A Dystopian Future for the #UMC 03 – Production Churches


This series looks at four techniques of the most successful United Methodist churches in America. While the techniques could benefit any church, they have serious dark sides. A dystopian future could await United Methodism if these techniques become widespread
01: Vulture Churches | 02: Franchise Churches | 03: Production Churches | 04: Caste Churches


In the United Methodist Church, there are churches and then there are vital churches, meaning churches who have been defined as having the necessary qualities to be strong and vibrant (there’s 16 drivers in all). Over and over again in seminars and books, we are encouraged to emulate these successful churches and use their techniques in our ministry contexts. However, when one looks at these vital churches and the megachurches in the United Methodist Church, they also have in common four other techniques which are, in my opinion, “playing with fire.”

  1. Multi-site: they worship in multiple locations throughout a community or region.
  2. Piped message: they export their sermons and sometimes entire worship services to multiple locations.
  3. Sermon series: they have 4-8 week sermon series, which in some cases become book deals or curriculum.
  4. One Magnetic Personality: these churches are run by one well-educated and charismatic clergy, who is often a man.

In this series, we will look at these four techniques and examine the dark sides of these techniques and the dystopian future that might emerge if these become more commonplace without serious reflection and persistent accountability.

From Sermon Series to Production Churches

One of the conclusions of the Call To Action was that topical preaching is preferred at ‘vital’ churches:

According to the study, effective pastors are those that develop, coach and mentor laity in leadership roles; influence the actions and behaviors of others to accomplish change; work with congregations to achieve significant goals and provide inspirational, topical preaching…Churches with contemporary and traditional worship services also tend to be more vital. The research found that traditional worship services should include topical preaching and contemporary worship services should be multi-media.

While people who like “facts” like the UMCWorship blog dispute that topical preaching leads to a depth of spirituality (and this blog has examined it as well), the reality is that highly vital megachurches like we have been studying in this series almost exclusively use sermon series. But why?

Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection, uses sermon series exclusively. Here’s a video of his biblical rationale (via John Meunier). Very helpful video but he had one line that really struck at me as he describes his sermon series rhythm:

Every other sermon series that I preach begins with the human condition and works its way to the what does the bible say. Every [other] sermon series starts with the biblical text and then works its way to the human condition.

My critique is that it seems that every sermon series begins with a particular human condition in mind: consumerism. “How can we package this sermon series into a sellable curriculum for other churches to use?” Take a look at The Well at Church of the Resurrection. Even though only a few sermon series a year get made into an Adam Hamilton book and study like “Seeing Gray in a Black and White World,” every single sermon series is videotaped and could be yours for $45 or so (although in fairness, the sermons can be streamed for free online on the website).

Other churches are catching onto this production model of turning their sermon series into sellable commodities. The Ginghamsburg E-Store is opening soon promising “offers all of the bookstore favorites as well as a wide-range of digital graphics, animations and videos created and mission-tested by the Ginghamsburg creative team.” Others haven’t gotten that far yet (ie. Church of the Woodlands in Houston doesn’t even feature their own Jessica LaGrone on their local authors bookstore…whoops!), but I am confident that as sermon series become more package-able into sellable units of books, videos, and curriculum, it will boom quickly.

The dystopian future is that the production model of worship planning is spreading and it will ride the coattails of this push to do exclusively sermon series (“topical preaching” will save the church, remember?), causing commercialism “what can we sell?” to be a factor–or just a happy consequent–of worship planning.

A Dystopian Future of Lectionary-deprived Churches

Now, I don’t fault Hamilton for making this move. It works for his church and it works well to resource other churches–I’ve used his studies myself, to my betterment. I think that is fine–my fears are as the idea spreads how many other churches will make a production model their focus. Not everything a megachurch does is automatically appropriate for other churches to do to become vital.

However, more churches becoming production centers isn’t really my bigger fear in this scenario.

As much as I deplore commercialism becoming a driving force of worship planning, my bigger fear is loss of the Lectionary. The Lectionary is a set of biblical readings that all mainline Protestants have used for decades (and they are similar to the Roman Catholics readings, as well).

As a pastor, I tend to preach both lectionary and sermon series. I’ll do a sermon series for a month and then a lectionary for a month or a liturgical season. Sometimes I can make a sermon series out of the lectionary (especially at Lent and Advent). But for the most part, I find the Lectionary to be a happy discipline that I use enliven and expand my preaching.

One of my young clergy friends is The Rev. Joseph P. Peters-Mathews, communications working group head of the Episcopal Diocese of California. He’s very passionate about the Lectionary so I asked him to write me some commentary about it (and if you notice, he’s obviously a reader of Hacking Christianity as he uses common terms that readers will recognize). Here’s some of what he wrote to me:

The lectionary is something that shouldn’t be disregarded if for no other reason that it bears testimony to a way that the Christian Church can live Jesus’ pray that we all may be one, despite our varied differences. Although there are slight variants for different traditions, the Revised Common Lectionary is available to mainline protestants and its readings are often almost the same as those used in the Roman lectionary. Hearing the same readings is something that, with the sacraments, can bind us together.

This oneness has great potential for preventing echo chambers and building ecumenical relationships. From a weekly ecumenical Bible study to friends of different traditions having lunch after church, people sharing the same readings enhances the Church. While some may prefer Beth Moore and yet others Marcus Borg for focusing Bible study, Christianity is united around the sacred texts of the Bible. Sharing the Bible — and different traditions ways of wrestling with passages over times — rather than particular authors increases participants’ knowledge of their own and other traditions.

Beyond the unity-in-diversity that following the lectionary offers, the lectionary is intentionally designed with a breadth that topical preaching may miss, particularly if the topical preaching is locally created. If space is made in a service for using the three passages appointed for the day, most of the bible is read publicly over the course of three years. Topical preaching may be limited, or discerning a passage each week may not cover as much. The Revised Common Lectionary paid particular attention to including more passage on women and other groups present in scripture but absent from previous lectionaries.

When explained to local congregations and there’s education around the lectionary, local congregations may celebrate it. It makes the local church (and the preacher) a part of something bigger rather than extremely locally focused. If nothing else, the lectionary is a safe guard against someone’s egotism.

As you can see, my fear is that in our dystopian future, we lose out on exactly what Rev. Peters-Mathews is saying: the substantial breadth of the Scripture being reflected on a unity-in-diversity approach being traded in for short bible snippets being lumped together and fitted into a DVD-length sermon series with flashy graphics. We lose out on the one-ness of our worship towards God because every church is doing a different sermon series and then trying to sell that sermon series the most in their town or online. Gone would be the days of ecumenical lectionary groups or clergy get-togethers to reflect on the lectionary.

While some may say that the Lectionary is a relic of a bygone era of when “the Institutional Church” meant something, I firmly believe that the Lectionary is a collective spiritual discipline that we are lesser for if we lose it. Here’s two blog posts to help with this discernment between topical and lectionary preaching: Part 1, Part 2. While I myself do not practice it as often (I’m also not a Senior Pastor, just a lowly Associate), I recognize its power and needed corrective presence in a church whose worship planning might be bent by “what can sell?” And my fear is that this dystopian future without common liturgy may not find much else in common, leading to a further splintering of the Body of Christ.

Your Turn

  • What are your thoughts on the Production Model of worship planning? Is it okay because it shares resources? Or is it too much consumerism leaking into the holy process of worship?
  • Is the Lectionary important to you? What else might we miss if liturgical churches fall by the wayside?

This is a four-part series, next is on the effect of relying on a single charismatic personality rather than a diversity of clergy representation. See you then.

Thoughts? Thanks for your comments, both here and on Facebook.

(Photo credit: “Abandoned Church” by Ben SalterCreative Commons share on Flickr)
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  1. says

    I don’t disagree with you here, and I favor your idea of balancing both the lectionary and sermon series formats throughout the year. I think half the battle with using the lectionary is just explaining what it is – a three year long bible study. I know that’s oversimplifying, but most lay people have no idea what it is. Having been a Methodist for 20 years now, I had no idea of the depth of the church year until seminary at Perkins.

    At our church, our Senior pastor forms lectionary-based sermon series throughout the year, jumping streams from gospel to old testament to new testament readings every month or so. It enables us to do intense bible study with the congregation as well as letting the church know what’s coming next week – a primary selling point of the sermon series. Not that every worship service should end on a Star Trek TNG-style cliffhanger, but it can build excitement in a church to be able to tell them “Come back next week as we continue our series on (fill in the blank).” It’s quite possible to do with the lectionary, with more planning – especially planning with a team.

    • says

      Another thing I could have said about the lectionary is that when congregations are given good education about it, their understanding of the depth of the liturgical year is automatic. This kind of re-formation has to occur periodically to take into account groups’ aging and moving in and out. The GBOD site gives tips on using the lectionary for sermon-series streams, too.

  2. says

    I agree with what you’re saying here (and I do both as well), but I think the bigger issue goes beyond either lectionary or topical. I take issue with the CTA report talking about topical preaching (and notice that it only applied to contemporary worship…if I remember correctly). I think the real issue is preparation.

    Hamilton and Slaughter (even if I don’t like his stuff as much), prepare extensively. Good lectionary preachers will prepare extensively. But its real easy to do either one badly and without any work. If we wanted to tackle this issue, then what kinds of resources and support could we offer to help folks do a better job of preparing?

    • says

      The GBOD Worship site does a great job (I think) of helping pastors and worship leaders prepare lectionary based worship – even some great ideas on how to tie the the different streams into a series format. Ministry Matters devotes a substantial portion of it’s worship resources to supporting the Church Year. But I agree: it’s all about the preparation. And the further in advance a pastor has a general outline of things, the better the worship team can help flesh out the worship.

  3. says

    I understand your fears, but I’ve found myself returning to this critique of the lectionary over and over:

    I think a healthy corrective to needs-based preaching is to do a series through a specific book of the bible. This allows people to gain a deep understanding of the context, continuity, and content of one book. This model can help them study others on their own too. If the pastor is intentional about going through OT, Psalms, Gospels, Epistles, etc. then this rotation can provide the balanced diet that the lectionary purports to promote, although most pastors just choose their favorite passage.

  4. Alex Tracy says

    I certainly understand your concerns about the consumable “product” that churches like CoR produce. It’s an issue that we constantly need to examine and evaluate. I don’t necessarily, however, share all your concerns about the lectionary. I think that the lectionary is a wonderful gift to the church, and I often use it as a starting point when planning my preaching. (Actually, I tend to start with the liturgical calendar, which the lectionary supports, rather than the lectionary itself.) Having said that, I have some deep theological and practical reservations about the lectionary that have developed in recent years since I started exploring the relationship between theology, worship, and preaching. Let me say at the outset that I find the argument of “the lectionary is a sign of our commitment to ecumenism” to be deeply inadequate. Adherence to a particular set of scheduled readings is a rather poor marker for such a commitment, in my opinion, and was certainly not a way in which the church was understood to be the Body of Christ within the early church. I think a balance needs to be sought constantly between the particular and local on the one hand and the universal on the other. As Lindbeck said in an essay, “churches” (i.e., concrete congregations) are logically prior to the “Church.” I worry that we’re becoming incredibly top-down in our denominational push toward uniformity in lectionary and particulars of worship, and forgetting that the congregation is still, in our Disciple, the primary locus of discipleship and ministry; the connection is designed to support such work.

    Homiletically, there is an increasing recognition of the inadequacies, not just of “the lectionary”, but of assigned lectionary models in general. In a recent interview, Tom Long pointed out that the lectionary is based on a “narrative theological” framework that is increasingly challenged by an episodically-defined culture. But in print, I’ll point to a few examples: Hull, “Strategic Preaching”; Lowry, “Living with the Lectionary”; Tisdale, “Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art”; and Allen, “Preaching is Believing” (which argues convincingly at one point that the lectionary changes the fundamental nature of Christian proclamation from Theocentric trinitarianism to (I would add “borderline monistic”) Christocentrism. There’s also been some great recent work by David S. Jacobson (a Methodist elder and homiletician) in his book “Kairos Preaching” on how to do theologically substantive work around issues that arise in congregational life in the course of a sermon. None of these are folks striving for marketability.

    The relationship between long term preaching planning, theology, and worship is of academic interest to me, and I’ve thought about trying to church out a paper or two on the issue. Issues like the ones you’ve raised certainly point to the need for scholarly reflection on the question.

    Grace and peace,
    Alex Tracy

  5. Amy says

    I found the lectionary really helpful when I was an Associate but I left the lectionary sometime in my second year of weekly preaching and I am consistently glad I did.
    1. I argue with the idea that the lectionary covers “most of the Bible” in three years. Significant portions are left out and stories/passages are often cut up in weird ways. Also to “cover most of the Bible” one would have to read all four scriptures and then somehow weave them together into one sermon. That is hard on good week and on others is a nearly herculean task that would require 35 mintues of exegesis without any time for application. If, instead, a preacher only preaches from one of the selected texts each week then I would propose they are presenting as thin a slice of scripture as any topical preacher.
    2. Preaching series (whether topical, theological or based on a book of the Bible, I have all) helps me develop theologically as a preacher. If I preach about forgiveness four times in a year in sermons that are months apart I am likely to repeat myself. If I have to preach those same sermons four weeks in a row I am pushed to deepen and expand my theology. If I feel the sermons are building on one another in depth and meaning, I trust the congregation experiences this too. Also this keeps me from feeling like I have to say everything about forgiveness in one 20 min sermon. I know and the congregation knows we will continue our reflections together next week. Also some of my better Christmas or Easter sermons have come when I have chosen a passage that really stretches me as a preacher instead of turning yet one more time to Luke 2 or John 20
    3. Finally, I know this collapses your arguments somewhat, but in a way yesterday you were arguing that preaching had to be very local and deeply rooted in context, thus not exported via video. Today you are arguing that preaching can be too localized and should instead be linked to all other communities in broad Christian unity. Perhaps you would say, “but the preacher contextualizes the one given scripture for the particular congregation” but I can’t abide that the committee from the 1980’s has accurately judged what pattern of scripture will best nurture my congregation, especially in the long stretches of ordinary time.

    • says

      1. I agree with your criticisThere are significant swaths of the bible not covered by the lectionary.
      2. I also like doing “four episodes of one story that builds the characters” in one month rather than “four episodes of four different stories that has no characters in common” in one month. I just worry about losing the discipline entirely. And I’ve found a lot by not preaching the Gospel lectionary reading and going Old Testament for a time (or as a corrective to a senior minister who preaches only NT).
      3. OUCH. Yeah, good critique. I live in the tension that sometimes dips into being hypocritical. Thanks for calling me on it. I do think, however, that Methodism has the shallowest relationship with Tradition, and doing away with a Lectionary (even if it is relied on only quarter or half of the sermons) would take away even more from the theological source of authority. So yes, the 1980s people have something important to say.

    • says

      On another hand, though, there doesn’t have to be an expectation that there will be preaching on all of the texts proclaimed. Proclamation of Scripture is in itself an act of worship. I don’t have UMH around but I feel like it assumes at least two texts are read, though there isn’t a requirement to preach on both. Taylor Burton-Edwards actually discourages trying to use all three texts in sermon preparation — but not in worship planning. Other acts of worship may be better related to a text on which one does not preach. As Patrick Malloy notes in _Celebrating the Eucharist_ (exact quotation is in a colleague’s locked office), the sermon is about preaching the gospel, not exegeting a text as sermon bible study. This affects someone else’s concern about preaching a text and not the Gospel, even if not preaching from a Gospel text.

  6. says

    I agree with Dr. Tracy that context does matter, deeply, for how the lectionary is or is not used.

    What I’d also point, to, though, is the underlying logic of the church year, which the lectionary supports.

    That underlying logic, and the readings selected, are there to help congregations, whatever their setting, create “seasons” of extended focus on Calling, Forming and Sending disciples of Jesus Christ into the world in the power of the Spirit.

    Advent through the Season after Epiphany focuses on Calling.

    Lent and Easter Season (including Pentecost) focus on Formation (catechesis and mystagogy, to use the ancient church’s terms), culminating on the Day of Pentecost in a celebration and sending of persons who have or are continuing to respond to the call to lived discipleship and ministry in the world.

    The Season after Pentecost (Trinity through Christ the King) is there to support those persons who have been sent as they engage their ministries in the world.

    What the lectionary readings do is not simply expose persons to lots of different parts of the Bible, but rather, when used wisely in connection with these underlying missional purposes of the church year, help provide a framework or platform for helping the congregation bring related scriptures alongside the underlying work of each of these three “seasons” of ministry in the course of the year.

    Could other scriptures or series be supplied or developed that might do this better in particular local contexts? Certainly. And where you find that to be the case, by all means pursue them!

    But in that pursuit, always be mindful about how what you’re doing helps worship and the other ministries of the congregation underwrite this fundamental discipling and missional flow– call, form, send. Spending extended time on each of these, so this pattern becomes a rhythm in the congregation’s life, enriched by scripture and ritual, may be one of the best things you can do to help your congregation participate fully in our stated mission: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

    • Alex Tracy says

      I like your proposal, and it’s been more or less the way that I’ve started thinking about the relationship. In particular, Michael Quicke got me thinking about this in his book “Preaching as Worship,” but Ron Allen has some great stuff on how to do series of sermons that address systematic theological topics appropriate to the season of the Christian year. That is in his very helpful book “Preaching is Believing.”

  7. says

    I’ve got a couple of nits to pick on this one, Jeremy.

    1. Starting with the human condition is not always consumerism. Starting with the human condition can also be starting with the common human crying out to God for justice and mercy.

    Contemporary Practical theological method begins its task by asking questions that start not with “what does this theological point mean? But rather a different set of questions:
    “What is this mess?”
    “How do we make sense of it?”
    “How do we respond to it as a community of faith?”
    “What then do we DO about it?”
    All these are healthy and commensurate to practicing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yes, they can be distorted into consumerist based questions, but there’s nothing about starting with set scriptural text that doesn’t also open itself to distortion. Prooftexting is basically consumerist at its center as well.

    2. I’ll echo the concerns that Alex Tracy has with the RCL, its disingenuous to call lectionary usage some sort of commitment to ecumenicism. Ecumenism isn’t “doing the same thing that others do” its “living a life with others so that we might understand each other better.” You don’t learn about your neighbor’s faith simply because your pastor is preaching on the same text their preach is preaching from.

    3. Another issue with the RCL is that it is a redaction of the scriptures and an editorial process. While I was trained to be a faithful “lectionary preacher” in the ethos of UMC preaching, my study of scripture took me another direction in noticing “those things the lectionary leaves out that ought not to be left out” and “those things that the lectionary highlights that are the result of social privilege which ought not to be privileged at a cost to others.”

    4. Lastly, my preaching style is profoundly influenced by Edward Farley’s thoughts on preaching in _Practicing Gospel: Unconventional Thoughts on the Church’s Ministry_ (Chapters 6-8). If you’ve not read it, do so. I think you’ll groove on it pretty good. His primary critique is that churches are no longer preaching THE GOSPEL, but rather preaching SCRIPTURE. And while the Gospel can be found in scripture, conflating Gospel and scripture leads to some real issues. A (poorly dashed out) summary of Farley’s argument and proposal is:

    A. The prevailing paradigm for preaching is “that which is to be preached” = the Bible. Furthermore, the Bible only becomes available to preaching when it is divided into texts/pericopes (ala Lectionary selections). Since the Bible does not divide itself into such passages, the preacher (or institution) does this. Therefore, the task of preaching becomes attempting to create a bridge from this arbitrarily bounded text to the congregation receiving the sermon. THIS OFTEN FAILS…HORRIBLY.

    B. Ultimately, this also is NOT what Jesus did nor what the apostles did according the chronicles of their acts. The early church was not about ‘preaching a text for today’s sermon’ as they were about ‘preaching on the redeeming power of Jesus Christ in the world of their time.’ They preached the Gospel, not the interpretation and bridging of scriptures.

    C. Farley then asks, ok then, what do we do with preaching if we want to be preaching the Gospel rather than simply dissecting scriptures and trying to bridge them? We ultimately start in a different place. Something that might be called “the human condition” or, as Outler would call in the ‘Wesleyan’ quadrilateral, “experience.”

    (But seriously, read the chapters, they’re well worth it!)

    One example I’ve used when discussing this with students and others is to compare two ‘mini sermons’

    ‘mini-sermon 1’ (using the prevailing bridging model)
    Text of the day = the good Samaritan
    1. read the text.
    2. explain who the Samaritans were
    3. explain who the various Jewish people who reject the injured man were
    4. attempt to extrapolate this into contemporary times by identifying a ‘modern day Samaritan’ and a ‘modern day injured man’ etc.
    5. Deal with the risk of people being fingered as ‘modern day people who reject the injured’ somehow…
    6. re-read the text.

    ‘mini-sermon 2’ using a Gospel-as-that-which-is-preached paradigm
    1. This weekI was out on my morning walk and passed a homeless woman with a cup and a sign. She’s often there and even during some really horrible weather.
    2. I noticed a lot of people just walk on by like she’s not even there, I’ve even done it myself.
    3. This time was different though, it was such a beautiful day and I was feeling so good and although it was tempting to just keep on walking and be grateful for my good day, I felt the tug of the holy spirit to share this bliss.
    4. I decided to introduce myself to this woman and we chatted for about 15 minutes where she told me all about how she ended up on the street. I had a lot I could have said, but the spirit told me to just shut up and listen for once, this woman probably didn’t get listened to very often.
    5. I ended up buying her a meal in a nearby diner where we continued to chat. Rather than trying to offer pithy help and “i’ll pray for you” etc. I found myself admitting that there wasn’t much I could do personally to fix the problems in her life, but I knew of some agencies and ministries that might be able to make a path out of this situation for her.
    6. She wasn’t sure of this whole idea and if it would work. She’d tried before and before and failed again and again.
    7. Long story short, she as an appointment at the job coaching ministry over at ______ and I’m meeting her tomorrow to sit with her as she takes the first steps. It’s only another hour of my time and who knows what might happen.
    8. I hope she shows up.
    9. As I stand here today, I think about all that Jesus has done for me in my life to smooth my way and wonder if I’ve been an instrument for God to bring that grace and salvation into the lives of others.
    10. Maybe I was the good Samaritan this week.

    The two sermons are structured in relation to the scriptural story of the Good Samaritan but the “that which is to be preached” is fundamentally different.

    The first ends up limiting itself to ‘the pericope of the lectionary text’ and bogs down in some information about the 1st century world that might interest people greatly, runs into issues when being bridged into “how might I live my life.”

    The second concerns itself with practicing the Gospel and witnessing to the saving power of Jesus Christ in the world as we experience it.

    (note: both are terribly oversimplified to illustrate the differences…I’m aware of that)

    So my concern (at the end of this windy post) is that adherence to the RCL leads us to the rut that Farley feels (and I concur with) is a real issue in contemporary preaching in that we preach scriptures and scriptural interpretation instead of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And that is part of what leads to malaise and irrelevance.

    I find that people young and old respond to my preaching (as you have Jeremy!) with a lot of enthusiasm and vibrancy when I’m making “that which is to be preached” the Gospel rather than “the text.” Hence my healthy suspicion of starting with an “assigned text” each week.

    • says

      Kirk and others:

      I think your critique of lectionary preaching, and the example you provide, may come down, as others have said, to a question of how you approach the text in the context of preaching. How you approach the texts isn’t an issue the lectionary addresses, or even directly tries to. That’s up to the preacher. Instead, it offers a “schedule” if you will for texts that might be approached at different seasons of the church year and of ministry in the congregation.

      I completely agree with you that the approach of “mere bridging” is unhelpful, ineffective, and not very faithful to what Jesus was up to or to what we are called to be up to as pastors.

      That’s why I lodge the preaching task within the larger worship planning task in the resources I write for GBOD (weekly Worship Planning Helps) and am constantly asking worship planning teams to reflect on and get stories from or draw images from or provide a means for some kind of testimony for how the “gospel of the coming of the reign of God” in the scriptures we are reading or focusing on each week are currently happening in their own lives- not only and not even primarily the life of the preacher. If all we’re doing is explaining what the words mean, we’re not preaching, and worse, I’d suggest we’re actively distracting from what it is God is up to with us in our worship and our discipleship. What the words mean and meant in context matters to that, to be sure– but they are not the destination we are after either in worship or in Bible study intended to support us in living as disciples of Jesus in the world.

      • Kirk VanGilder says

        I’d certainly not want to argue that Farley’s reframing of ‘that which is to be preached’ as the Gospel rather than a text with arbitrary boundaries that carve scripture into pericopes as ‘incompatible with Lectionary teaching’ or something. One can certainly prepare a sermon, read beyond, behind, and between what the Lectionary schedules for a given week and come up with preaching the Gospel.

        I just concur with Farley that the way preaching is commonly taught leads us to preach the text of the Lectionary rather than the Gospel and find that the Lectionary as a starting point often leads to unreflective practices on the part of a preacher (clergy or laity) whereby we lose something very very vital to our worship experiences. When we lose track of what exactly we are doing when we gather as a body for worship (or service, or prayer, or study, or…ministry of all sorts) we lose the authenticity of our practices. And I think this is the origin of what a lot of the younger generations are picking up on when they identify churches as, hypocritical or unthinking or inconsistent between talk and action. Thus you see young people coasting around from church to church and liking this or that energy about a worship service but then leaving after a few months because, “it doesn’t feel real.”

        • Alex Tracy says

          Farley’s work is certainly important on the issue of hermeneutics for preaching, and is mirrored significantly by David Buttrick (certainly in “Homiletic” and “A Captive Voice). And others such as Nancy Gross (“If You Cannot Preach Like Paul”) have picked up the critique and proposed other metaphors for getting from there to here (she proposes a “swing”). But Paul Scott Wilson makes a stronger case, I think, for the idea that the bridge is simply more complex. In “God Sense” he proposes a return to the 4-fold sense of Scripture (Literal, Moral, Allegorical, Anagogical) that developed from Augustine to the Middle Ages. In this case, the “bridge” is not a theme sentence (though Wilson certainly is a fan of having a theme sentence for your sermon), but a theological framework; it’s just less dependent on this anthropocentric notion of “consciousness” that pervades Buttrick’s work. Instead, its grounded in something that (to me) sounds more postliberal: practices (moral sense), doctrine (allegorical sense), and promissory speech act (ala Thiessen in the anagogical sense). In other words, it’s a lot like the framework for theology that Hutter is starting to develop in “Suffering Divine Things.”

          While I agree that the text is not what is preached, I would argue that the text is less dispensible than Farley and Buttrick seem to think it is. If you have a chance, I would suggest that you take a look at the last two essays in the feschrift for Buttrick titled “Preaching as Theological Task” ed. by Long and Farley. One essay you’ve already read, namely Farley’s “Toward a New Paradigm for Preaching” (reprinted in Practicing Gospel), but the second is Ron Allen’s rebuttal and argument for the need for pericopes to focus preaching and ground our proclamation in the Word.

  8. says

    First of all, thanks Jeremy! This is a great discussion starter and I agree with so much of what you fear may happen or be potentially abusive in practice! Also, I know you have said you used resources from other pastors and it helped you, so I think folks should remember you are listing a future fear you may fear is coming based on a trend. However, I have a few things that hopefully graciously pushes back a little on your ideas about this topics:
    1. Wesley and his sermons- I think some may find it ironic that we are worried about this trend since John Wesley used his sermons to help transform the Church and had them available for purchase through his publishing house or publications by subscription (Arminian Magazine for example). Not only that, but those sermons are now part of our beliefs and constitution as Methodists. I guess my point is selling sermons and worship resources is nothing new. It should always be examined for abuses and wrong purposes, but not a new phenomenon. And one that is an important part of our history as Methodists.
    2. Sermons and worship resources as agents of change- As I alluded to above, sermons and worship resources can be wonderful agents of change in a congregation, denominations, or culture. John Wesley used his sermons and worship resources to help people come to know Christ, “to spread scriptural holiness,” and change the Church of England. He not only used the sermons to change folks and culture theologically, but used the profits from such endeavors to fund the Methodist Movement. I believe Adam Hamilton is really trying to transform the United Methodist Church. Some I agree with, some not. Yet, I think there is nothing wrong with him using the profits from these things to fund more conferences, meetings, and ideas that can make the United Methodist Church a more faithful group of disciples for Jesus Christ. Where you may fear future abuses of consumerism, right now I only see some trying to use their Holy Spirit given gifts as theologians and educators to help us transform and be better disciples. In others words, it seems like Rev. Hamilton and others like him are simply following JW’s example.
    3. Early Church- I love the lectionary! My first few years of the pastorate I rotated every week from the OT, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel lessons to help me preach on sections of scripture I would normally skip and/or our congregation had never heard preached from before. It was a great blessing to me and the congregation and I still used it today. However, the lectionary was not always the norm. We know from history that in the early Church many pastors did “sermon series” by going through whole parts of scripture (like the book of Galatians) or pastoral events in the congregation (baptism, communion, Lord’s Prayer, etc.). I am merely saying that Sermon Series’ or ones that begin with a Human Condition are not bad in and of themselves and have been used successfully for centuries. As long as they follow the (as Dr. Burton-Edwards said) “fundamental discipling and missional flow– call, form, send” they can be wonderfully edifying as they have for generations of growing disciples of Christ.
    4. Unity found in Christ and Creeds of the Church- Finally, I would say that the lectionary is great and helpful. However, the Church has long had different worship practices in different places and for that matter different liturgies and lectionaries. It even seemed to be operate in theological unity before there was a lectionary. Without meaning to sound trite or naïve, I think the biggest unity of the Church comes in proclaiming Christ as Lord and the Creeds of the Church. I love the lectionary, but Christ’s teaching, life, ministry, death, and resurrection is the thing that unites us most strongly!

    • Kirk VanGilder says

      I too thought of the irony that we’re concerned about this sort of trend when John Wesley himself was a publisher of set-piece sermons for study and accused of being a ‘franchise preacher’ of some sort within the Anglican Church. That we still to this day require UMC clergy to have studies Wesley’s sermons speaks to this tradition.

  9. Wendy Lynne Efird says

    Thanks for this! I have been looking for other comments about along these lines.

    I have big concerns about the current state of affairs in the UMC. I live in a city of nearly 200,000 people with many UMCs. I know of one where the sermon is out of the lectionary and they only use the one text. 1) The lectionary is instructive. We need to keep hearing the story. The lectionary is designed to touch on the major themes of the faith. It helps us answer the question, “What do we (Christians) believe?” 2) The lectionary keeps the service Christ centered as opposed to personality centered. 3) The lectionary is process based as it takes us on a journey through the Christian year and lets us relive the story, our story.

    I should also say that the structure of the liturgical service also is process based and the “Worship planning by committee” models where things can happen in any order do not serve the purpose of taking people on a journey as well.

    I have grave concerns about our future of we do not correct this drift away from the lectionary. I look forward to the rest of the series.

  10. says

    I would echo Amy’s critique addressing your inconsistency with local vs. universal issues. Given the frequency of this dichotomy being used to dismantle things you stand against, I would exhort you to help readers like me to understand whether or not there is any coherent theology behind what you utilize in your critiques. I’ve tried to figure your theology for a while now and I’m still a little baffled about what rhyme or reason there is behind it other than you just not liking some things.

    I personally stick with the lectionary because my ego is way too big and if I were allowed to just pick my own texts I would cherry pick. Even so, the lectionary texts can be used to accomplish almost anything that needs to be addressed in a community. Very rarely do I ever have to take liberties to say what I want to say. If a preacher is willing to do the legwork to dance with the text, something good will come of it. Typically I have found that people who don’t like the lectionary are just independently-minded, and they don’t like being constrained to working with things they don’t want to work with. I think it’s a good discipline to have in one’s ministry, as we above all others need to be able to speak to texts from all over the Bible.

    The problem of consumerism in the church would not be a problem if we removed money from the equation. If a church or an individual has something really great to offer to the world, we live in an age when they can make it available online for free. The fact that people have made money off of religious music, education resources, and other religious materials has often seemed very problematic to me.

    The real problems behind this whole conversation have to do with two things: 1) Worship services need to be constrained to an hour if we are going to get consumers to come, and 2) We can’t have much scripture in worship if we want people to pay attention. When worship services have to stay within an hour’s time, or even if you get an extra 20 minutes, there is not enough time for much scripture. Not if you want to unpack it and make it real. I think that’s why traditions that worship for two or three hours have much more biblically literate constituencies. But even if you do have the time and the energy to lead a longer worship service as a pastor, the people on the whole are so biblically illiterate that their eyes glaze over after twenty seconds of reading. Scripture in worship suffers from the same problem as hymnody in worship: neither are able to speak to people on a deep level because people on the whole do not engage with scripture outside of that one hour per week. If people were reading the Bible daily and making it the backbone of their lives, Scripture would bring life into worship services, and we could root our messages in scripture. But when people are primarily living inside their own heads, then you have to start with people’s lives when you preach, and you’re lucky if you can get much scripture in. I still root my stuff in scripture because I’m a stubborn wesleyan, but there have been a lot of complaints from the people listening. Until we learn to reprioritize scripture in people’s personal lives, the arguments about how we use it as a basis for preaching in worship are relatively moot.

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