Lectionary Planning/Preaching or Series Planning Preaching: Part 2-- What About Now?

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

Worship planning lectionary planning 2 300x225
Photo by MTSOFan, from Flickr. Used by permission under a Creative Commons License.

So What About Now-- Lectionary Planning/Preaching or Series Planning/Preaching?
(Part 1 here)


But perhaps each or some mixture of each in different ways with different kinds of assemblies.

People gathering then, or now, for the public worship of God-- people who are there because the congregation is a public institution they identify with, which is likely the vast majority of those who attend the "standard" Sunday morning worship services in the United Methodist or other "mainline" congregations, don't want their buttons pushed too hard about holiness.

And they never have!

Mr. Wesley found himself thrown out of so many pulpits in the Church of England in his younger years in part because of his mistaken notion that most of those who gathered there had some real interest in becoming holy. They didn't! And they still don't. Many may genuinely want to worship. Some may wish to be entertained. Probably most have no interest and little tolerance for being challenged or offended. Emily Dickinson sums up the attitude perhaps best in the concluding lines of her poem, "The Bible is an antique volume"-- "Orpheus' Sermon captivated. It did not condemn."

This, by the way, is not a condemnation of congregations or those who attend them. It's rather an observation about where we actually are in many of our congregations in the US.

Likewise, those who are seeking to grow in holiness of heart and life, also, will necessarily find themselves deeply frustrated if the only "preaching" they ever hear is focused on more "generic" or "basic" or even "biblical" subjects that do not actually teach them diligently to live out the faith they ritually profess. And these persons, in turn, will frustrate both pastors and congregations who simply don't see such an "intense" interest in growth in holiness belonging on the radar screen for Sunday mornings.

For these people, though a minority without doubt, an additional assembly, not to compete with or replace what "standard Sunday morning" can do well, but to complement it, seems a wise opportunity to offer.

And for either of these "assemblies," either lectionary-based preaching and planning or series preaching and planning, or even some combination of both -- can fit the bill.

Each has its real strengths and limitations.

The Revised Common Lectionary provides a three year cycle of readings that covers the major narratives of the Bible in a pattern (Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, Gospel) that has been used worldwide by Christians for centuries. While this makes it especially suited to the aims of public worship as Hooker and Wesley described, it can also provide the basis for other gatherings to "go deeper" should they so choose. Its companion volume, Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings (readings available for free download or purchase as a book) provides a disciplined way for individuals or groups to "go deeper" before and after each Sunday's texts on a daily basis, covering even more of the Bible in greater depth. And, of course, it's always possible to use the lectionary to preach or teach a series of sermons on a topic or a book of the Bible, as well.

That said, the use of such a comprehensive set of readings over only three years both answers and creates its own quandary. It answers the problem of people never being exposed to most of the major emphases of Bible and the Christian Year. The heart of the Bible is in fact "gotten out" ("made publick") this way. However, it often seems to presuppose some prior and fairly deep exposure to the broad outlines of the biblical story in the first place if there is to be much "getting it in." Given low biblical literacy in so many of our congregations, perhaps what is needed is something more like a six year cycle that includes a bit more of the Bible but in smaller, more clearly connecting chunks. But then one runs into the problem that that may be far too long of an attention span to capture the whole story, especially given that for the most part the average "church member" attends worship only once or twice per month. These are real limitations.

Sermon series based on a particular book or topic have the advantage of allowing a congregation to go deeper into the "whole counsel of God" on that book or topic. They answer the concerns about biblical literacy raised by the RCL, because a well-crafted series can build many of the needed literacy skills directly into the sermons. And a series is often exactly what is needed when a congregation, as a whole, is considering or reviewing some aspect of its common life as ministry, such as a mission statement, or the doctrinal standards, or preparing itself to undertake a new way of organizing its ministry.

A preaching series approach also potentially affords greater depth on a narrower topic than the lectionary may do, at least on the surface. This can make series preaching especially well-suited to smaller groups intent on learning scripture or applying it in their lives ("getting it in").

However, the spotty average worship attendance patterns can also make the notion of a "preaching series" in a "standard Sunday morning congregation" problematic, especially if one part of the series regularly relies on the previous part and leads into the next. Arguments made that offering such series increase average attendance by increasing the "cliffhanger effect" do not seem to bear out in the overall statistics, however. They may keep a few more people engaged during a particular series they like. However, over the course of the past two decades, despite the fact that this approach and this rationale for it have become increasingly popularized by a variety of "successful pastors," "church growth experts" and publishers, there is no evidence that overall worship attendance frequency has actually ticked up as its advocates would suggest it "should." Quite the reverse! (Of course, it hasn't increased for lectionary-based congregations, either!).

Overall, the weaknesses of lectionary-based planning and preaching (notably, possible lack of focus and heavier biblical literacy requirements) can be addressed through some of the strengths of a series approach. And the weaknesses of a series approach (missing the biblical forest for the topical trees, reducing worship to "pre-packaged messaging" on topics rather than a full-orbed encounter with the whole of the word of God) can be addressed through some of the strengths of the lectionary-based approach.

But only if you use both. And each with good discretion about what each kind of assembly gathered can or is ready to hear.

So here are two criteria to consider.

  1. The "standard Sunday morning" gathering (including everyone, and most who attend less than every week) needs to hear from the breadth of scripture ("the whole counsel of God") over time, and
  2. Any additional worshiping communities (those deeply interested in growth in holiness) should to be able to go as far down any "rabbit hole" as they may need to for the sake of their next steps in discipleship.

How do you, or will you, help both kinds of worshiping communities experience the benefits of both kinds of planning and preaching where you are?