Wineskins Archive

November 25, 2013

Reading Scripture Allowed Here (Sept-Dec 2003)

Filed under: — @ 3:10 pm and

By John Ogren

Is reading aloud allowed in your church? I am continually surprised at how little Scripture is read aloud in many congregations that profess devotion to the Bible. I am not always sure how to account for this, but I know from my own experience that our congregation’s commitment to public reading of Scripture sometimes means singing fewer songs (gasp), adding time pressure on our preacher (ouch), and occasionally going long (unforgivable). Are there some things (music, preaching, lunch) that are just more important than the Bible?

For some, reading long portions from a strange book like the Bible is not viewed as seeker-friendly. The Bible, after all, is hard to understand, rooted in remote history and strange cultures, full of bizarre names and customs, and sometimes downright offensive. Maybe we should buffer seekers from this scary book until we have passed on our hermeneutical sophistication and they learn not to take it too seriously. No, in my experience seekers listen more attentively than many church members.

Reading too much Scripture in worship might just be a “waste of time.” One popular Christian theologian and speaker has made the comment on several occasions that nowadays when we start reading the Bible people stop paying attention. I’m still not sure what to make of this remark except to say that I think it should be voiced as a lament and followed by urgent proposals for a recovery of the habit of listening. The Bible’s origins are in an oral culture and history and it was intended to be read aloud. If we are no longer a primarily oral culture, this does not therefore mean that we should silence the voices of Scripture. Repeatedly in the Bible we are exhorted, even commanded, to listen. It is always to our danger when we fail to heed the word of the Lord.

As all Christians know, the Bible is the treasure store of our faith inheritance—containing the truth that enlightens our sinful minds, the good news that transforms us and our view of the world, the wisdom that shapes our character, and the stories that form our communities. Preaching, teaching, music, and drama are all powerful means of conveying the riches of Scripture, but these means must be understood as secondary to actually reading the book aloud frequently and extensively. No song, drama, or sermon can speak with the same authority as Scripture itself. Neither can they be as consistently interesting and enduring as the word of God. Reading the Bible aloud may be the simplest, most powerful, and most underutilized means of telling the Christian story. Toward a recovery of this ancient discipline, I offer these five practical suggestions.

1. Read lots of Scripture.

I’m not talking about reading one or two verses of a Psalm and jumping into the praise medley. Read big chunks of Scripture several times during the service, and read whole books of the Bible throughout the year. Over the past several years in the congregation where I worship, in conjunction with our preaching and teaching ministries, we have read aloud in entirety the Gospel of Mark, Genesis, the Pastoral Epistles, Romans, the Gospel of Matthew, Colossians, and Acts. At times our commitment to this practice has been tested. It is a joy to read Genesis 33; it is uncomfortable to read Genesis 34. Reading whole books of Scripture exposes our man-made canons within the Canon of Scripture. It stretches us beyond our comfort zones and challenges us with strange words and stories we might prefer to overlook. Some readings go better and have more impact than others, but it is the cumulative impact of this tradition over time that will powerfully shape the life, ministry, and ethics of a congregation.

2. Read with theological understanding and intentionality.

Reading is always interpretive. The readings that we choose for a service, the context in which they are read, the expression and emphasis we give to the words we read—all of these choices signify meanings that we give to the texts. It is crucial that we reflect theologically on these decisions. In the worship planning process in our congregation we structure the service around the Scripture readings. When we choose readings we look at how they fit together. The readings may tell a story or develop an idea. Sometimes the readings bring different perspectives together in conversation. Sometimes they coalesce in support of a single theme. Always they are chosen after prayer and careful consideration of the overall theological and pastoral purposes of the day.

On a typical Sunday in our church we read Scripture aloud at least four times during the service. We almost always begin worship by reading a Psalm as a call to worship and prayer. Depending on the Psalm we may be called to praise, thanksgiving, confession, meditation, or lament. The Psalm sets the initial direction for the service and we choose songs that flow with the readings, not the other way around. In addition to the call to worship we read Scripture at the table, we read the sermon text, and we always give God the last word with a final reading to close the service.

3. Read Well.

A congregation that has a few years to get used to hearing Scripture read aloud will learn to anticipate the readings and attend to them carefully. Still, it is helpful to prepare the congregation to listen. Quite often it is the sermon text that is the longest reading. We have learned that a 90-second orientation (no longer) to this reading by the reader invites the congregation and our guests to more careful attention to what is read.

Reading well requires a certain degree of giftedness. Some people read more clearly, more easily, and with greater skill than others. Reading well also requires prayerful preparation. Find your gifted readers and equip them in how to prepare for reading. Show them how to copy and mark up their readings with cues for when to breathe, when to crescendo and decrescendo, when to pick up and slow down the pacing, and which words to give special emphasis. Teach them how to pray for the breath of the Spirit in their reading. Coach them in the use of the microphone, appropriate dress and posture, and how to project their voice and read to the whole room. Remind them to always wait until the room is quiet before beginning to read, and encourage them as they develop their gift and use it to the glory of God.

4. Use dramatic readings.

Narrative readings are particularly susceptible to this approach. The books are out of print, but if you can find copies of The Dramatized Old Testament or The Dramatized New Testament from Baker Books these are great resources. You can also take a reading and divide it into speaking parts yourself. John 4, for example, would require a narrator, Jesus, a Samaritan woman, the disciples, and villagers. Dramatic readings require a rehearsal, and readers will benefit greatly from coaching by someone with gifts or experience in drama. If such a person is not available, a group of readers will also benefit in rehearsal from one or two listeners who offer critical perspective and encouragement.

5. Read congregationally.

Congregational readings are more effective if they are shorter than texts read by a single leader. A congregation may read a section of an epistle quite effectively and even movingly. Psalms may be read responsively or antiphonally—separating male and female voices or dividing the congregation from side to side or front to back. Be creative. Seek excellence, and find new ways to add power and drama to the reading of God’s word.

Some proposals for worship renewal are controversial. Reading the Bible surely isn’t. While in school I preached at a small congregation northwest of Abilene, a loving spiritual family where there was grace and growth. On Sunday nights their tradition was to read several chapters of the Bible, pray for needs and concerns in the congregation, visit for a while, and go home. This little country church has read through the entire Bible together several times throughout the years. More recently I had the opportunity to worship in a Messianic Jewish synagogue. I was thrilled to share in their passionate celebration and exaltation of Yeshua (Jesus) as Savior and Lord. It was a joy to witness such a vibrant community of the gospel living in continuity with Jewish heritage and tradition. I had no way of knowing how many of their members understand Hebrew (I would guess a small minority, the entire service was in English), but I was deeply impressed by their careful attention during the central act of their Shabbat liturgy, a lengthy reading from the Torah—read in Hebrew!

We can learn from these two congregations that give the story voice through the discipline of public reading of Scripture and that cultivate the habit of listening to the word of God. A serious commitment to reading Scripture aloud in worship (even in English!) will require a period of adjustment. People will feel a degree of disorientation with longer readings and with some of the things they hear. The blessings of this discipline, however, eclipse the challenges, and they are waiting for any congregation to enjoy where reading is aloud.

No Comments »

RSS feed for comments on this post.TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

© 2022 Wineskins Archive