The Reading of Scripture (Bible Study)
Worship is a conversation between God and his children, and the Scriptures are the surest and clearest means through which God speaks. The Scriptures are his voice, and when the Scriptures are read, God is speaking to his people.It is wise, therefore, to pay close attention to the role that the reading of Scripture has in our worship services.
Scripture: Nehemiah 8:1-6 and Luke 4:14-21
Imagine that you were there! You've been gone from Jerusalem for some years, away in captivity, knowing that Jerusalem had been ransacked and the walls had been broken down. Finally, you are back in Jerusalem (see Nehemiah 8). As soon as you returned, you rebuilt the walls under Nehemiah's leadership. You resettled the city. Now you are gathered in the city square, and the Book of the Law is brought out. Ezra begins to read it aloud. You all stand, listen, and respond with "Amen." In this moment you heard from God.
And imagine that you were there in Nazareth (see Luke 4) where the devout were gathering in the synagogue for worship. Jesus happened to be in town, and he participates in the leadership of worship by reading Scripture. He reads from Isaiah 61, a clearly messianic passage. And when he's finished reading, he says, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." It was an electric moment!
Both of these settings remind us that the reading of the word of God is central in worship.
Worship is a conversation (dialog) between God and his children, and the Scriptures are the surest and clearest means through which God speaks. The Scriptures are his voice, and when the Scriptures are read, God is speaking to his people.
It is wise, therefore, to pay close attention to the role that the reading of Scripture has in our worship services. When we evaluate worship, we should discuss the prominence of Scripture in the worship service. Ask questions such as:
- How prominent and obvious was the Word of God in this service? (How clearly would worshipers have heard God's voice?)
- How many Scripture passages were read?
- How influential was Scripture in shaping the worship service?
- Were the readings done engagingly and with interest?
- How many different roles did Scripture fill in this service?
How many Scripture passages?
In our next lesson we'll address matters of proclaiming the Word in preaching. For now, perhaps we should ask ourselves how much Scripture should be read in worship. It can fairly be said that most of us err on the side of reading too little Scripture rather than too much. If Scripture is God's voice among us, we must let him speak more, rather than less!
Three considerations will likely influence our selections of Scripture readings and their place in worship.
- The Liturgy. Since the entire worship service is a conversation with God and his children, God's voice should be heard numerous times. The call to worship, God's greeting, the call to confession, the assurance of God's pardon, God's guide for grateful living, the invitation to prayer, the charge, and the parting blessing (benediction) may include direct words of Scripture. In addition, professions or affirmations of our faith and expressions of thanks and praise can include Scripture.
- The Sermon. The sermon, as an exposition of Scripture, will obviously have a leading role in determining at least one passage to be read. Though this passage is normally read before the sermon, the reading may be embedded within the sermon. It may be a single passage or multiple passages. Other supplemental passages may be read also.
- The Lectionary. Many congregations use the Revised Common Lectionary to determine its Scripture readings for the day. Four passages (an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a Gospel reading, and an Epistle reading) are provided each week on a three year cycle. You can find the suggested readings by consulting the Revised Common Lectionary on the internet or finding it in The Worship Sourcebook, p. 823ff.
We should also be aware that while we normally think of Scripture as being read, it may also be sung. In some instances an anthem will proclaim the Word in sung form. Likewise, many songs for congregational use are a proclamation of the direct words of Scripture. The heritage of Psalm-singing in the church has also served this purpose.
Creating the Set-ups for Scripture
Often the effectiveness of a Scripture reading can be greatly increased if we place it in the right setting and surround it with meaningful words and actions. The purpose of these settings is to make clear that this is a very privileged moment. It should be received attentively and gratefully. Here are a few suggestions you may want to consider:
- Follow the practice of some traditions and stand for the reading of Scripture, especially the Gospel reading. It's very difficult to consider something commonplace while standing for it!
- Introduce the Scripture reading. This introduction should clearly indicate which text is being read and should invite the careful attention of the congregation. Encourage the congregation to follow the text in their own Bibles or those provided. Clearly state the book, chapter, portion of verses, and usually the page number. Do not hesitate to repeat this information for those who may have missed it the first time. Often it is helpful to give a brief explanation of the context of the passage so the listeners are able to understand its intent. Then a brief statement of invitation, such as "Hear the Word of the Lord…." or "Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church…." or some similar statement can help focus the attention of the congregation.
- Responses to the Scripture reading. A thoughtful response by the congregation reinforces the conviction and awareness that this is no ordinary book. A response can be a commitment of the congregation to receive this Word as God's own voice. It can also become an expression of faith in the truth of God's Word. Consider such responses as, "The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God" or "The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of the Lord endures forever. Amen."
- The Prayer for Illumination. Since the power of the Word of God comes through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, a prayer for the Spirit's work is a helpful companion to the reading of Scripture. This prayer may be offered before the reading or between the reading and the sermon. It may be led by the pastor, an office-bearer, a lay person, or by the entire congregation. It may be spoken or sung. In any event, it should clearly be an acknowledgement of the necessity of the Holy Spirit's illuminating work for us to read, speak, hear, and obey. You will find numerous suggestions for this prayer in The Worship Sourcebook, p. 139ff.
If we want Scripture reading to be a vital part of our worship services, here are a few other considerations we'll want to bear in mind.
- Quality Reading: Scripture is a book of diverse genres. Therefore, how it is read will need to vary from one type of passage to another. It is important for readers to prepare to read in a way that accurately reflects both the spirit and the content of the passage. This may involve coaching for some readers, training them in good techniques of reading, and even rehearsals. Encourage them to use their voice and its variations in pitch and tone to convey the meaning of the passage. Be sure they enunciate clearly and project their voice well.
- Variation: The method of reading and the person who reads should include variation. Sometimes the pastor will read; other times a lay person will read. At still other times the congregation will sing songs that proclaim the Scriptures. Sometimes multiple voices proclaiming the same text best communicate the passages. Narratives, for example, can become more real if they are presented in dramatic fashion by a group of readers.
- Sing the Word: We've mentioned before that many songs are the direct text of Scripture. In your selection of songs for worship, pay close attention to such songs and include them as much as possible. In addition, the anthems sung by a choir, ensemble or praise team can effectively "proclaim by singing." In such instances it may be helpful to help the worshipers realize that the Word of God is being sung. Consider introducing an anthem with, "Hear the Word of the Lord, sung today…." and end it with "The Word of the Lord" and "Thanks be to God."
In all your efforts, aim to make the hearing and receiving of the inspired Word of God a high point in your worship conversation with God. When God speaks, it should be a powerful moment!
Tips for Discussion Leaders
Your goal in this lesson is to ask the basic question: Does the Word of God have as much prominence in our worship services as it should? As the chairperson leading this discussion, it would be good to remind all the participants that we believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God and is a tool in the hands of the Holy Spirit to do God's work among us. As such, the reading of the Bible in public worship should receive very noble attention. You may want to discuss together whether you think everyone is aware of this.
Then your discussion can turn to the evaluation of your worship services. Be sure you point to the positives as well as the challenges you face. By the end of the discussion, aim to have reached a consensus on some actions that your church could implement to improve the role of the Word in worship.
1. How conscious is your congregation of the importance of Bible reading in worship? Describe some of the behaviors and responses that you see as you look around the congregation during the reading of Scripture.
2. On an average Sunday, how many different passages are heard by your congregation? Is this sufficient, too many, or too few? Do worshipers know why each passage is included?
3. Are those who read doing so in a way that is interesting and expressive? Are they well-prepared? Is someone available to coach the readers when necessary?
4. Analyze who does the reading in your worship services. Look at the worship services of this past month. How many different readers were included? Were they diverse in age and gender?
5. How are readers selected? Are they the same few each time, or do you have a method for discovering willing volunteers from the congregation? (You might want to consider a Volunteer Resource Bank.)
"Getting the Story Off the Page: Advice on putting life into Scripture reading," by W.J. Beeners, Reformed Worship, 17:11.
"When You Read Scripture: Suggestions for helping lay readers be more effective," by Kenneth Baker, Reformed Worship, 21:41.
Next Month: "Proclaiming the Word"