Come Follow Me as a Quasi-, or Proto-Lectionary

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn’t have a traditional Christian liturgical calendar, and the Come Follow Me New Testament manual is not a traditional lectionary. But Come Follow Me is also not entirely like a traditional Latter-day Saint Sunday School manual, and the ways that it departs from that form nudge it closer to functioning almost like a lectionary in some interesting ways.

What is a lectionary and what does it have to do with liturgical calendars?

A liturgical calendar and a lectionary aren’t exactly the same thing, but they are related. A liturgical calendar marks the holy days of the year in a given tradition. A lectionary is nothing more than a set of scriptural readings assigned to certain days in the calendar, to be read in worship services. Jews and Christians have used lectionaries in one way or another for centuries. The idea is twofold: (1) to cycle through all the important scriptures on a pretty regular basis and get balanced exposure to the whole canon of scripture over time rather than to fixate on a few pet favorite passages and neglect the rest, and (2) to assign fitting readings to important days on the liturgical calendar.

The modern Catholic lectionary, which is also the basis for the lectionaries used by Anglicans, Presbyterians, most Lutherans, and some Methodists, uses a three-year cycle, and gives you a little Old Testament, a little Psalms, a little New Testament, and a little Gospels each day. Older lectionaries used a one-year cycle. The lectionaries assign readings that are topical to the days and seasons being celebrated on the liturgical calendar. Together, the liturgical calendar and the lectionary guide the content of preaching and teaching in worship services and tune them to the rhythms of the seasons.

Does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have a liturgical calendar or a lectionary?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began in an religious environment dominated by a minimalistic low-church tradition and a strong anti-Catholic suspicion of anything that looked too much like highly ritualized liturgies. That, combined with a strong primitivist impulse (see Article of Faith 6, and see the simple and straightforward sacramental liturgy described in the Book of Mormon) is probably enough to explain why we don’t follow even a minimalist and streamlined version of the traditional liturgical calendars. But though we lack a formal liturgical calendar, we do usually observe Easter Sunday and we vaguely observe the Chrristmas season in general, and we do have our own mostly unwritten liturgical rhythms.

That same low-church preference for simple, straightforward worship also explains why we don’t have a traditional lectionary. While we almost always have talks based either directly or indirectly on scriptures in Latter-day Saint sacrament meetings, those scriptural texts are simply incorporated into our preaching. We don’t (usually, though I have seen it occasionally as part of a Christmas sacrament service) have standalone liturgical readings as part of the worship service, other than the sacrament prayers, which do not change, so we don’t need a lectionary to assign those readings.

But Come Follow Me does have some interesting lectionary-like characteristics. Come Follow Me still mostly looks like a New Testament study manual, which is what it evolved from, but it departs from the previous manual forms in some lectionary-like ways.

Come Follow Me focuses more on assigned readings than on study material.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between Come Follow Me and past Sunday School manuals is that Come Follow Me not only contains almost no scholarly resources, but that it contains very little explanatory material at all. It is less focused on digging into the historical, linguistic, and cultural context of the scriptural texts and is more focused on using the readings as a jumping off point for personal introspection about religious devotion. In this sense, it is less like a course textbook, and more like a lectionary, than previous Sunday School manuals.

Sunday School manuals are easy to beat up on because their content has often not been very good from a scholarly perspective. They have tended to simply rely on General Authority statements about what the scriptures mean rather than look to linguistic, historical, or cultural context. In my own experience, the best teachers in the church have always been those that looked to manual simply for the assigned texts, and crafted their own lessons based on those texts, often drawing on outside sources when appropriate. Come Follow Me is not entirely devoid of explanatory content, but the focus, as compared to past manuals, is not to explain the scriptures, but simply to use them as a jumping off point for discussion or personal introspection about personal conversion.

I’m not interested here in beating up on the un-scholarly content of Come Follow Me. I have had my share of criticisms, but I am sympathetic to the monumental challenge of creating a manual for an entire church of diverse cultures, educational backgrounds, and even literacy levels. It is a tall order to come up with explanatory material that will be both challenging enough for those who want a challenge, and comprehensible to the least educated member. And rather than do so, perhaps the more lectionary-like model is better. If the readings are assigned with only a few simple questions for discussion or meditation, then those members who want more historical or linguistic or cultural context can seek that out on their own, and those members who are content to use the scriptural text more as a koan are free to do so without feeling lost in class. Trying to craft something to fit both runs into the Goldilocks problem. In a large and diverse church, perhaps the lectionary model is better than the scriptural commentary model of a manual.

Come Follow Me assigns specific dates to readings.

Another way Come Follow Me departs from traditional Latter-day Saint Sunday School manuals is that it explicitly assigns readings for specific two-week periods.

Previous manuals didn’t consistently or explicitly synchronize lesson content to the calendar. They were designed with around 48 lessons (one for each week, minus two for General Conference, and two for ward and stake conferences), and the expectation was that Sunday School classes would basically go in order, but if I’m remembering correctly, they didn’t assign specific dates to each lesson. The same was true of the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church texts we used for priesthood quorum and relief society lessons. Come Follow Me is different. It assigns each lesson to a specific two-week period, like a lectionary assigns each reading to a specific date.

Like a lectionary, this synchronizes the church across wards and stakes, and it eliminates the de-synchronization that sometimes took place when some wards or stakes would get behind in their coverage of the manual lessons because of ward or stake conferences or other special meetings.

Come Follow Me is designed to synchronize the content of personal, family and classroom devotional reading and discussion.

Another way that Come Follow Me is like a lectionary is that it synchronizes not only across wards and stakes, but within wards as well. Come Follow Me synchronizes all the Sunday School classes from Sunbeams to adults onto basically the same texts for each week. Previously, the primary classes had their own lessons that didn’t always necessarily track the same scriptural texts as the youth or adult lessons. The idea, as I understand it, is to foster family discussions by having all the family members discuss the same texts in their classes. If individual members are following the Come Follow Me readings, then in addition to having classroom discussions on these readings, they are going to be more synchronized in their personal and family devotional readings, mediations, and discussions than under the previous Sunday School Manual.

And this synchronization is not a mere coincidence. This is by design, and it’s something that the church is pushing fairly aggressively as it has encouraged individual members and their families, together with the implementation of the two-hour block, to treat Come follow Me not just as a manual for personal preparation for Sunday School classes, but as a guide for family and individual devotional reading throughout the week.

Come Follow Me has the potential to synchronize congregational worship.

This synchronization could also bleed over into sacrament meeting worship as well.

The church hasn’t explicitly said that sacrament meeting topics need to track the readings assigned in Come Follow Me, but when the whole ward is reading the same texts during the same weeks, it’s natural, for ward members to draw on those texts they’re reading and discussing at home and in Sunday School when they’re preparing a talk, even if the Bishop doesn’t ask them to address those texts.

It would also be easy as a Bishop, absent some special inspiration or need to address a different topic, to treat the Come Follow Me readings as a default topic for sacrament meetings. In fact, I’ve even heard anecdotally of some bishops explicitly assigning sacrament meeting talk topics to correspond with the weekly assigned Come Follow Me readings. Come Follow Me thus has the potential to synchronize not only our Sunday School classes, but even the content of our worship services, like a lectionary does.

Come Follow Me is tuned to the liturgical rhythms of the Latter-day Saint calendar.

Another thing that Come Follow Me does differently from past manuals is that it appears to be more explicitly conscious of the liturgical calendar–such as it is–of the Latter-day Saints, because it tunes the content to recognize significant liturgical events.

As noted above, we don’t have a liturgical calendar like our siblings in traditional liturgical churches. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have our own liturgical rhythms throughout the year. Our liturgical calendar, such as it is, is minimal and highly simplified, but the April and October General Conferences are two fixed events each year that exert a pretty heavy influence on the content of our homiletics and teaching in local wards and branches. The First Presidency Devotional, always the first Sunday of October, is another fixed seasonal event. And though we don’t collectively observe Advent or worship as a church on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, unless one those days happens to fall on a Sunday, our worship services almost always have Christmas-themed content on Sundays during December. Similarly, though we don’t collectively observe Lent, or worship as a church during the non-Sunday days of Holy Week, we almost always have at least some resurrection-themed content at Easter, and depending on your ward, you might even have a mention of Palm Sunday the week before.

Come Follow Me recognizes these liturgical events in ways that previous manuals did not. It goes out of the order it uses during the rest of the year, to provide specific Christmas and Easter content. I haven’t made an exhaustive study of past manuals, but I don’t ever remember seeing that before. Of course, in practice, in my experience, most good Sunday School teachers would toss the manual on Christmas and Easter and give specific Easter and Christmas lessons. But that’s the point: in order to give lessons that were cued to liturgical rhythms, the teachers sometimes had to toss the manual. Come Follow Me makes this practice explicit.

And for Easter, Come Follow Me actually goes further than just codifying past practice; it expressly assigns readings for each day of Holy Week, not just for Easter. Again, I haven’t made an exhaustive study of it, and I know there are stray mentions of Palm Sunday and Good Friday in past conference talks, but this is the first time that I remember seeing an explicit recognition of the entire week of Holy Week in a manual published by the Church.

Come Follow Me also makes specific mention of our two fixed liturgical events. The readings preceding April Conference tie Peter’s testimony of Christ to the importance of the testimony of modern apostles and prophets, and the readings preceding October Conference, draw on Paul’s teachings about being “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.”

Conclusion

The Church is light-years away from recognizing liturgical events or seasons from the traditional Christian liturgical calendar beyond the most simplified observance of Christmas and Holy Week. But the manual writers do appear to have put some conscious thought into synchronizing Latter-day Saint worship, connecting our readings to the calendar, and recognizing the still mostly unwritten liturgical rhythms of the Latter-day Saint year.

I think this is wise. Early members, whether in New York, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, or Utah, lived in what was mostly an agrarian society. They did not have codified liturgical calendars, which suited their strong primitivist streak, but they lived by a certain agrarian seasonal rhythm. Some of our important texts even hint at the theological and cosmological importance of seasonal rhythms (see D&C 88:42-44)–a concept also reflected in the name of the Church’s newspaper in Nauvoo, the “Times and Seasons.” But as our economy has moved further and further from agriculture, and as more and more people make their living not as farmers or laborers in an agrarian economy, but as employees in a variety of service industries and professions, those agragrian seasonal rhythms have largely disappeared from their lives in many places, and they have left a kind of void in their place that people fill in different ways.

I think many people crave some kind of seasonal rhythm by which to measure their lives, whether it’s the fiscal year, the academic year, the simple calendar year, or something else. Why not choose to measure and mark our lives by the rhythm and cycle of events of significant spiritual meaning? And why not provide a way to do easily do that which is thoroughly Mormon? I think it is wise to recognize the bones of a potential liturgical year that we already have, and to foster the development of a liturgical year for church members.

Come Follow Me is, of course, miles apart from something like the Mormon Lectionary Project, and if we ever see a fully developed Latter-day Saint liturgical calendar, I imagine that it would not look like the MLP, as worthy a project as that was. But I wonder if, with Come Follow Me‘s inklings of recognition of liturgical events, we are seeing the beginnings of what may become the eventual development of a Latter-day Saint liturgical year. I don’t expect it will happen quickly, but as our church history recedes more and more into the past over the next centuries, and our efforts to recover and preserve it increase, it would not be unusual to see increased efforts to incorporate commemorations of church history events into our now minimalistic liturgical calendar the way we already do with the birth and death of Jesus. I could be wrong, but it would be fascinating to see.

 

 

Comments

  1. nobody, really says:

    I’ve seen critics, in the past, point out that our churches remain empty on Easter Sunday when General Conference falls on Easter. “How can they claim to worship Christ when they don’t even celebrate their Sacraments on the holiest day in Christendom?”

    Even worse, I’ve been in wards where the Easter Sunday speakers topic was Church Welfare or Scouting. I don’t believe we will ever pay any attention to Lent or the Day of Pentacost, but it’s nice to see that we can incorporate some of the major holidays into our observance.

  2. Larry the Cable-Guy says:

    A stated primary objective of the new program is to keep lessons and personal/family study well-centered on Christ. A few months into this, my family has experienced a better dose of that than our previous lessons and sequential chapter based study had provided. Admittedly, staying “Christ-focused” while covering the first part of the New Testament is a nice underhand softball that we aught to be hitting pretty well.

    We can all remember Sunday lessons that went down a rabbit hole, or became overly dedicated to peripheral topics. I thought it was meaningful to pair conference time with the testimony of Peter, rather than simply a review of the previous conference as in Teachings for our Times. I hope that this emphasis is truly baked into the program and that we can keep this focus even while studying beyond Christ’s direct ministry. It’s been great so far.

  3. You know, nobody really, that’s a thought I had while writing this post: to what extent is General Conference worship? And if it is not, can it properly be called a liturgical event? Worship is one of those things we talk about all the time, but we never really define. We call attending church worship, we call attending the temple worship, but they are very different. I’d argue that what we do at GC is a form of worship–especially the congregational singing and praying–but it’s obviously a different kind of worship than administering and partaking of the sacrament.

    I’ve heard stories about sacrament meetings on Easter having decidedly non-Easter topics for talks, but I haven’t been in a ward that did that yet myself. I suspect that such things are not a deliberate attempt to avoid Easter, but simply ignorance about the liturgical calendar in general, including the date of Easter (because it moves, it’s harder than Christmas) when the Bishopric is planning out the topics for sacrament meetings.

  4. Larry the Cable-Guy, one thing I really appreciated about the pre-Conference April lesson was the way it tied the importance of apostles and prophets to their apostolic witness of Christ, rather than just treating them as generic oracles. I thought that was a productive way to frame it.

  5. From the OP: “In my own experience, the best teachers in the church have always been those that looked to manual simply for the assigned texts, and crafted their own lessons based on those texts, often drawing on outside sources when appropriate.”

    In other words, the manuals are so bad that good teachers simply ignore them. There is nothing useful enough in the manuals that a good teacher will actually use it. A single page with a list of dates and assigned readings would be as useful as the current manuals. How could a manual get any worse than this?

  6. I have found the new manual to be beneficial. It takes a lot of time to read all the passages, see all the videos, ponder the messages in the hymns and read all the extra messages. I have found the manual to be uplifting and filled with the spirit which teaches me as I study. Loved your insights Jared. As a way to worship, I knew a woman to brought flowers each week to Sacrament Meeting. There are ways we all need to worship yet there is room to worship in an individual way. I believe it has to do with the individual heart.

  7. Dave, I think it’s actually a good thing that the manual doesn’t make any pretense to be anything more than a list of readings with some discussion questions. I think it will encourage members to seek out their own study materials. It’s a good thing to recognize that church manuals are not a good source of scriptural commentary.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Jared, there is a lot to think through here. Thanks. Last week there was a visitor to our ward who was taking a world religion class, and was there to fulfill a requirement. They had a few questions, one of which was whether we had any holy days. My response was that while we don’t have a formal liturgical calendar we do celebrate Christmas and Easter in our own low-church way. Perhaps I would update that response having read this!

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Great thoughts. Our Bishop is using Come Follow Me as the basis for sacrament meeting talk assignments; this practice gets a big thumb’s up from me. And he didn’t forget that this Sunday is Easter, so that’s another plus.

    I recently gave a talk. My assigned text was Matthew 9:36-38:

    36 But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.

    37 Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few;

    38 Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest.

    So obviously I talked about missionary work. But I goosed it up a bit. First, I memorized the passage and recited it without reading it. That got people’s attention. And then I gave some clarifications so that folks had a decent chance of understanding the reading. I pointed out that “because they fainted, and were scattered abroad” doesn’t make a lick of sense, which is what happens when we insist on reading a 400-year old translation. Try this: “he was moved with compassion on them, because they were bewildered and helpless, as sheep having no shepherd.” BOOM!! Now it makes sense.

    I also pointed out that “Lord of the Harvest” was an actual job in first century Palestine (rab chetsada in Aramaic, the language of Jesus). Lord is kind of grandiose, we would probably call this guy the foreman of the Harvest. He hires the extra workers and assembles the teams and supervises the ingathering of grains or fruits or olives or whatever is being harvested. I said I could relate to this, because having grown up in northern Illinois I was never involved in an actual harvest, but I spent many a day as a youth detasseling corn or roguing soy beans, so this metaphor for what we call missionary work has some real resonance for me. And then I transitioned to talking about missionary work.

    That was way more interaction with the scriptures than we would get if the talks weren’t aligned with Come Follow Me!

  10. Great post. I have craved some kind of meaningful calendar since graduating from college, but I’ve yet to find one or make one. The passage of time has become perplexing to me.

  11. J., one thing that I’ve been thinking through as I wrote this post is the difference between thinking of a liturgical calendar as a top-down things vs a bottom-up thing. I’ve sort of always thought of it as a top-down thing that church leadership crafts and then implements, but I’m thinking that it may be better to think of it as something that grows organically, and that leadership then codifies. And really, it’s probably more accurate that there’s an interplay. So I’ve always thought of a Latter-day Saint liturgical calendar as something that would never happen because that just doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that church leaders would go out of their way to create.

    But I think Latter-day Saints are becoming more open to a wider embrace of the liturgical seasons. Anecdotally, observing Lent in our own uniquely Mormon way is something that I see more and more from friends my own age in the church, and I have seen over the past 2 or 3 years, that the church’s social media presence has done a lot more with holy week, and with something like Advent, though it hasn’t used the word advent, with the #lighttheworld campaign. And things like Eric Hunstman’s work creating Mormon advent traditions and of course, the MLP. So maybe it shouldn’t be altogether surprising to see that Come Follow Me is doing more with Holy Week.

    If we do ever see something like a Latter-day Saint liturgical calendar, I’m guessing it would be something that grows organically bottom-up and is then recognized formally rather than something that is created and then imposed. Though it would be fun, I think, to brainstorm what specifically Mormon holy days I would recognize if I were creating a Latter-day Saint liturgical calendar.

  12. Thanks for sharing that Kevin! That sounds like a great talk, and a perfect example of the kind of liturgical synchronization that I see Come Follow Me having the potential to create not only in Sunday School, but in sacrament meeting as well.

  13. Roy: Thanks. I agree there are many ways to make worship meaningful.

  14. Cameron: I totally hear that. I keep thinking that one of these days I’ll put together something like my own version of a Latter-day Saint calendar. It would be a fascinating thing to work on.

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