Garrison Keillor on Liturgy

Garrison Keillor
The following is a quote from an interview with Garrison Keillor [HT: Michael S]:

Having grown up in the Evangelical, sort of free-form fundamentalist church, I love the liturgical church where we say words together that are not my words and not your words. That really means a lot to me. I grew up listening to men stand up and invent prayers and the idea was that the Spirit was leading them, but in fact they were composing them in their heads and they were writing in a kind of faux King James style—big prayers and they were impressive, and they were seeking to impress, there is just is no other way around it.

And in the name of Devotion they were doing these big set-piece prayers in which they were bringing in stories from Scripture and admonishing people—that’s not prayer. But, when we kneel down and go through a list, and we begin with prayers for leaders of our country and for the nations of the world and then we come down to prayers for other churches and for bishops and priests, and then we come down to those who are in need and those who are sick and we think or we speak their names—to me this is prayer. This is prayer in which one throws oneself before God without a heroic pose.

I believe that this insight is very significant. Liturgy is so important, precisely as borrowed language. People complain about praying someone else’s words rather than their own in the liturgy, but that is the precise point of liturgy. By ‘borrowing’ the language of the Church which has been handed over to us (in tradition) we hand ourselves over to God and to each other (Peter Candler explores this well in his latest book).

The ‘heroic pose’ that Keillor speaks of is one in which the speaker presents God with his own words, deeming his own vocabulary to be sufficient. The reasoning behind such an approach is that the most authentic way of being is that of spontaneity as opposed to imitation. Prayers of spontaneity, no matter how rhetorically brilliant they are, will always fall short of truly public speech. True public speech is shared language, where the words are not the speaker’s own. Spontaneous speech always falls short, drawing attention to the speaker, who often has a desire for people’s praise.

The language of liturgy is public language, precisely because it does not belong to any one particular individual. It has been handed over to all of us and we are given to participate in it. Such language has a pedagogical purpose. As Candler puts it: ‘To enter into this pedagogy is to entrust oneself to a language which is not one’s own, yet which transforms one’s language and orders it to God.’ Such language is a gift and not our own possession.

This is one of the reasons why the book of Psalms and things such as the Lord’s Prayer should be central in our worship. The psalms and the Lord’s Prayer are words that God has given to us. They are words that we ‘borrow’. As we ‘borrow’ these words we are participating in the inspired speech of the Holy Spirit, which will serve to reform all of our language. Such participation in borrowed language transforms us and redeems our speech. It should be regarded as having a salvific and not merely a bare pedagogical purpose. Brian Daley puts it well: ‘The Psalms … do not simply command us to repent of our sins, to bear suffering patiently, or to praise God for his gifts; they actually give us the words by which we can say and do these things for ourselves.’

In handing ourselves over to a language that has been handed over to us in tradition we confess that we do not have the words that are sufficient to approach God. Our verbal works are sinful and poor, so they are not the sacrifice of praise our tongues present to God. The words that we bring are words that have been given to us, words that are not our own. The shared language of liturgy is thus a natural extension of the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

When we strive for spontaneity in speech and resist faithful imitation we also fail to hand ourselves over to each other. Worship ceases to be truly public and gradually reduces to the voices of many individuals expressing their private spirituality in front of others. Our private spirituality becomes something of public show. Whether we intend to receive praise from other men or not, private prayer belongs in the private place. When it is brought into the public place it can easily draw attention to the one who prays and away from the One to whom the prayer is addressed. Public prayer is not to be the creation of individual rhetorical brilliance, but the gift of shared speech. The loss of robust liturgies and the rise of individual rhetoric would also seem to have had some effect in the rise of individualistic understandings of the Christian faith. Lacking a shared language we have not handed ourselves over to each other. Our spirituality is a ‘heroic’ spirituality; a spirituality of me and Jesus, without the need for any other.

Within evangelicalism our worship services are primarily about our own speech. The focus of the service is not on the shared language of the liturgy, but on the words of the preacher. It is the preacher who composes the words of the sermon and the words of the prayers. Consequently, the person of the preacher becomes far more central than the priest ever became within medieval Catholicism. In the case of medieval Catholicism it was the office of the priest that became central. However, as the language and rituals performed by the clergy were ‘borrowed’, it was not the priest as a particular person that became central. Within modern evangelicalism it is the pastor (or — heaven help us — the worship leader) that becomes central as a particular person and not merely as an office. Churches become centred on a particular person in a way that is deeply unhealthy.

One of the things that the Church could really benefit from today is a downplaying of preaching within the context of the liturgy and a denial of the primacy of the preacher. The pastor need not stand to teach (although we ought to stand for the reading of the Scriptures); he is not engaging in a rhetorical display. All he needs to do is explain the passage in simple language and make some applications. Under such teaching people will have their lives informed by God’s Word, without the personality of the preacher becoming central (as it tends to do in, for example, the Spurgeon style of preaching). A further thing that is important is to retain the primacy of the reading of Scripture. The sermon is in service of the read Scripture, rather than vice versa. The reading of the Scriptures should not merely consist of the passage that the preacher has chosen for his message.

The relationship between the sermon and the reading of the Scriptures is not unimportant. It will train congregations in their relationship to the Scriptures. Preachers who always choose their own passages can train congregations (in more ways than one) to be people who choose their own passages too and do not submit to the Scriptures as a whole. Pastors who choose Scripture readings purely on the basis of what they want to say, should not be surprised if their congregations become the sort of people who merely trawl the Scriptures for devotional nuggets and never learn to be attentive and receptive to the Scriptures. Having set readings of Scripture trains us to submit to a language other than our own, rather than merely appropriating the language of the Scripture in service of our own speech. Set readings that challenge and unsettle pastors are important. They save us from becoming glib. Congregations who witness their pastor silenced or confused by the set Scripture will learn an important lesson about the relationship between the Church and Scripture, even if they don’t come away understanding the passage itself.

Modern hymns and choruses are another case in point. Whilst I have no objection to choruses and hymns in principle, I believe that we ought to be very careful about how we use them. The language of worship should be ‘catholic’ language and not a language that is private to our particular tradition. To the extent that our hymns and choruses are merely from our own time and narrow tradition we have failed to hand ourselves over to the larger Christian tradition. The insipid choruses that predominate in the worship of many evangelical churches (particularly in more charismatic quarters of evangelicalism) are merely echoes of our own language. People often complain that they cannot relate to the language of older hymns and the psalms. This is because the piety of the psalms is quite alien to the piety that prevails in many contemporary churches.

Chanting psalms and singing hymns that unsettle us plays much the same purpose as set readings. They teach us the deficiencies of our own language. The contemporary worshipper, however, wants the language of worship to sound spontaneous, because he values spontaneity over imitation. The language that comes spontaneously to the modern worshipper is not the language of Christian worship but the language of the silly pop ditties that he grew up with. In the name of spontaneity the modern worshipper tends to unwittingly borrow the romantic language of the world. The purpose of chanting psalms and singing hymns is not merely to glorify our language, but to heal it. The language of worship that is given to us by Scriptures and the Christian tradition informed by the Scriptures is one that is quite unnatural to us. It is God’s purpose that, as we use this language, it will become increasingly natural to us. The words, although they are borrowed, are no longer entirely alien to us, for they have converted us to themselves.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in The Blogosphere, Theological, Worship. Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Garrison Keillor on Liturgy

  1. I fear that this gets it exactly right.

  2. Gaines says:

    Al, thanks for that. Very well said.

  3. iMonk says:

    One of your best. Thanks. I will be sharing this with the leaders of our home group.

  4. Nancy Vernon says:

    Amen and Amen. Wish you could be a bishop!

  5. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Alastair and Joe Thorn: On Liturgy and a Church for All of Us

  6. Brian says:

    Good thoughts.

    On preaching…you wrote “One of the things that the Church could really benefit from today is a downplaying of preaching within the context of the liturgy and a denial of the primacy of the preacher.”

    I think I agree with the basic meaning but the words here could be confusing. I agree that downplaying the presentation of the preaching or the method of many preachers is needed. But preaching is one of the essential components of worship.

    Also, I would question that “all the preacher needs to do is explain the passage in simple words and give appication”. Preaching is proclaiming. Proclaiming the Good News of the risen Christ. That is the purpose of preaching (as is the purpose of all the other litugical elements you mention)–to magnify Christ and to see Him clearly in all His glory.

    This isn’t an argument against liturgy or the need for it in our modern churches. It is just an encouragement to clearly explain the importance and role of Biblical preaching in that liturgy.

    Thanks for this article. I plan to save it for re-reading and will be sharing it with others.


  7. Al says:


    Thanks for your comments.

    For clarification, my position with regard to preaching is as follows:

    1. Theatrics have no place in Christian preaching within the covenant renewal service (weekly gathered worship). Things should be kept simple.

    2. Preaching is important, but there are many other important elements of the covenant renewal service that are just as, or even more important. In fact, I don’t believe that preaching is absolutely essential for covenant renewal worship in the way that celebration of the Eucharist is, for example (although I would be troubled if there were no preaching). Reading of the Scripture is essential to a degree that preaching is not. Preaching should be regarded as subordinate to the reading of the Scripture.

    3. I do not believe that weekly gathered worship is the place for ‘preaching’ as most people understand the term. Preaching, or proclaiming of the gospel, is something done primarily to outsiders. Within the Church we certainly have the gospel declared and applied to our lives, but not in the same way as it is to those outside.

    The covenant renewal service is a family meeting of the baptized. It is a worship service and is not the place to address unconverted people. If unconverted people are present they are eavesdropping on a liturgy that is not intended for them.

    4. The sort of ‘preaching’ that the Church needs within her walls is essentially ‘teaching’. The sermon should be conceived of primarily as instruction, rather than as public oration.

    I believe that the biblical pattern is very similar to that within synagogue worship. The person leading the service stands to read the Scriptures and the whole congregation stands too. The congregation would remain standing or sit as the pastor took his seat and expounded the passage simply, giving the sense of the passage without rhetorical flourish or dramatic emotion. We see this sort of pattern in places such as Luke 4 and Nehemiah 8.

    Those within the Church are Christ’s disciples and they should be addressed as such. The teaching that takes place within the Church should resemble the sort of teaching that we see Christ giving His disciples. Christ did not ‘preach’ to His disciples as we tend to understand preaching. He taught them simply.

    The Sermon on the Mount is a good example. It uses many illustrations to make things understandable, but it is not some great public oration. The hearers are treated as insiders. Christ doesn’t try to win them over with flowery rhetoric or employ clever jokes to get their attention, nor does he scream or yell at them. There is no artificially heightened emotion.

    Reading through the whole of the Sermon on the Mount, it reads remarkably differently from most modern sermons. The tone throughout seems measured and calm. There seems to be no raising of the voice or emotionalism and yet the Word of God is powerfully applied to people’s lives, in a way that flamboyant modern sermons simply fail to do.

    I suggest that our sermons should take their model from Christ’s teaching of His disciples. I think that emotionalism has far too great a control over modern worship. So many of the various aspects of the modern worship service are calculated to emotionally move us. I have left evangelical meetings in the past and have just felt emotionally drained, because the whole service was designed to tug on my emotions throughout. Fortunately, the meetings of the evangelical church that I attend are refreshingly different from such meetings.

    Looking at the Sermon on the Mount we can see that the choice is not between worship designed to move us and ‘dead’ worship. The Sermon on the Mount moves me on a level and to a degree that no modern sermon has ever done. It calls out, not primarily to my emotions or my intellect, but to my allegiance. It calls me to be committed as Christ’s disciple first and foremost, rather than calling me to a romantic love affair with Christ or to approach the Christian faith as a bunch of abstract theological propositions.

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  9. solly says:

    I have done the extempore prayer, and spirit led sermon jive. Prayers get as predictable as liturgical prayers, and sermons can go around three or four favourite doctrines if you’re not careful. My old association had an apocryphal tale about a minister in the vestry asked by the deacon waiting on him what his sermon was about.
    ‘About? I haven’t even got my text yet!’ he replied, expecting to get his text on the pulpit stairs. Most sermons in the Strict Baptists have a tendency to end up on imputed righteousness, to my experience.
    We do need sermons, but we also different ways of preaching and teaching. We need communal prayers, but we need to leave room for spontaneity. We nee to down grade the minister – get away from clerisy – and have more involvement from the congregation.

  10. John H says:

    Great stuff. Couple of quick thoughts:

    1. Psalms in the liturgy: too right. They should be far more prominent in our worship than they often are. However, for Sunday worship it is equally proper that the songs of the OT church be balanced out by the songs of the NT church – so a “psalms-only” (or even “psalms-mostly”) approach may not be appropriate. The best way to increase the prominence of the psalms in our worship would therefore be the increased adoption of the Daily Office, which has the reciting or singing of psalms at its heart.

    2. Putting the preacher in his place: Agreed that the sermon should be “embedded” within the overall liturgy, and ideally be followed by a weekly Eucharist. But the preacher should still stand up, because he speaks to us with the authority of Christ as he proclaims the promises of Christ. Preaching isn’t just some guy talking about the Word of God; true preaching is the living Word of God in our midst. It’s appropriate for the person doing it to stand up (and practical too: encourages him to speak up rather than mumbling into his notes!)

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  12. Paul Baxter says:


    I say this in the context of general agreement with you, but I think there is a case to be made both for the extemporaneous prayer and the rhetorical sermon.

    In the case of prayer, I put this question to you: how many of the prayers recorded in scripture were composed upon that occasion vs. how many are recited or memorized? I know there are problems with looking at it that way, but the scriptures are in fact full of extemporaneous prayer, including by Jesus Himself, so I can’t help but think that that should be considered example enough for us to at least do both.

    On the subject of the sermon, I think rhetoric is one of the great things our culture is losing at a steady pace. Sermons are one of the few places where rehtoric still enters our lives. Not that I want to preserve it for nostalgic purposes, but I think there might be some anti-rhetoric sentiment out there which is based more on the current fashions of thinking than on the best reasons.

    Rhetoric, of course, is simply composing/giving a speech in a persuasive manner. Sub-skills involved would include knowledge of the subject at hand, knowledge of the audience, and knowledge of the tricks and tactics of persuasion.

    The reason I think this is important is that what the preacher does in the sermon is give the word of God to the people. The word should be something which challenges our thoughts and our lives. If this is presented in an abstract sort of manner it gives the impression that it is simply one way of looking at things or an interesting look at history.

    I could get onto the music thing too, but this is enough for now.

    I want to mention that I think the senior pastor of my church is the greatest preacher ever 🙂 and would encourage any and all to sample his sermons to see what I am talking about.

    Pick any one you like here

  13. Paul,

    I thought of a few spontaneous prayers too, but can you cite any that were spoken in a public setting?

  14. Al says:

    John H,

    1. I believe that the psalms should have a controlling place in our liturgies that hymns do not have. The position that I hold to could be described as preponderant psalmody. This can be understood in one of two ways. It can be understood to mean that we sing psalms more than hymns or it could be understood to mean that psalms inform and guide our worship in a way that hymns do not. My emphasis is on this second sense of preponderant psalmody. God inspired the book of Psalms as the type of worship that is pleasing to Him. The psalms ought to be our pattern for hymn-writing. Good hymns will be NT Church songs, but they will be psalm-like. This sense of preponderant psalmody demands that we know the psalms very well. Your Daily Office recommendation is helpful here.

    2. As regards standing up for preaching, this is not a denial of the pastor’s authority or the authority of the message He proclaims. I agree with you entirely on the importance of the authority of the pastor’s message. The seat is a place of authority (Matthew 23:2; Revelation 3:21). People in authority — kings, bosses, judges, etc. — sit down. The seat is the place of rule, judgment and relaxation (where you sit where you have finished your work or are ruling over others’ work). Christ generally sat down to teach (Matthew 5:1; Luke 4:20f.; 5:3; John 8:2). If the preacher is representing Christ — which I believe that He is — then isn’t it most appropriate that he sit down, just as Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father? There are good theological reasons for adopting a seated position. We should, I believe, replace pulpits with priestly thrones. The standing position is also an important one to adopt while the Word of God is being read. We are all — pastor included — called to stand to attention as Christ’s Word is addressed to us.

    The main problem that I have with standing to preach is that standing is the posture of public oration. We often see the apostles standing to give public orations in the book of Acts, but these are not examples of the way that they taught in their congregations. Teaching from a seated position limits the degree of emotion that you can express with your body. When people want to denounce, shout, yell or express deep emotion they instinctively stand up. The seated position will shape the way in which pastors teach. As for the practical issue that you raise, one of the effects of having pastors move away from the public oration model would be to greatly reduce the need for notes. Simple unadorned biblical exposition doesn’t require anywhere near as many notes as a public oration does.


    Thanks for your helpful and thoughtful comments. A few things in response.

    1. I have no problem with extemporaneous prayer in principle. As you point out there are many biblical examples (nevertheless, I also believe that David’s point is important here). It seems to me that many of the public prayers that we see in Scripture were prayers that were composed for the occasion, not just made up on the spur of the moment. Much of the problem here is the valuing of spontaneity over everthing else and the assumption that the sentiment expressed by the spontaneous prayer is somehow more genuine than the one expressed by the set prayer. It is my belief that, in general, carefully prepared prayers are more genuine.

    As for the composed upon the occasion vs. recited or memorized question, I believe that the question is unhelpful. Extemporaneous scriptural prayers are radically different from the spontaneoud prayers that we often value. We think of spontaneity in terms of that which is purely voluntary and arises naturally, apart from determination from outside forces. The extemporaneous scriptural prayer is probably best understood as ‘improvized’ prayer. Such prayers are only possible for people who have a deep acquaintance with the psalms and other prayer-like literature. Only the experienced actor can improvize really well.

    Read biblical examples of improvized prayers and one will see that they flow from rich memories. Jonah’s prayer in Jonah 2 is a perfect example. It is Jonah’s prayer but the words are those of the psalms. He is praying extemporaneously, but the language is still a borrowed one.

    The problem is that we fail to realize that the language of prayer does not come naturally to us. It is foreign to us. Just witness how far from the language of the psalms the language of the prayers of most evangelicals is. The true ability to pray extemporaneously only comes as we are steeped in the borrowed language of Scripture. We have to be taught how to pray. I am not in principle opposed to extemporaneous prayer in gathered worship. However, I strongly believe that prayer ought to be in the borrowed language of Scripture. For most pastors this will require careful preparation of their prayers beforehand. If someone can’t speak the borrowed language of Scripture then they shouldn’t be praying extemporaneously.

    Those who are steeped in Scripture can pray extemporary prayers in which their voices are not really distinct. Rather, it is the voice of Scripture that strikes the hearer of the prayer. Such prayers can be truly public as the person who prays does so in a manner that does not draw attention to himself. Such prayers can serve as the prayers of the whole congregation, because they are in a shared language. We have someone in our congregation who occasionally leads in prayer and prepares them beforehand. Such prayers serve as ‘our’ prayers in a way that most extemporary prayers can’t.

    I don’t think that rhetoric is without its place in the Church. However, I do not believe that the sermon is the place for the methods and manners of public oration. I don’t believe that this will result in sermons being abstract. I have commented on this at more length in my response to Brian above. I argued that the Sermon on the Mount is similar to the type of teaching that should take place in the Church. The sermon is to serve as the teaching of disciples. The Sermon on the Mount is far more concrete than any sermon I have ever heard, but it does not to resort to the rhetorical techniques employed by the modern sermon to achieve this.

  15. Paul Baxter says:

    “The Sermon on the Mount is far more concrete than any sermon I have ever heard, but it does not to resort to the rhetorical techniques employed by the modern sermon to achieve this.”

    Well, yes, but Jesus certainly used the rhetorical techniques of HIS day in the sermon. He used repetitive themes and phrases, etc. Are you saying that only rhetorical devices of the 1st century are appropriate for use in a sermon?

    I would think the standard would be not how precisely the preacher matches the style of Jesus preaching, but how effective he is in presenting the word so that it is understood (cp Neh 8:7-8), it is remembered and applied (James 1:23-25). These should be precisely the functions of rhetoric within the sermon.

    If a joke helps to make things more memorable and applicable, then I see nothing wrong with it.

    Not trying to defend any and all techniques. I think the whole powerpoint sermon trend is awful. But I think it is awful because I think powerpoint is a terrible way to present things in a way that engages listeners.

    One particularly effective but odd technique I remember was from the late, great Chinese missions leader, Jonathan Chao. When preaching at our church, he brought up the fact that the church is an army, marching to Zion. He asked the congregation to stand up and march in place. We all did so while he repeated a couple of times, “we are marching to Zion!”. It sounds silly when written down, but it is the only sermon from that year I can remember anything from, so I would say it was an effective technique.

  16. Al says:


    When I speak of ‘rhetorical’ approaches, I am speaking of approaches that have a tendency to grandiloquence, exaggerated emotion or flamboyance. Every pastor should know rhetoric in the sense of the art of using language effectively and persuasively. The issue is that of which rhetorical techniques belong in sermons and which do not.

    My claim is that many of the rhetorical techniques that are habitually employed in modern sermons are quite inappropriate in that context. We must address the question of what the sermon is. I am arguing that the sermon is a ‘family’ event, addressed to insiders (disciples).

    There is a significant difference between the pastor and the public orator. The pastor is speaking within the household of faith; the orator speaks in the public square. When a head of a household addresses the members of his household he does not try to establish a rapport in the way that an orator does (through jokes, heightened emotion, etc.); the head of the household presupposes the existence of a rapport.

    If a pastor began to adopt the approach of the modern sermon in the manner in which he addressed his own family I am sure that we would recognize that something was wrong. That is simply not the way that you talk to family. It is the way that you speak to outsiders.

    To the degree that we have adopted a public oration model for the sermon, the pastor becomes detached from the congregation. The public oration model tends to presuppose a distance between the orator and the audience that needs to be overcome by clever rhetoric. When the pastor adopts a public oration approach he instantly creates a distance between himself and the congregation. There is no such distance in the family instruction model. Consequently things can be kept quite simple and direct.

    The pastor speaks authoritatively to the assembly, just as the head of a household speaks authoriatively to his family. The public orator, who has to win over his audience, uses jokes and other such things as means by which to achieve this end. The pastor may well use humour (a good pastor will, I believe, frequently use humour), but he ought not use humour in the manner in which the orator does. The pastor uses humour to illustrate and to amplify God’s Word, not to create a connection with his audience.

    This is not to deny that there is a sense in which the pastor ought to persuade the assembly. However, he must remember that he is seeking to persuade insiders, not outsiders.

  17. Brian says:

    Thanks for giving some detail on your perspective on preaching. That is a big help.

    I completely agree that the theatrics and emotionalism can go. They are far too common today.

    I can also agree, to some extent, that the preaching the church needs is, for the most part, a sort of teaching. However, I believe that proclaiming the gospel is essential for worship. The primary reason I believe this has nothing to do with unbelievers. I believe it is essential for BELIEVERS to hear the gospel. We need teaching, for sure. But we need exhortation and we need to glory in who Christ is for us. As we gather to celebrate, remember, and worship Christ, I believe one way we do that best is by proclaiming His story as it is told from Genesis to Revelation. BTW, I think you are absolutely correct that the Lord’s Supper and reading Scripture are also essential components.

    Thanks again,

  18. Al says:


    I wouldn’t deny for a moment the need to have the gospel repeatedly declared within the context of worship. My argument is that the proclamation of the gospel within the context of worship is addressed to the baptized, not to the unconverted. Consequently the proclamation of the gospel is done in a very different way.

    The gospel ought to be central to everything that we do, far more central than it is in most churches at the moment. Good liturgies can help in this respect.

    We need to be exhorted and encouraged by the gospel. However, we do not need to constantly be addressed as if we were unconverted. Whilst all of our services should be ‘evangelical’, they are not the place for evangelism.

  19. Al, do you have any thoughts on how the primacy of the sermon in modern worship services relates to the architecture church buildings?

  20. John H says:


    Thanks for your response. A couple of brief points in reply:

    1. I’m still not sure I’d want to refer even to “preponderant” psalmody. ISTM the church’s historic practice has been to hold a balance between the psalms and what one might call “the great songs of the church” (the Gloria, Agnus Dei, Te Deum etc). However, I agree that each of those two categories should take precedence (in the manner you describe) over other hymns.

    2. Simple unadorned biblical exposition doesn’t require anywhere near as many notes as a public oration does.

    That begs the question as to whether “simple unadorned biblical exposition” is the purpose of preaching in the church. This is probably a Lutheran/Calvinist thing – Lutherans tend to regard preaching as principally a proclamation of the Gospel in which Christ is present for the forgiveness of our sins as we receive the proclaimed Gospel in faith (and I can’t tell you how much that has transformed my understanding and experience of preaching), as opposed to the more didactic Calvinist approach. What you might call, “the Cassock vs the Gown”.

  21. John H says:

    Sorry, missed your comment in response to Brian:

    we do not need to constantly be addressed as if we were unconverted

    True, but we do need to be constantly addressed as if we were sinners needing forgiveness, not simply disciples needing information or “exhortation”.

  22. Al says:


    I have not given enough attention to the architecture of church buildings to feel qualified to give a good response. The one thing that really does bug me about modern church buildings is the presence of pews. I really would love to see the Western churches follow the Eastern Orthodox example on this one and have churches without pews.


    1. Yes, I think that you are right here. ‘Preponderant psalmody’ is too narrow.

    2. By ‘simple unadorned biblical exposition’ I was not referring to the merely cerebral and intellectual forms of teaching that often pass under the name of ‘exposition’. I am actually quite opposed to the ‘gown’ approach to ministry. The pastor is the minister of Christ and speaks as His symbol and representative, declaring the forgiveness of our sins and applying the truth of the gospel to the assembly. Exposition is designed to clearly set forth the meaning and purpose of the Scriptures. Exposition of the Scriptures that merely addresses the mind is not true exposition, as the Scriptures address themselves primarily to our consciences.

    I believe that it is the pastor’s duty to speak to us as those who continually need renewed forgiveness. I couldn’t be more in favour of this. Our need for forgiveness and absolution is also repeatedly declared to us in the liturgy. However, pastors also need to address the assembly of the saints as just that — an assembly of saints. We have been forgiven our sins and the way that the pastor addresses us should reinforce that the truth of justification to our consciences. What troubles me is the manner in which so many pastors hurt weak consciences by speaking to us as if we had not been forgiven. This destroys faith, rather than building it up. By addressing the assembly as the household of faith, rather than as outsiders needing a public oration, the pastor’s manner of speaking proclaims the truth of our justification.

  23. John H says:

    Al: thanks for the clarification. Sounds like we’re in full agreement here. One of the great blessings of my own church is that our pastor preaches in exactly the way you describe.

    I really would love to see the Western churches follow the Eastern Orthodox example on this one and have churches without pews.

    So let me get this straight. You’re saying that the pastor should in fact be the only person who can sit down…? 😉

  24. Al says:


    In the history of the Christian Church, standard pew seating is a relatively recent innovation. In most early Christian and Jewish worship there was no standard seating, although the existence of some seating is suggested in James 2:2-3. In the past there was some seating for the weak and infirm around the walls (which is where we get the expression ‘the weak go the wall’), but most of the congregation did not have pews.

    My resistance to pews is not the same as a resistance to ever sitting down. I believe that we should sit to receive the Supper. The Eucharist is a meal and we sit to eat, as a position of rule (Luke 22:30) and relaxation (we are entering into eschatological Sabbath rest and sharing in Christ’s rest from His labour).

    I am in favour of having moveable seating for worship. All who can stand do so for the opening part of the service. We ought to move around a lot during this part of the service, following what is going on. The priesthood of the baptized is expressed in such involvement. Bodily involvement is important. As we move around and are not boxed in we have a greater sense of community.

    Pew-seating boxes people in and downplays congregational participation and the sense of community. Its predominence in modern churches is largely a result of the increasing emphasis put on the sermon after the Reformation.

    For the sermon we can take a chair, cushion, sit down on a mat on the ground, lean against a pillar, or have deacons move out benches for the use of the congregation. The same is the case for the Supper. In the ideal situation there will be a Table with seating.

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  28. Mike S says:


    I found your remarks amazingly refreshing as well as plucking at a hunger in my soul that seems to grow as time passes.

    Some background: I grew up in a liturgical church and was always bored unless I was allowed up front to serve with celebrant. Now, many years later after leaving the liturgical church, I recently took up the pastorate of an extremely non-liturgical church in which, as I have gotten to know them, the people seem bored in church. Obviously both sides of this discussion have the potential to generate a lack of interest.

    My question is: How do you keep the liturgical worship style of service from degenerating into dull repetition with no passion?

    I ask this because I sense a genuine lack of transcendance in my church, and most other non-liturgical churches with the possible exception of say Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis. Yet, at the same time, I am afraid of going over the other end and back into dull repetition of what should be great words of worship.

    So how does it happen?

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  36. Jerry says:

    This is excellent, thoughtful writing. I find it articulates something that I have not been able to put into words concerning the praise style services that are a bit too much styled to entertain for my, older point of view. While one wants the services to touch and reach people in the era we are in, the non-liturgical services and forms are never really causing them to reach for the scriptures for themselves. This deprives them of the messages. They are satisfied to leave the Church after service and never participate in anything.

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