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Preaching and Leading Worship

By William H. Willimon. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984, 116 pp., $7.95

Those who prefer to keep worship frozen in always-the-same forms like to quote C. S. Lewis's essay "Liturgy." Lewis felt that a service "works best ... when, through long familiarity, we don't have to think about it. ... My whole liturgical position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity."

At the risk of citing a Methodist against an Anglican to make a point about Reformed worship, let me put forth William H. Willimon. It seems to me that he is much closer than Lewis is to the Reformed principle of "always reforming." Willimon opens his Preaching and Leading Worship with a section of "Guidelines for Innovation," but not as a call for novelty and experimentation. Instead, he begins by saying, "The power of ritual is in its predictability and sameness" (p. 14). After this conservative opening he lays out a number of sensible suggestions for changing worship practices, and he signals those areas of worship that may need reforming.

Willimon thus has a balanced approach: he sees the need for appraising and evaluating worship but guards against a craze for novelty. This balance characterizes the rest of the book as well.

Preaching and Leading Worship is intended primarily for pastors, but anyone interested and involved in worship can benefit from the book. Let me cite some of Willimon's ideas that may contribute to meaningful worship: the choir's primary duty is to support congregational singing (p. 20). The people should respond with the "Amen" after the benediction (p. 35). Members of the congregation should be encouraged and trained to take an active role in leading worship (pp. 38; 103-111). Christ's meal with the two disciples at Emmaus is one model for our communion services (p. 53). Parents who present children for baptism should be asked to attend classes on the meaning of baptism and on Christian parenting (p. 61).

In addition to these suggestions for preparing for and conducting worship Willimon provides guidelines on preaching—on both the preparation and delivery of sermons. He covers lectionary and series preaching, and he gives advice about quoting poetry (sparingly), the pastor telling anecdotes about his family (very sparingly), and the systematic evaluation of the pastor's preaching (essential).

Willimon's closing paragraph sums up both the responsibility and the privilege of leading worship:

So, whether you are preaching or praying, whether you are leading the faithful in praise or following them in offering, let all you do be done to the greater glorification and enjoyment of God. Thereby may the Word be unleashed, the people of God be fed, the priest be faithful to the call, and the God who saves be pleased (p. 111).

My words of commendation are not to suggest, of course, that I agree with all of what Willimon says. I much prefer the term table to his altar. I fail to see why praying before the offering is "symbolically absurd" (p. 34) if the prayer is a dedication of ourselves to the Lord. And I am ambivalent about some of his suggestions concerning children in worship. But my appreciation far outweighs my reservations. Few books on worship pack as much into one hundred pages as does Willimon's.