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Jeff Barker on Combining Music and Public Scripture Reading

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed many churches to do online worship services, inspiring some liturgists to more creatively present Bible readings. Jeff Barker explains how to combine music with the lections or scripture passages.

Jeff Barker is a playwright who taught mainly worship arts and theater for 32 years at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He still teaches in the doctoral program at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Jacksonville, Florida. Barker’s many books include The Storytelling Church: Adventures in Reclaiming the Role of Story in Worship and Performing the Plays of the Bible, coauthored with Tom Boogaart. In this edited conversation, he talks about how to combine music with public scripture reading in worship, including virtual worship.

Why might worship leaders want to include music along with the Bible reading?

One of the beauties of this time is that everyone is welcome to be involved! Someone could read or recite a scripture while another person underlays it with a hand drum beat or a well-known song. For example, a musician might play ”Great Is Thy Faithfulness” or ”I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” during a passage about time or generations, such as Psalm 90, Ecclesiastes 3, Matthew 1:1-17, or Acts 2:14-36.

How else might people use music to enhance a scripture presentation?

You can alternate parts of the music and Bible reading. A solo musician can provide both music and scripture. Or an unaccompanied singer can easily interweave phrases into a scripture selection. In the clip below, I coach my son, Joseph Barker, and daughter-in-law, Kay Gillette Barker, so my students can hear a bit about the aesthetic of interpolating music and scripture.

Kay sings “Silent Night” while Joseph reads a compilation of Holy Week verses. It’s good to take your time while alternating between the music and the scripture so worshipers have time to appreciate how they work together.

How do you make sure that the music supports or enriches rather than overwhelms the scripture?

I typically use quite simple music that tends to not draw attention to itself. Music can be helpful to maintain attention and provide emphasis, but it can also distract. A simple melody line or a quiet drumbeat can be quite effective. However, chords that create a mood can sometimes flatten out the presentation and put the listener to sleep. A scripture presentation almost always builds to somewhere, and the music should support that change. Notice that when music is used and suddenly withdrawn, the resulting silence can provide potent emphasis.

Even when adding music, most people recording a lectionary reading from home for virtual worship will keep it simple. But how might those with video editing skills combine the scripture lesson, music, and images?

Here’s an example prepared for a June 2020 online chapel service for the Robert E. Webber Institute of Worship Studies (IWS). In this video, Darrell A. Harris, dean emeritus of the IWS chapel, slowly proclaims the Isaiah 61:1–7 passage of messianic calling. Meanwhile you hear a powerful choral anthem and you see images of contemporary oppression, racism, and violence.

How did you settle on that passage, and what instructions did you give for reading it?

IWS chaplain Nancy Nethercott chose the scripture for that day, assigned it to the preacher, and asked me to prepare the presentation of the scripture. I asked our chaplain emeritus to record it because I knew the community would be glad to hear his voice again. Darrell had recently retired, and we were all away from and missing each other due to COVID.

When Emmanuel Bileya, a Nigerian pastor and IWS student, was killed in Nigeria, Darrell emailed everyone suggesting that we listen to Samuel Barber’s “Agnus Dei as we grieved. When I heard it, I thought of the Isaiah text. That text is so very joyous and hopeful, but it also reminds us of the brokenheartedness that needs attending to. I asked Darrell to use his phone to make a voice recording, and I chose some images of the present world that would resonate in contrast to that passage. When Darrell sent his first recording, it was very joyful. I emailed him back with this coaching:

“The theme of this chapel session is paradox. I would like to capture, within your reading of this text, the hope for that which is yet to come but also a clear awareness and even lament of what we are living in now. In other words, please allow the subtext of lament to come through—the sorrow that the believed-and-hoped-for is not yet present.

“Think of Jesus reading these words in the synagogue, knowing that his listeners are under the boot of Rome, facing the possibility of torture or even crucifixion. They don’t need a panacea. They need the kind of hope that acknowledges their pain.

“We will achieve this lament by a quieter, more aware, tender, careful, sorrowful reading—anything to avoid platitude. But I don’t need you to push on the sad emotion. That will come through in the tension with the photographs. I’m just asking you to be aware of and picturing in your mind this text’s painful realities. You don’t need to communicate the realities with your words. Simply allow the words to impact you, and share with us how thinking about such things makes you feel.”

And how did you put the reading, video, and music together?

Becky Donahue, a Northwestern College theater colleague, edited the Isaiah video with Final Cut Pro on a Mac. I forwarded Darrell’s email with his scripture recording. I also emailed her the photos and music and explained the general feeling I wanted.

Becky told me, “I worked on the appropriate timing to create the emotion to coincide with each photo and its connection to the scripture. Once the scripture ended, I worked to create an appropriate remembrance of the pastor who was recently gunned down along with his pregnant wife. I did this by swelling the music and slowly fading the photo—so the viewer can take in the video’s final moments and reflect upon its meaning.”

What kinds of permissions do you need to combine someone else’s images and music along with scripture reading?

Using portions of one work of art (images and music) to create a new work of art is complex legally. Sometimes there is not clarity and, if desired, lawyers and courts should help. But if the new work of art carries its own originality, then it is likely that the legal system will be supportive. If the new work of art honors the intent of the original work, usually the artists involved will be content to be contributors.


Check out Jeff Barker’s books, plays, and YouTube channel for examples of how to creatively present scripture in worship.