Such advice could continue: read clearly, with confidence and conviction. Read so the people will want to listen.
Most importantly, read the Scriptures as a separate act of worship. Too often they are read only as the text for the minister’s sermon. That is a commendable, but historically, in Christian worship Scriptures have been read also as a stand-alone element in worship.
An elderly Scot was exasperated by the young parson who repeatedly left out or shortened Bible reading to allow more time for the things he had to say. The elder finally said to him: “Gie us more o’ God’s word and less o’ your ain.”
The reading of the Scriptures was a fundamental activity in the ancient Jewish synagogue. The scrolls were kept in a sacred chest and removed reverently to be read to the gathered worshipers.
Early Christian assemblies continued this practice. The Apostle Paul, who was well trained as a Rabbi when Christ called him, wrote to the young pastor, Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of the Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). Notice that the reading of the Scripture is spoken of here as an exercise separate from preaching and teaching.
It is ironic that public worship in congregations some might call “liberal” regularly include in their order of worship a Bible reading from both Old and New Testaments, and the Psalms, while many congregations we call “evangelical” have no place in their order of worship for Scripture reading apart from the passage for the pastor’s sermon.
I was teaching a seminary class of 15 or so who came from a wide range of church traditions. I asked: how many of you attend or lead a congregation that includes Bible reading as a separate act of worship? Fewer than half raised their hands.
In the early decades of our denomination — and indeed of many evangelical denominations — it was different. I open the Free Methodist Church’s 1910 hymn book and find an “order of worship” printed on the first page, even before the face page. This simple order includes, “Scripture lessons from both the Old and New Testaments.” Our forefathers apparently wanted to assure that Scripture would be central in worship and also that worship would be uniform among all congregations.
To recover this practice, here are suggested rules to consider.
1. Well in advance of Sunday let the pastor choose a portion from each Testament, usually between 10 and 25 verses in length, giving special attention to the Psalms and the Gospels.
2. Choose lay readers carefully. Reading the Scriptures in worship is not a favor to be bestowed broadly; it is an assignment for those with the gift to do it well. Choose believers who are good readers, who articulate clearly and project their voices so as to be heard by all.
3. Give readers the passages before the Lord’s Day and encourage them to acquaint themselves well with them. Stumbling over words during public reading should never be necessary.
4. If young people are chosen, sit down with them and talk to them about the importance of what you have asked of them. I have noted at times that young people tend to read too fast, not being aware that many worshipers need a slower pace. I suggest you model for them the pace, or have then read for you and coach them. Also, advise readers to dress modestly for the assignment and with respect for a holy God and a worshiping congregation. If this advice is properly given it will win a response.
5. Require readers to sit near the microphone at least until they have carried out their assignment. They share leadership for that service and the congregation should not need to wait while leaders come from some distant place in the sanctuary.
Many years ago in conversation with Carl Bangs, an outstanding scholar and seminary professor, we discussed the drift of some churches from historical beliefs. He noted, however, that such congregations continue to give a place to the public reading of the Scriptures. Then he added these words: “So long as the Scriptures continue to be read there is hope.”