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Preaching by the Book: Using the Lectio Continua Approach in Sermon Planning

In recent years, many pastors have changed their approach to preaching. The lectio continua method, long a cherished Reformed tradition, has been replaced by series shaped by themes or outlined by the Common Lectionary or based on the preacher's pet topics. In this article Hughes Oliphant Old argues that the lectio continua approach is as effective in today's pulpits as it was in the pulpits of the early Reformation. Through examples and helpful guidelines, Old explains how to tailor lectio continua preaching to the needs of todays Christians.

Almost five hundred years ago in the city of Zurich, Ulrich Zwingli, inspired by the preaching of early church fathers Augustine and John Chrysostom, preached through the gospel of Matthew. Reformer John Calvin enthusiastically adopted Zwingli's lectio continua approach to preaching. In fact, during his long ministry in Geneva, Calvin followed this ancient liturgical practice, preaching through most of the Bible. After eighteen years of using the lectio continua method of preaching, I am confident that this approach has as much value for our congregations as it had for the congregations of Calvin and Zwingli. I'm also convinced, however, that it's important for the twentieth-century pastor to carefully adapt this venerable Reformed tradition to today's culture. On these pages I'd like to tell you about some of the adaptations I've made in lectio continua preaching.

Fewer Sermons

In the first place, I preach through a book of the Bible (or a major section of a book) in fewer sermons than most Reformers did. I rarely preach more than a dozen sermons on a book in a series.

It's important to remember that because the Reformers often preached daily, they were able to accomplish in a month what might take today's minister a half year to complete. For today's congregation a series of twenty-five sermons on a book like 1 Peter, for example—a series Calvin might have preached—is too much. It becomes the preacher's job to interpret the book, outlining its major divisions and themes, and then to decide which of those themes are most appropriate to the needs of the congregation. One congregation might benefit most from sermons on the more theological concerns of the first chapter of 1 Peter, while another might appreciate emphasis on the more practical moral concerns in the remaining chapters.

The first time I preached through 1 Peter, the congregation I was addressing had been long accustomed to a strong emphasis on Christian ethics and had little understanding of the basic affirmations of the faith. I therefore dwelt at greater length on the themes of saving faith in 1 Peter 1:3-9, the Christian hope in 1 Peter 1:13-21, the new birth in 1 Peter 1:22-2:3, and the spiritual worship of the royal priesthood in 1 Peter 2:4-10. In contrast, I covered 1 Peter 2:11-3:12, the long passage on rules for the Christian household, in a single sermon.

If I had been preaching to another congregation, my focus might have been altogether different. For example, I might have preached separate sermons on the Christian's duty to civil authority (1 Pet. 2:13-17), working for hard masters (1 Pet. 2:18-25), and husbands and wives as heirs to the grace of life (1 Pet. 3:1-7).

Planning sermons according to the lectio continua approach, then, does not imply being insensitive to the needs of the congregation or plodding through a book three to six verses at a time without ever looking at the book as a whole. The approach has often been misused in this way, to be sure—but doesn't have to be. In fact, one of the greatest advantages of lectio continua preaching is that it recognizes that there is more than one way of dividing the Word of truth.

Organizing the Year

Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost are poles around which I organize my preaching. Since Reformed tradition emphasizes Christian feasts rather than liturgical seasons, I often do a short lectio continua series for these feasts. For example, I have done four sermons on the nativity narrative in Matthew at Christmas and a series of six sermons on the servant songs of Isaiah at Easter. The use of the lectio continua approach, then, does not mean one has to neglect the evangelical feasts.

In the course of a year I try to treat many different types of biblical literature. I always try to do a major series on a gospel, a major series on another New Testament book, and a major series on an Old Testament book.

I have never been so bold as to try to preach through a whole gospel in a single series. Instead I usually focus on a section of a gospel—such as the ministry of Jesus in the gospel of John, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, or the passion narrative in Luke. Also, I try not to let the Pauline epistles overshadow the rest of the New Testament. Certainly one of the most positive discoveries of contemporary biblical research is the rich diversity in the various strands of biblical literature. All of the books have distinct messages that need to be heard.

One of the strengths of Reformed Christianity is its appreciation of the Old Testament. As I see it, a minister needs to give much loving attention to the various genres of Old Testament literature. The insights of the historical books, the prophets, and the poetry all need to be explored.

Organizing a series on one of these books can be difficult. For example, how does one do a lectio continua series on Jeremiah with its fifty-two chapters? Again, selection is essential to interpretation. With the aid of John Bright's commentary on Jeremiah, I selected the ten most important passages in the book—that is, the passages I thought had the most significance for my congregation, the most vivid and preachable chapters in the book.

I usually treat the historical books through personalities. I have done a major series on the Abraham cycle in Genesis and another on the David cycle in 1 and 2 Samuel. One time I did a short series of five sermons on Elijah. However, I've occasionally departed from this pattern. For example, after discovering Brevard Child's commentary on Exodus, I preached one whole summer on the Christian interpretation of that book.

Discipline and Adventure

For me, lectio continua preaching has been both a scholarly discipline and a spiritual adventure. It is the secret behind my enthusiasm for preaching.

How did the congregation feel about my preaching methods? Well, knowing how the faithful blow hot and cold in evaluating their dominie, I am slow to make too many claims about people's reactions to my labors. One hard fact I can produce, however, is that when the congregation went looking for my successor, they looked for someone who would use the lectio continua approach to preaching.

In A Word
LEC•TI•O CON•TIN•U•A

Here's another "lect" word. You may recall that lect comes from the Latin word that means "to read" and that it refers to the Scripture lessons (or lections) that are read on a given Sunday. In RW 1 an article on preaching according to a lectionary (pp. 14—16) described that method of structuring a preaching schedule. Lectio continua refers to another scheduling structure—that of preaching through a book, verse by verse or section by section.

Both the lectionary and the lectio continua traditions have been replaced in many Reformed churches by sermon series based on themes chosen by a minister. Such series may or may not deal with the "difficult" passages or books or issues that one would have to deal with in the lectionary or lectio continua approach.