Despite a (hopefully undeserved) reputation as the lowest of low church, pseudo-baptistical despisers of Anglican forms, plenty of evangelical Anglicans minister and preach in services shaped by a prayer book, even following a lectionary. In this paper first presented at the Preaching Seminars, run by EFAC Canberra and Goulburn, David McLennan shares some ways to preach effectively in this context.
"You might need to put up with it for a while, just to keep the 8 o’clock congregation onside. But obviously your ultimate goal should be to replace a liturgical service with something more contemporary."
If you’ve been in evangelical circles for a while, you’ve almost certainly heard some version of this conventional ministry wisdom. Hostility to liturgical forms has become one of the curious hallmarks of Australian evangelicalism.
And it’s a hallmark I’ve personally come to reject. As an Anglican minister who has benefited enormously from the likes of J.I. Packer, Charles Simeon and Thomas Cranmer (not to mention the church fathers); as a Christian who needs both word and sacrament, and as a person who is more than just a rational mind, I’ve come to see the Anglican prayer book tradition as a great ally to gospel ministry. It is theologically rich, pastorally wise and even, in our particular cultural moment, missionally powerful.
But what happens when an evangelical, nurtured in a sub-culture that has an allergic response to anything resembling a formal liturgy, finds themselves ministering in a more recognizably Anglican context? In particular, how might this new context impact their preaching?
For as any preacher knows, context is key. No homiletical approach is well suited to every context. My own sense is that evangelicals need to be very careful about assuming the preaching model they learned in their liturgically-sparse homeland can be transplanted into any context.
Because even if I’m right that an Anglican prayer book service is a good thing—a gospel-centred, orthodoxy-preserving and pedagogically effective thing—it is still a particular kind of thing. It makes sense that a prayer book preacher should consider not only the context of the passage on which the sermon is based, but also the context of the sermon itself.
For the best part of a decade, I’ve been worshipping and ministering in Anglican churches with a more liturgical bent, and now I find myself as rector of a parish with a strong prayer book identity. I’ve come to appreciate how the gospel shape of a prayer book service supports the gospel content we seek to proclaim. But it does require the cultivation of particular homiletical skills which are not always part of the evangelical’s toolbox. So here are four lessons I’ve been learning (usually the hard way) about what works—and doesn’t— in settings like this.
1. Small is beautiful
Part of the beauty of the Prayer Book is that the typical Sunday service includes a lot: up to four scripture readings, a creed, various prayers, a confession and absolution, Holy Communion, notices, some songs, and maybe a children’s spot.
This is a lot of content, and time can easily blow out. This is really not the place for a 40-minute sermon. Nor a 30-minute sermon. Nor a 25-minute sermon. Personally, I think 20 minutes is the absolute upper limit, 15 minutes is a far better goal, and even 12 minutes is not necessarily something to feel guilty about.
The mantra ‘sermonettes produce Christianettes!’ is likely to be deployed in response to such a claim, and there is much truth in it. But this can overlook two important things: firstly, that the Sunday sermon should not be expected to carry the entire burden of the church’s teaching ministry; and secondly, that many a ‘sermonette’ has lasted 30 minutes or more.
Length alone is a poor way to measure the seriousness of a sermon. If a sermon is superficial and unfocussed, lacks biblical insight and human empathy and is meandering and insensitive, more time won’t save it. It will just enhance its power to make the congregation dislike you more.
By contrast, I believe that reducing sermon length while maintaining impact is very possible. The real obstacle to shorter sermons is that they are very difficult and time-consuming for the preacher. They require more, not less, preparation.
I am suggesting that part of the burden we should carry in our preaching ministry is the burden of giving our sermons a very thorough edit: forcing ourselves to ruthlessly cut all that is not necessary for edification; focusing like a laser on one main point, and avoiding tangents. (Because economy of words is so important, I find a full text helps me to avoid wasting time searching for the right phrase, or repeating myself unnecessarily.)
Much of this is good practice anyway, but it also means that when the sermon ends, people may feel sad it is over, rather than sad it took so long.
2. Use the liturgy
Preachers are always on the lookout for examples that can make their point come alive to the hearer. One of the benefits of a prayer book service is that the sermon is nestled within a gathering that is full of such examples: words and actions that pull in the same direction as the preached word.
So, when looking for illustrations it’s a good idea to consider the phrases and moments that are regularly (but not, always thoughtfully) repeated. For example, when preaching on our relationships with one another, why not use the greeting of peace to press the point home?
When preaching on the ascension, why not refer to the words in the thanksgiving prayer: ‘Lift up your hearts!’ When preaching about the centrality of the gospel, why not explain why we stand during the gospel reading?
And then of course there is Holy Communion. Is there be a better way to preach our dependence on Christ than to remind our people that we shall soon be nourished by him in the Lord’s Supper? Is there a better way to speak of the Jesus’ sacrifice than to remind them of the solemn night when he broke bread with his friends? Is there any physical act that provides a better experience of the gospel than coming forward with empty hands, and finding in Jesus’ death and sacrifice the sustenance we need? Maybe there is, but I can’t think of it.
When these liturgical or sacramental moments are integrated into our teaching, it can liberate them from the sphere of ‘mere habit’ to become discipleship tools that will continue to work years into the future.
3. The church year and lectionary are your friends
Most prayer book churches also preach according to the lectionary and observe the seasons of the church year. These are additional ways that the gospel story can be brought to the people year after year. Theologian Scott McKnight says that the church year:
‘is all about the Story of Jesus, and I know of nothing – other than the regular soaking in the Bible – that can ‘gospelize’ our life more than the church calendar … Anyone who is half aware of the church calendar … will be exposed every year to the whole gospel.’ 1
In this context it makes sense to locate the day’s preaching emphasis with at least one eye on the bigger story that is being narrated each year.
Similarly, the lectionary, when used well, can be a great ally. While it’s often said that sequential preaching through a book helps the preacher avoid hobby horses, my own observation is that no method guarantees this. It is disturbingly easy to preach through book after book and barely touch on the doctrines of the Trinity, or the two natures of Christ, or the virgin birth, or the sacraments – or many other things which our forebears thought essential for the Christian to understand.
While the lectionary is not a foolproof device, if used well (not slavishly and inflexibly) it provides scope for covering, each year, the great doctrines of the Christian life, while at the same time walking us through the life of Christ. And it still provides considerable freedom to preach through books – the pattern with which many evangelicals are more familiar.
Informed use is the key. For example, the seasons of Advent–Pentecost are ideally suited to more theological preaching, centred around the gospel reading. The Sundays after Pentecost are a good chance to return to sermon series through particular books. (For more guidance on wise use of the lectionary, see O’Day and Hackett, ‘Preaching through the Revised Common Lectionary’, Abingdon Press, 2007.)
It is also good to find ways to unify, as far as possible, the different texts – up to four – that are read during the service. Tim Keller insists that each text has a ‘surplus of meanings’. So it makes sense to allow the church calendar and lectionary to bias our exegetical focus, so that the readings work in harmony with each other rather than at seeming disconnected.
The person who believes in the self-authenticating quality of Scripture will not feel compelled to explain every passage in detail. But where possible, passing reference to the various readings of the day helps demonstrate how Scripture’s many different voices all testify in unison to the same bigger story.
4. Jesus (not the text) is the hero
Much evangelical preaching tenaciously clings to a single text, so that the structure of the text determines the structure of the sermon itself. While a good method in some contexts, this isn’t usually well-suited to a prayer book service due to the shortage of time and the abundance of Scripture readings. It’s worth remembering that the task of the sermon is to edify - not simply to explain a particular text. In the end, it’s more important that our people are gripped by the hope proclaimed in Romans 8, than that they understand the structure and word choices used in Romans 8.
The best prayer book preaching, therefore, shows the sort of freedom we find in the apostolic preaching in Acts, i.e. preaching which regards the text as authoritative, but does not get bogged down in historical-grammatical exegesis or a desire to explain the text in detail. Other contexts (e.g. the Bible study group) are better suited for that. In the sermon, it’s best to keep the main thing the main thing. The main thing is always centred on Christ and his saving work, and my advice is unapologetically to lift people above the weeds of detailed exegesis, and show them the wider theological landscape to which the text refers. It may feel a bit naughty the first time you do it, but it’s worth persevering.
Besides being an expectation of Anglican clergy, our Anglican liturgical forms are a great gift to the gospel preacher when used thoughtfully. But they also require us to be reflective and open to re-evaluating how we think about ministry—including the preaching ministry. This can lead to the discovery that, when word and sacrament operate alongside each other, the minds and hearts of our people are saturated in the gospel in a more holistic way. And who knows? This saturating process might have the added advantage of drowning a few unnecessary evangelical shibboleths about liturgy. Your 8 o’clock congregation will thank you.
1. Scott McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel (Zondervan, 2011) p.155