Re-post: Reading Scripture 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.

I would also say: Read clearly, with confidence and conviction. Read so the people will want to listen.

Too often, only a few verses are read as the text for the minister’s sermon. That is commendable, but historically, Christian Scriptures have also been read as a separate, stand-alone act of worship.

That’s also how it was 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 Timothy 4:13). Notice that the reading of the Scripture is spoken of here as separate from preaching and teaching.

It is ironic that public worship in so-called “liberal” congregations include in their order of worship a Bible reading from both Old and New Testaments and from the Psalms, while many congregations we call “evangelical” include no scripture other than the aforementioned sermon text.  

I was teaching a seminary class of fifteen or so who came from many 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 my denomination — and indeed of many evangelical denominations — it was different. On the first page of the Free Methodist Church’s 1910 hymn book I find an “order of worship” printed on the first page. It includes Scripture lessons from both the Old and New Testaments. Our forebears apparently wanted to be sure that Scripture would be central in worship and also that worship would be uniform from congregation to congregation.

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 an assignment for those 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 so that there will be no stumbling over words during public reading.

4. If young people are chosen, explain to them the importance of the assignment. 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 them 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. Ask 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 readers come from a distant place in the sanctuary.

Many years ago in a class with Carl Bangs, an outstanding scholar and seminary professor, we students discussed the drift of some churches from historical beliefs. He noted, however, that such congregations often 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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