One of the most overlooked parts of the preaching process is also one of the most decisive: how to select a biblical text for preaching. When I say “overlooked” what I mean is that the introductory preaching courses with which I am familiar gave short shrift to text selection. However, few choices are more influential to the actual outcome of the process. When we select a text or texts for preaching, we narrow our focus to a single set of ideas about the relationship between God and humans. Or, in the case of narrative texts, the sermon deals with a specific set of characters and circumstances. We might wind up preaching the whole counsel of God or the broad story of God’s good news in Jesus, but we enter that story at a specific place.
Preachers really have three options for text selection:
- consulting a weekly lectionary of some sort (some denominations require adherence to their lectionaries);
- choosing a text freestyle that meets some need or addresses a certain topic; or
- preaching through a biblical book, lectio continua
A lot of mainline folks will use some blend of the first two. I rarely hear mainliners choosing option three (the “Calvin”). Perhaps some will do this in their Sunday evening services or bible-studies (as I do – but not really for preaching).
Up front and honest, I’ve always been a lectionary guy for the most part. I find the Revised Common Lectionary to be tremendously helpful in a number of ways. I’ll outline these in a subsequent post. However, lectionaries are being frequently discarded by the emergent and entrepreneurial set of preachers. My experience is that a lot of my colleagues began turning from the lectionary after Adam Hamilton’s Unleashing the Word from 2003. Hamilton’s tremendous success in building Church of the Resurrection got a lot of us thinking about what topical/series preaching might be capable of. In fact, the series model seems ascendant to me.
My colleague, the Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser, director of preaching ministries at Discipleship Ministries in the UMC, recently attended the UMC Young Preachers Festival and Conference in Kansas City. She found little love for the lectionary there. Several of the presenters discouraged lectionary preaching. But, when these 100 or so young people head to preaching classes in UM seminaries or Courses of Study, my guess is that they are going to hear how helpful the lectionary can be in their planning, preparation and disciple-making. What are they to think? Who is right?
Ha. Well, I won’t be answering that question in an either-or fashion. Because I don’t think it’s an either-or question. So, my next three blog posts will attempt to outline pros and cons of both of the first two methods, and then I will conclude this series with some observations. Please know that I consider this a conversation! I hope to have your feedback!
So, let me ask you: Do you find one method more effective personally than another? And why do you think that is?
Please note that I used the word “effective” and not simply “helpful”. I suppose that the quality of this decision at the beginning of the sermon is ultimately determined by our purpose and aim in preaching. Is your method of text selection determined by the outcome that you are hoping for?
2 thoughts on “Starting at the Very Beginning Is a Very Important Place to Start”
I believe in the lectionary for lots of reasons, but the most fundamental reason is theological. The lectionary forces the preacher into a receptive stance, receiving, listening, attending, and passing along a Word from the scripture through the text. Any kind of series, topical, “this is the Word God gave me in my prayer time” approach allows the preacher to start with his or her own word and go to the scripture to confirm that word. It drains preaching of authority and elevates the preacher’s personal style and vision.
At the same time, everything folks say in support of series preaching is true. It generates interest, helps preaching to be memorable, allows preachers to think ahead and develop sermons over time.
There’s not reason the lectionary cannot work fantastically with series preaching. Many times the lectionary focuses on a single chapter for several weeks. For example, at one point in the lectionary, the Gospel readings all come from John 6 and make a very nice series on the bread of life. At another point, multiple readings from Matthew 18 make a fantastic series on life in the church.
Of course, the lectionary provides wonderful series preaching for the main liturgical seasons, Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide. Every series preacher will be preaching a series on these seasons anyway, so the lectionary is a great tool for the texts for these seasons.
In ordinary time, especially in the summer, I like to see if the lectionary provides helpful possibilities for sermon series from the other readings. I like to do something from the epistle each year, and something from the old testament each year. I’ve done Psalms series, too. With just a little creativity, these series can be themed and advertised with appropriate graphics, video, etc.
That’s how I do it. I do series preaching following the lectionary.
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When I plan my set of sermons for the next season, I always check the lectionary first. In my preaching in contemporary worship services, I find the lectionary helps me most in the high seasons. In the ordinary seasons I tend toward a selection of scripture passages with a series in mind. I think the lectionary is a powerful tool. The lectionary reminds me not to neglect difficult passages of scripture. In that way, the lectionary encourages me toward effective preaching, because I am challenged by scripture rather than picking scriptures out of convenience.