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?