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:
- 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
- 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!