What’s the deal with the lectionary?

Posted by on December 26, 2005

Every noticed that on a given Sunday, lots of different churches use the same readings from the Bible? It’s no coincidence. But is it a good thing?

Many of the people I graduated from seminary with preach every week on a Bible text specified by the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a three-year pattern for preaching that includes readings from the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the New Testament epistles. There are a few passages that show up every year (e.g., the Christmas story from Luke) and a whole lot of passages that will never be read in church or preached on because they’re not part of the three-year cycle.

It has its advantages. Many Christians in different kinds of churches will hear the same passage on a given Sunday, fostering Christian unity. It makes it less likely that preachers will preach their favorite themes endlessly (thought it’s still possible:-)). But it seems to inspire fanaticism. Many lectionary preachers seem to look down on those who do not use the lectionary or seeing them as “arrogant.”

Given the support that it has, I just assumed that the Revised Common Lectionary used by many Protestants must have been based on something that had been around for hundreds of years. Nope. The Protestant version was completed in 1983 and published in 1994. The Roman Lectionary for Mass that it’s based on was just created in 1969, though before that there was a one-year cycle in the Roman Missal that included a schedule of New Testament readings (with very little Old Testament).

So why do so many people consider it so very important to preach from the lectionary? To hear some people talk, you’d think Moses brought it down from Mt. Sinai. It almost seems like idolatry… Some parts of scripture are completely excluded, including some difficult texts, while others are very heavily emphasized. And it jumps around to try to squeeze parts of a whole story into the right times of year, which can make it difficult to see the big picture of what really happened.

Personally, I do use the lectionary when I’m not preaching a sermon series and when no pastoral concerns necessitate choosing an appropriate text to address an issue. It helps me to cover things I might not have, but I don’t find that it works particularly well for me to use it for long periods of time.

I hope you will comment on this. I’d like to know how people feel about this.

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