Is your congregation receiving all its spiritual vitamins and minerals? We all know how crucial a balanced physical diet is; our spirits also need a healthy mixture of “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
But before you stop reading this column because you think it is for pastors only, be assured that everyone can do something to assure that our Sunday worship services offer a variety of spiritual food. For one thing, the preacher and congregation could form a partnership in worship planning. This could be as simple as the pastor providing three-by-five cards in the morning service, inviting comments on “topics or Bible passages I’d like to hear addressed in sermons.” Or it could be a worship committee or a pastor’s team, assisting him or her in planning for Advent or some other special season. This group could help assure that all five senses are engaged (not just the sense of hearing) and also be attentive that all ages are included.
Another way to deepen and vary worship themes is for pastor and laity alike to become acquainted with the lectionary. The Revised Common Lectionary is a set of weekly Bible readings, designed to move through the major themes and sections of the Bible over a three-year period of time. Each Sunday’s assigned readings include one passage each from the Old Testament, Psalms, epistles and one of the gospels.
Before you dismiss this practice as too “high church,” consider the following. The synagogue of Jesus’ day very likely followed some sort of lectionary schedule, designating portions from the Law and the Prophets to be read each Sabbath until they had cycled through the Hebrew scriptures (see Luke 4:16-19). The early church probably borrowed this practice when our New Testament came together.
Some object to the lectionary on the grounds that “we do not want some office, somewhere in a big city, telling us what to study.” But for generations, we have accepted assigned Sunday School lessons and seem to have managed just fine!
Remember that we all have a lectionary, whether it is written down and formalized or not. We all have sections of the Bible that we are more drawn to. The published lectionary keeps us honest and helps us hear all (or at least more) of God’s Word. I heard a story about two deacons from different churches who were having coffee. The first one said, “My pastor is amazing. He once preached six sermons from the same Bible text.” The second deacon replied, “That’s nothing, my pastor can preach the same sermon from 20 different texts!” Without realizing it, some pastors flatten out every rich, meaty Bible passage until it becomes the same dry cereal week after week.
Even if the above-mentioned lectionary readings do not become the pastor’s sermon text, they can provide ideas for scripture readings, responsive readings, calls to worship, music, drama, banners or children’s worship experiences.
We can all do one more thing to assure that a balanced spiritual diet of God’s Word is received in our worship services. We can do our part to un-clutter the Sunday morning experience, so that adequate time is allowed to hear the public reading of God’s Word. Is divine worship really the time to make endless announcements about baby showers and potlucks? About parking on the north side of the church and about signing up for the youth hayride? Acknowledging wedding anniversaries and greeting special guests may have their place in worship, but not if they are crowding out God’s voice. Sometimes the obvious needs to be stated: We should listen to God’s Word when we meet for worship!
A carefully chosen Sunday morning scripture reading may be from the lectionary or from a passage of our own choosing. It may be a part of the pastor’s sermon theme or unrelated, standing on its own as an act of worship. When the Apostle Paul gave young Timothy instructions about how to lead a church, he wisely counseled, “Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture.…” (emphasis added, 1 Timothy 4:13, NRSV).
It is ironic that the people known as Baptists, who have fought and divided over how much we believe the Bible, often spend very little time in our public worship services actually reading God’s Word aloud. In many Baptist churches, the pastor reads one Bible verse and then preaches for 60 minutes, as if the preacher’s words are more important than the Word!
The Bible contains all we need for spiritual nutrition and strength (2 Timothy 3:15-17). Furthermore, God’s Word is delicious (Psalm 19:10; 119:103). Let’s all do our part to serve it up hot and fresh. And please — let’s serve it up with some variety!
Doyle Sager (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo. His column appears in every other issue of Word & Way.