October 19, 2017

Do You Know What Your Church Is Doing Next Sunday?

“Part of the problem is that evangelicals really don’t have traditions,” said Carter. “Instead, we have these fads that are built on the strengths and talents of individual leaders. … But a real tradition can be handed on to anyone, from generation to generation. It’s hard to hand these evangelical fads down like that, so it seems like we’re always starting over. It’s hard to build something that really lasts.”Joe Carter as quoted by Terry Mattingly

What’s your church going to be doing next week?

How you answer that question says a lot about where you are in Christianity.

If you are in the kind of Baptist fundamentalism I grew up in, you know that your pastor is going to preach whatever God leads him to preach, and that’s basically it.

You can usually count on a sermon themed around the national holidays, the election, Christmas and Easter. Other than that, you just never know. (We never picked Pentecost over Mother’s Day at any Southern Baptist church I attended.)

If you are part of the various congregations of the new evangelicalism, you can look at the current sermon series guide and know what your pastor is preaching for the next several weeks. You may be going through a book of the Bible, a topical series on sex and marriage, or a more open series on questions asked by the congregation.

You may or may not have a Christmas or Easter emphasis. It depends on what your pastor is doing in his current series. You trust your pastor(s) to lead worship and plan preaching with church growth and church health in mind.

If you are in a Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran or most mainline churches, you can pretty easily know what’s going on next Sunday at your church. The Christian calendar- which varies a bit from tradition to tradition- and the accompanying scripture readings from the lectionary- will guide the liturgy, preaching, music and even visual dimensions of the worship service. You know what your church is going to be doing this Sunday next year.

I’m a strong advocate for the use of the Christian calendar. I believe it is useful for churches, families, individual Christians, children and anyone wanting Christianity to make sense. But I realize there are two sides to that discussion, because the calendar is a kind of tradition, and that makes evangelicals suspicious and fundamentalists automatically opposed.

Does the Christian calendar un-empower pastors and leaders? Does it create a framework that ignores the needs of the congregation and the church? Does it keep a pastor from talking about money or congregational problems? Does it make preaching and worship predictable?

Or does the use of the Christian calendar in worship provide a much needed focus? Does it move the congregation towards more Biblical spirituality? Does it honor God more than it honors the celebrity power of pastors? Does it help children learn the Biblical story and provide a rhythm for every Christian to re-experience the Gospel each year?

I’m in favor of a modest use of the Christian calendar. I’d use the major seasons- Advent, Nativity, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost- as dominant themes in worship, but I would make many of the minor feasts and days optional. I’d use the lectionary for scripture readers, but be less encumbered by it as determinant for preaching.

I think there is a danger of being too slavish about lectionary preaching, especially in traditions that expect the Gospel text to always be the sermon text. I would counsel a great deal of freedom for any preacher in what he feels he should do on a particular Sunday within the appropriate theme related to Christ. And that is what we want to do, right? Relate all things to Jesus?

The Christian calendar should provide guidance and a framework, but not an oppressive confinement. It should be a help to Christ-centered Gospel worship, and be in the background, not the forefront.

For instance, Ordinary time following Pentecost should not be defined closely by the calendar and the lectionary at all. Instead, preachers and leaders should be able address topics and emphases they feel are important for the church’s overall health. Series that address particular groups or issues can come in at that point.

When I was a young Southern Baptist preacher, we were trained in seminary to plan our preaching around the various denominational emphases that occurred each month, particularly putting the various missions and denominational offerings up front as the focus of preaching. These were great for stressing the denomination’s strong points, and a terrible way to get the total picture of Biblical truth.

In contrast, conservatives in our denomination were championing “preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible” in the mid-70’s. This was a counterpoint to the denomination’s approach to preaching.

Many young preacher’s today want to preach through books, but I would suggest they pay more attention to the broader, faster approach of Mark Dever rather than the kind of “Sermon #87 from Leviticus” method of some young preachers.

But the Christian year can help all of us in preaching and planning worship, no matter what our situation. A good use of the year can allow a journey through books, exegetical messages on key doctrines and creativity in coordinating word, liturgy, music and other elements of worship. Nothing about the year precludes messages on stewardship or church planting. Just look for ways to integrate with the themes available.

It is not necessary to adopt the worse aspects of the use of the Christian year in order to use it. A modest use, with plenty of flexibility, can bring together the best of several traditions.

Comments

  1. My (Reformed, Baptist, youngish) church has the same liturgy every week. Different content but the same “stuff” — and I love it. I love knowing that every week I’ll be reminded that God calls me to worship. I’ll have an opportunity to confess and repent, and to receive forgiveness. I’ll share the peace of Christ with those around me. I’ll take the bread and wine. I’ll be called to action. I’ll be blessed and “sent out.”

    We also observe the church calendar, in a fairly loose form. I do wish we’d follow it more closely, but then again I’m one of those weird Baptists who like to kneel and genuflect and stuff…

    Our pastors generally preach though books of the Bible, not verse-by-verse necessarily. Right now we’re in the Leviticus portion of a year going through the Old Testament. They’ll also preach topically as occasion requires, but we have so many non-Sunday-morning teaching and discipleship opportunities that it’s hardly ever necessary.