Is the Lectionary Still Relevant?

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in the United Methodist Church the lectionary is BIG these days. It seems nearly every pastor is using it, and at least where I live, there is tremendous peer pressure to be a lectionary preacher. Perhaps it’s always been that way, but the question I have is, should it? Should we be pushing the lectionary as hard as we are? More important, does the lectionary still meet the needs of our churches like it once did in the past?

The argument for the lectionary that I typically hear runs something like this: If we follow the lectionary, it will force us to preach our way through the whole Bible, not just our few favorite little passages to which we keep returning over and over again. Using the lectionary will keep us in the context of the liturgical year, and over time it will expose us to more of Scripture than we would have had on our own anyway. So runs the basic argument. I may be leaving parts out, but you get the picture.

My problem is, in my experience it just doesn’t seem to work that way. First, the lectionary doesn’t really cover the whole Bible. It covers a part of it. Mind you, there’s only so much you can include in a 3-year cycle of Scripture readings, but that’s my point. The lectionary by its very design is selective.

If all I ever preach is the lectionary, there are whole chunks of the Bible that I’ll never preach. And some of these are fairly significant. Consider. Want to preach the story of Samson and Delilah? Too bad, it’s not in there. The lectionary skips it. Want to tell the story of Gideon and the fleece? Too bad, you can’t. It’s not included. Want to use the example of Joshua and his encounter with the angel on the outskirts of Jericho? So sorry, the lectionary won’t let you. Move on.

Over and over again, this is the problem. If I really want to preach the whole Bible, I can’t. The lectionary won’t let me. It doesn’t include the whole Bible; so, I can’t preach the whole Bible while using it. Mind you, it does a good job of covering a wide array of Scripture, but it falls far short of the advertised goal of the whole Bible. And that’s not even to get into the question of who chose which passages would be in and which would be out, and why they chose them. That’s another question altogether.

But, that aside, my greater problem is, the average Methodist preacher apparently isn’t using the lectionary anywhere close to the way it was intended. Far from preaching the broad scope of Scripture that the lectionary does provide for, most preachers tend to stick to the same old Gospel readings for the text, year after year after mind-numbing year.

Occasionally, they will turn to the Epistle reading and preach from one of Paul’s letters. Every blue moon they may relent and preach from the Old Testament, but based on my informal surveys of lay people, that’s very, very rare. From what lay people tell me, especially in the churches I’ve served, the average is something like 9 times out of 10 the lectionary preacher will preach from the Gospel text.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with the Gospel text. The Gospel text is good. In fact, it’s fabulous. But, it’s hardly the steady diet of preaching and teaching that most people need. What’s more, I find that the average lay person in my church is starving-hungry for something more. Believe it or not, I once had a group beg me to preach from the book of Isaiah! Now that’s hungry!

The bottom line is, the lectionary isn’t doing what we said it would. Maybe it’s the lectionary’s fault, maybe it’s the preacher’s. Either way, the lectionary seems to be hurting things more than helping. So the question is: Has the lectionary’s usefulness come and gone? Is it time to move on and find a different method of navigating Scripture from Sunday to Sunday? Is there a more relevant way to preach and teach the Bible in our biblically illiterate day? For me, I think the answer is a definitive ‘yes.’ What do you think?

11 responses to “Is the Lectionary Still Relevant?

  • John Meunier

    It sounds like you have a well-developed view on this already, but Will Willimon has argued well for lectionary preaching if you are looking to read someone who takes a different point-of-view. His primary argument is that preaching the lectionary is an act of obedience and submission. The preacher gets handed a text and preaches from that rather than coming up with a topic and then searching through the Bible for a text to go with the topic.

    I’ve encountered few preachers who are “always” lectionary preachers. A great number – nearly all – lectionary preachers will preach a series or two or three during the year that don’t come from the lectionary.

    My limited experience has been that I have no problem finding a sermon series in the lectionary itself. Last summer there was a whole cycle of David texts, for instance.

    I’m not sure I see the harm you see in lectionary preaching. I’m not sure there is the cause-and-effect link you see. But, obviously, your experience is your experience. A great many preachers agree with your view of this. Indeed, the pastor a the largest UMC in the USA is decidedly anti-lectionary.

    For my part, I find the lectionary a stimulating and challenging partner in my preaching. I like the fact that my mother in Florida is going to hear a sermon on the same gospel text from which I am preaching in Indiana on Sunday. (Actually, this Sunday I’m preaching from Psalm 29, but you get the idea.)

    These are my thought on the topic. Grace and peace.

  • Lauren

    Yes, I am familiar with Willimon and his advocacy for the lectionary, and I respect his view. Unfortunately, my observation is that “obedience” for many has turned into “laziness.” The lectionary has become their excuse to stop thinking and praying and working over the text. In fact, where I am in Mississippi, the lectionary seems joined at the hip with that other great evil of good preaching – the email sermon service.

    All in all, though, deep down, I begrudge no one who uses the lectionary well. At its best, its advantage is what you said of your mother in Florida: We all hear the same Scripture readings on the same Sunday. That kind of continuity and connection can be very attractive.

    On a side note, I am delighted to hear that you’ll be preaching from a psalm this Sunday. I know few preachers who’d do that. So you are certainly to be commended.

    And I love your idea of putting together the readings on David into a lectionary “series.” I suspect that’s how the lectionary was always meant to be used. In the end, I suspect my grievance is less with the lectionary than it is with some of our preachers.

    Thanks again for the very thoughtful post. You raise some very good points. God bless.

  • Kurt

    My issue is obedience to whom? Not to say that God did not lead the CCT in the formation of the RCL, but from the obedience perspective, it almost seems as if the argument is grounded in an assumption of some level of unofficial canonization.

    And which lectionary? The Lutherans have one, the Anglicans another, the RCC another, and then there’s the RCL. And they’re all different enough to be significant.

    As a hobby, I’ve been cataloging what is and isn’t covered by the RCL. What is missing is staggering (especially in the Gospels), even more so when you see what THEMES are missing. Outside hitting the high points of the Christian year, I consider the RCL to be useless at best, harmful at worst.

    The only reading for Leviticus is 19.1-18 on Epiphany 7A. Epiphany 7A shows up once every decade or so?

    Judges shows up once in 4.1-7.

    1 Chronicles is missing.

    I guess Ezra has noting for the church today, either.

    40 Psalms missing (55-61 as a block), and all the uncomfortable parts of the remaining ones are gone, too.

    No Nahum.

    No 2 or 3 John.

    Those are the easy ones to notice. I could go on.

    I think the RCL it makes for lazy preachers, especially with GBOD practically handing you your sermon points. I know, ’cause I’ve done it in the past, but have sworn it off so I can become knowledgeable about the texts through my own prayer and study and thus become (hopefully) a better preacher.

    As for not going back over the same texts, that’s a bunch of nonsense. I keep a list of texts that I’ve used in my sermons as to make sure that I don’t repeat myself. The idea that some ecumenical committee keeping me accountable rather than self-accountability in my preaching is absurd.

    I’m ranting. Sorry. I just got tired of being pressured to drink the lectionary kool-aid when I first started preaching. When I found out how much it was lacking I felt very betrayed.

  • Lauren

    Sorry. I just got tired of being pressured to drink the lectionary kool-aid when I first started preaching. When I found out how much it was lacking I felt very betrayed.

    I sympathize with your reaction. I think your feeling is common among a number of pastors. You are certainly not alone. Many feel pressured to use the lectionary and then feel bitter when it doesn’t deliver on its supposed promises.

    The unofficial cannon you mention is of particular concern to me. In essence, by our preaching we have just truncated the historical canon of Scripture to something far less than originally received. On the one hand, who gave us that right? And, on the other, it deprives our people of hearing the rest of the Bible as well as makes us sound very hypocritical when we criticize other Christian groups for their ‘canon within a canon.’ Clearly, we are no different. We just hide our ‘sectarian canon’ under the name of the lectionary.

    Of course, that brings up the question of who put the lectionary together and why they chose this passage over that passage. As you mentioned, there are questions as to the theological agenda behind the selection process. I would love to see some book chronicling the selection process and explaining their reasoning and decision-making, much as we have for the USB and Nestle-Aland Greek New Testaments. In those instances, I may not always agree with Aland’s choice of text for the GNT, but at least I have access to his reason for choosing it.

    And all of that brings me to the missing texts. I like the list you’ve got going here. I really think it would be a good thing to publish a full list of the missing texts, especially the whole books and significant passages. Sometimes it helps to see what we’re giving up to make us reevaluate our decision. I know it did for me.

    Thanks again for your contribution to the discussion.

  • Kurt

    I would like to share how I do find the lectionary useful. I’m big into leading my congregation in Bible study. I use the Lectionary as a guide. We did James during Advent (strange combo, I know, but it worked really well with Advent Conspiracy). We’re studying 1 Kings and Philippians during Epiphany.

    This Lent we’ll study Matthew; this fall we did John, and last Lent we did Mark (A pattern I stole from Rev. Hamilton).

    Every other year we alternate between Revelation and Acts. Two summers ago we studied the Pentateuch and the Pauline Epistles.

    But again, I only used the particular year’s scriptural focus, not the suggested selections–we read and studied entire books.

  • Ivan Walters

    Well Duh! It sounds like the problem is not with the concept of lectionary preaching (which I fully support, for the reasons stated)but with the lectionary itself. It needs to be expanded to include more of scripture. Almost none of the Bible should be excluded (except perhaps the genealogies in Chronicles and Moses’ description of the Tabernacle furnishings), since “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults and giving instruction for right living”. 2 Tim 3:16 [Today’s English Version]

  • Father Robert Lyons

    Good afternoon.

    I found your post while doing research for a series of posts I am writing at my website concerning the Lectionary. I too am feeling some of the same concerns about the Lectionary as you and others express. Having been a lectionary preacher (though using several different lectionaries) for the past thirteen years, I am also struggling with the usage of lectionaries and their proper place in the life of the Church.

    In the third part of my series, I intend to propose a possible solution… that will go up next week. In the meantime, I’d invite you to read my posts and offer any feedback you may have.

    To me, the most significant issue I face is that the modern (and even ancient) lectionaries often include readings which have nothing in common with one another, leading to the preacher ignoring one or more readings or, sometimes worse, leading to the preacher connecting dots that just don’t exist between the readings. I have probably been guilty of both more times than I would care to count.

    Further, we have the problem of presenting the events of Scripture devoid of the historical continuity of their occurance. Even reading straight through the Bible cannot solve this – one needs a chronological guide to put things into a full perspective. The Lectionary fails to do this in an epic way outside of the festal seasons.

    Further, there is the concern that those readings appointed to support the gospel pericopes on feasts (Christmas, Pascha, Pentecost, etc.) are never heard in their own light, but always in light of that one specific event. As a result, the preaching of those texts is often subordinated to the Gospel reading, which means missing out on a chance to delve deeper into those readings.

    I would love to interact between blogs if you are so inclined on this topic.


  • Lauren

    Father Rob,

    Thanks for your post. I will check out your blog when I get the chance. I look forward to seeing what more you have to say about the lectionary.

    I think you have hit on a very important difficulty with the lectionary. The fact that often the daily or weekly readings don’t necessarily connect with or support one another can be a very real problem. You really do have to just pick a passage to focus on to the exclusion of all the others on those days. Even in the festal seasons, as you mention, some scriptures get ignored.

    Also, from a modern American point of view, I would offer one other difficulty to consider. Our lectionary readings often ignore and even fight against the modern American calendar. So, for instance, I’ve known any number of friends who struggled with how to make the lectionary readings fit Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.

    Now, those might not be high holy days for the church, but they are to the average American. My thought is: Why not use the occasion to address the subject? Mother’s Day is a great day to talk about biblical motherhood. But the lectionary works against that, not for it. That can make a faithful lectionary preacher seem very insensitive to the real needs of the people in his or her congregation. Why do that? It’s easy enough to fix. Just update the readings.

    Anyway, thank you again for your insights. I truly appreciate them.

  • Tom

    The lectionary is only a tool to be used, not a god to be obeyed. Tools should serve their masters, not the other way around. Learn to use it and I think it falls into its proper place.

  • Jon

    If anyone is interested in seeing what the lectionary includes or excludes, Vanderbilt’s library has listed the lectionary in cannonical order. It makes the lectionary much easier to evaluate. While they do not list what is not in the lectionary, it’s a fairly simple deductive process. What was surprising when I looked at it was the amount of repetition that happens. I haven’t made a catalogue of what the lectionary repeats, but the fact that it repeats itself at all tends to undermine the argument that going back over “favorite passages” is a bad thing.

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