Some valuable worship practices have become so time-laden they are in danger of becoming commonplace. The public reading of Scripture is one such practice. Paul commended it to Timothy: “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (I Tim. 4: 13). On occasion I’ve been asked to help persons prepare for such ministry. Here’s what I shared with them. Maybe it will be useful to you and others in your church.
First, acknowledge Bible reading as public ministry in its own right. Oral reading of Scripture is basic to public worship. Hymns, litanies, testimonies, and sermons expound and apply Biblical truth. They build upon a Christian conviction that the Scriptures are God’s Word written. To possess a Bible readable in one’s own language was a Reformation goal achieved at heroic cost. To read Scripture orally in public worship is a ministry that honors the community of faith, past and present, a tradition that unites the church terrestrial and the church celestial. It affirms ecumenicity.
Second, recognize that through public Scripture reading the Holy Spirit speaks to matters of personal spiritual discipline. The Apostle Paul outlined the shape of that discipline thus: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” (2 Tim. 3:16). Reading the Bible in worship opens hearers to the Holy Spirit’s voice. Acknowledging such power of Scripture humbles the reader.
Third, recall that the public reading of Scripture can trigger spiritual renewal. 2500 years ago the Jewish people, under Nehemiah and Ezra, renewed their covenant faith. That renewal involved compiling the text of the first five books of the Bible, “The Law” and reading, even translating, it in public gatherings. This event is described in Neh. 8: 1-13.
A ministry of such importance merits careful preparation. Here are some suggestions:
First, study the text thoughtfully. Choose the version selected by your church. Not a paraphrase! (A paraphrase may offer culturally-cued commentary on text, helpful in study and exposition, but it lacks the covenantal authenticity of a version). Consider literary form. Is the text narrative, parable, proverb, prayer, praise, poetry, exultation, exhortation, exposition? Examine the syntax– how words and phrases are shaped to signify meaning. Note literary devices such as hyperbole, repetition, parallelism, and rhetorical question. Study emotional tone. Does the passage show satire, pathos, lament, anger, joy, or praise? You are a reader, not an actor: so text takes precedence over performance. One needn’t wax theatrical to read effectively. Nonetheless, let your voice support the literary form, the syntax, the emotional tone of the text. There is no “religious way” of reading. Sing-song, unctuous intonation, and other forms of affected speech rob the Scripture of its power to speak to ordinary folks through ordinary voices. Because most worshippers have grown up in a culture accustomed to conversational rather than formal public speech (“orate”, alas, in some circles now connotes pomposity!), a reader may need to adjust the voice fully to articulate words more resonantly, using full-throated tones. Reverently follow the text, both in form and content.
Second, study the text prayerfully. If the Holy Spirit teaches you through the text, your oral reading of it will more effectively enable the Spirit to reach and teach others. Let your voice be informed by the Lord’s ministry to your own spirit.
Third, study the text technically. Grammar gives cues. Phrases and clauses permit meaning to flow logically through a stream of words. Punctuation marks are important. Observe them! These little marks signal us to frame sound with silence, to allow the mind time to catch up with the mouth. They keep ears sharp. It may help you to read the passage aloud before worship so your ears can test the effectiveness of the spoken words.
Use your voice to read the text effectively
Breathe deeply before speaking, to reduce tension and relax muscles. If a microphone is used adjust it for height, and speak directly into it at a proper distance using a normal range of voice. If there’s no microphone, project your voice so that all can hear. Make eye contact with the congregation at various locations at appropriate times. Finally, modulate the voice suitably, choosing the right pace, with appropriate pauses, and sustain force at sentence end. Don’t chop syllables; let them resonate fully. It may be helpful to practice. Here are some suggested selections: Psalm 100; Matt.17: 1-11; John 15: 1-8; James 5: 7-12.
Peace and Joy!