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July 1974 · Vol. 3 No. 2 · pp. 224–26 

The Preaching Lab

John Regehr

A. Worship is Dialogue

Let me say again that the sermon is only one part of the worship service. To be sure, a very important part.

The designation “worship service” already indicates that there is to be more than preaching. To worship is to ascribe worth to one who is worthy. This can be done in word, or in the bringing of sacrifice, or in any of a variety of symbolic actions.

Ascribing worth (worship) and listening to one who is worthy (preaching) produces a dialogical experience. We tell God what it is about him that thrills us, i.e., we praise God and offer thanks. On the other hand, God has something to say to us. To lead in worship means to be able to make the gathered community aware of, and participate in, this dialogue.

B. A word of caution for the impatient

In the last article I made a bold statement: “Most church leaders assume that churches will resist change. I believe this to be a false assumption.” My recent experience would lead me to say this somewhat less boldly.

The entire question of change and stability is a difficult one for the church. There are subtle ways in which we allow the world to shape our thinking, even to shift our premise, especially in matters of great significance (e.g., pulling children away from the home in order to teach them; shunting senior citizens onto an inactive siding in some lovely rest home, etc.). Yet in matters of small change designed to heighten our appreciation for that which is unchanging, we offer bull-dog resistance.

Therefore, let me urge again that outward changes in the pattern of the worship service must be designed to illuminate the truths, to deepen personal involvement, to heighten our awareness of God, and to realize personal commitment to God and change of life to fit God’s pattern.

Furthermore, any changes we suggest must be explained carefully, so that our people see the purpose and allow themselves to be led.

Also, such changes ought not to be made too rapidly. “A poco a poco” (the musician’s way of saying “little by little”) is a good rule.

Nor ought we always to announce that a particular procedure is new. Better simply describe what we will be doing, and explain what it is to achieve. Neither parading every minor innovation as a new thing, nor warning our people that some practice will seem new, is very helpful.

C. Let me describe for you a total worship experience which appeared to be quite effective.

  1. The worship portion of the service was planned by the “brainstorming” group 10 days prior to the event.
    1. First, the group selected one of the two alternative themes which I suggested. The one I personally wished to deal with was rather hard-hitting. The group selected the other, and we formulated the “key truth” for the sermon: “Those who follow the Lord obediently may claim his promise and move in faith into new ventures.” The text was the story of 85-year-old Caleb, Joshua 14:6-15.
    2. To focus the worship experience, the brainstorming group selected a quality of God which tied into the key truth: God is one who never runs out of ideas.
    3. To help the gathered community to think of God in this way and tell him that they are pleased with him, we decided on a brief meditation, a hymn, and a prayer on each of the three aspects of the truth:
      1. God never runs out of creative ideas. A meditation on the extravagance of God in creation and his continuing creativity. A hymn in praise of the Creator and a prayer of praise.
      2. God never runs out of ways of helping us out of our problems. A meditation on the kinds of scrapes we get ourselves into, the nets we get tangled up in, etc. A contemporary song adjusted for the situation and duplicated so that even the older people could learn it. A prayer of gratitude for the infinite “ways of escape.”
      3. We are made in the image of God in the sense that we, too, are capable of new, creative ideas and are able to move into new ventures. At the same time, through the Holy Spirit we have access to God’s storehouse of ideas. We have the mind of Christ. Life can be continuously new and fulfilling—an ongoing discovery. A hymn to say that we are committed to go on with the God of infinite ideas. A prayer of confession to say that we are sorry for narrowing our life down to a few comfortable routines.
  2. The sermon, too, was divided into three parts and was a shared privilege. A young “Timothy” applied the text to the young adults. He highlighted the three main points of the key truth: obedience, promise, new venture.

    I then turned the message of the text first to the middle-aged, and then to the retired and/or aging.

    1. The text and the middle-aged
      1. The middle-aged is in danger of becoming frozen.
        1. He has followed in obedience and has discovered God’s will. He does not understand that God is calling him on and on.
        2. He has invested much in attaining his goal. Now he has arrived! He is secure!
        3. A past religious experience has given wholeness and meaning to life. He can’t imagine God working on in new ways.
        4. His teen-age children threaten his values and life-style, and he becomes defensive.
        5. The opinion of others is important for acceptance and promotion. He is afraid to be unconventional. {226}
      2. Thus new ventures are rare for the middle-aged.
        1. A change of job unsettles his identity.
        2. A break from a job in order to assume some form of Christian ministry seems almost foolhardy.
        3. A change in life-style is a shift in self-image, and, therefore, difficult.
        4. New approaches in religious practice are a “shaking of the foundations.”
      3. Strange irony: in many areas we must be at the forefront of the new (e.g., homes, cars, vacationing, etc.), but in religious forms and in the expression of our faith change is disallowed.
        This is especially damaging to the cause of Christ when our rigidity affects areas where the enemies of God are entrenched:
        1. The education system is a giant who must serve the nation, so we ought to be cautious about our radical faith if we are a part of that system.
        2. The economic system is a giant that must be left to his own designs, and we had best go along with strike action, false advertising, manipulative selling.
        3. The political system is a dirty giant, to be sure, but we had best go along with him and allow our faith to be shown only slightly, and seek to affect the system only indirectly, or even subtly.
      4. Are we as courageous at 45 as Caleb was at 85? How about a radical disassociation from the systems of the world? How about a radical investment of life in people who are in need? That would be a new venture! Sure, it would be the way of the cross. But then Golgatha was radically new too!
    2. The text and the aging and/or retiring
      Here you may want to follow the text by lifting out the three points of the key truth (obedience, promise, new venture). The truths of the text will have application to the entire age spectrum even though you are addressing yourself to one portion of it. (Since this article is long enough, I’ll not include this portion of my sermon outline.)
  3. The response. At times we ought to spend a significant amount of time on the response, and suggest a number of possible responses. For example:
    1. Some in the audience may be struggling in the area of obedience to known commands of God. Or perhaps some do not know of any specific directives which they ought to obey.
    2. Others may be struggling with the will to believe God’s promises enough to stake their lives on them. Or perhaps some are not aware that God is making promises to them.
    3. Others may be hesitant to launch out into a new venture which God has shown them. Or perhaps some are not perceptive enough to see the possibility of new thrusts for their life.
    Each must be helped to make some decision in the light of the truth. No sermon is complete if the hearer is not aided in making some deliberate response to God and the truth.

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