David Buttrick is Professor of Homiletics, Emeritus, at the Divinity Scbool of Vanderbilt University. His books include Homiletic, Preaching Jesus Christ (publisbed by Fortress Press); Speaking Parables: A Homiletic Guide, Preaching the New and the Now, A Captive Voice: The Liberation of Preaching, and The Mystery and the Passion: A Homiletic Reading of the Biblical Tradition (publisbed by Westminster John Knox Press).

What is worship?

The word "worship" derives from the idea of worth, God's worth. In other words, ascribing worth to God. Most Protestant churches define worship primarily as an act of thanksgiving. There is a story in the Bible about ten lepers healed by Jesus. Nine of them went off to have their health checked by the priests. One came back and fell down at Jesus' feet in praise, giving thanks. Luther, when asked to define worship, said "The tenth leper turning back." And that may be it -- thanksgiving.

What happens when we worship?

Instead of trying to explain worship in terms of human psychological or sociological factors, why don't we begin by saying it's real. There really is God, a God who in some mysterious way is present, and to whom we are present. The second thing may be to say that it is a responsive act. We worship because we are responding to God's initiative. We are called by God to relate to God in worship and to pray for our neighbors. Worship is the Great Commandment happening.

What are the basic components of the traditional worship service?

The basic components are Word -- that is to say, the reading of scripture, and the preaching of the sermon -- and Sacrament, that is Eucharist, the Lord's Supper. In one way that's been the history of Christian worship from the very beginning -- preaching and the Lord's Supper. In addition, there usually is an act of praise at the beginning of the service. God has called us to worship and we respond with praise. Sometimes there will be a prayer of confession next and then, after the sermon, prayers for other people. The service normally ends with another act of thanksgiving, and an offering. There's a variability as to where to locate as to where to locate all the elements of worship. But the component parts have been, traditionally, word and sacrament, an entry before, and a conclusion after.

How does worship reflect our beliefs or our faith?

There is a theological reason for the order of worship. In other words, theology designs worship. The way we worship should display our faith. If we are called by God, the call to worship is not just getting up there and saying "It's time to worship." Instead, it's God's call. Tremendous! If God has called us to worship, how do you respond? Well, you respond with praise. So, usually there's a call to worship and right away we sing a hymn of praise. In some traditions, immediately after that, there's a prayer of confession of the church. This is not for individuals worrying about their personal guilt. No, this is a confession of the church; God has called us, but we have failed to be God's people. Then there are instructions. Now let us hear what God tells us to do and be, and we turn to the scriptures preached. After the scripture is preached, we pray for our neighbors. We now know what God wants us to do. Let's actually volunteer our prayers and our offerings in obedience, responding to what God has asked us to be and do. And now let us celebrate with a kind of future hope where God is leading us, as we gather together as an image of a great feast which God hopes the world will become. There's a theological movement. If you start fooling around with it, perhaps because people like one thing better than another, then you lose the theological shape of worship, the logic of it all.

What are the dangers of not making worship more contemporary?

A kind of old-fashioned tone. We would be worshipping a God of the past with no sense of God's real presence in contemporary life. Our language changes, our understandings of music change. And they should. So the idea of binding worship completely to the past would be unfortunate. Obviously we live and worship in a tradition and we should treasure our heritage. So, for example, we still should use the Psalms that go all the way back to Israel. They have been with us for thirty centuries. On the other hand, contemporary language and music, if chosen theologically, can be good. And therefore, of course, worship has again and again renewed itself by turning to find its poetry in the contemporary.

What might be some dangers of making worship contemporary?

Many contemporary worship services that are marketed on the basis of "being contemporary" are theologically empty. On the one hand, they emphasize performance, because people like to watch performance. On the other hand, they allow people to express themselves and their own understanding of faith.. And people like to talk about themselves. But obviously, if you design worship on the basis of what people like, you end up deforming the theological activity of worship. That's serious. Worship is not performance for us to watch. No, we're all the performers. Nobody can do it for you. It has got to involve us all corporately and together. And we can't replace the sermon with people telling their personal stories. That's nice, but there are other times and places for personal "witnessing." But we can't forget that there is a message that has been forming us over the centuries that has to be spoken. The motive for much contemporary worship is the sense that "you gotta bring people into church." Actually what we really ought to do is get the church out into the world. Being evangelical. And that's something we'd just as soon not do. We want to bring them in and hang on to our institutional life. It turns whole congregations into people interested in institutional maintenance, and that's pretty unexciting.

In many churches, members of the worshiping community no longer share a common experience of the church. How does this affect worship?

Obviously, one of the tasks is to teach people to worship. We have not been doing a good job of teaching worship. It was fascinating to watch the Catholic Church at Vatican II simply revolutionize the way they worshiped by teaching. They did it in a matter of weeks. Protestantism seems to have the odd notion that worship will just bubble out of the human heart naturally. If we had the same sort of notion about education, our children would never read, they would never write, they would never think critically. We have to teach them. The same thing is true of worship. It is not inborn. We have to teach people how to worship. That means taking time even in church to explain why we're doing what we're doing as well as to instruct people in classes ahead of time. When they join the church, we ought to train them to worship, as the Early Church did.

How is preaching different now from 100 years ago? 50? What factors contribute to those changes?

Two hundred years ago, preaching was longer and more thoughtful. It was more theological. What's the point of preaching? To spread the knowledge of God, for heaven's sake! Therefore, sermons were carefully reasoned and often instructional. They were thoughtful and drew on the Christian tradition and tried to further a knowledge it. Then much of the country was swept by revivalism. Suddenly, the emphasis was much more on conversion, and conversion was thought to be accomplished by emotion. Preaching became a kind of contrived system to make people feel, and through feeling, to be converted. So then you have a split, with one tradition saying that preaching speaks to the mind, a rational tradition and another tradition saying that preaching speaks to the heart and tending to be a much more emotional experience. A disastrous split, by the way. One of the things that preaching has to do is to find a way out of that split.

In the thirties, American preaching was much more prophetic. Preaching dealt with political issues. Suddenly with WWII, preachers tended to support the nation in its war effort. In the fifties, all of a sudden, white Protestants were moving to the suburbs, and preaching turned somewhat therapeutic, ministering to people's psychological needs and feelings and affections.

Of late, preaching seems to have turned much more toward institutional preservation. We preach to boost the church because many Protestant denominations have been losing members. So I see three shifts in the past sixty years, the first away from the prophetic in support of nation, the second toward therapeutic personalist concerns, the third a move toward church management. These have been devastating to preaching.

Another change has been the loss of the sense that preaching is the voice of God. Two hundred years ago, when someone was called to ministry and got up and spoke, it was understood that somehow God was speaking. Preaching was the chosen mode for God to speak to God's people. That was part of the Reformation. Luther believed it. Calvin believed it. Wesley believed it. That view of preaching has not changed in the black church, but has dwindled in white Protestantism.

How do we recover that sense of preachers speaking the Word of God?

Teaching of how to preach has not been very good for some years. The average, mainline Protestant seminary offers very little, or no, required work in preaching. You go back 150 years, there was a lot of hours required of people to prepare them for preaching. And the preparation included biblical research, working it into a sermon, finding ways to speak theological assessments, and speaking as a way to reach people. In this century, preaching courses turned into how to talk in different ways and on different topics to different congregations and make them like it. It hit a low ebb in the sixties. But now, suddenly, in South American and Africa, preaching has become very important. Perhaps that's why their churches are growing so quickly. In Peru, people are lining up around the block waiting for a church service so they can hear preaching. That's not happening in America. We may be too rich to care. In the seventies we began finally to get a revival in homiletic method and teaching, and it may well bear fruit.

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