Think Series! Worship Planning After Pentecost

December 9, 2014

After Pentecost: The Christian Year and the Revised Common Lectionary
 The Christian year offers the church two three-fold cycles of preparation, celebration, and living into our discipleship to Jesus Christ.

The first of these is Advent through the Season after Epiphany. During Advent, we prepare for the coming and second coming of Christ. During Christmas Season, we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation. During the Season after Epiphany, we focus on the calling and early formation of disciples, both to rehearse our own discipleship, and to prepare us for the more intense season of preparation to come.

That brings us to the second cycle, beginning with Lent. During Lent, we pursue the early Christian practice of intense formation in the practices of Christian discipleship for those preparing for baptism and those seeking to reconcile with the church. During Easter Season, we offer more intense formation in the core doctrines of the faith while we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit, culminating in commissioning for ministry at Pentecost. During the Season after Pentecost, we support one another as we launch people into their ministries in the world, and sometimes also the church, and as we all learn together what it means to be the church in ministry in the world in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the times of preparation and celebration, the lectionary provides readings that relate directly to one another and to the work in worship and mission for those particular times. In the times of living into our discipleship, the "ordinary times," the lectionary provides extended continuous readings of texts from the Epistles and Gospel. During the season after Epiphany, the Old Testament reading is selected to relate to the Gospel. During the season after Pentecost, though, it is not.

That point is key, and it is often missed by people who may be new to the lectionary, and even by some seasoned lectionary preachers.

With the exceptions of Trinity Sunday, All Saints, Thanksgiving, and Christ the King Sunday, the only intended connection between texts for each of these Sundays in the United Methodist version of the Revised Common Lectionary is that the Psalm is a response to the reading from the Old Testament. Otherwise, these readings generally have little or nothing to do with each other.

Why does our version of the RCL do this? Because United Methodists participating in the development of the lectionary, along with a number of representatives from other denominations, believed it was important for us to have at least one part of the year when we would hear from the Old Testament on its own terms by reading extended streams in a semi-continuous way.

This means there is no one theme uniting all three streams of texts during the Season after Pentecost. So please don’t go looking for one. And don’t go trying to force one. Really, there isn’t one. And that means it is your role as worship planners to listen and watch even more for the promptings of the Spirit in your worshiping community to discern where your focus should be.

Focus is Everything: Think Series!

A word about focus: In the U.S., in particular, we live in a distracted and distracting world. Multitasking seems required of us all the time, but what we know is that our brains are simply not set up to make that work. In fact, as significant research at Stanford University has shown, much to the surprise of the researchers, the more we multitask at things such as email, Twitter, documents we are writing, and the like, the worse we get at multitasking and the worse our capacity to filter out irrelevant information and remember and keep track of important things.

What’s even worse, people who do such multitasking over time believe and feel they’re getting better and better at it, and crave it more and more!

There’s a reason media multitasking feels so good, but works increasingly poorly. Our brains reward us withdopamine blasts” when we encounter something new. The brain apparently does that so we’re incentivized to deal with the new thing in a focused way, once we can focus in on it. But that’s the key. This dopamine-reward mechanism was not designed to be stimulated again and again in rapid succession. Keep stimulating it, and we become more “high” than focused. Literally.  In reality, such constant task-switching may be measurably damaging our brains.

Worship planners are often tempted during this period of unrelated texts after Pentecost  to jump around from week to week. We may think we should give folks a “break” since choirs, Sunday school, and other programs may be off for much of the summer vacation season in the U.S. and Europe. We may offer a more low key, casual feel, reducing focus.  We justify it to ourselves that variety is good.

The more casual approach and variety may feel good.  Likely it will. But given the fact that you only get to address your congregation once per week, and these texts really aren’t related, you may very well be reducing their biblical memory and enhancing their biblical illiteracy by jumping around among them rather than diving deeply into them from week to week.

Instead, “think series.” Pick one stream of texts to focus on for several weeks on end. Read them all in worship if you can. Plan intently—not casually!--  and focus everything in worship primarily around just one stream. Which Series Is for You?   That depends! Read, focus, pay attention! Take out your calendar and plan for some quality time to meet with your worship planning team to pray, read, discern what sorts of questions or challenges or possibilities your worshiping community is looking into and then choose which series (singular or plural!) may help you make the most of the Spirit’s gifts and promptings. Here are some suggestions to help get those conversations going.
  • If you do move away from the lectionary for a time, however, consider continuing the reading of the gospel from the lectionary so that the congregation is always hearing and able to respond to the unfolding teaching and ministry of Jesus from Sunday to Sunday, whether you focus or preach on that text or not.
  • Alternately, you could do as a number of congregations do during at least part of these months, and move away from the lectionary altogether, moving between a biblical series from the lectionary and a thematic series. In years B and C, there are usually several occasions where the Old Testament and Epistle change to a new book at the same time, making the choice of a “switch of streams” easier to make. That is not the case in year A. So if you take these additional detours, choose your off-ramps and on-ramps wisely!

These readings from Thessalonians, by the way, correspond with readings from the end of Matthew’s gospel that already begin moving into the core theme of Advent, the Second Coming of Christ as fulfillment of the promise of his incarnation, life, execution and resurrection. If you focus either on Matthew or Thessalonians, or even both to some degree, you may help your congregation experience more of Advent as it first developed, a seven-week season of baptismal preparation than the merely “pre-Christmas” as it has now become for so many Protestants in the west.

  • Are you a joyous congregation, struggling with questions about your future and the future of the world? I Thessalonians addresses these themes October 19-November 16.
  • Are you or are you wanting to become a more multicultural congregation, or to address issues of conflict, both with your surrounding culture and inside your congregation? Philippians addresses these issues more clearly than any single epistle, September 21 to October 12.
  • Is it time to cry justice and inspire your worshiping community to work for the deliverance of others? And when you have, how will you take the next steps to form a new life with those who are delivered? Join that journey with the readings from Exodus, August 24-October 19. Then continue with the “aftermath,” with a brief look at life starting in the promised land from Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges (October 26-November 16).
  • Some of the most important reform movements in the church’s history, including the Lutheran Reformation in Germany, the founding of Methodism by John Wesley, and the Christian resistance to Hitler in Germany have happened in response to a deep reading of Romans. Romans is the epistle lesson from June 22 to September 14.

Is it time to revisit the core stories of the ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph? Does your congregation need to understand these people, not from some idealistic vision of them as heroes, but from the biblical stories that portray them unblinkingly as people with problems who are accompanied by a God with great mercy and power? The readings from Genesis between June 22 and August 17 will help you take this journey.

  • Do you need to reconnect with Jesus, and particularly with Jesus as the new Moses, giver of the law of life in the kingdom of God? This season’s semi-continuous readings in Matthew may help you do just that.
  • Every year, GBOD also supports two “special series” using the RCL readings as a base. A Season of Creation during September uses the readings provided to help the congregation reflect intentionally on our connections with the earth and all living creatures. (2014 resources will be posted during June). A Season of Saints during October extends the focus of All Saints Day to an entire month (World Communion Sunday through All Sainte Sunday) to give the congregation time to reflect each week on the life and witness of Christian saint recognized worldwide, a saint from our United Methodist heritages, and a local saint of your own choosing.
However you decide to relate Scriptures and worship planning through these coming months, do think series! Go deep into a stream, not skipping over its surface. And do so with openness to the work of the Spirit in your congregation and community, the calling of Christ to be his disciples, and the mission of God to extend salvation into all the earth, beginning where you are.
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