What Is a Lectionary?
There is great diversity in what happens in church worship services across denominations. One of the (near) universal components is the reading of Scripture. The question is: which Scripture reading—or readings—are read? In many churches and traditions, the preacher chooses the Bible passages to preach on. Many others use a lectionary. What is a lectionary? A lectionary is simply a set calendar of Bible readings to be used in worship. Among the churches that use a lectionary, two options are the Revised Common Lectionary and the relatively new Narrative Lectionary.
Revised Common Lectionary (RCL)
The older, and more common, of these two lectionaries is the Revised Common Lectionary. It was created in 1992 by a group called the Consultation of Common Texts, a group representing 18 denominations at that time. As its name suggests, it is based on The Common Lectionary, itself created in 1983. Find more information in a frequently asked questions page created by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Narrative Lectionary (NL)
The Narrative Lectionary is newer on the scene, having begun in 2010. It was created by Drs. Craig Koester and Rolf Jacobson, both at Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN). [On a personal note, they were both my professors when I attended Luther Seminary.] The NL is now under the auspices of Working Preacher. The NL is, in part, a reaction to and criticism of the RCL. You can learn more about the NL both on my NL frequently asked questions page, and on the Working Preacher website.
The purpose behind any biblical lectionary is to help preachers and worship leaders organize the reading of Scripture in worship (or wherever it’s used). In addition to freeing them from deciding where in the Bible they will preach/teach from, a lectionary challenges them to tackle Bible passages that they might otherwise ignore. Also, a variety of congregations and denominations using the same lectionary creates a shared experience and community.
- The Revised Common Lectionary focuses on reading from different parts of the Bible each Sunday and festival day, with an emphasis on supporting the church seasons and festivals.
- The Narrative Lectionary focuses on teaching the larger story (narrative) of God and God’s people found through the Bible.
The differences in origins and purposes lead to structural differences within the lectionaries.
|Revised Common Lectionary||Narrative Lectionary|
|Length||The entire calendar year||A roughly nine-month period over a common programming year (school year) in the United States.|
|Cycle||A three-year cycle (lettered A, B, C) covering the three Synoptic Gospels with John mixed in each year.||A four-year cycle (numbered 1, 2, 3, 4); one year per Gospel.|
|Start Day||First Sunday of Advent||The Sunday after Labor Day (US)|
|End Day||Christ the King Sunday||Pentecost Sunday|
|Number of Readings||Four (often readings from the Old Testament, Psalms, New Testament/Epistles, and Gospels)||One primary reading, an optional accompanying reading.|
|Organization||The organization is more complicated than this, but the Gospel readings often match the church season/festival, with the other readings corresponding with the Gospel reading.||The lectionary generally begins with a portion of the creation story, moves through the Old Testament in chronological order through Advent 3. A single Gospel is read from Advent 4 through Easter 2. From Easter 3 to Pentecost Sunday, the readings are chosen from Acts and the Pauline epistles. You can find lists for the past four years on our Free Resources page.|
Revised Common Lectionary: Pros
One of the biggest gifts of the Revised Common Lectionary is its widespread use. This means that not only are there plentiful resources for preaching, study, worship, and music, but it is relatively easy to find other congregations who are using the same lectionary. The RCL gives worshippers an exposure to a variety of biblical passages each week, and it teaches the different liturgical seasons and festivals.
Revised Common Lectionary: Cons
One of the biggest criticisms, however, is that it often—though not always—treats each reading apart from its context within the whole of Scripture. The result can be a lack of understanding of the structure (which stories go in which order) and the flow of the Bible as a whole (how does this passage fit in with the entirety).
Also, the readings that are not preached on/taught are often ignored by worshippers, or at least not understood. I say this from personal experience. Even with my biblical education, I have a hard time digesting a Scripture passage (especially a non-narrative passage from the Prophets or Epistles) just with a single spoken reading. This diminishes the usefulness of those extra readings. With most of the focus on the Gospel text, the other readings are less important—even irrelevant—in a practical sense and therefore in the understanding of the people.
Narrative Lectionary: Pros
The Narrative Lectionary was specifically created to facilitate the teaching of the overarching story arc of Scripture, with an emphasis on stories (thus the “narrative” part). Each year moves from creation through Abraham/Isaac, Jacob/Joseph, the Exodus and on through the Babylonian exile and return, then focusing on a single Gospel. Preachers and teachers have the opportunity to fill in the gaps, connecting each story to the next. Worshippers (students, etc.) get an education in the Old Testament, which they have not likely received before.
Narrative Lectionary: Cons
As the relatively new kid, the NL has a smaller (but growing) community of users. This translates to fewer resources than with the RCL, though multiple smaller companies (like Spirit & Truth Publishing) have been able to fill in this gap left by the more established publishers.
While the flow of NL readings supports the general church seasons, there isn’t much support for individual church festivals that don’t fit within the narrative (like Christ the King/Reign of Christ, All Saints’ Day, etc.). The only non-Sunday festivals with assigned readings are Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.
As with most worship decisions, there isn’t a right or wrong answer here (no matter what some might say). Choosing one, the other, or neither just depends on your needs and preferences. As a story nut myself, I appreciate that focus on both the story and stories of Scripture in the Narrative Lectionary, especially in the Old Testament. I would not have the familiarity I now have with the Hebrew Bible without the NL.
Our largest product line here at Spirit & Truth Publishing includes ten resources that support education, worship, and family/home faith formation for all ages using the Narrative Lectionary. Download our single-page listing of the 2020-2021 NL Readings and see our NL product line.
This year, we have also introduced two products that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, an intergenerational classroom curriculum and a home-based family curriculum. You can download our listing of the 2020-2021 RCL Readings and see our RCL product line.
Overall, what is important is to read, study, and live out God’s Word!
Blessings to you in this difficult time,
Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
Our Faith Formation Resources
- FREE, weekly devotional resource for the Revised Common Lectionary (click the button above)
- Family-centered curriculum for the RCL: Living the Word: God’s Word @ Home
- Family-centered curriculum for the Narrative Lectionary: Living the Word: God’s Story @ Home
- Weekly devotional resource for the Narrative Lectionary: Living the Word: Sharing God’s Story @ Home
- Information page: Our Products and COVID-19.