Creative Scripture Reading for Virtual Worship
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many churches still gather through virtual worship. Finding creative ways to read the Bible for online worship services can help worshipers experience what Romans 15:4 promises: “The Scriptures give us strength to go on.”
Now that so many congregations are worshiping virtually, worship planners realize that asking someone to read scripture for virtual worship is a good way to involve congregants of all ages and backgrounds. Worship planners usually ask someone to record audio or video on their phone and upload it for use in a Zoom service, YouTube playlist, or on another platform. For potential readers who are unable to record themselves or uncomfortable doing so, worship planners can visit to record the reading, preferably outdoors and from at least six feet away.
People worshiping at home feel more connected when they hear and see scripture readers who used to gather with them in the sanctuary for worship. Scripture reading for virtual worship is even more evocative when readers memorize, involve others in their household, use simple visuals, or add layers of meaning through art, photos, or videos.
The following examples come from actual worship services and from Northwestern College students in Jeff Barker’s Story and Worship class. If you’ve attended a Calvin Symposium on Worship, then you may have seen how powerfully Barker’s students reenact scripture. His students had to rethink their Bible presentation strategies after the coronavirus closed their campus in Orange City, Iowa. Their creative solutions may spark ideas when you’re asked to upload a lectionary passage for your congregation’s online worship services.
Memorize the passage
“Use this opportunity to share scripture from memory,” Barker says. “Many people who might be afraid to stand on a church platform will find safety in presenting from memory in their own home. This will be a great encouragement to the whole congregation. Rehearse so that you can speak the scripture to the camera (or to the few people in the room with you) without looking at the book or a cueing sheet.
“Get the assigned passage at least two weeks in advance. Rehearse it several times a day so that you are comfortable with it by the time you record it. You might even introduce the passage by telling a brief story of why it’s a favorite. Or you could do a group presentation, with individuals memorizing a verse or two. If you haven’t memorized the passage, go ahead and let the camera see the book that you’re reading from,” Barker says. He retired in 2020 from Northwestern College’s worship arts program but still teaches in the doctoral program at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Jacksonville, Florida.
You don’t have to face the camera
If you’re asked to record scripture for an online service, your first inclination might be to look directly into the camera. However, it can be even more effective to read from a visible Bible. This could emotionally connect worshipers to their own experience of reading the Bible in their homes.
In this clip from ”Continuing to Follow by Faith,” a 2020 Calvin Vital Worship Grants Event service, Kristen Verhulst looks at the camera only to say “The Word of the Lord from Ecclesiastes, chapter three, beginning at verse one” and “This is the Word of the Lord.” A ceramic pot, a plant, and a clock can be seen behind the open Bible. These visual cues add depth to the famous passage that begins “There is a time for everything” (NIRV).
In this clip from ”Service of Lament,” another 2020 Calvin Vital Worship Grants Event service, Barb Newman reads Psalm 88. She reads in a darkened room, lit only by a candle. During the last verse, ending with “and darkness is my only companion” (CEV), she blows out the candle. The poignant psalm prepares worshipers to sing ”O Lord, Hear My Prayer,” played by violinist Mary Bardolph.
Involve others in your household
One person can introduce the passage while the other reads or recites it. Barker’s students have learned to introduce each Bible reading with words such as “Remember this portion from the Story of God as it is written in the book we love, from . . .”. One or more people can join the main speaker in using unison speech to add emphasis to a theme. You can see both techniques in this brief video by Sara Bosman, one of Barker’s students. In presenting Romans 5:12–15 (Lent A1), Bosman speaks all the words. Her sister chimes in on “because all sinned” (end of verse 12, NIV) and for all of verse 15.
If the assigned Bible reading is in story form, you could do a dramatic reading. “Use at least three people so that one person speaks the narrative lines and one person takes each character,” Barker says. “Such an enactment can become as elaborate as you wish.”
You can improvise with what you have at home to depict the scripture. Andrew Mewengkang was asked to read Psalm 93 for virtual worship on May 17, 2020, at Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Psalm 93, often used for Ascension Day or Ascension Sunday services, addresses God as King. So, while Andrew reads, Seong il Kim wears a robe made from a sheet, and Tirza Widjanarko places a cardboard crown on his head. The friends billow a blue blanket during verse 3: “Lord, the seas have lifted up their voice. They have lifted up their pounding waves” (NIRV). The camera zooms in and out on the king during verse 4: “You are stronger than the waves of the sea.”
Northwestern College student Alyssa Glanz built and knocked down wooden blocks while visualizing 2 Peter 1:3–11, which exhorts readers to build up their faith by adding spiritual virtues. In the final segment, which shows the scattered blocks coming together again, Glanz used iMovie’s reverse playback feature. (You can also find Android or PC apps with reverse play options.)
You don’t even see the scripture reader in this example by Bosman, who enlisted her siblings to create visuals such as these drawings to illustrate the Creation story from Genesis 1. It’s also okay to focus on just one piece of classic or contemporary art to illustrate a passage. Look for images on the websites Preaching and Worship, Art in the Christian Tradition, and The Text This Week.
“Silhouettes behind a sheet can be so evocative,” Barker says. His student Grace Spencer illustrates this for a reading of Ezekiel 37:1–14, the famous passage about dry bones coming to life. Spencer explains, “As for the light source, I used an overhead projector set back about ten feet or so from the sheet. I then positioned my body between the projector and the sheet, getting as close to the sheet as possible without actually touching it with my body.” She enacted the silhouettes as her mother read the passage.
Add layers of meaning
Rather than choosing visuals that duplicate the biblical imagery, consider using photographs or videos that contrast or add new layers of meaning to what’s being read. For Psalm 23, worship planners often default to older art of Jesus as the Good Shepherd (most of which incorrectly picture him as a white man) or photos of shepherds and sheep. But when Noel Snyder reads The Message version of Psalm 23 for “Rest Under the Shelter of God’s Arms,” a 2020 Calvin Vital Worship Grants Event, the photographs connect the psalm to life during a summer of pandemic and racial unrest. He reads slowly enough to let you gaze at several photos per verse. Snyder’s reading is accompanied by “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” played on a piano. (See the edited conversation ”Jeff Barker on Combining Music and Public Scripture Reading“ for more on including music in a scripture reading for virtual worship.)
When the imagery’s connection to the passage isn’t immediately obvious, it helps to acknowledge that, as Randy Buursma did before his June 7, 2020, sermon at First CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A week earlier, after a peaceful protest of George Floyd’s death, violence erupted in Grand Rapids. The next day, hundreds of people went downtown to remove broken glass and create art on boarded-up windows.
Before the Philippians 1:1–11 reading, Buursma invited online worshipers to ponder the connection between the passage and video. First you see Kristen Smith standing by a new downtown mural. The camera pans past homemade posters about George Floyd, Sean Bell, Ahmaud Arbery, and others killed by police. As the Department of Corrections parole office and the Grand Rapids police headquarters come into view, Smith recites verse 9: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” (NIV).