In seminary, I developed all of these ideas about preaching. Some of them were related to things I was taught in my classes, but others were things I developed by watching my classmates and other gifted preachers.
One of these ideas was that faithful preaching used lectio continua, which is preaching that works little by little through one book of the Bible at a time. Lectio continua means “continuous reading,” and that’s exactly what it is.
There are some very real benefits to lectio continua. When preaching straight through a book of the Bible, the preacher and the congregation have the opportunity to study verses in their original contexts. Thematic elements specific to that particular book of the Bible become quite evident. This method of preaching also requires preaching (or at least reading) every verse in a particular book, rather than skipping over the difficult sections.
When I first came out of seminary, all of my preaching was lectio continua.
And I still think there is value in this method of preaching. But, something happened to me when I started preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), and it transformed the way I preach and the types of sermons I prepare. I don’t think the lectionary is the only way to go, and it isn’t necessarily the best way to go for every preacher, but it has become a life-giving discipline for me.
1. Ministry is lonely. The lectionary connects the preacher to a wider community. There is something about knowing that countless pastors and priests are wrestling with the same passages of Scripture I am that strengthens and inspires me. When I’m in the solitude of my office, or dealing with the isolation that can often accompany ministry, knowing that I can call up a friend, or post a question about the weekly texts in a study group reminds me that I’m not doing this alone.
2. The lectionary pushes me outside of my comfort zone. As a young seminary student, I had the opportunity to talk to my pastor-mentor about the way he approached preaching. He said, “If it was up to me, I’d only preach from the Psalms. They are my favorite. The lectionary invites me to step out of that bias and wrestle with other texts.” Sure, there is a psalm (sometimes two) selected for every Sunday, but there are also three or four other passages given. The lectionary can force a preacher to shake it up when he or she is stuck in a rut.
3. Reading/preaching in community inspires creativity. Using the lectionary as my starting point for preaching is like having a brainstorming session with people across the miles. We can bounce ideas off of each other, be inspired at the vastly different sermons that can be preached from the same set of verses, share ideas when a colleague is stuck, and commiserate when the texts are especially difficult that week. Even though we’re located in vastly differently contexts in communities that are hundreds and thousands of miles apart, using the lectionary makes me feel like I’ve pulled up a chair at the table with many who inspire me in my faith journey.
4. There are countless resources available for study. In addition to commentaries on books of the Bible, the lectionary preacher can make use of countless online commentaries that have been created to follow the lectionary. I am particularly fond of TextWeek, which has modern commentaries, sermon prompts, links to podcasts, and even artwork that has been selected to go along with the lectionary texts for each week of the year.
5. Texts are chosen with the church year in mind. And I’m talking about more than just Lent and Advent. The texts are chosen to go with Trinity Sunday, Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday, Baptism of Our Lord Sunday, and many others. Other preaching methods can take these into account as well, but it requires months (if not a year or more) of pre-planning in order to choose texts that keep in mind all of these themes. Even though I select sermon texts months in advance, I still found it difficult, personally, to maintain lectio continua during certain seasons of the year. It was a strain for me to try to tie every text back to specific Sundays of the church year when those texts did not naturally lend themselves to those observances. This is a personal decision, but following the lectionary has helped me with this.
6. The lectionary reminds me to teach evenly from the Old and New Testaments. One of the biggest struggles I had when doing lectio continua was how to strike a balance between Old and New Testaments when preaching through a lengthy book of the Bible. If a church spends an entire year in the book of Acts, intentional efforts must be made to ensure that the congregation is also learning from the Old Testament. Should the church spend a lengthy season in the Old Testament, the same would be true for ensuring that the New Testament is read and taught from as well. Every week, the lectionary offers 4-5 texts for the week, with a balance between the Old and New Testaments. I have appreciated the weekly reminder to be reading and teaching from the whole of Scripture, and not just certain sections.
In my denomination (Reformed Church in America), following the lectionary is not mandatory. Pastors and churches have the flexibility to try other things, and I think that works well in many cases. I do not use the lectionary 100% of the time (we often do a short lectio continua series over the summer), but I have found it to be a very helpful and fruitful practice for me to use it much of the time.
Does your church use the lectionary? I’d love to hear your feedback on this.