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Topical Preaching

After reading Adam Hamilton's book Leading Beyond the Walls, another thing I've been thinking about is lectionary preaching and topical preaching. I mentioned in my review that I disagree with Hamilton's take on lectionary preaching.

I remember at General Conference 2000, I had my first experience of the using of the phrases "high view" and "low view of scripture" by the late Rev. Bill Hinson in my small group on the Faith and Order legislative committee. Rev. Hinson and other conservatives talked about having a "high view" of scripture, meaning a more literal interpretation of scripture and perhaps a (conceived) more central place given to scripture in theology. I had never thought of myself as having a "low view" of scripture, though this seem to be implied as a natural correlative of a liberal outlook.

What does this have to do with lectionary and topical preaching? What I find interesting is this: from my experience (no formal surveys here, no studies I've read, just folks I've talked to so chime in if you don't fit my suggestion!), liberal pastors are more likely to stick to the lectionary and more conservative pastors are more likely to choose another method for selecting scriptures for preaching.

Adam Hamilton talks in Leading Beyond the Walls about sermon series he has preached, including the "controversial issues" of the church. We've recently added a second service at my church, and we've been focusing on the Social Principles in the worship, and I've been trying something new: non-manuscript non-lectionary preaching. It's been challenging for me, and I can't say I've enjoyed it. Why?? The non-manuscript part makes me nervous - I'm not comfortable with it yet, and as a lover of writing I feel my strength is in the way I put a manuscript sermon together.

But that aside, I miss the discipline of the lectionary very much. To me, it seems very strange to have a topic, and then pick a scripture to go with it. It never seems as deep to me as to read the Word, and then try to understand, interpret, and preach it. To me, there is some irony in the fact that someone like me with a "low view" of scripture has such a hard time not starting with the scripture first in my preaching, and seeing where it and God leads me and my congregation.

This week, I am heading off to the General Board of Church and Society meeting in DC (expect reports from me on the good work of the agency some of you love to hate!) and will spend one day in training on teaching the Social Principles, which I hope will help me center my topical preaching.

'Til then, what are your thoughts? Do you preach the lectionary or not? Why? Do you think there is a correlation between theology and the choice to preach or not preach from the lectionary? How do you keep your preaching grounded?


Dean Snyder said…
I preached my way through the lectionary lessons 5 times for 15 years. Now I write my own lectionary every summer. Enjoy GBCS.
Anonymous said…
I go through seasons of lectionary preaching and topical preaching. I am not creative or knowledgeable enough to preach series after series, so I will preach several topical series through out the year. Inbetween I will shift to the lectionary texts. Besides my own lack of creativity, it gives the congregation an opportunity to engage in a lectio divina of sorts. During the lectionary times, the text speaks and transforms at a different level because I have no agenda. Then during the topical times I go at topics for several weeks. I find it is a nice blend for me. I think my congregation appreciates it.
Revwilly said…
I've always preached topically. It allows me to address current issues and needs. But, from time-to-time I will preach through a book of the Old or New Testament.

I used to write out a manuscript and then study it until I needed no notes. That took a lot of time, but made me a good communicator. Now I don't write a manuscript and use the outline I give to the congregation as my notes, but even then don't use them much.

I think the best thing preachers can do whether they use manuscripts or not is to learn the sermon well enough so that it does not sound like it is being read.
Dan Trabue said…
My progressive pastor preaches from a lectionary, I reckon (being raised Southern Baptist, I'm not real sure what a lectionary is...), but it seems to me she does so topically.

That is, she's following some prescribed set of biblical passages, but her sermons tackle all manner of current issues - war, racism, materialism, greed, etc...

I guess maybe those aren't necessarily current issues, but she sure makes them that way.

On the script thing, she writes out her sermons, but they don't sound read, so she must really go over them thoroughly.
They say art thrives on restrictions. Maybe preachers who feel less restricted by scripture need to find restriction elsewhere.

Tom Harrison
Andy B. said…
I use the lectionary readings, and am continually amazed at how topical they seem to be!
On Topic,
Andy B.
Anonymous said…
I find that I mix Hamilton's approach with lectionary preaching. During certain seasons, I am likely to use the lectionary. Other times, there are practices that I am trying to promote, so I will do a short series of sermons around that theme, looking at the lectionary passages to see if they are relevant, but having the freedom to pass them if they aren't.

I should note that I often use the lectionary as a starting point, but then fill it out to make the timing fit congregational needs. This summer for example, I used the Genesis cycle but the timing didn't fit with our summer schedule, so I filled in with some of the Genesis stories that the lectionary didn't include, but that I wanted to preach.

That is the one problem with the lectionary. While the committee generally does a pretty good job, I find that they often avoid the hard words of scripture -- in example this summer, the destruction of Sodom, which I think we have to wrestle with. There was at least one other difficult Genesis passage this summer that they skipped over, so I changed the schedule to meet our needs and allow us the opportunity to wrestle with those scriptures.
Betty Newman said…
As a beginning lay speaker some 25 years ago, I used to take a topic, then find scripture to go with it.

Now however, in the normal course of personal Bible studies, I'm always finding things that make for good sermons. In fact I keep notes on "sermon ideas."

To me, the lectionary seems like "your assignment for this week is..."

Betty Newman
Scott said…
I attended an Episcopal church for three years while in seminary... every Sunday there were 4 scripture readings from the lectionary. The priest even told me they are 'required' to read what is in the lectionary. They can read more, but not less.

But I can also tell you that on many occassions, the priest did not preach from the scriptures, but preached a topic that was pertinent to the day or season.

I have rarely seen UM preachers do this!

Also, recently, I attended a Catholic Mass. The scriptures were wonderful. The priest spent about 20 minutes talking about the mass, and never once referred to the scriptures lessons we had just heard.

I think people who love the lectionary are usually down on those who choose not to follow it. I am always amazed, since we UM'ers do have a free pulpit and are not required to follow the lectionary. I kinda like to call some people the lectionary police or the liturgical police...

Conservatives are usually afraid of certain traditions (and the lectionary) because the more they think/assume that liberals love it, they reject it!

We are funny people, aren't we!?!?!
Anonymous said…
I am a conservative evangelical and I have preached the lectionary for over 20 years. I find your concentration on liberal vss. conservative language to be disturbing. It reveals a great deal about your prejudice approach to human beings in general as I imagine you must pigeon hole people for your own security so you know who is "in" and who is "out".
Our church is destined for breakup and then break down if you are its future.
Beth Quick said…
"frequent disappointed reader" - my uncle is a conservative evangelical preacher who uses the lectionary too. He certainly is conservative, and feels pretty comfortable with that label, and I feel comfortable saying that I'm liberal, and we have a great relationship. Just because we use labels doesn't mean we pigeon-hole people. Pigeon-holing happens when we think we know everything about someone based on a part of them that we know about.
As I said in my post, I was making an observation about what I had found in general to be the case, and asked for readers' opinions. I guess I have yours - about my post and about me as a person and my detrimental impact on the future of the church.
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