Kicking the Sermon Series Habit
Kicking the Sermon Series Habit
For years I've raved to my associate pastors about how much I love liturgy, romanticizing my days attending an Anglican church in England. We've incorporated more traditional prayers, songs, and readings into our contemporary service, but then they took the whole liturgy thing a little further than I'd intended: "What if we did away with sermon series and let our sermons be led by the lectionary?"
The Revised Common Lectionary is a collection of weekly Bible readings which is used in the majority of mainline Protestant churches. They are arranged according to seasons of the church year (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time) and, so that the readings are not the same every year, the lectionary follows a three year cycle (We're currently in year C. The new cycle begins in late November with the beginning of the Advent season). For each Sunday there are four different Scripture passages, usually a reading from the Hebrew Bible, a Psalm, a reading from the Epistles, and a Gospel reading. We use this great website for a calendar of all the readings or you can quickly access the next thirty days on Preaching Today's lectionary page.
When your upbringing and education are of the non-denominational, Evangelical kind, words like "Epiphany" and "ordinary time" seem to come from a different time and place. How do we make these traditions relevant for today's audience?
This idea of preaching from the lectionary really stretched my love for all things liturgical. Was it worth changing my whole approach to preaching? I eventually had to confess my discomfort: How can I promote the things I think God is saying if I have to preach from the readings dictated by the lectionary? Creating our own sermon series gives me control over what I teach our people and when.
So I had to ask myself: Do I not trust that the Word can lead us? Do I not trust that if the Spirit wants to direct our preaching it can do so even with a limited selection of passages? If I let my preaching be led by readings I haven't chosen, might I have to be more open to the transforming work of God?
So two years ago we decided to try the lectionary for a year. And we've never looked back. Here's what we're learning:
Freedom within structure
Although at first it seemed limiting to choose from just four Scriptures per week, we've found surprising freedom. We still have the option to choose themes from upcoming readings so we can make it topical if we want. For example, recently the Old Testament passages spent about two months in Amos, Hosea, and Jeremiah so we created a theme we called "How to be a Prophet." Within any given week, we can choose among the readings—following the Psalms for a while then the Gospels or Epistles. It's fascinating to watch how the four passages for the week speak to one another when read together, revealing new things which we may not otherwise see.
In our bulletin we provide the link to the lectionary page so that folks can read along with us through the week. We've also changed our children's programming to a model based on the church calendar, allowing us to explore these lessons together across generations. (See resources, below.) And not only are we connected within our own congregational community, we're reminded that we're part of something bigger than ourselves—throughout history and around the world, across cultures and denominations.
Substance and authenticity
While there may be a concern that we'll lose young folks if we do something traditional, we're finding the opposite is true. At a time when Millennials are finding it hard to connect to church, it's tempting to have a consumer approach—do some market research to discover what they want then give it to them.
Lessons in Christian postures
As preachers it's easy to see our primary role as the distribution of information but, of course, discipleship is about engaging whole lives, shaping Christian practices and postures. The calendar approach provides opportunities to model these elements of the Christian life. For example, before I understood the significance of Advent I felt shame for being unhappy with the way the world is. Advent taught me that it's part of our calling to rejoice in the waiting, to embrace the "now but not yet" of living out God's promises in a world that's broken. It gave voice to my lament, helped me see I'm not alone in my desire for all things to be made new. It taught me that often the Christian posture is one of mixed feelings—joy at the gift of Jesus, while also longing for him to return. Each season teaches postures which feel honest and hopeful, approaches which often aren't covered in our usual Christianity 101 curriculum.
Submission to God's work of transformation
Without realizing it, I had usually begun my sermon preparation with, "What questions is the world asking which I can bring to Scripture?" This is certainly a great way to remain in touch with our culture and speak to its needs. But the fact is, the culture often reflects a limited imagination and if we begin with its questions, we risk missing God's greater imagination. What if we're approaching Scripture with questions it's not trying to answer? What if Scripture wants to ask bigger questions of the world?
We often feel we have to entice folks with pop culture-themed sermon series to get them in the pews. Which can feel like a bait and switch. And it can communicate, "We actually think Scripture is unpalatable and irrelevant so we have to trick you into giving your attention to it." But the more I have forced myself to bring the questions of Scripture to the world, the more I've watched its power. It's painful at first because Scripture feels so distant, so old, so obscure. How could its world of sheep and tares have anything to say to our world of traffic and apps? But when we, as preachers, submit ourselves to the questions Scripture wants to ask of our lives, we begin to see how very revolutionary this Word is, how the Spirit of the living God can somehow take these ancient stories and make them walk around in our world. If we're willing to set aside the questions the world is asking long enough to discern the questions the word is asking, we may find ourselves returning to the world's questions with new imaginations.
While preaching from the lectionary is not the only way to remember this, this approach has reminded me who initiates the sermon. Cistercian Monk, and founder of the centering prayer movement, Thomas Keating describes how, in the western model of spirituality, "the self initiates all good works and God rewards them … . The gospel, on the contrary, teaches that God initiates all good deeds through the inspiration of the Spirit within us, while we listen attentively and put into action what the Spirit suggests … . The emphasis in the New Testament is on listening and responding to the Spirit rather than initiating projects that God is expected to back up, even though God had little or nothing to do with them" (Intimacy with God). Which draws me back to the terrifying promise from Hebrews 4 that the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating to divide soul and spirit, joints and marrow. Before it nothing in all creation is hidden but everything is laid bare before the Lord. Do we preach like people handling something so revealing? So excruciatingly powerful? When we open the pages of the Word do we know we're opening ourselves, and our congregants, to a force that may mean we're never the same again? There are many ways to let God be the source of our preaching. So far, preaching from the lectionary is the best way I've found.
1. General resources which provide a good introduction:
(note: whatever resource you choose, be sure the staff all use the same resource since there can be slight differences.)
2. A great introduction to the Seasons of the Church Calendar:
3. For readings with a Social Justice leaning, try Shane Claiborne's Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (also available as a free app):
4. Feasting on the Word is a wonderful resource, designed specifically for preachers. For each lectionary text it provides four essays, offering theological, pastoral, exegetical, and homiletical perspectives on the text. (Note: Be sure you get the right year—We're currently in year C, year A will begin Advent of 2016.)
5. The Work of the People creates engaging visual liturgies.
6. A helpful lectionary app:
7. A helpful lectionary-inspired podcast:
8. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a wonderful children's ministry program, inspired by Montessori methods, which follows the Church Calendar.
9. The lectionary lends itself to artistic expressions. Here is another great art resource.
Originally from Australia, Mandy Smith is a pastor, author, and speaker. She has written two books: The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry (IVP) and Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith Byond the Baggage of Western Culture (Brazos).