Lectionary vs. Series Preaching: Which is Better?

by Drew 5 Comments
Wine Glass style pulpit from St. Matthew's German Evangelical Lutheran in Charleston, SC (1872), courtesy Cadetgray via Wikimedia Commons

Wine Glass style pulpit from St. Matthew’s German Evangelical Lutheran in Charleston, SC (1872), courtesy Cadetgray via Wikimedia Commons

Should the preacher follow the lectionary or preach topically, via series?

This is not a question with which every preacher is faced.  It’s largely a Mainline Protestant debate; Catholics and Orthodox follow pre-selected readings each week for the homilies that are attached to the primary liturgical action of the eucharist, while Baptists, charismatics, and “non-denominational” traditions are often completely unaware of what the lectionary is, much less its possible benefits.  In the gray zone are Methodists, Presbyterians, UCC, and perhaps a few others – I’m not as familiar with typical Lutheran practice, while most Episcopalians I know are strict lectionary preachers.

As a United Methodist, the lectionary is encouraged – particularly in seminary and at the denominational level – but it is certainly not required or even especially encouraged by our bishops and other supervisors.  Indeed, most of the pastors who are held up as exemplars for us rank-and-file preachers are almost exclusively series preachers.  Often these are folks like Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter who have cut their teeth on the series ethos that dominates most church planting models.  You might find lectionary preaching at large, downtown “First” or “Central” UMCs, but I’m comfortable saying that the vast majority of our largest and fastest-growing churches see much more series/topical preaching than lectionary-based preaching.

Which is better?

In some ways, this is a foolish debate, a faux war akin to the “left Twix vs. right Twix” commercials.  There are benefits and drawbacks to both.  Some contexts lend themselves more to one or the other.  The giftedness, training, and method of preparation of different preachers will also have a role in which style best fits the voice and skills of a particular proclaimer.

If I’m honest, I think lectionary preaching is harder – but I tend to preach in series.  I like the long-term preparation I can put into series preaching, and I the musicians with whom I lead worship appreciate knowing, far in advance, my texts and themes.  For my first couple of years in full-time ministry, I preached almost exclusively lectionary, but since then, I’ve preached mostly series.  I tend to follow the themes of the liturgical calendar – hope and promise in Advent, discipleship and the cross in Lent, etc. – but without tying myself to lectionary texts.

Is this, in some ways, a false divide? Yes. One can certainly plan sermon series based on the lectionary.  I’ve done this in two ways: a) looking ahead for 4-6 weeks and seeing if a thread emerges from the various lectionary texts onto which I can hook, or b) sticking with a particular book for a period of time and making it a series on Mark, or the Psalms, or 1 Timothy, etc.  I’ve enjoyed both, and commend both methods to you.  But of course even this kind of planning, via, the lectionary, takes away some of the benefits for which proponents of the lectionary advocate.

Major benefits of both kinds of preaching:

Lectionary Benefits

  • Challenge of being confronted with a text (or texts) rather than choosing them with a particular reading in mind
  • A plethora of liturgical, preaching, and other resources (many of them free)
  • Follows the liturgical calendar
  • Broad ranging texts across both Testaments
  • Week-to-week planning enables easier flexibility if something happens that necessitates homiletical flexibility (such as a sudden loss in the community or a national tragedy)
  • Revisiting the same texts every three years demands creativity and a depth of exegesis that can be lacking in other forms

Series Benefits

  • Ability to build on themes over a period of time
  • Freedom to preach texts not included or marginalized by the lectionary
  • Ability to tie preaching themes to the rhythms of time other than the liturgical (a New Years or Back to School series, for instance)
  • Long-range planning is (arguably) easier
  • Can speak to particular needs in a sustained manner (i.e. recovery, eschatology, theodicy, rather than waiting for them to pop up or twisting lectionary texts to find them)
  • Easier to communicate content and ethos to unchurched people

My own take is that lectionary preaching lends itself best to liturgical contexts.  There is clearly, from what we’ve already said, a correlation between liturgical worship and lectionary-based preaching.  Why might this be? Certainly a strong tether to the church calendar is part of it.  But also, lectionary preaching, which via most teachers is often tied strongly to just one text, lends itself naturally to the shorter 8-12 minute homilies one finds in more liturgical contexts – churches where, to be blunt, the eucharist takes precedence over proclamation.  More Protestant contexts where the preached Word is emphasized often expect sermons of 20-30 minutes, or even longer, which tend to range over a variety of Biblical texts rather than simply mining one pericope.

Which is better – for you, for your context? Should our bishops, synods, and denominational offices take a harder stand on this?

I won’t presume to answer the question for you, but I would conclude by offering this: try a kind of preaching that is outside your comfort zone, that stretches you.  Are you a series preacher? Make yourself stick to lectionary texts for a month.  Are you a lectionary preacher? Use the somewhat bland summer months to try a series, even if it is crafted from the lectionary readings themselves.

Both forms of preaching can be God-honoring and transformative to the listeners.  Both can also be dreadfully dull springboards for eisegesis, therapeutic indulgence, and personal agendas.

Which works best for you? Why? Where do you see excellence in series preaching? Who are our examples of quality lectionary preachers? Join the conversation below!

Comments ( 5 )

  1. Lectionary vs. Series Preaching: Which is Better? — Drew McIntyre | Plowshares Into Swords | Talmidimblogging
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  2. ReplyNickname ( required )
    Drew, As chair of the Consultation on Common Texts which developed the Revised Common Lectionary, let me say if you are only doing week to week planning with the lectionary, you're doing it wrong. The whole lectionary project since Vatican II has been about series/seasonal focus, and the texts are those that have been chosen by the church-- sometimes over centuries-- to support that. And as the author of planning helps for the UMC, I've been presenting resources for the RCL that are explicitly connected in series since 2010 (just a bit less explicitly so since 2005). That's six years of lectionary series resourcing already available. And we're making the series connections within the lectionary even more explicit in the resources we are releasing starting this Advent. So, yes, it really is a false dichtomy to place lectionary over against series. The real question is whether we perhaps understand and then see the value in the ecumenical and historical construction of the church year which was actually built to support the church in its mission of discipling people in the way of Jesus and sending them into the world in his name and the Spirit's power to live out that discipleship with the support of Christ's body, the church. I am convinced most folks just don't know how well the Christian year was designed for this very work, and how profoundly the lectionary supports us in abiding in it. We have these gifts of a church year and a lectionary that support our mission and do so precisely in series. While we may also do other series from time to time, let's make good and appropriate use of these gifts... as they were intended.
    • ReplyDrew
      I think all that is fair and I am a big fan of the lectionary, even though I don't utilize it all the time. I would be curious as to how you understand my observation that the Protestant churches which are most effective in discipleship, by and large, do not use the lectionary?
      • ReplyNickname ( required )
        Drew, Good question. I really don't think we have sufficient evidence to draw that conclusion one way or the other. And I'm not sure that using the lectionary is necessarily an independent variable in determining how well or whether discipling happens or doesn't. Here are the evidence problems. We'd need to have a definition, first, of what constitutes "good discipling." Are we talking about lots of people being actively involved in a church that increases in size? Is that the basis for the definition? If so, both the Reveal Study from Willow Creek and a much larger study the National Association of Evangelicals commissioned both showed no correlation between increased participation in church activities and, in the latter case, even the ability to describe oneself as being centered on Christ in some way. The "discipling rate" found in killed NEA study was found to be 9%-- and it involved interviews with 75,000 laity and pastors at nearly every megachurch (ASA > 2000) in the US, including 23 UM congregations. Their determination was that megachurches are efficient at creating and supporting consumers of religious goods and services-- which they found to characterize the responses of 81% of their respondents. This wasn't what NEA wanted to hear. Hence the study and its findings were killed-- though at about the same time pretty much affirmed by Reveal. Here are the confounding variable problems. First, the lectionary has never been normative in many free church traditions-- which comprise the majority of non-denominational evangelicals and free church traditions, including many holiness traditions. So there's no basis for making a comparison including these at all. Second, you'd have to weed out those who do not use the church year and so the lectionary as it was intended-- precisely and intentionally as part of a larger process of discipling. Week to week planners-- whom we know are the vast majority of the users of the lectionary helps on our site-- are therefore generally not doing this, because they are in essence losing the forest for the trees, and often not bringing the seasonal discipling plan lens to the worship planning task. If you don't use something the way it's intended, it's less likely to be helpful in generating the results intended. Given all of these issues, I'd say there is not yet any reliable way of saying, in general, that non-lectionary users are better at discipling than lectionary users. Now, I can tell you that of those I know who ARE pursuing the lectionary and the Christian year as integral to a discipling system-- as designed-- they are reporting getting better outcomes. They're also finding the shape of the Christian year generally gives them the time they need to support the work of focusing on each part of the larger discipling task from Awakening (Advent), through contemplation on the Incarnation (Christmas Season), to evangelism and invitation (Season after Epiphany), to intensive formation in the way of Jesus (Lent), to core doctrinal and initial ministry formation (Easter Season), to sending into accountable ministry in the world (Season after Pentecost). This has been especially true in those churches that have been part of the work of the catechumenate-- notably Lutheran, Episcopal, and a few Presbyterians and United Methodists. My predecessor, Dan Benedict, has been a leader in this work ecumenically for 20 years. You can learn more about it at http://www.catechumenate.org
  3. ReplyRusty
    Drew, It seems to me - whether preaching be this or that, if it is not Christological, it is temporary nothingness.

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