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The Public Reading of Scripture

The Bible is the very Word of the living God, breathed out by God and given to us to train us in all that is necessary for life and godliness. As God’s people we are deeply reliant on Scripture, trusting that the Bible is the only infallible and inerrant means through which God speaks to us. For this reason Scripture must be central to our worship services. We ought to read it, sing it and preach it every Sunday! Reading Scripture is not something we do out of duty or obligation, but something we do in delight, trusting that it is a means by which the Lord blesses pursues, convicts and draws. To stand at the front of a church and read the Bible is to stand in the place of God and proclaim his Word.

Because of the importance of the Word of God, at Grace Fellowship Church we ask certain members of the church to be involved in a Scripture Reading Ministry—a ministry of those who are specially trained and equipped to read the Word of God and to read it well. We consider this a teaching ministry, which means that it is a ministry reserved for men.

Here are some of the things we seek to teach the men who participate in this minstry. I’m hoping this may serve you as you consider reading Scripture in a public setting. It assumes that the person reading Scripture has some time to prepare himself!

Understand

In order to read a passage well, you first need to understand it. You need to understand the genre, the tone, the purpose for which it was written, and at least have a general comprehension of what the passage means. Is this a triumphant passage proclaiming the glories of God? Is this a poetic, meditative passage reflecting on pain and persecution? Is this God speaking to man or man speaking to God? Is this a story or a letter? What is God seeking to communicate to us in it?

Once you have been assigned a passage, spend at least a few minutes ensuring that you understand it. If this is an unfamiliar passage to you, and you have difficulty understanding it, it may be useful to read the passage in a couple of other translations or to do a little bit of research. If in doubt, ask someone!

Practice

Once you have a basic understanding of the passage, you will need to practice reading it. As you read you will be trying to understand its flow, to understand any natural divisions and to ensure that you know how to pronounce every word.

Because you will be reading out loud, will need to practice out loud. Read the passage from beginning to end until you are confident that you will be able to capture its flow—at least 5 or 6 times.

As you practice, learn which words or phrases you will need to emphasize, find natural places to pause and look for places where you will need to increase or decrease volume. Practice varying your tone and pace, but be careful that you do not become an actor delivering a dramatic presentation—this is not Shakespeare! Your task is to read the Scripture in a way that aids understanding but without drawing attention to yourself. You have succeeded well if people are drawn to the Word of God and take no notice of you!

If you encounter any difficult names, places or other words, you can visit ESV.org and listen to any passage in order to find a specific pronunciation. Make sure you practice those difficult words enough times that you will not hesitate on them during the service.

Know in advance what you will say by way of introduction and conclusion. Generally the task of the Scripture reader is simply to read the Bible and not to editorialize (“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”).

Before the Service

Dress appropriately and according to the front-of-the-room dress code, if your church has one. Do not wear anything that might prove a distraction (such as shirts with a slogan or logo). Make sure the passage you will be reading has been bookmarked in your Bible so you can turn to it without flipping through page after page. Read it through at least a couple of times on Sunday morning to ensure that your memory of it is fresh.

There are times that the Scripture reader will be asked to announce the passage he is reading so everyone can follow along in his own Bible. There are other times that he will simply read a passage without announcing it. Be sure you know what is expected of you.

Also, ask whether you will wear a lapel microphone or stand in front of another microphones. If you are wearing a lapel mic, double check that you know how to turn it on and off (or if you even need to do so).

Reading

At the appropriate time in the service, walk to the front without hurrying, turn to face the church and open your Bible to the passage. We like to preface our readings with these words: “This is what Holy Scripture says.”

Stand tall without slouching. Hold your Bible in your hand instead of resting it on the pulpit. Hold it high enough that you can look over it to make eye contact with the people you are reading to. Use your other hand to guide your reading, if necessary. As often as possible, raise your eyes from the Bible to look at the people. Read ahead a little bit so you can make eye contact in those moments that your mouth catches up with your brain. Try to keep a good, natural pace. Your tendency will probably be to read a little bit too quickly. Through it all, remember that you are reading for the benefit of the church, so serve your brothers and sisters by reading God’s Word to them.

At the end of the passage pause for a moment before saying your words of conclusion: “This is the Word of the Lord. Amen.” Head back to your seat, but do not rush.

Common Mistakes

Here are a few common mistakes that you should be aware of.

Too Fast!
Do not be surprised if you find yourself a little bit nervous at least the first few times you read. This nervousness typically causes people to go too quickly—to run to the front, to speed read, and to run back to the safety of the chairs. When in doubt, slow down.

Not Enough Preparation
Do all you can to prepare properly. God’s Word deserves our best efforts. If you are halting and stumbling and mispronouncing words, you are not serving your brothers and sisters as well as you could.

Preacher Voice
Be careful not to fall prey to that strange habit of sing-songing the passage. Use a projected, but natural voice. Be you. Read to people like you want them to understand, not like you are revving an engine.

Too Quiet
The key to good vocal projection is to take a good breath (not gasp!) before your first word and then to use the diaphragm to push the sound forward out of your mouth. Read like you are trying to help the man sitting at the back wall hear you without amplification. As for amplification, it may sound loud to you, but you will need to learn to trust the volume to the sound operators. Speak fully and loudly and confidently.

Without Feeling
Do all you can to “feel” the text as you read it. Having prepared so well, you will already understand much of what it says. Let the Truth impact and interact with you as you read it.

Too Much Feeling
While you want to “feel” the text as you read it, be careful that you do not become an actor performing a dramatic recital.

Soft Balloon
One funny habit some people develop is getting the first third of the sentence well-projected, but trailing off to a near-whisper by the last third. Pace your expiration so that your vocal chords are still moving by the end of the phrase and sentence. You are a reader, not a mime.

Lack of Herald
The reading of God’s Word is to call people to action, so read as a town-crier. You have something to say and you can expect those within earshot to give it attention. This is primarily a frame of mind in the reader, but anything less subtly communicates disinterest.

Passages for Practice

Here are a handful of passages that are useful for practicing.

Psalm 22
How will you read the first 2 verses? How might David have spoken them? How did Christ speak them? Are you reading as David or as Jesus? What kind of transition will there be between verse 2 and 3? What kind of transition will there be between verses 5 and 6? What tone will you use in the final words of verse 31?

Isaiah 52
How will you transition from verse 2 to 3 and then from verse 6 to 7? Will you pause at the end of verse 7 between “who says to Zion,” and “Your God reigns?” How will you speak the words “Depart, depart” at the beginning of verse 11?

Mark 15
In any of the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion we are faced with different voices—the officials, the soldiers, the thieves and, of course, Jesus himself. How will you read the words of mockery (verse 30, 31)? How will you pronounce and how will you read Jesus’ last words without being too dramatic (verse 34)? How will you capture the faith and wonder of the centurion as he realizes who he has just crucified (verse 39)?

Proverbs 9
What genre is this and how may that inform you as you prepare? How will you transition between description and speech (e.g. verse 4)? How will you transition between verses 12 and 13? How can you indicate that Wisdom is calling out but without over-acting?

Romans 3
Paul uses lots of big words, long sentences and Old Testament quotes. How will you read all the questions in verses 1, 2 and 3 without making it sound forced? How will you read the exclamation in verse 4? Will you vary your tone or voice in some way between verses 10 and 11 to indicate that you have moved from Paul to an Old Testament quote?

Revelation 21
How will you indicate that in verse 3 there is a loud voice from the throne without over-acting that voice? How will you pace the list of sins in verse 8 so that each one receives emphasis and it doesn’t all blend together? How do you pronounce “carnelian,” “chrysolite,” “beryl” and “jacinth?” Can you pronounce “the twelfth amethyst” without stumbling over it (it’s actually quite difficult!)?