An Overview of Presbyterian (PCA) Worship

The sermon remains central to worship in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and selection of texts is determined by the minister’s choice rather than a church year lectionary. While it is customary to preach on seasonal topics at Christmas and Easter, freedom from mandatory observance of the Christian year continues to be stressed and no churches are known to follow it.

Ministers in the PCA hold the preaching of God’s Word in the highest possible regard. Given their denomination’s creedal stance, this outlook is understandable! The Westminster Confession of Faith declares: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (I:6). Since in part it is the nature of Scripture to convey the eternal purposes of God and his gracious plan for redemption, it is only logical that the confession emphasize the importance of preaching the Scriptures: “The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and considerable hearing of the Word … are all parts of the ordinary worship of God” (XXI:5).

“The Directory for Worship,” in the Book of Church Order (BCO), which makes practical application of the doctrinal statements of the PCA to specific aspects of corporate worship, underscores the importance of preaching the Word: “The preaching of the Word is an ordinance of God for the salvation of men. Serious attention should be paid to the manner in which it is done. Preaching requires much study, meditation, and prayer, and ministers should prepare their sermons with care, and not indulge themselves in loose, extemporary harangues, nor serve God with that which costs them naught” (BCO, 531–1).

While stressing the prominence of preaching faithfully the Word of God, the Book of Church Order allows latitude in the choice of which portion of that Word is to be expounded. The only instruction given on that point reads: “The subject of the sermon should be some verse or verses of Scripture, and its object, to explain, defend and apply some part of the system of divine truth…. It is proper also that large portions of Scripture be sometimes expounded, and particularly improved, for the instruction of the people in the meaning and use of the Sacred Scriptures” (BCO, 53–2).

This means that appointed texts for the church year (lectionary) need not be followed. In fact, no congregations in the PCA are known to utilize a lectionary. Several reasons account for the rejection of a lectionary approach. First, the denomination holds dearly to the principle of sola scriptura. Scripture, and only Scripture, determines what must be preached. Strict adherence to a lectionary is regarded as infringing on this principle. True, only Scripture is given by a lectionary as the proper text for any sermon, but the choice of the text is denied the preacher who is guided by the lectionary. The minister must be sensitive to the Holy Spirit speaking through the Word. He or she selects those portions of God’s Word to expound for their encouragement and edification.

Second, the practice of lectio continua prevails in the denomination as opposed to lectio selectia. Expository preaching is the norm in the PCA—often in the form of systematic expositions of books and lengthy passages (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount, the Upper Room discourse, the parables). In an effort to lay precept upon precept and line upon line and so enhance the biblical knowledge of the congregation, ministers are instructed to preach in sequence through portions of Scripture rather than choose at random unrelated texts.

Finally, the denomination has adopted the pattern of traditio accepto, and in particular the accepted tradition of holding no day above another. While it is true that most PCA pastors preach on Incarnation themes at Christmas and resurrection themes at Easter, this practice is not required. In fact, a few teaching elders avoid these themes at these seasons just to make the point that such “holy days” (holidays) are of human origin and are not signaled out by Scripture for special attention.

However, Dr. Brian Chapell, Professor of Homiletics at Covenant Theological Seminary, the PCA’s only seminary, writes: “Distance from the battles of the Reformation, and a growing sense of the need to reach our culture, have made reformed churches more sensitive to the cultural calendar, but not more willing to mandate a liturgical calendar.” He expresses well the sentiment of the PCA regarding the Christian year.

Adapted from The Services of the Christian Year, Star Song Publishing Group. Used by permission.