18 July 2014

The public reading of Scripture: ten pointed pointers

by Dan Phillips

Some of the specifics of the elements of our services have little or no specific Scriptural directive; some are just common-sense. For instance, there's no apostolic instruction about how to handle (or whether to have) announcements, or the welcoming of visitors. There's no order of service. No dress code. Nothing about hymnal-color...or hymnals, for that matter! Though singing is enjoined (Col. 3:16), not a whisper of specific direction deals with beat or rhythm or octave or number of verses or choruses or types of instruments — except that we can be fairly assured that none of us precisely does what apostolic churches did, stylistically.

But there is a word about what ESV (perhaps over-)translates as "the public reading of Scripture" (1 Tim. 4:13). Apostolic-age church services involved reading some portion or portions of God's Word (cf. Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; Rev. 1:3). That fact alone makes the reading of Scripture important; God thought enough about it to mention it. Nor is this the first time reading the Word came to the fore, as it featured prominently in the Water Gate Revival (Neh. 8:3, 8, 18).

While there are many and excellent books about preaching, and plenty about music and singing, and truckloads about praying, there is less of any prominence about this facet of the worship of God. I'm sure others have blogged about it, but I keep learning that some of the most helpful posts are about fairly basic issues. So we offer here a few brief and pointed pointers about the public reading of Scripture.
  1. Take it as seriously as the preacher takes his sermon. God said to do it. That makes it important. Unless you've no choice, do not let the pulpit be the first time your eyes touch and your mouth forms these words. Some may think, "It's just reading. How hard can it be?" That makes as much sense as a preacher sneering "It's just talking. How hard can it be?"
  2. Do not underestimate the importance or potential of this moment. This is the word of God. These are the most important words you will ever speak, the most important words your hearers will ever hear. I know you'll think as I do, "It's Spurgeon!"; but consider this story from Spurgeon's autobiography:
    The Lord set His seal upon the effort even before the great crowd gathered, though I did not know of that instance of blessing until long afterwards. It was arranged that I should use the Surrey Gardens pulpit, so, a day or two before preaching at the Palace, I went to decide where it should be fixed; and, in order to test the acoustic properties of the building, cried in a loud voice, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” In one of the galleries, a workman, who knew nothing of what was being done, heard the words, and they came like a message from Heaven to his soul. He was smitten with conviction on account of sin, put down his tools, went home, and there, after a season of spiritual struggling, found peace and life by beholding the Lamb of God. Years after, he told this story to one who visited him on his death-bed. [Spurgeon, C. H. (1899). C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, Compiled from his diary, letters, and records, by his wife and his private secretary, 1854–1860 (Vol. 2, p. 239). Chicago; New York; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company.]
  3. Understand the passage you read. Wouldn't it be strange if the preacher preached on a passage he didn't understand, hadn't studied? Give thought to this passage, so that you can by inflection convey the meaning of the passage.
  4. Master any difficult words. God's people are gracious, and will not hound you for stumbling over Mahershalalhashbaz or Sepharvaim or Hazarmaveth or Arpachshad. But you knew it was in the text, and you knew it would be challenging, and you were probably asked to do this days in advance. So why would you not have worked at it until it flowed fluidly off your tongue? We want attention on the text, not on our lingual gymnastics.
  5. Pray for God's help as you prepare. Wouldn't it be odd if the preacher's first prayer for his sermon were that uttered in the seconds before his introduction? Pray that God help you understand the passage, that He apply it to your heart; pray that He will apply it to all the hearts of all the hearers. Seriously — and I say this as a preacher — what you will read will be of absolutely vital importance. God will judge you and your hearers for how you respond to these words (cf. John 12:48)! It's no small thing; it's a moment of crisis.
  6. Practice it aloud. Reading to yourself is a different dynamic than reading to others; it simply is. Try to imagine yourself reading to others. Get a room alone if possible, and speak up, just as you will during the service.
  7. Take your time. This is a vital part of the service, not a bit we rush through so we can get to the meat. It's God's Word! Announce it, wait for the majority of page-turning to stop. Then read in an unhurried pace. Don't verbally drag your feet like a zombie, but don't race like a dragster. It isn't an auction.
  8. Give full and meaningful inflection. It is God's Word! He did not entrust it to angels, but to men! It's a fearful and sobering thing for us to take His word on our lips. So work this out during your practice: vary your pace, your pitch, your tone. Read it with meaning. You're rightly put off by a bloodless, bland, lifeless preacher who sounds like he's reading a legal document or instructions for assembling a tricycle. Don't be that man. This deserves your best effort. For instance, don't read Mark 15:24 as "And-they-crucified-him-and-divided-his-garments-among-them..." Perhaps read it as "And [pause a beat] they crucified him [pause a double beat, at the horror of it] and divided his garments among them..." Don't dash coolly through Galatians 1:6, "I-am-astonished-that-you-are-so-quickly-deserting-him..." as if you were a Dalek. Sound astonished! Perhaps, "I am... astonished... that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ, and are turning to... a different gospel..." You don't have to Shatner it, but don't Robbie the Robot it, either. Nor is there any virtue in a sepulchral, unnatural, affectedly "holy" intonation. The words of God should ring in your hearers' ears, and stir their conscience.
  9. Use what you've got, as appropriate. Some of us are gifted as readers, some are not. As with giving, I think "if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have" (2 Cor. 8:12). If it's all you can do to get through a passage without collapsing into burbling, God bless you, give what you've got, God will be pleased and glorified and the saints edified. But if you can convey the tone and tenor of the passage in your reading, do that. And so there are passage of Scripture that should be fairly shouted, and parts that should be fairly whispered. It isn't a question of dramatics, it is a matter of adorning. Inflection and emphasis are as much a part of communication as is word choice. We suit the manner of reading to the content of the passage for the same reason we don't wear swim suits or clown suits to the pulpit.
  10. Consider a closing word. I often close a reading with, "This is the Word of God," or "This is the Word of the Lord." In some churches, hearers respond with "Thanks be to God." Some say something like "God grant that we hear and heed God's inerrant Word," or "Thanks be to God for His inerrant and infallible Word." It may be a response in unison, it may be left to individuals to say that, "Amen," or nothing at all. It's a time-honored practice, and in my opinion it makes reverent sense.
The reading of Scripture is a vital and apostolically-enjoined facet of the gem of divine worship. If these exhortations serve to enrich readers' and hearers' experience of the Word in worship, glory to God.

Dan Phillips's signature


FX Turk said...

Sometimes it's the bare-bones practical posts which get overlooked. By a lot, this is the most important blog post anyone reading will read this week.

Nice work, DJP.

DJP said...

Day = made.

Goodnight, everyone!

Robert said...

Great guidelines, Dan. I remember one of the first sermons I heard by MacArthur was on Genesis 3 where he read the serpent asking Eve if God really said she couldn't eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He said it in the same way that anybody trying to lure somebody into doing something wrong would do so and it made sense. This book is God's communication to us in a form we can understand because He made us and understands how to best communicate with us. I think a lot of problems with that stem from people just thinking of God as being far off instead of being imminent.

I like the way the other points bring out the reverence we should have for God and His Word, too. A very balanced post that all of us should consider. Surely we all read the Bible in public at some time or another...

Michael Coughlin said...

A couple things:

1) I +1 Frank's comment. This was just refreshing and encouraging. Hopefully, it won't prove too divisive, as well.

2) As to your closing, another idea that came to mind is when the reader/preacher says, 'And all the people said ...' and then we can all say 'Amen.' (nothing wrong with your ideas.)

3) And as for your give full and meaningful inflection point: target="_blank">Check out this video of a guy reciting Hebrews from memory.

20s and 30s Adult Bible Fellowship said...

Recently I was struck by Revelation 1:3 along these lines: Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.

Anonymous said...

I sometimes wonder if pastors of charasmatic or NAR churches were to do this, would it change their view of Scripture, and the supposed "prophesies" they receive?

Zach Putthoff said...

Very helpful, brother. Thank you!

Sharon said...

Indeed, I am so glad the church I attend (I almost said, "MY church" -- the horror!) takes a portion of the morning worship to read a chapter in the Scriptures. We stand in honor of God's Word, and follow with a pastoral prayer. And it IS a part of the worship service, not just a break between musical numbers. This should be required reading of every pastor. Thanks, Dan! May your weekend be blessed.

Terry Rayburn said...

Excellent. Mostly ditto for *family* reading as well.

"This is the Word of God." What a great great thing we have.

SammyBoy said...

Back in the day, at the bible College I attended, an elective offering was a class called "Oral Interpretation". It was a 1-credit-hour course that taught you how to do this very thing -- to read the Scriptures publicly, effectively.

JG said...

Two random thoughts:

I've often wished we had something akin to cantors, people who dedicate themselves to the reading of the Word, not the way it usually happens in Sunday School - a monotone recitation without even taking cues from punctuation - but purposefully, even dramatically.

Way back in the day, our church did an annual "event" where the Bible was read aloud in the auditorium continuously for 24 hours a day, beginning to end. Volunteers all over the church signed up, no age limit (parents were encouraged to bring their children to participate). My dad coordinated it, so we spent a good amount of time there even when it wasn't our hour. It was powerful. Even when signing people in a 3AM. One of my favorite memories.

Larry Geiger said...

"Take your time. This is a vital part of the service, not a bit we rush through so we can get to the meat. It's God's Word! Announce it, wait for the majority of page-turning to stop. Then read in an unhurried pace. Don't verbally drag your feet like a zombie, but don't race like a dragster. It isn't an auction."

Ok, I'll take the heat on this. Ladies, please try and slow down a little bit. I suppose that it seems cliche or stereotypical, but it seems to be the ladies that tend to rush a reading. Maybe only the men should read. Ooooooooooops, sorry. I guess my point here is that if you read and you actually listen to yourself and feel like you are reading too fast (male or female) then practice.

Maybe some specific tips?
1. If you read a passage that does not include the entire context, then practice reading the whole context. Read the whole chapter or several chapters out loud, not just the paragraph.
2. Read to your spouse or someone. Read it to them more than once on more than one day.
3. Have someone else read it and time them. Then read it aloud and compare the times. Did I read it in half the time the other person read it?
4. Practice particular phrases reading to yourself. Maybe even silently. This is a good reason to read it multiple times on multiple days. On following days you can practice what wasn't quite right on previous days. Memorize the difficult phrase and say it aloud during the week before reading.
5. Be prepared. Bring a copy with the right sized font. I wear reading glasses. I don't like to wear my reading glasses when I'm reading up front because then I can't see the congregation. So I print out a copy in really large font. Then I can read like when I was 25 years old again. Sometimes.
6. Do it. If your church has readers, volunteer to read. Maybe the pastor or person who schedules the readers doesn't know that you would like to do it.
7. In churches with good sound people, don't shout. Try to find your own voice and trust them to project it if necessary.
8. And yes, pray! Ok, then pray some more.

Dan Kassis said...

As a person who reads Scripture in worship gatherings and trains other to do so, I think you've provided everything needed to help others prepare for this task. Great article.

DJP said...

Thanks so much, Dan. That's very encouraging to hear.

St. Lee said...

I am coming a little late to comment due to being out of town last week, but I have to say that I found this post not only helpful and encouraging, but it also rightly installed a fresh dose of the fear of God.

A few years ago my pastor asked me to do the Old Testament scripture reading each Sunday. He also encouraged me to provide a short introduction to the passage each week. And right here in your post is a reference to Nehemiah 8:8 which provides a Biblical precedent for doing so which I had not noticed before.

Preparing these two to three sentence introductions has been quite a learning experience for me, especially as we go through the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Normally I read the passage through a couple times to see if I can get the meaning and then consult several commentaries to confirm (or not) my take. Then I try to put some context into a couple sentences so that when the scripture is read, the people will have an idea of who is speaking and why. The introduction also gives the congregation time to find the text in their Bibles.

I found every one of your pointers to be right on the money. BTW, I end the readings with this: "May the Lord bless the hearing of his word."

TheHikingMonk said...

Very helpful article, thank you! I have been requesting we add this to our service for some time. I would like to know how others plan the readings. Do you systematically start at Genesis and march through book by book? Do you skip genealogies? How long a passage is read? Both OT and NT each week?
Thanks for your input.