Reading the Scriptures in Church

The best advice I know for those called upon to read Scripture in public worship is this: Read the Bible as though you are listening to it, not as though you wrote it.

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.”

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5 thoughts on “Reading the Scriptures in Church

  1. Pingback: Reading the Scriptures in Church « Just Call Me Pastor | Christian Dailys

  2. I have for years chosen to publicly read or have others read at least 2, but most often 3 portions of scripture. Dr. Don Boyd @ ATS, in his Public Worship course, was the one that turned me on to lectionary shortly before beginning to serve in my first ‘formal’ role as pastor. I have thanked God for him many times over the intervening time ( 30 years as of this October ), and believe his insistence on orderly, full worship services which pay attention to early church and historic worship practices has stood me in good stead in that aspect of public ministry. Thank you for detailing why this is important. I am presently serving in a mainline denomination, a congregation that brings the scriptures into worship each Sunday AM, places them on a lectern directly in the center of the communion table which is centrally located. Then, the preacher of the day is escorted to the pulpit by a ‘beadle’ — all of these actions symbolizing the essential significance of God’s word and words as the primary pillar, a la the quadrilateral. Thank you for your leadership in this regard, both pastorally and personally, which has been a bedrock for me. I concur heartily with this blog posting. Chris, a fellow-pastor and grateful friend.

  3. While attending a United Methodist Church for a few years I was introduced to the reading of scripture in worship every Sunday with selections from Old Testament, New Testament, Gospels and Psalms. I often was the reader which was a special blessing. It was also the first time I had experienced standing for the reading of scripture. Now, I find that here at Lakeland Free Methodist Church we are often asked to stand for the reading of scripture.

    The reading of scripture is always a special part of the worship service and I appreciate the comments you have shared here.

  4. It was at the pastor’s brother’s funeral that my ear was so arrested! For the very first time, in way too many years, I thought I was on the verge of sleep as I waited for the reader to deliver the message from the Psalms. A favourite psalm to be sure. But I found my mind racing ahead of his delivery. Never have I heard the reading of scripture take so long. It was as if he was having trouble seeing the printing. But as he continued, I found myself thinking tangential thoughts concerning the Psalmists words. As goliath was surprized by the rock from David’s sling as it entered his forehead, some of these thoughts were surprizingly new to me; I had never thought about several of these ideas. previously. Considering later, I discovered the reason. It involved the speed of delivery. Always I was used to hearing the scripture read as quickly as posible, without giving the hearer, time to absorb what had just been read. As we age, the ability to absorb what we hear becomes retarded also.
    The result has been a discontent with the place of scripture reading in the service to which I am accustomed. It makes me want to wait until I am able get back home, so I can read it again, preferably in various translations or paraphrases, so I can immerse myself in the intent of the author.
    So my initial painful experience has followed a pattern the Lord has used in my life, of taking the bad or unfavourable things in life, and useing them for good!! (almost sounds scriptural, doesn’t it?)

  5. Thank you for articulating what should be simple to understand and implement. My own denomination has traditionally read only one passage of Scripture during the service. I have been so disappointed as I listen to those who are tasked with presenting the Word of God. They rush through the words so as to get to the other activities of worship. I have witnessed the theatrical presentation (too out there for me) and I have also shared in a truly reverential experience of the presentation of Holy Writ.

    In the pastorates where I have been privileged to serve I have made efforts to ensure that those reading the Word have had the ability to present without challenge by the structure or the individual words. I have asked the readers to review the material so that there is a proper breathing pattern with appropriate breaks for a more complete delivery.

    God’s Word is Holy… we ought to treat it as such and present I it likewise.

    Thank you for this reminder and faithful instruction.

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