by Matthew Wireman
The church I pastor, Christ the Redeemer, is a congregation that seeks to appreciate the tradition of the Church at-large without a lot of the pomp. It is a middle ground between what is called "low church" (a service opting for as earthy as possible—a few songs and a sermon) and "high church" (a lot of formality and ritual). I like to call what we do, "middle church."
Our liturgy is structured following the biblical storyline of Creation > Fall > Redemption > Consummation. There are a lot of elements you find in a clearly delineated order of service (i.e., a Call to Worship, Individual & Corporate Confession, Lord's Supper, Benediction, Commission).
The purpose of this post, however, seeks to explain why we follow the Revised Common Lectionary. This is our church's conviction. We do not presume to know or prescribe what other local congregations ought to do—other than preach the Gospel in the best way they see fit for their time and place.
Some Principles that Direct Our Decision
Local Church Autonomy
As a Baptist, we are so thankful for local church autonomy and, as such, there isn't a prescribed Order of Service for a church to be a "Baptist" church. The elements that link us are theological and not pragmatic. Go to one Baptist church, and it could be different than one you visit the following week. There is no prescribed way to order a Baptist church. Such diversity is healthy. Indeed, it is missiological in nature. There are so many kinds of people. It is only beneficial that there be many different kinds of churches. There is a danger to want all churches to look and sound like my preferences. To acquiesce would make the Church a monolith, rather than the rich and diverse expression of the richness and diversity of her people.
Guardrails & Guidelines
The prescribed readings for a given week are merely that—a prescription. I can opt not to take a prescription. I have often said that the RCL serves as guardrails or guidelines and not a straitjacket. That is, there may be a time in our church's life that we don't follow the RCL's Scripture passages because we want to focus on a particular book or issue in the life of our church. We have the freedom to do that.
The Whole Counsel of God
The RCL is a set of readings from the Psalms, Old Testament, Gospels, and Epistles. The real beauty of the Lectionary is that over the course of three years, our church will have heard the entire breadth of the Scriptures.
How We Implement the Readings
We open each of our services with a Call to Worship. This has always been from the reading from the Psalm for that Sunday and is typically read responsively with the Service Leader. For example, a recent Sunday:
The Leader read Psalm 19.1-6
The Congregation responded with vv. 7-9
The Leader responded with vv. 10-13
The Congregation with v. 14
After children ages 4-6 are dismissed from the service, we have typically have an Old Testament reading (which follows the thematic order of the RCL rather than working through the Bible canonically). During this season of Lent, the sermon text has been from the Gospel reading, since we have wanted to focus on Jesus' life and ministry during Epiphany and Lent. Therefore, the New Testament reading has been from the Epistles.
After we celebrated Easter, we focused attention on the Epistle readings—so we can work through a book (2 Corinthians, Ephesians, James, and much of Hebrews). Next year we will focus on Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and Lamentations.
Responding to Criticism
Are You Opting for Traditions of Men over God's Word?
Every church follows a liturgy. It is merely an order of service. Whether a church is explicit in its reference to a liturgy or not, it does not negate the fact that every church follows some order of their weekly gathering. A "low church" typically has a Welcome & Announcements, then a few songs (two fast and two slow), followed by a Sermon, Passing the Offering Plate, and Dismissal. There is no getting around a liturgy. Scripture is silent on a prescribed method or model. I can't help but think this is so that churches have the freedom to contextualize and serve their time and space most effectively. A church in Jerusalem in AD 100 and a church in Greenville, SC in AD 2018 ought to look different, but feel similar, as they are both rooted in the proclamation of the Gospel and mutual edification of the saints.
What About Expositional Preaching?
The 20th century saw the advent of working through a book of Scripture—specifically through the ministry of Martin Lloyd-Jones. Since that time, there has been an emphasis in evangelical circles of walking through a book chapter-by-chapter (and in some cases, verse-by-verse). There, of course, is great benefit to walking through a book of Scripture in such a way--after all, that is our plan at Redeemer following Pentecost Sunday!
But "expositional preaching" is a type of preaching that "exposits" or walks through the meaning of a passage of Scripture—heeding the context and the original authorial intent. This is the general characteristic and tenor of expositional preaching. This is the healthiest way to preach, I believe. After all, there is a need for churches to teach people how to read Scripture contextually. There is a need to explain the author's original intent rather than opting for it as a springboard for a non-contextual, hyper-applicable sermon. The former does not see a need to get the context of the passage because the text is always evolving or it is merely a starting point for a trajectory that changes over time. The latter uses the text of Scripture to support an agenda or topic for the sermon (typically termed "topical preaching").
Expositional preaching is the kind of preaching I do at Redeemer, though I am sure others would say that I don't because I don't preach verse-by-verse. Needless to say, the term "expositional preaching" gets at the issue of explaining a text of Scripture.
There actually are times that a topical sermon may be in order. For example, I preached on the five solas of the Protestant Reformation for five Sundays to commemorate the 500-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Each of those solas, however, was wedded to and derived from a passage of Scripture. For example, Sola Scriptura was based off 2 Peter 1.16-21, where Peter's intent was to give the surety and confidence we have in Scripture.
In fairness, even for those walking through a book verse-by-verse or chapter-by-chapter, the passage for that Sunday runs the risk of being taken out of context. That is, instead of reading the whole epistle of Ephesians (as would have been done in Ephesus), the pastor will only be explaining one chapter or a few verses of one chapter in hopes that people remember the previous weeks' sermons and verses. It behoves each of us on Sunday to explain the context of a passage of Scripture each Sunday for the building up of God's people and as a demonstration of how to read contextually and with all the texture and depth of a particular passage.
Jewish Prescribed Readings
Following the guidelines of the RCL follows the model of the Jewish readings in the synagogue during the time of Christ. Note Luke 4.17: The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to [Jesus]. There was a prescribed lectionary in the Jewish faith. Following the RCL just follows such a model.
The Breadth of Scripture
As mentioned earlier, following the RCL helps the congregation hear the entirety of Scripture over the course of three years. A couple Sundays ago, we had the uncomfortable experience of sitting through the entirety of Genesis 17 where there word "circumcision" shows up repeatedly. It was uncomfortable as a father and as a man. Yet, there I was listening and underneath God's Word. Following the RCL helps us affirm in a practical way our belief that all of Scripture is God-breathed, not merely what the preaching pastor feels comfortable with.
In all honesty, and in full disclosure, I have heard this as an argument for walking through a book verse-by-verse. Yes, this is great! Keep going for it. Yet, I can't help but think that many pastors keep preaching through Romans and Genesis and Nehemiah and several epistles verse-by-verse and don't want to tackle Song of Solomon or Leviticus or Revelation. Sure, there are brothers who are tackling those...may their tribe increase! Yet, let's not put our yoke of conviction on others and say it must be their yoke. May we be able to serve in our particular congregations in accord with our convictions and joyfully.
Affirming the Church Universal
Every Sunday, while our people at our local congregation are hearing the words of John 2.13-22 so also are myriads of congregations hearing these same passages. We are one congregation in the midst of the Great Congregation. Not only across space, but across time.
What a beautiful picture to consider that we are hearing the same readings as other brothers and sisters and across denominational lines!
Shaping the Congregation
The seasons of the Church Calendar provide us opportunity to pause at intervals to consider various aspects of our discipleship. That is, we focused on Jesus' first Advent—his kingship, and then on his early ministry of calling the disciples and how that ought to inform our being called by him at Epiphany, and we reflected on the need to repent and lay down our lives during the season of Lent. We focus on the church as a community during Ordinary Time after Pentecost Sunday (the too-oft neglected celebration of the Church--that is, not celebrating and considering the implications of Pentecost forty days following Resurrection Sunday. My opinion only!).
I have heard accounts of people in our congregation being greatly affected by the various foci we have had as a congregation as we have spent time considering these varied aspects of our communal and personal discipleship with Jesus.
Preparing Our Hearts
This is not to say that this can't happen in a church that doesn't follow the RCL, I wish, though, it would happen more, but every Sunday people know what passages we will be hearing for the rest of our lives. That is, we are in cycle B of the Lectionary right now. Someone in my congregation passed me in the hallway before the worship service and asked, "You preaching on John 2 today?" What an encouraging question! "Why yes, yes I am." Even visitors to our congregation could know what I will be preaching on if they visited the Lectionary for that Sunday. Granted, I could have preached on Psalm 19 or Exodus 20 or 1Corinthians 1 this past Sunday. But at least someone would know.
There is a thorny problem in our churches that opt for a canon within a canon. That is, too often people give priority or superiority of one Scripture or body of Scripture over another. Because the RCL has us read from four passages of Scripture each Sunday, we see the value of poetry, history, prose, prophecy, and epistle. We see them as equally important to our devotion.
What is more, because we have opted for the thematic readings, we will hear from Numbers 21 (the account of the bronze serpent being lifted up) and John 3 (where Jesus references that happening in Israel's wilderness wanderings) and Ephesians 2 (where Paul reminds us that we were not just in the threat of death, but were, indeed, dead in our trespasses and sins).
People are enabled to see the one story of Scripture that magnifies and tells the story of redemption. They hear the unity of the Bible. Its beauty and its strength and its relevance for us—in every genre of Scripture.