We pastors need to refresh from time to time on some of the routine things we do in the leadership of worship. Agreed, a certain amount of routine is important to manage life well — we brush our teeth at the same times every day, carry our keys in the same pocket, etc. But in public worship, unmonitored routine can become drained of spiritual freshness and vigor. It needs to be re-examined occasionally.
Take for example the reading of Scriptures in public worship. We do it Sunday after Sunday. Or we assign lay readers the task. It’s easy to say (or think): There now, that’s over with; let’s get on with the next item.
But not so fast: reading the Scriptures in church must be seen as bedrock to true Christian worship. Dr. Carl Bangs, an authority on Arminius, once lamented to me about the drift toward liberalism in many churches. But he added this encouraging word: “So long as the Bible continues to be read in worship there is hope.” As a separate act of worship, Bible reading needs renewed attention in evangelical circles.
Here are some pointers to refresh us in this task, or to pass along.
I. It is not enough to read only a passage as a basis for our sermon. Separate from the sermon, but related to it, a portion from both Testaments should be read in Sunday morning worship. It’s a separate act of worship and a historic practice tracing back through church history even to the synagogues of ancient Israel.
In 1910 The Free Methodist Church published what may have been its most successful hymnbook. On an introductory page a printed order of worship is posted, suggesting there be readings from both Old and New Testaments. Back then it was expected that our churches everywhere would give the Scriptures that sort of prominence. When Paul admonished Pastor Timothy to “Give attention to reading” this is undoubtedly what he had in mind.
II. If you use lay readers for this task, encourage them to read the passage over several times the day before to become well acquainted with it. Ask them to sit near the microphone so they will not need to walk from some distant place in the sanctuary. On this occasion they are sharing leadership in worship. Also, assign yourself the reading task from time to time as a way of modeling the exercise and showing its importance.
III. Choose lay readers carefully. Not everyone in the congregation has the talent to sing a solo because solos require a special gift. In the same way not every member can read Scripture with the care and skill the task deserves. Choose lay persons whose lives are in tune with the Scriptures, and who have good voices, who articulate well and who read with understanding.
IV. If you use young people as readers, go over the passage with them beforehand. Make this a teaching moment. Teach them that they are being given an important assignment. I conducted a funeral at which two young nieces of the deceased were asked to read Scripture. Both raced through the passage as though to show what good readers they were. I regretted not going over the task with them beforehand.
V. Speaking generally, whether pastor or lay person reads, the pace of Scripture reading in church is usually too fast. Read slowly and thoughtfully. As one authority advised: read as though you yourself were listening to the passage, not as though you wrote it.
VI. Use the Bible version that is in the pews, or the one the congregation is most familiar with. When a version is used that’s different from the pew Bibles and the people are admonished to follow along, sometimes the different vocabulary or phrasing creates a slight dissonance which distracts or even irritates serious worshipers.
There is a place for paraphrases and a variety of versions but that place ought not to be in this part of worship. When, for example, people hear the words of Jesus again and again from the same version they are more likely to retain them in their memories. Alternate renderings can be introduced at other times, like in the sermon where comments or explanations may show their relevance.
VII. If the hymnbook in use has a section of responsive or unison readings, engage the congregation in their use from time to time. The advantage is that the congregation is actively drawn to participate in this act of worship. During my days as a local pastor responsive readings were used every Sunday quite generally.
VIII. It is good to end each reading with the words. “The word of the Lord,” or “This is the word of the Lord.” If the congregation is trained to respond, “Thanks be to God,” all the better. At this time in Western history, authority in general is diminished, and biblical illiteracy is much too common even in Christian congregations. At the same time, relativism is rampant. We must do everything we can to root our congregations in the authority of the Word of God. Closing the reading with these words is just one of several ways we can elevate the authority of our Christian Scriptures.
In my opinion, the pastoral task is an unusually great challenge at this time in history. God’s people need shepherding. In most cases they are eager for direction, if given by a leader who has won their trust and one who shows evidence of knowing what the pastoral task is all about.
I hope any reader who comes across this blog will make a way to put it’s truth into practice, either as a pastor who leads with intelligence and vigor or a lay person who passes the instruction along.
To e-mail this post to a friend click here.