Sunday, September 13, 2009

Ditch the Lectionary

My church uses the Common Lectionary, a selection of readings from the Bible that work through the whole text, pretty much, every three years. Each week we have an Old Testament selection, a New Testament selection from the gospels, and a New Testament selection from the other NT books. The pastor normally incorporates one of these selections into the sermon.

I appreciate the intent of the lectionary. Using a lectionary makes certain that the preacher will not just stick to a few favorite texts, but will have to read, and perhaps preach on, the entire Bible.

Still, as a way of actually teaching the Bible, I think the lectionary is a failure. Three unconnected snippets each week are too short and too many to follow. Since, in my experience, it is a rare preacher who tries to integrate all three each week, most of the readings are not developed at all. And even if the preacher does follow one section - the gospel, most likely - for several weeks, it is very hard to hold on to the thread of preaching. Usually, the sequences of sermons are not connected with one another, and often only loosely connected with the text.

I think we would be better off preaching the Word the way the Reformers did: work through a book, or a theme, thoroughly. This does not mean that today's events and concerns could not be incorporated - on the contrary, nearly all of the Bible ties readily to today. But I, as a listener and student, would rather hear one sustained argument for a season that really explicated and connected a text.

The lectionary, it seems to me, makes most of our Scripture reading in the service into a magical act of just saying the words and hoping they have some effect.


Mary Jo said...

Why are the three scriptures disconnected? That seems like a poorly planned lectionary. Catholics do the same thing, but the readings usually seem to complement each other. Maybe you don't need to ditch the lectionary so much as redo it.

Anonymous said...

Why shouldn't a preacher preach the way a teacher teaches? A unit on sea life doesn't usually include two 5-minutes sections a day about deserts and the Civil War.

Rev. Suzanne Gorhau said...

I was taught in seminary that it's almost heresy not to use the lectionary. I struggle with it, though. I don't like preaching on small snippets of texts. And I rarely read more than the passage of scripture I'm preaching on.

I've been preaching more sermon series at my current church, especially whole books of the Bible. I preached on Exodus, which actually was the lectionary. And I just finished preaching on Jonah, which was one Sunday in March, but I did four in August. The big argument is that it keeps the preacher from only preaching on his/her favorite texts. But I do give people a variety of texts. And I think the bigger problem now is not preaching the texts that aren't included in the lectionary.

The thing that I miss the most when not preaching from the lectionary is I miss the many resources that are lectionary based.

I heard once a suggested seven year lectionary, which would increase the amount of Bible passages that were included it in, and would help you not preach on the same texts every three years.

Rebecca said...

You're right to criticize the lectionary. As a teaching tool, it's a poorly constructed syllabus.

I grew up in a small Presbyterian church which, more or less, stuck to the lectionary each week. The hymns, children's sermon, and prayer time were all equally unrelated to each other and to the content of the sermon. The result was a completely disjointed order of worship which worked like anathema on my methodical student mind. Anonymous offers an apt classroom analogy. If one goal of the worship service is to teach, then this "lesson plan" will fall short every time.

A more effective order of worship would include prayers, songs, and perhaps even a children's sermon which all serve to reiterate the main message. If long term retention is a goal, then the bulletin should provide reflection space to encourage note taking or writing. This message could be built upon from week to week (like a school unit) culminating, perhaps, on key dates in the church calendar.

This just makes good sense. You wouldn't construct a syllabus like the lectionary because your students would never form a cohesive knowledge structure in their minds. So why on earth do we think that's how faith-based teaching should work?

Gruntled said...

I don't know if the Catholic lectionary is more coherent than the one Presbyterians use (in common with other denominations). Some OT and NT passages work well together, but more often than not it is a big stretch to make even two of them cohere, much less all three.

I don't think a seven-year lectionary would be much help if it still has three disconnected readings each week.

I agree with Rebecca.

Here is the potentially heretical idea: explicating the Word is a good way to teach, but it may not be a great way to foster a feeling of worship.

Walk said...

Fascinating post. I like the idea of a lectionary -- ecumenical Christians simultaneously preaching through the whole Bible over a period of time. But I think the current RCL is flawed.

A seven, or so, year lectionary sounds great!

I am preaching more series this fall than ever, sometimes apart from the lections -- 3 on Prodigal Son this month -- or 3 from Job and lectionary in October.

Michael Bush said...

Wow. Good for you! I completely agree. When I taught preaching, I encouraged lectio continua preaching to anyone I could get to listen. It's a tough discipline, much tougher than the lectionary, since so much of the hard stuff has been elided in the RCL.

I find it curious, in light of the lectionary's "null curriculum" (the excluded voices), that so many of its advocates talk about it as forcing them to preach passages they would not otherwise have taken up. The RCL rarely asks mainstream western liberals to consider texts they would find really uncomfortable.

In contrast, part of the commitment to lectio continua is to skip nothing. I have been forced into far more uncomfortable corners by preaching lectio continua than i ever was when I used the RCL.

So I think lectio continua is an excellent practice for centerists.

Quotidian Grace said...

Great post and discussion!

We have not been following the lectionary for some time at my church. Our senior pastor is preaching through the Gospel of Luke and plans to continue through Acts. This summer our associate pastors preached through Colossians. The congregation has responded so well to this change that I expect it will continue indefinitely.

Anonymous said...

Mary Jo and Gruntled, Presbyterians use pretty much the same lectionary as do Catholics -- the Revised Common Lectionary. I think that sometimes the connections between the readings are easier to find than others. (The Lutherans use a modified version where the OT readings tend to be more related to the other readings.)

Frankly, I think it's a mistake to try and incorporate all three readings into the sermon. Pick one. But as a guy in the pew (not in the pulpit), I appreciate the opportunity to hear all the lessons, whether they are preached on or not. When all the lessons support whatever theme the minister wants to focus on, I feel a little like I'm being deprived. Often, there has been some blessing in hearing a reading even if nothing else in the service relates to it. There almost seems to be a little human arrogance (or at least Presbyterian cerebralism) in the thought that unless we discuss a passage or preach it, it is not worth listening to. It's not some magical act of the Scripture having some effect -- it's a prayerful act made in faith that if we listen attentively to Scripture, whether it is expounded in sermon or not, it will have effect.

But perhaps I should admit that I have a bias against services built around a "message" or "theme." They tend in my experience to be too didactic and "packaged" feeling for my tastes. And I come away feeling a little like we're trying to shape the Scripture rather than let the Scripture shape us.

In my Presbyterian congregation, one of the readings is chosen as the "focus" reading. That is the reading the sermon will be preached on. (And the bulletin will not give the sermon a title -- it will simply say, eg, "Sermon on Mark 8:27-38.") Hymns and other aspects of the service that relate to the sermon will relate to the "focus" reading. (Understanding, though, that the psalm almost always relates to the OT reading.) In our weekly e-newsletter, all readings are given and the "focus" passage is identified so that worshippers are able to prepare appropriately if they want to. We've also started providing the Consultation on Common Text 3-year daily lectionary rather than the daily lectionary found in the BCW. In the CCT's 3-year daily lectionary, the readings for Monday-Wednesday relate back to the readings for the previous Sunday, while the readings for Thursday-Saturday relate to the readings for the following Sunday.

As a pew-sitter, I understand that there is a teaching element in worship in general and the sermon in particular, but that is not what we come to worhip seeking. We come to worship seeking an encounter with the Holy. That is why a preacher should not preach the way a teacher teaches.

unkersh said...

It's a slippery slope. Next you'll be trying to let practicing gay pastors into the pulpit.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. My detail-oriented mind would also like to say that there is a reading from the Psalms that is also part of the lectionary selection as well.
I am in the same boat as Rev. Gorhau in that moving away from the RCL was frowned on in seminary. I think that like so much else in worship the passage selection depends on intent and how it is used. Passages that are just read to be read with no context given to worshipers does not work in a largely Biblically illiterate church culture. It is also helpful to place the RCL in the context of the liturgical calendar and the church year. The RCL can also bring to congregants texts that can be ignored with lectio continua or preacher's choice. We all have our own little canon within the the canon it seems.
Of course, I say this as a seminarian and not an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament. We must always open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit when preaching, reading, and listening to the Word. I just wanted to put in a good word for the RCL.
Scott Spence
Mobile, AL
Centre '02
Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary Student

Michael Bush said...


It sounds like you may have narrowly missed the opportunity to study preaching with Stan Hall, who died last year.

He was an articulate and enthusiastic advocate of lectio continua preaching.


Anonymous said...

I did have the pleasure of having Stan Hall for Intro to Worship my first year at APTS. He became too sick after that to teach any other courses-the seminary is still feeling a great loss with his death.
We did discuss all the various ways of selecting preaching texts in the class. He was also very good at never really overly tipping his hand with many things-which was very helpful in a class with several different denominations present. Whenever I go on too long or feel too self-important, I can still hear Stan harumph today and tell me to stick to the Word.
Scott Spence

Michael Bush said...

How interesting that Stan held back in class like that, Scott. He was an enthusiastic participant in a discussion group on Yahoo (unfortunately dormant the last several months) dedicated to lectio continua preaching and always made it clear there that this was what he thought ought to be done.

Alan said...

Good discussion. I grew up in a non-lectionary church and went to a seminary where it wasn't mentioned. I came to enjoy the lectionary as an associate pastor who didn't preach much.

Here are the two things I hear about using a lectionary. First is what's been said about not beating dead horses. Second, it that it expounds the "whole counsel of God".

IMHO both are bull. First, if you honestly work through the book of James you're going to have to deal with a variety of passages that aren't one's favorites. Like telling your big givers they may be damned if their motives are wrong.

Secondly, it takes more work to NOT preach the lectionary because you can't go back 3, 6 or 9 years and see what you preached then.

I use the lectionary for short sections and then only if a whole book, gospel etc. are a part of it. I often fall weeks behind so I can preach on the sections skipped by the RCL.


Anonymous said...

I've never understood the purpose of the lectionary to be to insure that every passage of the Bible. That would take years and clearly is not what is accomplished. It does border on the absurd to make such a claim.

Rather, it seems that the purpose is to insure that the whole of salvation history -- from Adam, Noah, the Patriarchs and the Prophets through Christ and the Apostles -- is proclaimed on a regular basis (with the festivals of the liturgical year in mind).

That, I think, is my problem with lectio continua, at least as I have experienced it. It can take so long to get through one book that the big picture is lost.

Anonymous said...

Oops. The first sentence above should have read: "I've never understood the purpose of the lectionary to be to insure that every passage of the Bible is read and preached on."

stogies said...

Three years matches the ministy of Jesus. He taught his disciples everything they needed to begin their ministry in three years.

B-W said...

Of course, Jesus wasn't just teaching his disciples once a week for only an hour at a time. ;)