two sources.

  1. The accompaniment editions for services, hymns, and psalms include metronome markings. Use them! While it is true that a personal preference for a different tempo might be musically legitimate, it’s also good to follow the composer’s intent or a tempo that is somewhat standard.
  2. Recorded examples can help musicians to become comfortable with the intended tempo. Many are available on YouTube. Recordings of the main songs from The Service, Setting Three are posted at welscongregationalservices.net/hymnal-introduction-resources.

Recorded examples can also help pastors who desire help with singing the “Kyrie” and Preface. See the following from Grace Milwaukee’s YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/c/gracedowntownorg/featured. Find “Worship Services” halfway down the page under “Created Playlists.”

  • Setting Two, Nov. 28: “Kyrie” at 22:15, Preface at 58:30.
  • Setting Three, Oct. 24: “Kyrie” at 16:30, Preface at 59:15.
Out of the Book

By Jon Zabell (Pastor at St. Paul, Green Bay, WI and chair of hymnal committee)

We began introducing the new hymnal on the first Sunday of Advent, 2021. It made our job of introduction easier to make use of our synod’s suggested plan and introductory scripts for worship. Our usual practice at St. Paul is to print the whole service out in the bulletin each week except for the hymns and psalm. But we decided that for introductory purposes we would invite worshipers to follow the order of service out of the book, just for the first few weeks. Since it’s a new hymnal, we wanted people paging through it, becoming familiar with everything between the covers. And it was a tangible way to demonstrate that we’re connected. Bulletins vary from congregation to congregation, but the same new hymnal is being introduced around the synod.

How did it go? Judging by the volume of congregational speaking and singing, people followed along just fine. It helped that we used Setting One of The Service for four weeks in a row. Most of the music from that setting is a known quantity from The Common Service. Worshiping out of the book did mean a few minutes more preparation for the presider. Each week I needed to have my pages marked and ready ahead of time, and I tried to anticipate where people who were accustomed to having everything laid out for them might need a brief verbal cue, especially when moving from first reading to psalm and back to second reading. After the services, a number of people expressed their appreciation for the new book—its look, its pagination system, its content—the book they’d all been paging through together, from invocation through blessing. More important is what we were able to do together that is anything but new. Sins were confessed, the gospel was proclaimed, and prayers were offered in the name of Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

A number of people expressed their appreciation for the new book they’d all been paging through together.

 

By Bryan Gerlach

Pastor Gerlach is Director of the Commission on Worship and a member of the WELS Hymnal Project Executive Committee and Hymnal Introduction Committee. He previously served churches in El Paso, TX and Citrus Hts, CA. He enjoys introducing new hymnal content from the organ bench in two Milwaukee-area churches.


 

 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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Preach the Word – Preparing the Sermon

Preaching on the First or Second Reading with the Day’s Gospel in Mind

3 – Preparing the Sermon

When my dad died in 2008, I decided to contact the four congregations he had served during his ministry. I asked the local pastors if they might announce his passing in case someone remembered. At least one did. A member in her 90s walked out of church and told her pastor, “I remember Pastor Tiefel’s first sermon.” The young pastor was eager to know what she remembered. “I don’t remember much of anything,” she said, “except the text. He preached on the draught of fishes.” I’ve retold that story many times over the years and invariably end the same way: That’s the highest compliment a pastor can receive.

“Preach the text” is the imperative the homiletics professor lays before student preachers—and then obligates them to do it in class sermons. The sermon, as we learned it and as we teach it, exposits a text, it explains and applies a passage of Scripture. On the basis of that exposition, the sermon proposes a truth. The sermon can take on a variety of forms—didactic, inductive, homily, narrative, or expositional1—but the best Lutheran preaching in all cases exposits a text and proposes a truth as it proclaims law and gospel.

Is the writer backing away from this “preach the text” allegiance?

Those who have read the first two articles in this series may have wondered if the writer is backing away from this “preach the text” allegiance. If the preacher preaches on the First or Second Reading with the day’s Gospel in mind, does the new imperative actually become “preach the texts”? Does the preacher end up preaching on two texts instead of one? Does such a sermon compromise the unique setting and message of the alternate reading?

Those are legitimate questions, especially when asked by men with our homiletical training and exegetical sensitivities. Rest easy. The preacher who takes on this idea must still preach the text. He lets the text say what the Spirit wants it to say and does not manipulate the Spirit’s intention. He preaches the text in its historical context and allows the text’s proposal to guide the sermon. The goal of this kind of preaching is to maintain textual independence even as we understand the preeminence of the day’s Gospel and the inter-dependency of the Sunday Proper.

At the same time we realize that preaching styles are not static. We preach the same truths (often based on the same texts) our grandfathers preached, but we preach them in different ways. Sermons today are less oratorical and more conversational. They often contain inductive approaches even if they announce a theme and several parts. Our fathers would not have dreamed of leaving the pulpit to preach (nor would some of their sons), but this is common in our circles. As someone who has observed the evolution of the lectionary and its propers over the span of almost 50 years, I sense the Christian Worship resources provide an excellent opportunity to place both the chosen text and the day’s Gospel in clear view in the sermon.

The preacher can expect that this approach takes a little additional work and time. Following are some steps which can make the effort manageable and rewarding. Illustrations are based on the Proper for Advent 4C scheduled for December 19, 2021.

Choose the Text

Preachers select their sermon text in a variety of ways. Some follow a specific pattern; some simply choose the text they want to preach on. I belong to the latter group, but there is a reason for my choice. During this past Advent season I had preached on three Luke texts in a row; it seemed time for a prophetic or epistle text on Advent 4. I copied the Prayer of the Day and the three readings and spent some time reading and thinking about them: Micah 5:2-5a, Hebrews 10:5-10, and Luke 1:39-55. A phrase in the Prayer of the Day caught my eye: “Take away the burden of our sins” and that phrase made me look more carefully at the Hebrews reading. I had never preached on that text before and preaching on Hebrews on Advent 4 seemed intriguing.

Veteran preachers who have preached through the ILCW/CW lectionary will notice many new texts in the new lectionary especially during the Epiphany and Pentecost seasons. While the Gospel selections remain very much the same, the First and Second Readings are often new.

Begin with the Gospel

I begin with a study of the day’s Gospel, obviously if that’s my chosen text but also if I’ve decided to preach on one of the other readings. I know these Gospels pretty well, but a new look is important. In our new resources the Gospel invariably guides the theme or focus for the day and sets the course for the rest of the Proper.

The Gospel for Advent 4 in Year C is Luke 1:39-55 and relates two themes: Elizabeth’s reaction to Mary’s pregnancy (the Visitation) and Mary’s Magnificat. Neither Luke 1:39-45 nor Luke 1:46-55 appeared in the historic series nor in CW’s One Year Series. The Roman Lectionary selected the Visitation but not the Magnificat for Advent 4. The ILCW lectionary selected both accounts for the Gospel reading on Advent 4C but placed 46-55 in parentheses suggesting it to be optional. All the other Lutheran lectionaries since then follow that pattern. Only the Christian Worship resources, past and present, select the entire pericope for Advent 4. I’m glad both sections are there.

The Song of Mary can’t be ignored, of course. It’s one of the four great Lukan Christmas canticles. It puts into picture language the work of Christ and includes Mary’s wonderful confession, “My spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.”

The proposal of the text might be: Two believing women, both chosen for their mothering roles by the Lord, confess the blessings of the coming King.

With a solid understanding of the day’s Gospel, the preacher moves ahead to his text.

Study the Text

It’s not necessary to review all the points of a Hebrews 10 text study here; a few points are enough. The proposal of the text is that Christ identifies himself as the perfect sacrifice for sin and as the one pointed to by the Old Testament temple sacrifices. It was important to notice vv. 1-4 and especially v. 4: “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” If not the blood of bulls and goats, then what will take away sins?

The answer is in the text. In vv. 5-7 the writer places the words of David in Psalm 40 into the mouth of Christ. In vv. 8-10 the writer comments on the words of Christ. In both sections we note the truth that God does not accept the temple sacrifices as the final payment for sin. Christ through David makes three points concerning what does serve as the final payment for sin:

The body you have given me

My status as the one chosen and promised one (written about in the scroll)

I have come to do your will, my God

The writer’s comments review the statements of Christ and then he concludes: “By that will we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

What is striking here is the Savior’s coming to do God’s will by sacrificing his body cannot be limited to the Incarnation. His work is completed at the cross. I wondered how I could get Good Friday into a sermon preached six days before Christmas!

Observe the Points of Comparison

With both the Gospel and the Second Reading in front of me, I began to look for links and comparisons.

The most obvious was that Mary was carrying the body to be sacrificed. Another was that both Mary and Elizabeth were aware of the will of God and of the child’s place in the Old Testament Scriptures. The third was that both women understood this child to be bringing relief from sin and shame. I was not sure, however, that either woman understood at this point that the birth and body they were rejoicing in would eventually end up in a bloody death on a cruel cross. Finally, I considered that I could hardly overlook the Magnificat in this sermon.

It all happened, not just with a baby’s cry in a manger but with the Savior’s cry from the cross: It is finished.

Create the Structure and Write the Sermon

I decided to lead off with Mary and focus on the little body that was alive and growing inside her. I made the point that the incarnation needed to lead to the crucifixion. The theme is “Sing Your Christmas Carols at the Cross.”

You can’t ask a man what it’s like to be pregnant. He can tell you what his wife tells him about being pregnant, but that’s not the same. So I can’t tell you what Mary was thinking or feeling those first weeks after Gabriel’s visit. It seems like she needed to talk. The Gospel for today tells us that she went to see Elizabeth. It seems to have been a good choice. Elizabeth was an older relative, probably a confidant, and the news was that Elizabeth was pregnant too. So Mary headed south a hundred miles to spend time with Elizabeth. Was she more tired than usual? Did she have morning sickness? Feel a heartbeat? Was she showing? We don’t know. We do know this: This baby inside her was her baby, but he was also God’s baby, God’s Son. So we can be pretty sure that this baby was the center of Mary’s world.

Right now, this baby is the center of our world too. We’re six days from Christmas and Christmas is about a baby. Page through the Christmas hymns in the hymnal, new one or old one. The baby is everywhere. Look at the manger scenes in churches; the baby is always in the middle. You come to church on Christmas Eve and the focus is on a baby lying in a manger. This is the way it needs to be. We need to remember who the baby Jesus is. At the instant of his conception in Mary’s womb this baby already was God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. And from exactly the same instant he was also truly and fully human. On Christmas Day St. John will remind us that the divine Word became flesh—incarnate: in the flesh—and made his dwelling among us. And that’s why this baby is the center of Christmas.

So Mary went to see Elizabeth and sang a song about her baby. We call it the Magnificat, a word that means to magnify or to glorify. Mary sang, My soul glorifies the Lord. But she didn’t stop there; she kept singing, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. To Mary, there was more here than a pregnancy, more than a birth, more than a baby. Mary understood that the incarnation wouldn’t end in Bethlehem. In her body Mary felt a baby; with her faith Mary saw a Savior. And that’s why this baby was the center of her world. And that’s why this baby is also the center of our faith.

Just like Mary, we sing Christmas songs at this time of the year and we all have our favorites. The Second Reading for today, from the letter to the Hebrews, reminds us that there is more to Christmas than the birth of a baby. We are all looking ahead to Christmas today, but we also need to look beyond Christmas. So I say:

“Sing Your Christmas Carols at the Cross.”

The first part of the sermon was a pretty standard exposition of the Hebrews text. I explained the context of the letter, the problems which caused the author to write it, and the remedy to the problem he put forward. I explained the text verse by verse. I concluded: Whether you’re an Old Testament believer or a New Testament believer, obeying God’s law never solves the problem of sin. Obedience can’t earn you forgiveness. Neither animal sacrifices nor personal sacrifices ever get rid of hell.

So what did get rid of sin and hell? Christ speaking through David again: A body you prepared for me. That’s what would do it. So here’s the baby Jesus! The Son of God who was in the beginning, who was with God, who was God, this divine being wrapped himself in a human body: First a fertilized egg, then an embryo, then blood and veins and bones and skin. Then emotions and intelligence, then the sense of pleasure and pain. This is the baby born in Bethlehem. This is the incarnation: God took on flesh and blood. God became a baby. And his parents named him Jesus.

But he didn’t stay a baby or a boy or teenager. Then I said—Christ speaking again—Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll. The Old Testament scrolls were filled with promises that a Messiah would come from God. This boy named Jesus was God’s choice. Then I said, I have come to do your will, my God. The writer repeats this to make the point: Then he said, Here I am. I have come to do your will.

I explained that the will of God is to save the world from sin. I said, The Son of God took on a body to do what God willed and what God wanted. I detailed the need for Jesus to be a human being and then repeated the point: Jesus did what God wanted; he carried out God’s will. And so his incarnation led to his crucifixion. And now the writer concludes: And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Application followed. This body came for each of you sitting in these pews. This body for each child, each grandchild, each neighbor, each friend. This body stood in place of all bodies everywhere on the globe. Holy? Yes, holy! Your sins cleansed, your slate clean, your guilt abolished, your condemnation dismissed, the devil defeated, and his hell destroyed. Holy? Yes, holy! Your prayers heard, your sadness lifted, your sickness explained, your lives empowered, your future secure, your heaven guaranteed. And all because the Son of God became a baby in a body. And now you know why Mary sang: My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

When Mary went to visit Elizabeth, she didn’t know the details. She couldn’t have foreseen the shepherds at the stable or the gifts of the magi. She probably wondered what old Simeon meant when he told her that a sword would pierce her soul. She couldn’t have imagined a crucifixion; she couldn’t have handled the thought of seeing her baby die. But she certainly saw the victory. And so Mary sang with a mother’s heart, but she also sang with a believer’s heart. (Here I quoted vv. 50-54.) The baby she was carrying would be the central figure of history and what he would do would be the turning of history. Nothing would ever be the same. And it all happened, not just with a baby’s cry in a manger but with the Savior’s cry from the cross: It is finished.

And that’s why we sing our Christmas carols at the cross. The crucifixion comes along with the incarnation. The Son of God took on a human body to become the Savior of the world. And so, he took away your sins, too. The man who wrote to the Hebrews had to remind them of this. And he needs to remind us, too. So when we sing sweet carols like “Away in a Manger” or “Silent Night” or “Angels We Have Heard on High,” we must see the whole story. We must look beyond the ox and the ass and the swaddling clothes; we must see the cross and the nails and crown of thorns. We must see the life he lived for us and the death he died for us. And then we will see what Mary is seeing now: Her son as the risen and reigning Savior who hears her sing with all the saints and angels of heaven. And those songs sound forever.

If the reader is interested in trying this concept, look ahead to the Proper for Easter 5 in Year C. The sermon is based on Acts 11:1-18. The Gospel for that day is John 13:31-34. That’s the Proper I’ll be writing about in the next article of this series.

 

Written by James Tiefel

Prof. Tiefel, now Pastor Tiefel, serves two small congregations in Mequon, WI, in semi-retirement. Over a 35-year career at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary he taught classes in worship and preaching. As an every-Sunday preacher once again, he is able to combine many of the concepts he taught in the classroom with practical experience.


1 Expositional preaching, as I use the term in this group of preaching styles, has a more specific definition than I use in this paragraph. It is popular among conservative Evangelicals whose worship patterns do not include the guidance of the church year, the Proper, and the lectionary. The usual approach is to take a longer section of Scripture (perhaps even an entire book in a series of sermons) and work through it verse by verse as one might in a Bible class. Expositional preaching certainly can exposit a text and propose a theme. How well it fits in the liturgical rite is another question. I did not add topical preaching to my list. While it may propose a truth, it does not exposit a text.

 


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