Preaching and Leading Worship by William H. Willimon

            Willimon begins by highlighting several considerations for making changes in patterns of congregational worship: 1) Do not change a congregation’s accustomed worship pattern until you have some clear understanding of the function of the accustomed patterns and unless you feel that the change is essential to preserving the vitality and fidelity of the congregation as people of God, 2) Never make liturgical changes solely at the pastor’s discretion, 3) Be honest with yourself (“As C. S. Lewis once said, ‘The charge is feed my sheep,’ not ‘run experiments on my rats.’”), 4) Use every means to explain the proposed change to the people, 5) Welcome comments on the changes, 6) Introduce some innovation at a “special” service at a time other than Sunday morning, 7) Utilize the new worship resources of your own denomination in reforming your congregation’s worship, 8) Finally, be willing to consider trying something else or backing off (be careful not to take worship away from the congregation).

            Next, Willimon surveys common weaknesses in worship: 1) Lack of focus and coherence in the acts of worship, 2) Inadequate treatment of Scripture, 3) Inadequate opportunities for congregational participation and response, 4) Insufficient attention of the acts of gathering, 5) Architectural setting not always conducive to the type of worship climate we wish to create, 6) Exclusion of children (work to restore children to a key place in our worship), 7) Poor formation and leadership of public prayer, and 8) Many Free-Church Protestant guilty of a woeful neglect of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

            In chapter 2, Willimon looks at a pattern for worship.  He breaks up the worship service into two parts: Word and Table.  Each part contains several elements.  Included in the Word section are the following: Gathering of the Church, Proclamation and Praise, Response and Offerings.  The Table section is composed of the following: Taking of the Bread and Cup, The Great Thanksgiving, Breaking the Bread, Giving the Bread and the Cup. 

The pastor plays an essential role as host, which requires two areas for effective leadership: preparation and style.  Preparation is vital.  Our preparedness impacts the preparedness of the congregation.  How we present Word and Table will be reflected in the congregation’s reception of these gifts.  Secondly, we must take into consideration the space and our personal capability.  Our actions must be appropriate to both.

Presiding in the pattern, each element of the service plays an important role in shaping us as God’s people.  The Gathering of the Church sets the tone of the worship service.  Proclamation and praise declare who God is and provides space for our response.[1]  Responses and Offerings can be multi-faceted.  It may include reciting the creeds; passing the peace; and receiving the tithes and offerings, which should be placed on the Table after receiving them.  The taking, thanking, breaking, and giving at the Lord’s Table conclude the service.  The benediction blesses and sends the people forth into the world as God’s ambassadors.

Willimon provides several suggestions for ceremonial acts: our actions should highlight the important aspects of our worship; our actions should relate to the size of the building; our actions should relate to the style of the worship space; the size of the congregation makes a difference in how we lead them; the nature of the congregation also influences how we lead them; the relative importance of the day will make a difference in our leadership style; and, our own personalities affect how we lead.

Vestments can also play a role in worship.  It shows continuity with the past, giving voice to the fact that we are part of the universal church.  The vestments can give voice to the seasons of the Christian year through the visual senses. The vestments also remind us that the clergy function as a representative of the congregation, not simply as an individual.  This leads us to Willimon’s last section.  He reminds pastors that we must do a better job of sharing leadership with the laity.  This means that we must intentionally train them for leading worship.

Chapter three discusses public prayer.  Public prayer is approached differently than private prayer.  Both are necessary, but public prayer is not dictated by the one praying.  It must give voice to the whole congregation.  Willimon provides five guidelines for public prayer, especially for practitioners of “free prayer”: careful construction of a prayer does not mitigate against the concept of free prayer; opportunities for congregational participation in public prayer should be looked for; a good service will have a mix of both types of prayer, free and liturgical, according to the movement of the service; generally speaking, the trend in public worship is to include a variety of short prayers of various types rather than one long prayer that attempts to include everything; and, a good pastor is a good listener.  To conclude, Willimon also lists four guidelines for our language in public prayer: the language should articulate and enliven the Christian ideas which we understand to be essential to the faith; the language should not manipulate or call attention to itself; the language employed should be an adequate idiom for this particular group and for this particular service; our language should be inclusive.

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are sacraments.  “Sacraments and ordinances are everyday objects, like bread and water, and everyday actions, like eating and bathing, that when done among God’s people in worship convey both God’s love for them and their love for God” (52).  Willimon notes a shift in ecumenical agreement on the purpose of the sacraments.  He suggests four things that has shifted due to the ecumenical discussion.  First, there is widespread agreement on the biblical and historical centrality of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Secondly, the theological focus of our Sacraments has often been far too limited.  Third, we have often made the Sacraments into individualized, privatized acts of personal piety rather than the communal, familial, ecclesial acts they were meant to be.  Finally, the Sacraments are linked to the most basic, primal, everyday experiences of life; to disjoint them from those human experiences is to undercut their power.  Willimon then outlines some practical implications of these thoughts: restore the Lord’s Supper to its rightful place in our Sunday worship; utilize the new sacramental rites of your denomination; preach and teach on the Sacraments; pay close attention to the mechanics of your leadership of these rites; and, prepare people for more meaningful participation in the Sacraments.

Preaching has become more biblical, moving away from the popular topical sermon.  Willimon suggests this trend can be contributed to several factors: the lectionary helps pastors not focus on favorite Scripture and theology; there are now more resources for unpacking the lectionary; pastors are also finding that the Bible is the very source of our Christian identity (I would add a corrective and say that the Bible testifies to the One who is the very source of our identity). 

Willimon proposes a method for constructing the sermon: read the whole book through, in one sitting if possible; establish the text; detailed word study of the text to make sure that you know what the text means; read the entire text again with an ear toward its general thrust; state the theme of the proposed sermon in one sentence; how shall I say it? (form and genre); jot down some ways in which your congregation needs to hear or can relate to this text. 

The process of constructing a sermon is fraught with pitfalls.  Willimon notes several that can become a great hinderance to hearing the text properly: transference – Scripture means today what it has always meant; allegorization – if a person believes that every portion of Scripture is useful for today’s Christian, that person may be tempted to imbue troublesome or questionable passages with alleged symbol meaning; parallelism – the preacher draws a simple parallel between a biblical situation and a situation today; universalization – a given text that applied to one situation is now applied to a whole array of circumstances; psychologizing – a previous generation of preachers was often guilty of ‘spiritualizing’ a text; moralizing – perhaps the most frequent modern interpretive pitfall is moralizing (an attempt to draw simple moral inferences from the text).

Composing the sermon comes next.  There are all sorts of ways to compose a text.  Willimon suggests three potential models.  One model starts with the Biblical text (what it says), moves to exposition of the text (what it meant), and finishes with the contemporary situation to which this text speaks (what it means).  A second model begins with the contemporary problem, moves to the Biblical text that is relevant to this problem, and finishing with what would happen if this text were applied to this problem.  A final model suggested begins with a contemporaroy story that portrays some aspect of the human condition and moves to a Biblical story that illuminates the situation.

Willimon now moves to delivery of the sermon.  He begins by noting that good preaching involves good listening.  First, it requires listening to the Biblical text.  Secondly, it requires that we be lovers of language, for it is our toolbox.  Thirdly, listen to your listeners.  Watch their body language for indicators of hearing.  Fourth, listen to yourself.  What are your strengths and weaknesses in communication (verbal and non-verbal)?

One’s voice can create difficulties in preaching.  There are several elements to pay attention to closely here: intensity (volume), clarity (clearness and articulation), and variety (intonation and pitch).  And, like any art, practice makes perfect.  Preaching takes practice.

Illustrations give concreteness to our sermons.  There are several things to think through the use of an illustration.  First, we must be careful not to use an illustration that might embarrass someone or that might divulge some pastoral confidence.  Second, a good test for personal material is the question, Could this experience have happened to anyone in the congregation?  It is important to find a system to file these illustrations, but keep it manageable and up to date.  It is also important to find ways to evaluate and improve upon your preaching.  Surveying a select group from the congregation over several weeks can be helpful toward this goal. 

Willimon writes, “A clericalized, sacerdotal presbyterate, in which a clerical upper crust lords it over the lowly laity, is an ecclesiastical deformity” (103).  He then states, “Good pastoral leadership strives to get everyone into the act” (105).  Willimon suggests gathering a group to act as a music and worship committee to get laity involved in worship planning.  Worship task forces can help construct seasonal emphases and involve others in the process.  Most importantly, this requires education of the church.  It is important to note that it should not be all didactically explained.  Sometimes it requires the action to be the educational process, whereby we are drawn into the mysteries of God through worship.

Overall, I thought this was a very good book that covered many of the basic concerns for leading worship.  Sometimes it was heavily practical and concerned with the mechanics.  However, Willimon also infused the text with theological reflection that provided a good foundation for the leading worship.  I would recommend this as a great introductory read on preaching and leading worship for both pastors and laity.


[1] This is my assessment of the purpose for this piece.  Willimon focuses on the practical aspects of how this element should be carried out (i.e., how to read the Scripture).

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