Reading Scripture Publicly
One of the most underestimated and neglected portions of Christian worship services is the reading of God’s Word. In many places it has simply been set aside, replaced with other activities such as music and drama. Where the reading of Scripture is still practiced, people struggle devoting attention to it on both sides of the pulpit. Surely you have been in a service and heard a pastor say “We do not have enough time today to read this whole section” or witnessed only a verse or two being read before the service moves on to what the leaders must think are more important matters. On those occasions when a longer section of Scripture is read, often the one reading does so in such a dull and tedious way minds begin to wander.
With the modern mind being trained toward distraction by television’s ever-changing scenes, the never-ending clicking through websites, and the forever buzzing of the next text message, holding people’s attention while reading the Bible in worship is a challenge. Yet it is worthy of our best efforts to accomplish. Here are several key practices in reading the Word of God that pastors should strive toward and congregants should pray for in the local church.
Pay careful attention to reading God’s Word. One of the specific admonitions Paul gave the younger pastor Timothy about his ministry was this one. “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” he told him (I Timothy 4:13). When preparing for worship, ministers cannot regard the element of reading the Bible as “automatic” so that it does not receive careful consideration. Questions need to be asked and answered, such as: As you read privately the passage and pray over it, is your own heart sufficiently gripped by its message and power? Are you reading from both the Old and New Testaments in the services? Have you chosen a passage of sufficient length to capture the context of your central focus? How does this passage work with the theme and other elements of the service? Are you clear in your own mind what you want the congregation to hear as emphasis?
Pray for the illumination of the Spirit. Without the Spirit’s help, God can speak directly from heaven and yet men will only hear noise (see Acts 22:9). A prayer before or after the reading for the Spirit to give insight into the Word is not just a nice thing to do but a necessary one.
Lift up your voice like a herald. Just like preaching, the reading of God’s Word should be done with authority. The one reading is saying in a very literal way to the congregation what the prophets of old did – “Thus says the Lord.” He is standing in the capacity of an ambassador for the King of heaven. How awesome reading God’s Word is! So the minister must expand his diaphragm, straighten his backbone, and raise his voice. He must read what he means and mean what he reads. The congregation should feel the force of the words on their souls through the “mere” reading of the Word.
Make eye contact with the congregation. Several years ago I benefited from hearing Stuart Olyott in a workshop on Bible reading at a Banner conference. One of the simple encouragements Pastor Olyott gave us was to make sure that you look up from the Bible as you read. Eye contact brings a liveliness to reading. It also shows the congregation you are aware they are listening and you want them to do so. Many will not be looking at their own Bibles but at you as you read. Of course, you do not want to not lose your place doing this. So consider things such as lifting the Bible off the pulpit and holding it more out in front of you so you do not have to bend your head down very far; using a finger placed below the line you are reading so as to mark your place; looking up at places where you are confident you can keep speaking because the immediate reading terrain in front of you is not difficult; and being careful not just to look up but at the congregation.
Pronounce words correctly and enunciate deliberately. If a pastor reads the Bible slovenly or pronounces words wrongly, it erodes the authority of God’s Word. He should practice the reading privately until he is confident he can read it publicly. As there are words in the Bible from Amminadab to Zelophehad that are difficult to know how to pronounce, he should consult the phonetic spelling in reference works such as Zondervan’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible or use audio files such as this one on Net Ministries. He also must enunciate deliberately. In my junior high choir class I had a wonderful teacher named Mr. Williams who worked on us again and again about enunciating as we sang. He encouraged us to move our lips with a bit of exaggeration so the audience could not only hear but “see” the words, to end words distinctly such as making sure the “g” at the end of the word “ring” is heard, and to reflect in our facial expressions the mood of the words. Pastors must enunciate if they want the congregation not only to hear but listen to them.
Reflect the tone of the passage. Some passages of Scripture, such as the law being given at Mt. Sinai or Amos declaring the sins of the nations, are thunderous in nature so should be read more in that manner. Others are written to be comforting, such as Psalm 23 or many portions of I John, so a more gentle tone would be appropriate. Other emotions such as fear, joy, or sadness are found in Holy Scripture, and the pastor’s voice should show he is feeling them. As Dr. Roy Blackwood is fond of saying, the pastor needs to speak not only the words of Christ but His tones as well.
Read dramatically but do not dramatize. Every time the Bible is opened, an encounter between the Lord of heaven and earth with His people is taking place. This is especially true in an assembly of worship, where the Spirit has brought together those who together form the temple of God to hear the Word the Spirit authored (I Corinthians 3:16; I Peter 2:4-5; II Timothy 4:16). Like an electric storm, a cosmic drama is occurring between God and His people. Will they heed Christ and live, or reject Him and suffer? The pastor’s voice should then carry with it the urgency of the passage, be it a parable emphasizing kingdom truth, a didactic section instructing the church on how to live together, or Proverbs imparting wisdom. Yet he should stop short of dramatizing the passage, such as using a female voice when a woman is speaking or attempting to act out what is taking place in the story.
Finally, do not close the Bible after you read. This is only a symbolic matter that you are welcome to disagree with me on. Some ministers read the Scriptures well, but then close their Bible, set it to one side, and start preaching. Though I understand and believe that preaching is ministering the very Word of God to people, I always feel this practice of closing the Bible communicates symbolically to the congregation: “We are done now with the Bible. Now it is time to listen to me.” Of course, Jesus in essence did this very thing in his hometown of Nazareth. When He read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue, he then “rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down” (Luke 4:20). So one might argue that closing the Bible after reading is following Christ’s example.
Yet remember what followed. “And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing'” (Luke 4:20-21). Without the visible presence of the incarnate Christ, I for one like to keep my Bible open to keep the congregation’s eyes fixed on the inscripturated Christ and His fulfillment of all we are hearing. For, as Jesus Himself said, that is always to be the goal of reading Scripture. “You search the Scripture because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me” (John 5:39). Do we read the Bible and listen to it as if we truly believe this?