Preaching as ‘ordinance’?


In Church we do things for a variety or reasons. Some of them are because we think that these things ‘constitute’ Church as Church. There are indeed different opinions of this among different traditions based upon theological understandings and ways in which we interpret the bible. To be honest I am less interested contesting with ‘other’ traditions and more interested in learning to think through what we mean in our own traditions which on their own can be a place of contest and difference.

In my branch (Scottish) of my tradition (Baptist) we used to talk about having two ordinances. This does not necessarily mean that they could not be seen as sacraments (although often were not!!!) but is more that we did these two things because Jesus ordained them as something that the Church should do. These two ordinances were ‘Baptism’ and the ‘Lord’s Supper’.

In class the other day I pondered…is preaching an inherited practice that can be replaced (like we replaced hymn books, with overhead projectors, with multi-media projectors as part of responding to contemporary culture and understandings of communication) – or is preaching as a form (forms actually) something we do and or should do because it is part of what it means to be Church rather than say what it means to be part of the the sailing club (I know nothing about sailing but since I am a preacher I am allowed to talk about things I know nothing about…!!!).

Everywhere I go whenever preaching is mentioned the weaknesses of it are highlighted. Here I do not mean that people complain about bad preaching although it appears that there is much of it about, but rather complain about the continuance of the thing itself. To put that differently, the complaint is not simply that it is not fit for purpose but actually seems to serve little purpose at all.

In part along with the question of what actually do we think the Church is whether we think that preaching is a somehow a God ordained practice for the internal and external life of the Church seems to me pretty crucial as to what place it has in the future. (If we simply stopped doing things in Baptist churches that can be done badly we would have stopped doing communion a long time ago).

I stand with those who think that there is something ordained about this practice that means that it is meant to be a regular part of our life together. This does not mean that I do not think that this position needs to be defined and defended, nor that what we mean by and how we carry out preaching has to be constantly examined. It just means I think it is in there as a practice that defines who we are along with the Lord’s Supper and Baptism as somehow an ordinance – somehow at very least an ordinance.

Preaching as Jazz

Black american jazz saxophone player. Vintage. Studio shot.

We recently had a ‘Jazz’ theme at our Acadia Divinity College Chapel service. In part the purpose was to make the point that the nature of music that can contribute to ‘worship’ within a worship service can be much more varied than ‘traditional Church music’, classical, or contemporary.

In addition to the above ‘Jazz’ in a variety of ways allows us to explore dimensions of spirituality and the constant need for a tradition (here our Christian faith) to know how to improvise the tradition in new contexts.

As part of the service I read a part from this great little book:


The section I read began as follows:

“Jazz and preaching share the common ground of mystery. Both ultimately evade, to use poet David Whyte’s phrase, ‘the cage of definition’. People do conjure up acceptable working definitions of both. Definitions of jazz will usually include the words African Americans and improvisation. Preaching definitions tend to include, speech, persuasion, and gospel. But the canons of definition for both realities witness to the element of the indescribable concerning both realities. There is a certain ‘beyond-ness’ about the craft of which they speak.”

I recommend this book, and the resulting picture of the impact of preaching IS SO NOT THIS…

Man sitting up sleeping in church




Killing the Messenger

Man sitting up sleeping in churchOn two recent occasions – because I teach ‘preaching’ – I have found myself on the one hand embroiled in a bit of a debate ‘the biggest danger to our churches today is preaching!’ and on the other hand questioned about how? (and maybe why?) we should try and teach preaching when … people can watch their favourite preachers online, social media, changes in communication…etc.

If I was sensitive I might have felt that I personally a) was to blame for all these woes, b) was defending something that did not take place any more c) that once again my patron Saint was Jude – patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes!

(I cried myself to sleep on my giant pillow)

Actually these conversations were friendly but were perhaps the friendly expression of what is often a much harder critique.

There is a lot I could say here but I will hold back a bit…

IT WILL SIMPLY NOT DO (holding back) to highlight preaching as the cause or the only thing wrong with the Church. This is far too easy a target. If we are going to wrestle with this and these issues responsibly then we need to deal with the more substantive issue (biblical, historical, theological, practical) of how we understand the significance or not and nature of what it means to gather as people in the name of Jesus.

I can make a case, oh I think a robust case, biblically, historically, theologically, and practically for the continued value of ‘preaching’ but that is not the first thing that needs to be done in relation to this question. Rather, there is the more substantial question of why bother gathering at all, why, for what? In this context we can talk about the nature and function of preaching but it is simply not robust enough just to attack the messenger while still expecting them (as many do) to get up Sunday by Sunday to do something we apparently think is a waste of time.







So this is Free Church worship?


Last night I was with a group of folk at Dartmouth doing the ‘What on earth do we think we are doing? Crafting worship for our local neighbourhood’ course.

Crafting Worship 2018

The primary theme for the evening was ‘Worship by the Book’.

We were exploring ‘Worship in the Bible’, ‘Worship and the Bible’ and the ‘Bible in Worship’.  A reading focus was a chapter in the book by Greg Scheer ‘Essential Worship’ entitled ‘What is Biblical Worship?’9780801008283

Scheer argues that there are four possible approaches to the Bible and worship:

Direct Revelation – where people expect that God will reveal the truth of Scripture through direct inspiration (Free Church/Pentecostal).

The regulative principle where worship practices must be based solely on worship practices seen explicitly in Scripture (Zwingli/Calvin).

The normative principle that anything in worship that is not prohibited by Scripture is left to our best judgement(Luther).

The three-legged stool of Scripture, tradition and church authority (Roman Catholic).

We were also aware that whereas in other traditions at least certain core parts of the worship services are ‘prescribed’ as to form and content this is is much less there case in the Free Church tradition and so working out why we do what we do in relation to Scripture is a particular challenge for us.

With a nod to Luther it seems that we are not with Calvin and that Scheer might be correct that we sit in the first category. This said, his description of the Free Church approach in relation to Direct Revelation is something of a caricature. For rather than the ‘proof texting’ he suggests from our conversations it is clear that in our experience of this tradition, what we do at best is to try and work out in context how we can faithfully worship God in our gatherings in keeping with what we find in the Scriptures. This means that there are practices in the Scriptures we variously adopt and practices we do not e.g. we have a lot more singing than we do ‘kiss of peace’ and ‘incense’! There can be various reasons which influence these decisions – not always good. This said, there would be nothing to stop us in adopting such practices if in context it was discerned that this would indeed enable our correct response to God through Jesus Christ by the Spirit in this place here and now. This means that in free Church worship (indeed increasingly) there is variety – although admittedly often locked in an unacknowledged ‘traditionalism’ more than live ‘tradition’.

At the beginning of the night it was acknowledged that in other ‘traditions’ (denominations) the ‘prescribed’ way in which things are done often expresses as an integral level their theology and understanding of the Scripture in a way that our Free Church tradition (or lack of it) does not. Undoubtedly there is a sense in which this is true. This said, when I came away last night after an evening of verbal processing with others, I actually came to the opinion that the variety, the struggle, the variation – these do indeed represent the nature of our tradition. It is a tradition in which we constantly wrestle in the freedom of the Spirit at congregational levels to make sense of the Scriptures in order to be able to say about what we are doing: ‘this is that’ we see in the Scriptures lived in our context. This is not the only approach, but it is a tradition, and it is ours. It is also a tradition that if we can free ourselves from the ‘traditionalism’ that often  binds it offers the freedom to revisit and reshape what we do, to claim, reclaim, remix – not with ‘an anything goes’ attitude but concerned to find faithful expression here and now of that which we read in the Scriptures.



I have posted a bit about the importance of thinking explicitly on the question: ‘Why on earth we are doing what we are doing in worship?’ This is accompanied by the argument that the reasons ‘why’, once identified, need to be shared, understood, and owned by the various participants. This I would argue, aids and encourages meaningful participation.

Today, I participated in a worship event at the International Baptist Theological Study Centre in Amsterdam. The Centre has a regular daily meeting for prayer. It frequently follows one of two optional ‘liturgical’ orders of service which include responsive words, Scripture reading, open prayer, and song. That is it.

One would think that with such an order of service there is little need for either explanation or variation.

One of the PhD students had been asked to lead. He simply followed one of the set ‘orders’. Yet, before he began he said that he wanted to give ‘some words of introduction’.

Briefly he indicated that he had once been encouraged to ‘lament’ the bad things that had happened in  his life as an act of faith. As a consequence he wanted our worship event on that day to focus on ‘lament’ as something which could be a healthy expression of faith.

The usual order progressed but both the Scripture readings focused on passages of lament. We listened for and attentively to the Scripture readings in this way. Why? – well because of the very brief explanation of what we were doing and why? They made sense and we knew how to make sense of them as lament. When it came to the place of open-prayer he invited us to ‘lament’. We did. I do not think I have ever heard such public explicit cries of lament in the context of worship…’How long of Lord…How long, people publicly asked about abuse, suffering, inequality, cancer, international violence, non-belief…imploring – ‘act according to your justice’. We moved into one of the set songs – ‘Wait for the Lord’.

This was a deeply meaningful and participative act of worship using a very small and somewhat set order of worship, but given specific meaning through thought, intentionality, and explanation.

Thought creates the frame for what is being done, and explanation helps people know how to read it. This is not a rocket science – it is crafting and leading worship.


Hired Cars and attending Worship services

close-up of car start and stop buttonLast night I delivered the first session of the course ‘What on Earth do we think we are doing: Crafting Worship for our Neighbourhood.

To get to Stevens Road Baptist Church, Dartmouth where I was delivering the course I had a hired car. This was probably about the seventh different hire car I have driven in the last three months.

This is good – because they have all been better cars than I have ever owned!!


(One of my favourites)

Yet I have never been able to fully enjoy these cars  – because I have not had a clue about how half the things work or where they are. Several times I have had to dig out the manual to find out how to open the petrol/gas flap (indeed I may have to do so again in half an hour as the latest goes back)

Oh all the stuff is there in these cars… windscreen wipers, heaters, lights, and more…GPS, heated seats…and more …audio systems, reverse parking aids, parking brakes (on the floor)…and more …special controls for four wheel, snow driving – last night I noticed a little light came on on the side mirror whenever a car entered the ‘blind spot’. Oh yes it is all there and more, but as I said, I have not had the full enjoyment because I have not fully understood where everything was or how it worked. last night I found the heated seat switch quickly because it was already on but it took me some time to realize that the light on the dashboard did not mean, as I thought it meant, that I had actually turned on my headlights!

In the past few months I have also visited a number of churches for their worship services. I have had something of a similar experience. Most of the stuff – more or less and sometimes more is all there …preaching, singing, offering, community time, prayer, communion…and more …expressive dance, drama, choral and individual singing…but I have not always known how they worked or how I am meant to work them and respond to them. See this earlier post.

This got me on to 1 Corinthians 14:23 and the ‘outsider or unbeliever’ (working on basis I am former rather than latter!!!) and the importance of their perspective in Paul’s thinking for shaping what happens. The perspective of the outsider is an argument given with respect to what takes place and its ‘order’.

Whether I am what Paul was talking about or not, I think in many ways it has been this posture of the newcomer, outsider, or stranger that has raised for me questions I reckon I should have been asking before: ‘why do we do what we do in worship, why here, why in this way, and what does this mean, and how do we articulate that to the insiders and outsiders in such a way as to enhance its meaning.

My status will change and soon I will be an ‘insider’, I will find my way about that dashboard for the essentials (lights) and the treats (heated seats) with ease – so in the waiting, with this temporary posture I will continue as I can to press on with tenacity concerning these questions offering I hope not simply a critical but constructive and creative voice as people seek to craft worship for their congregations and ‘neighbours’.

Crafting Worship 2018


Stop seeking resources instead of discernment

Diverse People Luncheon Outdoors Food Concept

I drop past a number of social media sites. On one Baptist site I often see people ask questions about knowledge and available resources such as small group material, audio visual materials etc. In many ways this is good. It shows a healthy level of support and collaboration that speaks to Baptist interdependency rather than autonomy.

The above notwithstanding some of the requests trouble me. For these at times, these resource requests, seem to be ‘how to’ questions regarding the worship and mission activity of congregations.

Oh to be sure the Church in the Global North is facing many challenges. My whole life of ministry and mission has been done in the context of numerical decline. This fact shapes the way in which we are doing theology (maybe the subject of another post). This hits the road at a congregational and local level where a week by week the challenge is to maintain engaging worship and meaningful witness in the face of many challenges and expectations. My goodness, do we not indeed need to find things that ‘work’ (whatever we decide that means)?. Many times, however, I worry about the sort of pressure this puts on leaders and pastors. This is NOT the same situation anticipated in many older books on such things as pastoral care and some newer ones deny the fact offering images and advice that simply no longer relates to context.

Yet surely, when it comes to matters of the nature of our congregational worship and witness what we actually need more than resources is ‘discernment’. The discernment of the way and will, the ‘mind’, of Jesus Christ for our congregation.

Oh I know that congregations need leadership. Leaders expect to give it and often congregations expect them to. Indeed. We need leaders that will lead. Coming up with resources that will ‘work’ is surely part of leadership?  Well, yes maybe. But at times this act represents the taking by leaders and the abdication by congregations of what is the corporate responsibility of seeking what it is that Jesus Christ is saying to us about our life and witness.

To push this further. There are many Church flavours where the pastor, leader, minister, priest has considerable authority to act and lead ‘freely’ (although that sometimes means in keeping with quite a strict external hierarchy above them). Yes, these types of leadership exist in many forms but this is not actually the Baptist type of Church which is my focus here. Indeed it seems to me that part of leadership in a Baptist congregation is precisely to enable a congregation to learn how to discern what the living Jesus Christ is saying to us about the nature of our worship and mission. Here the task of leadership becomes teaching, and enabling a congregation to mature in its discipleship which involves the members coming to know ‘the will of God – what is good acceptable and perfect’ so that they in the model of Jesus Christ can together offer their ‘bodies’ as ‘a living sacrifice’ (Rom. 12:1-2).

When I have discussed this with pastors and leaders they have at times seemed excited by the prospect that at the heart of Baptist ecclesiology is the opportunity to discern through the Spirit, with the congregation, what the living Jesus Christ who we claim is the Head of the Church, is actually saying to ‘us’ here and now -in this place about what we should be doing in our life together. In practice, however, very little of this happens. Oh yes we have meetings in which we discuss (discern? really!) the colour of the new kitchen – (I do not think Jesus cares) but we apparently do not think that this approach to discerning can deal with the big issues of mission and ministry  – there on important issues we need resources that will work.

Our practice often displays a theology other than we claim we hold and misses an opportunity to be led by the Head of the Church. In this I think we are making the major critical mis-step of the post-Christendom missional situation. We are failing to invest in discerning at a local and congregational level what the resurrected Jesus Christ is saying to us about what he wants for and from us in this context. We are trading in discernment for resources.

In saying this I absolutely agree that we need to ‘shatter’ the image of such discernment being rows of seats in a dull Church hall on a cold February evening locked in the style of ‘business’. Instead: gather, eat, talk, disagree, listen, laugh, read, pray, break bread, drink wine, and dare to believe that the living Jesus sits there and in this context and through this people now or next week but at least in part through this process, he reveals his mind and will and way. Strange you read some stuff like this in Acts … ‘and day by day the Lord added to their number show who were being saved’ … but yes as an alternative I am sure there are some good resources out there.

(Some of the above expands upon a chapter I contributed to this book)