November 30, 2020

iMonk Classic: Do You Know What Your Church Is Doing Next Sunday?

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From Feb 23, 2009

Note from CM: Here is one of Michael Spencer’s posts on the Church Year and how it might be used fruitfully by evangelicals.

“Part of the problem is that evangelicals really don’t have traditions,” said Carter. “Instead, we have these fads that are built on the strengths and talents of individual leaders. … But a real tradition can be handed on to anyone, from generation to generation. It’s hard to hand these evangelical fads down like that, so it seems like we’re always starting over. It’s hard to build something that really lasts.”Joe Carter as quoted by Terry Mattingly

What’s your church going to be doing next week?

How you answer that question says a lot about where you are in Christianity.

If you are in the kind of Baptist fundamentalism I grew up in, you know that your pastor is going to preach whatever God leads him to preach, and that’s basically it.

You can usually count on a sermon themed around the national holidays, the election, Christmas and Easter. Other than that, you just never know. (We never picked Pentecost over Mother’s Day at any Southern Baptist church I attended.)

If you are part of the various congregations of the new evangelicalism, you can look at the current sermon series guide and know what your pastor is preaching for the next several weeks. You may be going through a book of the Bible, a topical series on sex and marriage, or a more open series on questions asked by the congregation.

You may or may not have a Christmas or Easter emphasis. It depends on what your pastor is doing in his current series. You trust your pastor(s) to lead worship and plan preaching with church growth and church health in mind.

If you are in a Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran or most mainline churches, you can pretty easily know what’s going on next Sunday at your church. The Christian calendar—which varies a bit from tradition to tradition- and the accompanying scripture readings from the lectionary—will guide the liturgy, preaching, music and even visual dimensions of the worship service. You know what your church is going to be doing this Sunday next year.

I’m a strong advocate for the use of the Christian calendar. I believe it is useful for churches, families, individual Christians, children and anyone wanting Christianity to make sense. But I realize there are two sides to that discussion, because the calendar is a kind of tradition, and that makes evangelicals suspicious and fundamentalists automatically opposed.

  • Does the Christian calendar disempower pastors and leaders? Does it create a framework that ignores the needs of the congregation and the church? Does it keep a pastor from talking about money or congregational problems? Does it make preaching and worship predictable?
  • Or does the use of the Christian calendar in worship provide a much needed focus? Does it move the congregation towards more Biblical spirituality? Does it honor God more than it honors the celebrity power of pastors? Does it help children learn the Biblical story and provide a rhythm for every Christian to re-experience the Gospel each year?

I’m in favor of a modest use of the Christian calendar. I’d use the major seasons—Advent, Nativity, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost—as dominant themes in worship, but I would make many of the minor feasts and days optional. I’d use the lectionary for scripture readers, but be less encumbered by it as determinant for preaching.

I think there is a danger of being too slavish about lectionary preaching, especially in traditions that expect the Gospel text to always be the sermon text. I would counsel a great deal of freedom for any preacher in what he feels he should do on a particular Sunday within the appropriate theme related to Christ. And that is what we want to do, right? Relate all things to Jesus?

The Christian calendar should provide guidance and a framework, but not an oppressive confinement. It should be a help to Christ-centered Gospel worship, and be in the background, not the forefront.

For instance, Ordinary time following Pentecost should not be defined closely by the calendar and the lectionary at all. Instead, preachers and leaders should be able address topics and emphases they feel are important for the church’s overall health. Series that address particular groups or issues can come in at that point.

When I was a young Southern Baptist preacher, we were trained in seminary to plan our preaching around the various denominational emphases that occurred each month, particularly putting the various missions and denominational offerings up front as the focus of preaching. These were great for stressing the denomination’s strong points, and a terrible way to get the total picture of Biblical truth.

In contrast, conservatives in our denomination were championing “preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible” in the mid-70′s. This was a counterpoint to the denomination’s approach to preaching.

Many young preacher’s today want to preach through books, but I would suggest they pay more attention to the broader, faster approach of Mark Dever rather than the kind of “Sermon #87 from Leviticus” method of some young preachers.

But the Christian Year can help all of us in preaching and planning worship, no matter what our situation. A good use of the Year can allow a journey through books, exegetical messages on key doctrines and creativity in coordinating word, liturgy, music and other elements of worship. Nothing about the year precludes messages on stewardship or church planting. Just look for ways to integrate with the themes available.

It is not necessary to adopt the worse aspects of the use of the Christian Year in order to use it. A modest use, with plenty of flexibility, can bring together the best of several traditions.


  1. “Does it keep a pastor from talking about money or congregational problems?”

    God rest the man, but back in the 80s, the liturgical year certainly never stopped our parish priest from talking about money 🙂

    He was, to be fair, fundraising for very badly needed refurbishment of the church as well as the parish schools, and when he was through (despite all the congregational grumbling about ‘He’s always looking for money!’, all the loans were paid off and the improvements made).

    I don’t see why any pastor can’t address pressing problems within the framework of the year; that’s what the homily is for, after all, not to mention the announcements/notices. Indeed, there’s a tradition of the bishop issuing pastoral letters to be read at all Sunday Masses in the diocese if there’s a particular very serious issue (the last one round here was about the abuse crisis).

  2. I have mixed feelings about minor feasts. Who is to say what constitute what is minor? I understand that the Catholic church does categorize certain feasts as obligatory.

    I see the liturgical calendar not as a single melody line but a symphony with many notes mixing, harmonizing, and occassionally causing minor and dissonant tones. For instance, when does the pilgrimage to the manger truly begin? I believe it begins March 25th: the Feast of the Annunciation on the western calendar. A few years ago, March 25th fell on Good Friday. I think technically the Feast of the Annunciation was moved that year, but even my Lutheran pastor that year noted the contrast. Then during the summer comes the Feast of the Visitation, when the Blessed Virgin visited her cousin, Elizabeth, which seems to pass unnoticed during ordinary time – Christmas in July, if you will. How about the Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, the day after Christmas? How about the feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28th? They have their place and add to the rich tones and colors of the calendar, providing much opportunity for contemplation.

    • dumb ox, that isn’t the first time this has happened: John Donne wrote a poem on the occasion of the Annunciation and Good Friday fallling on the same day (well, that’s what happens when Easter is a moveable feast):

      “She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
      Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
      Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
      At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
      At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
      Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
      Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity ;
      At once receiver and the legacy.”

      St. Stephen’s Day is celebrated (maybe not as vigorously as it once was) over here; the English hang on to the remnants by calling it Boxing Day. That’s the whole Twelve Days of Christmas, leading up to Ephiphany (which in Ireland is also known as Little Christmas or Women’s Christmas).

      And what you say about the Feast of the Annunciation, and the Visitation, and the others – all very true. Looks like the only solution is to go back to the good old days, maybe?


      Wikipedia has good articles on what are the major feasts of the Catholic calendar and the modern saints’ days:

      “A Solemnity of the Roman Catholic Church is a principal holy day in the liturgical calendar, usually commemorating an event in the life of Jesus, his mother Mary, or other important saints. The observance begins with the vigil on the evening before the actual date of the feast.”

      “The General Roman Calendar indicates the days of the year to which are assigned the liturgical celebrations of saints and of the mysteries of the Lord that are to be observed wherever the Roman Rite is used. National and diocesan liturgical calendars, as well as those of religious orders and even of continents, add other saints or transfer the celebration of a particular saint from the date assigned in the General Calendar to another date.

      These liturgical calendars also indicate the degree or rank of each celebration: Optional Memorial, Obligatory Memorial, Feast or Solemnity. Among other differences, the Gloria is said or sung at the mass of a Feast, but not at that of a Memorial, and the Creed is added on Solemnities.

      …The General Roman Calendar contains only those celebrations that are intended to be observed in the Roman Rite in every country of the world.

      This distinction is in application of the decision of the Second Vatican Council: “Lest the feasts of the saints should take precedence over the feasts which commemorate the very mysteries of salvation, many of them should be left to be celebrated by a particular Church or nation or family of religious; only those should be extended to the universal Church which commemorate saints who are truly of universal importance.”

      There is a common misconception that certain saints, e.g., Saint Christopher, were “unsainted” in 1969 or that veneration of them was “suppressed”. In fact, Saint Christopher is recognized as a saint of the Catholic Church, being listed as a martyr in the Roman Martyrology under 25 July. In 1969, Pope Paul VI issued the motu proprio Mysterii Paschalis. In it, he recognized that, while the written Acts of Saint Christopher are merely legendary, attestations to veneration of the martyr date from ancient times. His change in the calendar of saints included “leaving the memorial of Saint Christopher to local calendars” because of the relatively late date of its insertion into the Roman calendar.”

      So the ranking is (in descending order of importance): Solemnity (events from the life of Jesus or Mary, or other important saints as above); Feast (e.g. Ss. Philip and James, Apostles, on 3rd May); Obligatory Memorial (for example, Ss. Cyril and Methodius) and Optional Memorial (e.g. St. Patrick’s Day, which is only a Holy Day of Obligation here in Ireland and is optional even in America).

      • Martha,
        Technically, you are correct. However, I don’t think my dearly departed pastor would ever consider St. Patrick to be optional. He was from Waterford.

        • Then you were blessed full measure, pressed down and running over, Dino 😉

          No, in the far-flung regions of the Irish Empire, certainly St. Patrick’s Day is not an optional memorial. We can only regard with pity those benighted regions of the earth who do not flourish under the shamrock.


      • It’s a difficult subject. The church calendar is a human invention. But it is difficult to approach it with typical American Evangelicalism pragmatism and utilitarianism. If one throws out parts of the calendar that don’t appear to provide personal benefit, then the usefulness for discipleship can be lost. One purpose of the church calendar is to place ones personal faith in the larger context of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of all ages. That alone is a huge growth potential. It’s difficult to pray along with John the Baptist, “He must increase and I must decrease” if we are fixated on “What’s in it for ME? How will this make ME a better Christian?” What if discipleship requires us to do something which initially appears to provide no personal spiritual growth, benefit, or relevance? The question almost sounds ludicrous.

        At its most basic, Sunday worship is the simplest aspect of the church calendar, meeting weekly to celebrate the resurrection of the Son of God. So, what does a church do when Christmas, another fundamental day to celebrate the birth of the Son of God, falls on a Sunday? Many prominent American evangelical churches simply close their doors that day, rather than celebrating the birth of Christ the same day we celebrate His resurrection. But personal pragmatism and utilitarianism suggested that people should stay home. How can the church calendar find a home in such an environment, when even Sunday worship can be selectively thrown out when it doesn’t fit ones schedule, convenience, or preference? I think it suggests why discipleship is dying in the American church.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          So, what does a church do when Christmas, another fundamental day to celebrate the birth of the Son of God, falls on a Sunday? Many prominent American evangelical churches simply close their doors that day…

          Wasn’t there some item a couple years ago about some “prominent American evangelical church” that did the same on Super Bowl Sunday?

          • This also reminds me of the point that if Christmas Day (or any other holy day of obligation) falls on a Saturday, you can’t do a “two-for-the-price-of-one” attendance; that is, attending the Vigil Mass on Saturday does not fulfil your Sunday obligation as well.

            So in that instance, not alone would you have to go to Mass for Christmas Day, you would also be obliged to attend Mass on Sunday to fulfil the obligation. I don’t know how well that would go down with the congregations described above.


          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            This also reminds me of the point that if Christmas Day (or any other holy day of obligation) falls on a Saturday…

            Looking at next month’s calendar, funny you should mention that particular case…

        • Don’t most people go to Midnight Mass (or the equivalent service) on the night before? And there’s always the early morning service, or even the noon one – Christmas dinner is such a big meal, it doesn’t get served until the afternoon, so there’s no problem going out to Mass for an hour or so while the turkey is doing in the oven.

          Or is that just over here? I mean, I wouldn’t expect the church to be packed on Christmas morning, but dumping the Sunday services just because?

  3. Um – this is very much off-topic, but just in case you see splashy news headlines over the next couple of days about “Pope okays condoms” or “Vatican relaxes condom ban” (because I know in my bones the papers won’t be able to resist picking this up and running with it) –

    – not so much, okay? It’s because of the publication of a new book of interviews by a German journalist with Benedict XVI (the third one) where, amongst other things, they discuss this question.

    It’s actually a more nuanced instance than the headlines give to understand, and it always drives me up the wall when the teaching of the Church or some statement by the Pope is presented as a “Pope softens hardline stance” instead of “Hey, there was more nuance and depth to the topic than we at first realised”, but there you go.

    This is just pre-emptive, in case anyone reads/hears something about this in the news. As I said, I just have this feeling that some news outlet is going to pick up this story from Germany and start making giant leaps to unwarranted conclusions.

  4. ok, i’ll bite…
    “…but I would suggest they pay more attention to the broader, faster approach of Mark Dever rather than the kind of “Sermon #87 from Leviticus” method of some young preachers.”

    What is his broader, fast approach?

    again, my deep appreciation for the Church Calendar posts all week…soaking it all up!

    • From what I know, Charlie, he does studies of Biblical books more in an overview fashion, highlighting the books’ main themes, so that one is looking at the forest rather than each individual tree.

      • The preaching verse-by-verse approach does seem to require some pruning of what verses you preach on, otherwise you could find yourself trying to wring a sermon out of:

        “5 These are the names of the men who are to assist you: from Reuben, Elizur son of Shedeur; 6 from Simeon, Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai; 7 from Judah, Nahshon son of Amminadab; 8 from Issachar, Nethanel son of Zuar; 9 from Zebulun, Eliab son of Helon; 10 from the sons of Joseph: from Ephraim, Elishama son of Ammihud; from Manasseh, Gamaliel son of Pedahzur; 11 from Benjamin, Abidan son of Gideoni; 12 from Dan, Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai; 13 from Asher, Pagiel son of Okran; 14 from Gad, Eliasaph son of Deuel; 15 from Naphtali, Ahira son of Enan.”

        Now, anyone who can make a sermon out of what amounts to the sign-up list for the Ladies’ Altar Society, I’m impressed!


        • Verse by verse is probably a misleading term (even though most use it). There’d be something of an acknowledgement of them, but unless it had some significant meaning to it, it’d likely be mentioned, then the pastor would move to the next section.

          • Which does address the point about the lectionary taking verses out of context; even in a ‘verse-by-verse’ approach, there are some verses and some books of the Bible that get the “Yes, that’s there, now we pass over to the important bit.”

          • Martha – Mine is admittedly a simply personal think. I also read very quickly, which makes reading even something like My Utmost difficult, because the devotionals are so short my brain can’t retain it. That particular comment wasn’t strictly toward “high church.” Any “bible reading plan” that doesn’t go straight through, for whatever reason, I get lost in. It’s okay. I’m the same weirdo that can’t get through Psalms but can finish Leviticus.

            Anyway – Just wanted to point out that one wasn’t strictly a Catholic criticism. You’re right as far as genealogies go, but some of the others, well….I dunno. They look different by themselves than in their place. I’ll concede only a lazy reader wouldn’t check it out. 0=)

            The reason studying whole books was attractive to me is that, being a writer, for the purposes of writing bad guys I learned early on I could twist any truth into something diabolical if I played with it enough. From that stems my paranoia. I dislike realizing that, while the sermon was dead on, it had nothing to do with the key verse.

            There’s pros and cons with both angles, I suppose.

  5. I think I’m going to disagree that Protestants don’t have traditions. It seems inaccurate to say that because the traditions aren’t identical across the board that they don’t exist. That’s like saying Americans have no annual tradtions. Untrue. Those traditions, rather, exist, but vary depending on geographic location, subculture, and family preference.

    I think keeping a cycle of remembering is good, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think it matters if we’re all doing the exact same thing. Honestly, there’s a beauty in the variables.

    On the same lines, and I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority here, I don’t really know what’s under the saddle here, but by and large, while I appreciate particular traditions in both, I don’t really find one better than another.

    It’s not slavishness to a tradition that bothers me (one is a slave to a tradition only if one chooses to be), but that intended good things can create shortcuts that undermine one’s understanding.

    For instance, while I do find the idea of the entire Body of Christ doing the exact same thing at the exact same time across the globe fascinating, my problem with the annual readings is more that there’s a peevish, church brattiness in me that can’t stand the thought of three or four sections of Scripture pulled out of their proper context every day. It’s why I’ve never been able to follow guided reading that uses an OT/NT/Wisdom Literature passage every day. For some it works. But I fear that too many would simply comb the readings and not understand what the passage was actually saying because it’s out of context.

    To be sure, I think Protestants threw the baby out with the bathwater in some cases, but there’s cases where I might say the same of the Catholics.

    And I don’t really know what the problem is with preaching through books. Honestly, I don’t know what the problem is with varied worship, service structure, and many other things. (Most of the ‘preaching through books’ thing is lashback from poorly utilized topical preaching in which the abuse might be to take a barely related – if related – verse and go crazy on a topic with barely a partial-sentence to stand on.)

    Certainly, some things are inappropriate and even sacrilegious, but just as I disbelieve in a “Christian Golden Age,” so I disbelieve in the idea of putting one tradition inherently over another.

    At any rate, the title suggests Protestants don’t know what their pastor is going to preach on any given Sunday, and I find that a bit mistaken as well. Aside from a few cuckoos and the occasional (very occasional) change under the guidance of the Spirit, especially if it’s a sermon series, Protestants know at least a week in advance what the subject matter will be. (There are exceptions: I know some who don’t write their sermons until a couple nights before, and I think that says more about their need of organization than their souls.)

    So, in a word,yes, I do know what my pastor’s preaching on next Sunday. I guess I don’t understand why it matters if I do or don’t.

    Anyway. I don’t know why I said all that; my apologies for taking off for a few months only to come back and sound contrary.

    • Oh, and because I forgot earlier: One of the links cited mentions various trends among the denominations (WWJD bracelets, etc). I think my problem here is that the person writing the article is confusing a trend with a tradition. WWJD wasn’t a tradition. Trends can become traditions over time, but, as the article noted, twas but a trend.


  6. Not to be contrary, but you do realize that your “modest use” calendar model only accounts for much less than half the year, right? – and that the “major seasons” are grouped very close to one another (Advent/Nativity/Epiphany and Lent/Holy Week/Easter/Pentecost)? So for the majority of the year, you are in the same boat as the Protestants whose alleged lack of tradition you criticize – congregants in your model don’t know what their church is doing next Sunday either, for most of the year. Also, in case you weren’t aware, most Protestant churches (that I’ve been part of) focus on at least Advent, the Nativity, Holy Week, and Easter (starting a few weeks before, since we don’t practice Lent). So basically the difference boils down to three holidays/seasons.

    I defer to Kaci for the rest of the article.

    • Not true, for in liturgical churches, there is still guidance through the lectionary and other special commemorations. There is more freedom, but there is also more guidance than in non-lit churches.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Do You Know What Your Church Is Doing Next Sunday?

    Yes. First Sunday of Advent.

    Just as last Sunday was Christ the King ending the Liturgical Year, not the Seven Day Sex Challenge.