Lectionary Planning/Preaching and Series Planning/Preaching: Part 1 -- History

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

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John Wesley, by William Hamilton. Public Domain.


If you seek to follow the advice for worship planning and preaching "out there" in current publications, much of it seems to fall into two mutually exclusive camps, each of which is completely sure they've found the "one right way" that you and every other worshiping community should follow.

Camp One: Stick with the lectionary-- resist the sermon series!

Camp Two: Forget the lectionary-- stick with sermon series!

Each camp is good at generating its reasons to support its particular view and to seek to demolish the view of the other.

Lectionary preachers accuse series preachers of engaging in "eisegesis"-- that is, "reading into" the biblical texts whatever will support the "point" they want to make for the sake of the series. But let's be fair--the fact that lectionary preachers don't choose the text is no guarantee at all that they won't read their biases into it Sunday after Sunday! So maybe the series preachers are actually being more honest and transparent about the biases they bring?.

Meanwhile, series preachers accuse lectionary preachers of being lazy and irrelevant, claiming they rely too much on all of the lectionary-based resources out there rather than doing their own listening to God for a message most needful in this time and this place. And some who believe Bible book based series are "the" way to go sometimes suggest that lectionary preachers do not preach the whole Bible, but just bits and pieces. As I heard one "Series Camper" quip about a year ago, "Who really cares that it's the 32nd Sunday of Pentecost? Do you have something important to tell me for my life today or not?" I confess that when I heard that (liturgy and lectionary geek that I am!) my internal response was "Um-- there is no such thing in the UMC as a Season OF Pentecost, and there aren't 32 Sundays after Pentecost either! Did you even bother to check with the lectionary or the Christian Year before you decided to ditch it and publicly encourage others to do likewise?"

Well, I am a liturgy geek and a lectionary geek (and some of my colleagues also know me as a bit of a Discipline geek), but long before any of those signs of "geekiness" showed up, I was (and remain) a history geek. So as much as I love the lectionary (and I do!) and generally tend to plan worship and preach from it (and I do!) I cannot say that lectionary-based preaching is "the one right way" (and I don't!). But neither can I say that the sermon series is "the one right way" (and I don't do that, either!).

And here's why.

From the beginning, Methodists experienced both lectionary-based worship planning and preaching and more topically-based worship planning and preaching, week-in, week-out.

Sunday morning worship for the vast majority of early Methodists followed the one-year lectionary of the Church of England. This is because in the larger parishes in the cities (where most of the Methodist societies were), you were likely to hear an original sermon on that text from the rector. Out in the smaller parishes and those in the outlying areas, usually served by a vicar, you were more likely to hear one of the Homilies, a series of 33 "sermons" written by Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury and chief architect of the Book of Common Prayer during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI) and John Jewel (bishop during the reign of Queen Elizabeth) for official verbatim use by less qualified clergy and as a theological model for use by the more qualified. The purpose of these "homilies" was to provide a solid theological and biblical baseline and defense of Anglican doctrine generally (Cranmer) and, in Jewel's additional volume, in particular the 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England. Some of these sermons were actually so long that they were already broken down into smaller parts for use in the churches over a series of weeks (notably Jewel's "On the Perils of Idolatry," whose 120 pages of small type could have been stretched out, actually, over an entire summer!).

Again, since most Methodists were in the cities, and most were Anglicans, Sunday morning worship would have included the lectionary readings and, most likely, preaching based on those readings in some way.

That is why when John Wesley sent over a Prayer Book for Methodists in what would become the United States, he included the Anglican Sunday lectionary for use for reading and preaching in Sunday morning worship. He expected that pattern of worship to continue here on Sunday mornings once the Methodists were also a church in their own right.

Sunday nights at the Society meetings were a different matter. Here the sermons tended to focus specifically on matters related to justification and sanctification, or "salvation" and "holiness," and could be either exhortatory (urging people on to holiness) or explanatory in purpose, and sometimes both. For this setting Mr. Wesley developed his Standard Sermons that, like the Homilies of the Church (he had issued an abridged edition of Cranmer's Homilies as well!), could be used verbatim by persons who lacked the training or credentials to "take a text" on their own.Wesley's sermons rarely functioned as a series, but were mostly topical in nature. His extended series on the Sermon on the Mount (Sermons #16-28 in the Standard Sermons volume, Sermons #21-33 in the larger Collected Sermons) was a notable exception.

Thursday nights at the class meetings were not usually occasions for sermons, but were another opportunity for further teaching of doctrine or practice grounded in scripture.

The historical point-- most early Methodists were not put into a "forced choice" situation between lectionary-based preaching and series preaching, but something more like a "forced both!" It was not optional for Methodists to attend Sunday morning public worship in some congregation and the Sunday night Society meeting (and a class meeting!) if they wished to remain Methodist. Fail to participate in all three over time and you were likely to get read out of the Society! Put positively, early Methodists were able to partipate and gain the benefits of both "lectionary" preaching and "topical" or "series" preaching every week, with both seen as essential (but for different things) and so complementary rather than vying for "the one right way" as the current "camps" would seem to put it.

Both Essential, but for Different Things
So what were the different things, and what were the differences in venue (congregational worship on Sunday morning and Society worship on Sunday nights) that account for the differences in form and content?

Preaching on Sunday morning in the congregation for most Methodists meant participating in the liturgy of the Church of England. The liturgy itself, in Richard Hooker's description in Of the Lawes of Ecclestiasicall Politie (1593), was understood as an occasion for the angels to descend from heaven to us and from us to heaven. It was a dialogical exchange in grace. The angels descending were those parts of the liturgy where we hear from God, including the reading and preaching of scripture.

On preaching itself, Hooker writes: "Thinges are preacht not in that they are taught but in that they are publisht." (Lawes V.18.3). By this Hooker was saying two things. First, that the actual reading aloud of the biblical texts established in the lectionary was also and as importantly a form of the preaching of those same texts. And second, that the point of preaching at the Sunday service was to "publick" or "publish" the word, to "get the word out" -- to make sure people heard what the Scriptures and the church said, rather than primarily to "get the word in," that is, to help people learn to apply that word to their lives. ("Getting the word in" was what "teaching" was for). The primary means by which the word would get in to people's lives would be through other instruction (at the daily offices, for example) or ritually through the Eucharist, where Christ (the True Word) presents himself to us and enables us to participate fully in his body and blood, and so in our Triune God.

This theology, practice and function of the preached word ("the public worship of God.... the ministry of the word, either read or expounded" General Rule 3) was Wesley's as well. And it accounts partly for why he was so insistent that the Methodists must also participate in public worship in the existing congregations.

But it was also not all there was, nor all that was necessary. Just as Hooker had envisioned Sunday worship as angels flowing back and forth between God and the worshiping church, so Wesley (as Hooker!) understood preaching more broadly speaking as a means of both "getting the word out" and "getting the word in." Actual attendance at the daily offices in Wesley's day was dismal. (Sundays, from some accounts, weren't great either, for that matter!). So in effect for most people in the larger city churches of the Church of England, little real teaching ("getting the word in") was happening. Indeed, if the verbatim reading of the 16th century Homilies didn't bore one to distraction, one might actually have gotten more intensive doctrinal, ritual and even practical instruction on Sunday mornings in the smaller and more rural English parishes!

Society meetings, mostly in the cities, were thus a significant venue for "getting the word in"-- both through the singing of hymns rich in doctrinal and "experimental' theology and through an exhortation, a reading of one of Mr Wesley's Standard Sermons, or other preaching that may be offered there.

In other words, both lectionary-based and topical (and sometimes series!) preaching were deemed and practiced as essential by the early Methodists, and function fit format. Where the purpose of the assembly was primarily the public worship of God, preaching was the "publicking" or "publishing" of the scriptures. Where the purpose of the assembly was primarily the exhortation of the saints to holiness, preaching was the teaching and exhortation of those practices that applied scripture to life, and particularly to growth in holiness.

So What About Now?
See Part 2: Lectionary OR Series Planning