The Place of Preaching in Public Worship: One Preacher’s Plea

By James Simpson

What would you say about a church service that had no preaching? Of course, this was roughly the situation in Medieval Europe before the Reformation. The people came, muttered a song, prayed, periodically took communion (sort of), and went home. No sermon, not one they could understand anyway. Our concern as modern Protestant preachers is that this never be the case in our churches today. Let it not be said that there was no sermon, that the people could not understand, that the sheep went home hungry! So, we work hard. We read and study, and we practice and pray. We participate in cohorts, go to conferences, and have favorite preaching podcasts. All this is good, but what about the rest of the worship service? What about singing and prayer and communion? What about the reading of the Word and the giving of offerings?    

I once overheard a parishioner describe going to church this way, “Well, let’s go see what Jamey has to say today.”  It was not a statement against the Bible, as though he wanted to hear me and not the Gospel of John. My preaching is intentionally, painstakingly exegetical and has been since the beginning. What this man is saying is that for him, church can basically be reduced to the sermon. It is not that he dislikes singing or prayer. I don’t believe that he would say that communion is unimportant. But in his mind, none of these things stand out as having a significant place of their own. They are something like popcorn and soda at a movie; very yummy perhaps, but not really the point.        

If you have been preaching for a while, you will have heard it too. It is in the encouraging lady who says she loves the singing because it gets her ready to hear the sermon. It is in the new Christian who is thankful for the prayer time because it gives him a chance to find the text for the week. Perhaps you, without meaning to, have encouraged it. You have neglected to give real time to prayer in the service. You have let the singing become unscriptural or unexcellent because “what’s the big deal so long as the preaching is good?”  Instead of telling your people to come to church for the worship of God (involving many things), you admonish them to come to church to hear the Word (which they can easily access on the web in their car).   

Here’s my concern: in our eagerness to emphasize good preaching, we have wrongly neglected to think (and teach!) deeply about the place of singing, prayer, giving, reading, and communion in our services. I suppose we can all agree at this point that church is not really church without the sermon. The question now is, what about all the other stuff? I suspect we have over-corrected. Having ventured too close to the left, we are in danger of going into the right-side ditch. Certainly, preaching is denigrated. It is thus natural to insist on its importance over much. For example, Albert Mohler, in an otherwise excellent article, goes so far as to call preaching the center of Christian worship.[1]  By this, he means that time in the Word preached must not be given over to power-point presentations and musical performances. He means to push back against a culture in which “Traditional norms of worship are now subordinated to a demand for relevance and creativity.[2]”  I agree, and he is making an important point. But there is something unfortunate in his calling preaching itself worship’s center. It is the picture of worship as a spoked wheel. If preaching is the center, what are things like prayer, congregational singing, and communion? They must be pushed out as spokes receiving their goodness and power from the goodness and power of preaching. But properly speaking, it is not so. The center of Christian Worship is not the preaching of the Word but the Word of God itself.[3]  Preaching is but one spoke that flows out of it. Prayer is another. Thus, the Apostles do not only say in Acts 6 that they must not neglect the Word of God in order to serve tables; they say that they must not neglect the Word of God and prayer.[4]  Singing, too, is a spoke of Christian Worship. The book of Psalms everywhere gives clear testimony to this. The New Testament assumes that we have not moved on.[5]  The communion table, too, is a spoke, both commanded by Jesus and practiced continually by the church. I am not here arguing with Al Mohler’s overall theology. Nor would I seek to strawman his article. What I am pointing out is the weakness of his choice of language in his eagerness to defend the place of preaching. In certain evangelical circles, it is a point easily forgotten: worship cannot be collapsed into a single mode. Worship is more than preaching. Christian worship includes all that the Bible has to say about the subject, and this includes not only preaching but also such things as singing, prayer, and communion.[6]

Consider then an alternative image offered by Matt Merker. Instead of worship as a wheel, he suggests we picture worship as a diamond ring.

The order of a worship service acts like the prongs that hold up the gleaming jewel of the gospel. Our liturgy should support and undergird the message of God’s grace in the Christ that we proclaim. Ideally, like the best prongs, the liturgy is unobtrusive – it gets out of the way so that the gospel shines bright and unhindered. Conversely, a poor liturgy is like a set of prongs that overshadow the diamond. The gem may still be present, but it is obscured. If a church isn’t careful, its order of service can muddle rather than highlight the good news.[7] 

What then is the place of the sermon in the worship service? Not central, but one important prong upholding the central jewel of the gospel. And what is the place of singing and prayer and communion? Not peripheral like popcorn in a movie, and also not central, but each is another important prong upholding what is central, which is the gospel according to the Word of God.     

We live in a time when more and more people wonder why they should go to church. What are we saying to them? I suggest that we start by pointing them to the aspects of worship that can’t be digitized.[8]  Ask them to consider the richness of the whole thing. First, we come together. There is physical fellowship in Christian worship. Then we hear the Word of God read. In response, we pray, responding to his invitation.[9]  Then we hear God’s Word again, this time preached. And we respond again, not only in faith and obedience throughout the week but also in song right away. In Christian worship, we are not merely passive recipients but active declarers of God’s excellencies. The truth does not just come into our ears but also out of our mouths. In singing, we use our bodies to reverberate God’s truth back into the world. But still, we are not done. Many of us also take communion each week, for the truth of God is not just a spoken word but also an acted Word. God speaks, and by faith, we not only sing but eat. We not only hear but taste and see that the Lord is good! All this you cannot do with a preaching app. by yourself in a car. It is physical, corporate and involves many things. Christian worship cannot be reduced to information. The basis and power are always the same. It is the Word of God preached, sung, prayed, and eaten.

Several years ago, I began a sermon series directed toward children. It was called “Why we Do What we Do.”  I took eight weeks to explain all the parts of the service, from the call to worship in the beginning all the way to the benediction at the end. I spoke about how each element communicates the gospel. I spoke about how each element is an important part of our discipleship, not just the preaching but also the singing and the communion and the prayer. The whole series was aimed at around the eight-year-old level (for we had new kids entering the service). To my surprise, it was the adults who got excited. “No one has ever explained this stuff to me before,” they said. “It makes church so much more meaningful.”   I suspect many people in our churches are in the same position. Like the medieval saints of old, many come, sing, and eat, but not with understanding. It seems that increasingly people are starting to understand that good preaching matters, and for this, I am glad. Perhaps it is time for preachers to start preaching on the other stuff too.[10]  


[1] R. Albert Mohler Jr.  “Expository Preaching: Center of Christian Worship,” in Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Ed. Ryken, Thomas, and Duncan.  (P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg), 2002, pg. 107-121.

[2] Ibid. pg. 108.

[3] Here we should distinguish between subject, source and means (or mode).  God is the subject of worship, in that sense He might be called the center.  But the source, the means by which we know how God wants to be worshipped, is Scripture.  In that sense, Scripture can be said to be the center.  We do not worship Scripture.  We worship God through the means outlined by Scripture.  Singing, preaching, prayer, etc. are the means. 

[4] “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Act 6:4 NAU)

[5] Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Col 3:16 NAU)  This is not an argument for Psalms only in public worship but it is an argument to include the Psalms in our worship, as they too are the “Word of Christ” that must richly dwell in us. 

[6] My goal in this article is not to delineate all the essential elements of worship.  It is only to urge that we start thinking just as deeply about the elements of worship as we have about preaching.  Instead of only asking, “what makes for a good sermon,” we must also ask, ‘What makes for a good service?”   

[7] Matt Merker, Corporate Worship: How the Church Gather’s as God’s People. (Crossway: Wheaton), 2021, pg. 97.

[8] Of course, there is more going on in a physical space where the Word is preached in person to a group than in a car where the word is played for an individual, but this generation may have a hard time getting that. 

[9] Consider this startling quote from the Prince of Preachers, C.H. Spurgeon, “Well, if I had to choose between the sermon and the prayer, I guess the sermon would have to go.”  Quoted by Ligon Duncan III and Terry Johnson, in “Reading and Praying the Bible in Corporate Worship,” from Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Ed. Ryken, Thomas, and Duncan.  (P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg), 2002, pg. 141.

[10] If this topic interests you I can recommend no better place to start than the book by Hughes Oliphant Old called Worship: Reformed according to Scripture Revised and Expanded Edition, (Westminster John Knox Press: Lousville), 2002.  In it, Old not only gives an excellent discussion of where the elements of worship come from Biblically, but also how they have been passed on historically.