The Way Things Look From Here: The Big Idea

The Big Idea Logo

Since spring we’ve been working on a couple of key issues at Zumbro:

  1. How we can inject new life into our Sunday School program?
  2. How can we help people make better sense of the scripture readings in worship?

At first glance, these two might not seem related but–at least as we’re approaching them–they have more in common than a person might realize.

A few years ago, I read a book called The Big Idea. The book told the story of a group of churches in the Chicago area that were trying to do ministry in a new way. Instead of giving their parishioners 8-10 ideas to think about each week, they focused their efforts around one big idea. That went for everything from the sermon, to education, to daily devotions, to volunteer opportunities.

If this approach sounds vaguely familiar, it’s what we’ve been trying to do each of the last five years during our 40-day events. Now we’re wondering what might happen if we had this kind of alignment each week, all year long.

More specifically, what if The Big Idea showed up not only in worship, but in adult forum and small groups and confirmation and Sunday School? How would the van ride home from church feel different if both parents and kids had been focusing on the same scripture passage that morning? What if we sent home three or four questions to help individuals and families further reflect on the passage during the week?

This leads to our Sunday scripture readings. Occasionally I will ask people what they get out of the readings at worship. They will often scratch their heads and look sheepish. Many of them find the readings hard to follow. Others admit to checking out during that time. Obviously we’ve got some work to do if we want scripture to strike a chord with people.

For the most part, we get our readings from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), which has been around since 1994. The RCL is centered on a reading from one of the gospels. An Old Testament (OT) reading is meant to connect with the gospel. The psalm is a sung or spoken response to the OT reading. Finally, the New Testament reading comes from one of the epistles and usually is not connected with the other readings.

There are two main strengths of the RCL: It leads us through the story of Jesus each year, and it connects us with Christians from around the world who use the same lectionary. A main weakness of the RCL is that it doesn’t help people understand the overall stories and themes of the Bible. From my perspective, people love the Bible and they trust that it’s God’s word. But they readily admit to not knowing it very well.

In 2010 a group of professors at Luther Seminary tackled this problem head-on. They developed what they called the “Narrative Lectionary.” It is a four-year cycle, one for each of the four gospels. The readings start not in Advent but with the beginning of the school year in September. They focus on one key reading per week (i.e., The Big Idea).  In each of the four years, the Narrative Lectionary tells the biblical story from start to finish—beginning with creation in September, sweeping its way through the Old Testament until Christ (Advent and Christmas), then working through one of the Gospels during Epiphany, Lent, and Easter. After Easter, we get the story of Acts and a letter from the early Church.

Again, a goal of the Narrative Lectionary is to help people better grasp the flow of the biblical story. A related–and even more important–goal is to help us better understand God’s story so that we as the people of God can find ourselves in that story. Eugene Peterson notes that when we read scripture, “we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories, but to see our stories in God’s. God is in the larger context and plot.”

The Narrative Lectionary has proven to be extremely popular over the last five years. Obviously it’s striking a chord with people. We’re going to try it this fall at Zumbro, though not until our 150th anniversary celebration is over. As we attempt to renew both our Sunday School program (see Pastor Lisa’s article on page 2) and the reading of scripture in worship, we trust that The Big Idea will connect our story with God’s story, and our lives will be transformed.

The Way Things Look From Here is a letter written to the Zumbro congregation by Directing Pastor Vern Christopherson.