Narrative Lectionary Vs. Revised Common Lectionary
Planning Church Services Using the Narrative Lectionary or the Revised Common Lectionary: A Comparison
by Daniel D. Maurer, RCL Worship Resources
When planning for worship, the first step any church leader or pastor will make is deciding whether to follow the Narrative Lectionary (NL) or the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). A lectionary, of course, is simply a list of scriptures to follow over the course of a church year for use in public worship.
The RCL uses a three-year cycle (Years A, B, and C) and the NL uses a four-year cycle (Year of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these systems. Congregational leaders will have to decide which advantages outweigh the drawbacks to each of the series of readings.
In this blog post, I will list off each system's strong points and drawbacks. Since Clergy Stuff has been a producer of Narrative Lectionary worship resources for some time, we can speak with some authority on this topic. However, RCL Worship Resources by Clergy Stuff also sees equally compelling arguments for using the RCL (as well as some of its weaknesses). Whichever lectionary your church decides to use, it's important to realize that what really matters is the message you convey, namely that God's grace intercedes for us in the person of Jesus Christ—yesterday, today, and in the future.
The Narrative Lectionary
The history of the development of the Narrative Lectionary is as equally interesting as it is surprising. The NL originated primarily from the work of two professors from Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota—Profs. Craig Koester and Rolf Jacobson.
The rationale behind the creation for the NL was that the churches needed not only an alternative to the RCL, but also a way to more effectively communicate "the proclamation of what God is doing" (source: Working Preacher). The term "narrative" is used insofar as the lectionary attempts to share a more linear fashion and allows people to "become fluent in the first language of faith" in a story-based, narrative format.
For many congregations, it's very popular and successful. However, the NL is not without its own drawbacks, which I will list below. First, here is a video from an interview of Rev. Dr. Rolf Jacobson; in it, he encapsulates well the distinct strong points of the Narrative Lectionary.
Again, a lectionary is simply a series of readings to be used in public worship. On the surface, the NL seems like an intriguing choice to use in your church. The NL is not without its disadvantages, however.
Pros of the Narrative Lectionary
- More accurately portrays the Old Testament's story format.
- Covers all four Gospels throughout the four-year cycle.
- Devotes more time to the Old Testament in the church "program year" (after Memorial Day in the US).
- Chosen texts more accurately convey the breath of variety in scripture.
- Focuses on one, main story for each Sunday or church festival.
- Congregations using it often report how much more biblically-literate their people seem.
- Simply put: it's different than the RCL!
Cons of the Narrative Lectionary
- Does not specifically follow the seasons in the church year.
- Leaders who employ the NL have more difficulty aligning with what other mainstream churches are using in their community.
- The NL misses out in connecting with the larger Church (capital "C").
- Since the NL centers around one text, often misses connecting Epistle, Psalm, and/or Gospel texts.
- Four-year cycle takes longer to go through.
- Congregants who miss a Sunday will sometimes miss connecting with the overarching themes highlighted during certain months.
- Community text studies often do not use the NL and misses out in some seasonal connections.
The Revised Common Lectionary
The Revised Common Lectionary is more well known (and used by mainstream, Protestant denominations), of course. Its history and development are equally interesting. What's more, the pros and cons for employing it are also just as varied as the Narrative Lectionary!
Surprisingly, the origin of the RCL, for the Protestant Church, really had been instigated as a result of the reforms first started in the Roman Catholic Church with the adoption of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
The quote below lists history and information as contained in the Wikipedia article on the RCL (which, surprisingly, is well-referenced and informative).
But, as within any series of biblical readings, the RCL has both pros and cons!
Pros of the Revised Common Lectionary
- Well-established within many Protestant denominations, including Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, UCC, some progressive Baptist, many Presbyterian, as well as some free churches.
- Follows the liturgical calendar closely.
- Devotes time for Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel readings for every day in the liturgical calendar.
- Easily used for cross-denominational text studies.
- Covers a three-year cycle of readings.
- Laity missing a Sunday can easily "catch up" with the readings.
- Long history of use in the western Church, and corresponds often with texts used in the the Catholic Church.
- The Gospel of John is covered heavily in Easter.
Cons of the Revised Common Lectionary
- Misses out in the modern pattern of daily calendar events.
- Laity often have trouble following four different readings.
- Jumps around in scripture from week to week.
- Easily becomes tiresome for pastors and other congregational leaders to use, year after year.
- Misses out in many of the Old Testament readings the Narrative Lectionary covers—does not accurately represent the Hebrew Bible as a witness to God's action (according to NL enthusiasts).
- The story-based format of the NL seems to connect to the modern listener better.
- Lack of recent updating or development from an ecumenical standpoint can be a hindrance to further denominational cooperation.
The excellent video below shows not only the development of the RCL, but also the importance of its use within the wider Church.
Each congregation and its leaders will need to decide which lectionary to follow, or whether to follow a lectionary series of readings at all! In fact, many Protestant congregations are beginning to deviate from following any lectionary—sometimes during the summer months, or even throughout the whole year.
Thematic or topically-based sermon series have become popular in a large minority of progressive churches, following in many respects what evangelical or free churches have done for some time.
Clergy Stuff, the church-worship resource organization behind this website as well as its NL worship resources website, believes that each lectionary has a place within the the larger Church. Whether you're seeking a sermon series, as mentioned above, or your congregation would like RCL worship-planning materials for the entire year, we want to make leaders' jobs easy and cost-effective.
Thank you for reading this article comparing the two lectionaries! We have also developed a Microsoft Excel file comparing the RCL to the NL specifically for "Year C" of the RCL. You may find it of particular interest in seeing which lectionary covers what—it's not been done before. We'll continue to add the other years of the RCL as time allows and invite you to visit this article again to receive those files. You may download the file by clicking the button below.