Why and How use the Lectionary in Worship?
Engaging Congregations with Set Bible Readings
We are really excited about our new AREA 52 space. It contains creative ideas, writing and resources for every week of the Lectionary. Do check it out now if you haven't already!
From a few questions posted on Facebook, chats with friends, and my own experience of leading worship in churches which were ‘supposed’ to be following it, it is clear that contemporary churches have quite a problematic relationship with the Lectionary. Words like ‘straitjacket’, ‘repetitive’, ’frustrating’ and ‘rubbish’ have cropped up (and that last one was from an Anglican clergyman!)
If your first question is ‘what even is the Lectionary?’ then you’ve come to the right place! It is a set of readings for every day, and in particular for every Sunday, running over a three year cycle (A, B and C). It sets out four readings for each Sunday: an Old Testament passage; a Psalm (or other Bible song); a New Testament reading; and a Gospel reading (Matthew, Mark or Luke - John is spread over all the years). For a fantastic set of answers to further questions about the lectionary, see the FAQ page from the Vanderbilt Divinity Library website.
I am not going to go into all the arguments here for and against its use. Ultimately you can decide how much you want to make use of this resource. I just want to highlight some ways in which creative use of the Lectionary could help your gathered church worship. I think these apply whether your church is committed to using it every week (and perhaps are looking for some fresh approaches), or if you’ve never used it before but are prepared to dip in and begin to explore possibilities.
Follow the Story
The Lectionary is tied to the Church Year (or Liturgical Year, or Christian Calendar). This takes you on an annual trip from anticipating and celebrating the birth of Christ (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany), and then the journey up to the cross and onwards from the resurrection (Lent and Easter, and up to Pentecost). In this sense the key aspects of the story of Jesus are emphasised, which can be a helpful way to ‘keep the main thing the main thing’. Other important themes are also highlighted with special weeks (for example Trinity Sunday and the Ascension). People are rediscovering the value of this journey, with its different moods and emphases (fasting and feasting, inward and outward looking, times for different approaches to music and art, and more).
For worship leaders, this gives the opportunity as the year progresses to focus the congregation on different parts of the life of Christ, and the story of God’s Kingdom. Even if your church is not preaching through the Lectionary, you may well be able to bring in the Church season and some of its attendant readings within a time of singing and prayer. For example, on the second week of Advent you could shape worship around the story of John the Baptist, with some of the following ideas:
- use one of the song-settings of the text ‘prepare the way of the Lord’;
- have a time of confession based on John’s challenge to repent;
- use Zechariah’s song from Year C with a musical setting, or read it in a creative way with the congregation, or turn it into a time of prayer for others who need “rescue from the hands of their enemies” (Luke 1:74);
- use the set Epistle reading from Year A as a call to praise God in unity: “with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:6).
These are just examples - the possibilities are endless. It might be an idea, each time you lead, to look up the readings for the week and also delve a little into the part of the journey you’ve reached (for more on this see Constance M Cherry: The Worship Architect, chapter 12).
As you journey through your year, or simply dip into aspects of the Lectionary, you can be assured that you are doing so with Christians across the world in hundreds of different denominations and settings. This is quite a remarkable thing to consider. Could you contact friends in other countries and ask them how they are engaging with the particular season or reading for the day? There are particular traditions which can be interesting - for example on Ascension day in Sweden, it's traditional to get up early and worship outdoors, sometimes on top of a local hill or mountain.
There is an ecumenically agreed ‘Revised Common Lectionary’, although denomination such as the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church use altered versions of this core, so check this if you think it affects you. Discretion is required where apocryphal texts are included, and also when the Lectionary creators have left out the more difficult passages (things like violent psalms).
Engage with more of scripture
It is ironic that Christian movements which speak loudly about the authority of scripture will, in practice, often read very little of it in public worship. There is a danger that we merely focus around familiar passages and books, or proof-text points with verses out of context, or (perhaps worst of all) go through entire services without once reading scripture.
We live in a biblically illiterate society, where many people are unfamiliar with the stories and cadences of God’s word. In this way, following the set Old Testament, Psalm, Gospel and New Testament reading for the week is a practical way to improve the church’s scriptural ‘diet’. However, I am not convinced that mechanically ‘reading through’ these texts is always (at least for some congregations) the best way to help people ‘digest’ what they are hearing...
Using your creativity
This is where your creativity comes in. Can you:
- Make use of Bob Hartman’s creative readings of the text (often making use of multiple voices, actions and humour) included within AREA 52? Or try and write your own?
- Read a text slowly (and perhaps more than once), allowing quiet space for the congregation to chew on each phrase? This could be accompanied by soft instrumental music, live or recorded, or silence.
- Find (or create) a musical setting of the text - a congregational or performance piece?
- Turn the text into a prayer (of confession, thanks, intercession… etc), said by a leader or the whole congregation? There are lots of examples of this on AREA 52.
- Dramatise some readings with multiple voices, or actors playing parts, or getting congregation members to strike poses or deliver repeated lines?
- Print the reading out on a handout, and encourage people to scribble notes around the text as they reflect on it?
- Find or make a video, PowerPoint or physical artwork which helps people reflect on the text visually?
It might sound like this takes a lot of work, and we don’t want you to burn out on this! You are much better starting with small, manageable and sustainable ideas, and also sharing responsibility with a team of other people. Perhaps you could commit to doing just one of the readings in a creative way each week, and make good use of AREA 52 and other websites such as The Work of the People (videos, searchable by Lectionary week) and the Vanderbilt Divinity Lectionary website (art and prayers linked to each Lectionary week). And having said all this, there are times when simply having the text read (by someone who has prepared it and reads well) is the most effective choice.
A final thought is to make use of the set psalm that is included in each Sunday’s provision. Again, these can be desperately missing from contemporary worship. One thought around Lectionary use in public worship is that you could, even just for a season, commit to engaging with the set psalm each week. There are lots of resources to help with this:
- We often forget that psalms were written primarily to be sung, not read. If you are old-school enough to have songbooks, look in the index to see the ones based on psalms. Or web-search using sites like RESOUNDworship.org who classify their songs using scripture references.
- We have experimented with chanting psalms. This ancient practice makes use of a set tune (originally simply one line, hence ‘plain chant’ and later harmonised in ‘gregorian chant’ and other varieties), which is not at a particular length, so that the lines of the psalm do not need to conform to a strict meter. This webpage with linked example videos explains one approach, but you could adapt it musically to your context.
- This excellent webpage from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship is a treasure trove of resources and links regarding using the Psalms in worship.
- Graham Kendrick has come up with a concept he calls Psalm Surfing - essentially improvising your way through a psalm. He explains more in this article. You could adapt this to suit your context.
- You can structure a whole flow of worship, or even a whole service, around the different parts of one psalm. We outlined how you might go about this in this article, and also gave an example of doing this with Psalm 103.
Final comments from Facebook friends:
“I've become a big fan of the lectionary. I think at its best it can help bring much needed balance to church. It forces you to deal with, sometimes difficult and obscure passages, and can add balance and colour to what can, at its worst, be a repetitive wandering through the epistles and occasional gospel… I think the psalms can add emotional depth to the experience of life with faith and gives language and vocabulary for the trying and difficult times.” Simon
“At its best, the lectionary helps churches to study bits of the Bible they might not necessarily have looked at without the nudge, it helps provide an ongoing journey through scripture and helps provide a balance of gospel voices across a three year cycle. There are of course times when it is frustrating, times when the best thing to do is step away from the lectionary but that's true of any fixed pattern. I enjoy the changing seasons of the church year and the lectionary gives one way to engage with those.” Andy
“Psalm Surf as a worship band. A band could arrange some of the responses as musical call-and-responses, in a contemporary style. I'm thinking of morning prayer in particular here. It could be a wonderful mix of old and new styles.” Andrea
Please share your own thoughts, questions and ideas below!