Reading in Worship from the Book We Love
Even Christians who profess to love the Bible sometimes zone out when scripture is read aloud in public worship. Here is help for readers, worship planners and the congregation to experience the living Word.
Their worship contexts couldn’t be more different. Pastor Jeff Wong says that worshipers at More than 12 Church in Vancouver, British Columbia, don’t feel they fit in at other churches. “They are artists and free thinkers, or come to us from drugs, gangs, prostitution, homelessness or mental illness,”
Catholic theologian Joyce Ann Zimmerman is director of the Institute for Liturgical Ministry in Dayton, Ohio. The people who attend her workshops and read her books are used to talking about what it means to fully, consciously and actively participate in worship.
Yet Wong and Zimmerman both say the same thing about the power of reading the Bible aloud in worship. Proclaiming it makes Christ, the Living Word of God, profoundly present—especially when the reader, worship planners and worshipers prepare themselves for the encounter.
Living Word profoundly present
Proclaiming, reading or listening to scripture is as much an act of worship as singing, preaching, praying or celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
“Proclaiming the Scriptures at liturgy is a unique speech act that engages the speakers, the hearers and the content of what’s being proclaimed. The act of proclamation precipitates a divine presence. When the proclamation is heard, there comes to be a stillness in the assembly. You know something is happening,” Zimmerman says.
As proof, she shares a story from when she taught in a Roman Catholic seminary and university while living in a French-speaking convent in Ottawa, Ontario. “Once a year, the convent proclaimed the first reading at Mass in English. They asked me, for reasons of hospitality, to do this. When I got up to read, all heads went down to their French missalettes [book of texts used in Catholic Masses]. About three sentences in, heads started popping up—because everyone was hearing God’s word proclaimed in their hearts. This happened 35 years ago and still reminds me that people hear more than the words in proclamation.”
Jeff Wong tells worshipers at More than 12 that reading scripture is a corporate and bodily experience.“As the community reads and vocalizes, they’re pronouncing the living Word of God. There’s something very powerful in that. Jesus tells us that where two or three are gathered, he is there with us.
“Look at John 1: ‘The Word was with God and the Word was God.’ God is in this Word. Or consider 1 Corinthians 6: ‘your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.’ So when we read God’s Word together, profound things happen. We are engaging with and being used for God’s purposes. When we are totally dry and dead, reading the Word together can, and often does, revive us. As Paul said, when Jesus is lifted up, he’ll draw all men to himself.”
Readers prepare to proclaim
Zimmerman never gets nervous before giving a keynote speech to 1,200 people. However, despite 50 years as a lector [reader], her fingers shake before she proclaims scripture to a much smaller assembly at Mass. “I’m not just standing there reading the words and stopping at the periods. I’m laying bare myself, revealing how I have internalized the words,” she says.
Preparing to proclaim requires living with the passage and, ideally, receiving some training.
Zimmerman suggests using lectio divina to meditate daily on the passage during the week before the service. “You can read God’s Word without living it, but you can’t proclaim it without living it. The integrity and truth lies in what the congregation picks up on. If the Word tells us to love one another, than that must come out of the proclaimer’s struggle to actually love someone,” she says.
Wong agrees that living the scripture is key, and he thinks the diversity of education, experience and affluence at More than 12 helps bring the word alive. “Someone who is mentally ill or poor can have amazing insights. To an upper-middle class person, the end of Matthew 25 sounds like a list of good things to do. But for others, being hungry, thirsty, sick or in prison is their real life,” he says.
People sometimes question why they need training to read the Bible aloud in church, to which Zimmerman replies, “This is a ministry, and all ministers need training—unless they are in a very small informal group, like a home church with 12 to 15 people. Also, it takes training to use a microphone.”
At More than 12, the worship leader for the day chooses a psalm and related song. He or she leads the congregation in reading the psalm together, so training is less crucial. “Still, the quality of the experience is compromised when there isn’t a standard or people aren’t skilled to do it well,” Wong says.
Lombard Christian Reformed Church in metro Chicago, Illinois, has gone through renewal by focusing on what they do in worship and why and by involving more people. Pastor John Huizinga says that volunteers usually read the Sunday sermon passage. The church holds annual and “as needed” trainings for reading the Bible aloud in worship. He says people are trained to read “from the heart with reverence and passion,” while resisting “the temptation to be manipulative in worship instead of trusting the Spirit and the power of the Word.”
Worship planners make a difference
There’s huge variety in the who, what, when, how and amount of scripture reading in worship. Yet, having worship leaders plan together makes a difference in every tradition.
Some churches use dramatic reading, choral reading, drama, rap or other ways to present scripture. Zimmerman favors reading neutrally. “Get yourself out of the way so the attention is not on the proclaimer or the assembly but on what’s being proclaimed. In Catholic settings, I say, ‘Stand still on your two feet. Don’t use your hands or arms. Your lived experience of that reading the week before will flow into inflection and emphasis that will always communicate. Subconsciously, you’ll convey, ‘This is a challenging word, but you can receive it with hope, because I’ve lived it,’” she says.
Some churches read scripture portions prescribed by a lectionary. Others choose their own texts. Depending on the setting, readers read from pulpit Bibles, their own Bibles, wall screens, handheld devices or printed sheets in black folders. More than 12 uses the New Living Translation for its readability, and Wong encourages worship leaders to read from “an actual hard copy of the Bible” while the rest of the congregation reads from a screen. Huizinga says that Lombard CRC struggles with which version to use. They have the 1984 New International Version in pews but would sometimes prefer to project words from other versions—except that those versions are copyright protected.
The Lombard CRC worship team, pastor and worship director craft services around a theme. They invite representatives from various demographics or ministries to worship planning meetings. For 15 to 30 minutes, they ask these representatives what helps or hinders them from worship in different parts of the service. Parents of young children said they often missed the Bible reading because it happened while they were checking their kids into children’s worship. Now there’s usually a song after the children’s dismissal so parents can return in time.
“A few Sundays a month, we involve the congregation in reading a Psalm together in unison, or a litany.These words accent something in our worship theme or help them prepare for or respond to our confession, praise, lament or prayer,” Huizinga says.
For churches that follow the lectionary, Zimmerman recommends subscribing to Liturgical Press’s Living Liturgy, which provides four pages for planning each Sunday. She advises that, ideally, the homilist should meet with the lectors and musicians to agree on one point to focus on in the gospel reading. This helps musicians choose songs and helps the other lectors meditate during the week on how their assigned Old Testament, psalm or New Testament reading points to the gospel lesson.
How congregations experience the power
Readers and worship planners can focus on four times—before Sunday and before, during and after the reading—to help congregations encounter the Living Word.
Before Sunday, churches can remind worshipers what scripture will be read. Lombard CRC does this by emailing the sermon passage to everyone on Friday. ““Before the service, we pray for a clear channel between heaven and earth,” Wong says.
Before the reading, readers can echo these words from Tim Brown, president of Western Seminary in Holland, Michigan: “Listen with me to these words from the Book that we love.” More than 12 worship leaders often note that the Psalms are song lyrics that God gave the Israelites to use in worship. Wong encourages them to introduce psalms that are about “things that urban people can’t relate to, like rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. For Psalm 23, I’d explain that the psalm writer was a shepherd. Saying ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ means that God guides me, leads me and looks after my needs, which in David’s case, was green pastures and peaceful streams.”
At Lombard CRC readers frame each scripture reading with words that remind worshipers that hearing God’s Word and taking it to heart is an act of worship. The man who read John 15 brought in a vine he’d cut a few days before. He showed everyone how quickly the vine wilted and then read the passage.Another time worshipers were invited to pick up a stone as they entered the sanctuary. After the John 8 story of how Jesus prevented a woman from being stoned for adultery, the reader invited people to pile their stones on the stage.
Worship planners can explain scripture reading practices that they introduce or already follow. Christians in Spanish-speaking churches, Baptists in North America and Coptic Christians in Egypt often stand during Bible reading. Lutherans often stand during the gospel reading to acknowledge that Christ is present in the gospel’s good news.
Zimmerman explains, “The Roman Catholic liturgy’s fixed dialogue summons the proclaimer to draw attention to the fact that this is not simply a reading. For example, the gospel proclamation begins with ‘The Lord be with you’ and the response ‘and with your spirit.’ Then here’s the citation ‘a reading from the holy gospel,’ to which the assembly responds, ‘Glory to you, O Lord.’ That response with its “you” language suggests that this is more than a reading about Christ— because Christ is present in the proclamation. After reading, the deacon says, ‘The gospel of the Lord,’ and the congregation responds, ‘Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.’”
Wong finds that playing music while scripture is read can help the congregation grasp its content and read more passionately. “Sometimes a DJ’s music sets the atmosphere. It could be spontaneous instrumental music in the same key of the song just before or after the reading. We encourage worship leaders to explore psalms through their heart music, whether hymns, CCM, gospel, country, rap, pop, rhythm and blues or electronic music,” he says.
On one recent Sunday, Huizinga heard three comments that showed him how worshipers are engaging with scripture. “We’ve been doing a series on the Book of Esther, one scene per week. Someone said, ‘I’m looking forward to hearing the story today and how Esther’s predicament is resolved.’ One man told me that his son hopes to get a chance to read in front of the congregation again soon. Another ccasional reader said, ‘I’m a bit nervous when I am asked to read, but I really get to know the passage as I practice the week before. It comes alive for me.’”
- Video: Reading Scripture in Worship
- How to do a choral reading of scripture
- Reading scripture well in worship
Attend the 2016 Calvin Symposium on Worship to hear Joyce Ann Zimmerman speak on preparing to remember the Reformation, worship’s deep meaning and shaping perceptions about Catholic and Protestant identity.
If your church follows a lectionary, then The Text This Week (ecumenical) or Living Liturgy (Catholic) can help you live the passage you’ll read aloud in worship. If your preachers choose texts by another method, then try this Scripture index or search non-lectionary passages. Use lectio divina to help you dwell in the Word.
Use this video, article, tip sheet or Catholic lector advice to plan a training on public scripture reading or on doing choral reading. Or get the book-and-DVD set Devote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture: The Transforming Power of the Well-Spoken Word by Jeffrey Arthurs.
Read Joyce Ann Zimmerman’s Worship with Gladness: Understanding Worship from the Heart. John Witlivet says this book works so well across denominational lines because “it is saturated with references to and language drawn from the Bible.”
START A DISCUSSION
Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, board or worship meeting. These questions will help people start focusing on the role of reading the Bible aloud in worship:
- How do you choose which scripture will be read in worship? How do you tie it to the songs, prayers, sermon and other worship elements?
- What first steps could you take to find out why various groups in your church zone out or perk up during the Bible readings?
- Share a story of when you sensed a stillness among worshipers that showed how God’s Word hit home.