What’s Up With The Narrative Lectionary?

In my wonderings around the interweb last night, I stumbled across the Narrative Lectionary. My curiosity was peaked and so I started to research this new Lectionary. Up until last night, I had never heard of the Narrative Lectionary (NL) before and was surprised to learn it was put together in 2010 by Luther Seminary, an ELCA Seminary. This surprised me because I’m a Lutheran of the ELCA variety. The NL is being put forth as an alternative lectionary to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

In all honesty, if I knew about this back in 2010 or even 2014, I would have been all over it. I was very much into Shane Claiborne, Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Weber and the like. But as I’ve gotten older and have become more mature as a Christian, I’ve changed. And taking a year off of church has really put some things into perspective (This is a long story and best told at another time).

I’m going to be up front. I love the RCL. The RCL does have its issues; but, the RCL is used in churches all over the world, across denomination. I can go into a Roman Catholic Church, a Moravian Church, an Episcopal Church, or any number of churches that use the RCL and hear (more or less) the same texts. In my opinion, the widespread usage of the RCL speaks to the unity of the church.

So, why did the creators of the Narrative Lectionary feel that is was necessary?

Though the Revised Common Lectionary has united the church in its reading of scripture and has given much-needed structure, it doesn’t present scripture — especially the Old Testament — in a way that helps people to become fluent in the first language of faith. The Narrative Lectionary is an attempt to take nine months to do just that.

So how do they go about doing this? It’s probably easier to compare the RCL to the NL. Below is a list of reading for the next three weeks in the Church year.


  Week Revised Common Lectionary Narrative Lectionary
Ascension of The LordActs 1:1-11, Psalm 47 or 93, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-531 Corinthians 15:1-26, 51-57 or Mark 12:26-27a
 PentecostActs 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17, (25-27)Acts 2:1-4, 1 Corinthians 12:1-13, or Mark 1:4-8
 Trinity SundayProverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15Start of Summer Sermon Series

I’ve emphasized the “or” in the NL reading because the Gospel isn’t always the primary text.

When the primary text is not from a Gospel, there is an accompanying Gospel text suggested. So during the fall when the primary readings are taken from the Old Testament, and in the spring when primary readings come from the Epistles, a Gospel reading is provided in the schedule. When the primary reading is from the Gospel, the accompanying reading is taken from the Psalms.

To be fair, the text chosen to preach from in the RCL may not necessarily be the Gospel, but the Gospel is alway there. In fact, where there is an “or” in the RCL, it’s between non-Gospel texts. But this does bring to light my first concern, the NL does not appear to be focused on the Gospel. The entire Bible is the story of Salvation history, that culminates in the Gospel and continues to today. This site does an excellent job of summing up the lectionary and how the readings are centered around the Gospel.

I’ve already alluded to my second concern, that the NL doesn’t foster unity. Like I said, the nice thing about worshipping in a church that uses the RCL is knowing that I am united in my brothers and sisters in Christ through the reading as well as the Eucharist. I am hearing the same texts that they are. The same can’t be said for the NL.

One might also make the claim that the NL is attempting to turn the sermon into something that it’s not meant to be: a Bible study. Why proclaim the mystery of scripture through four texts when an intensive look can be done at one? Now I’m being facetious here. But yes, I think that the NL does, to some degree, water down the mystery of the faith by limiting the pastor to one to two texts each week.

My final concern is that, on first look, the NL tends to emphasize and validate the shrinking attention span that seems to be afflicting the church today. I have no problem sitting through four readings. But throughout the years, starting with my internship during seminary, the four became two. And now, we dropped into the one to two range. In essence, we are catering to the lowest common denominator and boring the rest of us. We are dumbing down worship instead lifting up the lowest common denominator in their journey of faith. We are stifling the growth of our brothers and sisters in Christ instead of challenging them to grow beyond their current understanding of Scripture.

I have to say, as a Lutheran, I’m disappointed that some at Luther Seminary even felt the need for the NL. I do not think the church needs a new lectionary. I also think more discernment is needed concerning the NL. Maybe I’m missing something or misinterpreted something I’ve read.

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7 Replies to “What’s Up With The Narrative Lectionary?”

  1. Technical note: following paragraph appears to be in duplicate:

    In all honesty, if I knew about this back in 2010 or even 2014, I would have been all over it. I was very much into Shane Claiborne, Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Weber and the like. But as I’ve gotten older and have become more mature as a Christian, I’ve changed. And taking a year off of church has really put some things into perspective (This is a long story and best told at another time).

    # #

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Thanks, I’ve fixed it. I must have deleted the wrong paragraph when I was copying and pasting last night. That’s what happens when you write a post with a massive migraine.

  2. I used the Revised Common Lectionary. That made me “cutting edge” thirty years ago, when I was a newly minted seminary graduate. Now it makes me hopelessly retrograde. The “latest thing” is topical sermon series.

  3. I don’t know that this is your main point, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a sermon from Nadia Bolz-Weber that was NOT drawn from the RCL Gospel reading. If it was, it was from some OTHER RCL reading. Rachel Held Evans is a relative newcomer to the whole concept of a lectionary, but I’ve read of her great appreciation for it and of her commitment to draw from the lectionary when she is asked to speak in a Sunday morning worship service. She tried doing a series of weekly reflections from the lectionary, but other things took up her time.

  4. I don’t think you looked far enough at the Narrative Lectionary to appreciate it fully. For one thing, comparing a few Sundays isn’t how it is meant to be used. The NL uses the OT in the fall and the NT in the spring. The Gospel verses that accompany the OT lessons are not “OR”, they are accompaniment lessons, meant to illustrate the OT lesson. The OT lessons are presented in chronological order, which you don’t get in the RCL. The NL is a four year cycle, hitting more of the bible than the RCL. The OT lessons almost always have relevance to the central Gospel message of the whole Bible. My church started using the NL when it began 10 years ago. Our Bible Study group started using the podcasts about 9 years ago, where we get commentary from three professors at Luther Sem. These are usually wonderful. The website has a written commentary from another seminary teacher, almost always somebody from another tradition than Lutheran. Unfortunately, when we got a different pastor 4 years ago, he used the NL for the first 4 months, mistaking the Gospel “or” as you did, so he never explored the fullness of the NL. He changed back to the RCL at the beginning of the new church year. Our Bible Study group, which includes a retired pastor, tried going back to the RCL, but quickly went back to the richness of the NL for our weekly study, including the podcasts. I would urge you to read the information on the website and explore the fullness of the NL, rather than picking out a few weeks of texts and comparing them to the RCL. The NL is now used in a number of denominations and all over the world. The RCL is used more widely. I agree that one of the beauties of the RCL is that I can attend almost any denominational church and hear the same readings, and even on some church radio broadcasts. I am not stating that the RCL is inferior, but that there is more richness in the NL than you have yet discovered. Aside: I was quite surprised when a retired baptist pastor and his wife joined our NL study and started asking questions about the list of readings in our bulletins and newsletter. He had no knowledge of a lectionary. Would there not be some sort of comparison of denomination study for people who come from various traditions?

  5. I am sorry that I didn’t give you the URLs to the relevant web pages. Here they are. https://www.workingpreacher.org/?lect_date=11/19/2017&lectionary=nl (which is date specific, includes the link for the weekly podcast, as well as the commentary by Hays of Fuller Seminary in California, as well as ideas for hymns, and other resources. For the info about the whole Narrative Lectionary idea and program, see https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_faqs.aspx

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