Reading Scripture in Public Worship
In all of our worship planning the principle that the Word of God is central must guide us. Since worship is our engagement with God, our group conversation with God, the Word must figure prominently.
The Word Is Central
God initiates this worship conversation.
Worship planners will benefit from an assessment of the place of Scripture in worship. In your planning team meeting, examine a number of recent worship services and ask questions like the following:
How prominent and obvious was the Word of God in this service?
Did the sermon have exclusive right to determine which Scriptures were read?
How many Scripture passages were read?
How influential was Scripture in shaping the tenor of the worship service?
Were Scriptures read engagingly and with interest?
How many different functions did Scripture fill in these services?
Did the reader(s) present the Scriptures in such a way that they were clearly from God's Word?
Selecting Scripture to be Read
Integrating Scripture into the flow of the worship conversation with God is important. Since Scripture is God's voice, its location in the service should serve to advance the dialog with God. There are several methods by which the selections for each service can be made.
The sermon, as the exposition of Scripture, will obviously have a leading role in determining which Scripture passages are included in worship. It may be a single passage, or multiple passages, read before the sermon, or embedded within the sermon. In addition, other supplementary passages can be selected and read before or after the sermon to prepare the way or to reinforce the message of the sermon. In any case, the theme of the sermon drives the selections made.
A worship service should have integrity throughout. In other words, the entirety of the worship service is important, and each element should be planned carefully. Therefore, the elements of the liturgy and their location can be the determining factor in which Scripture passages are read. While it is usually best to be sure that all passages have a consistency to them, there are times when the liturgy will be more determinative of what is read than the sermon. Consider the following elements of a worship service, which are intended to be God's voice to us; each presents a unique need for the type of Scripture that can be read:
The call to worship
The call to confession
The assurance of God's pardon
God's call to grateful living
God's invitation to prayer
God's parting blessing (benediction)
Other elements in the liturgy that are intended to be our voice to God can often be expressed very meaningfully by taking the words of others within Scripture and making them our own:
Our profession of faith and trust
Our confession of sin
Our prayers of thanks and praise
Many congregations profitably make use of the Revised Common Lectionary to determine the Scripture readings for the day. Some pastors use the Lectionary for selecting the passages on which they will preach, but the Lectionary also provides companion passages for multiple readings within the service—four passages each week for a three-year cycle (an Old Testament passage, a Psalm, a Gospel reading, and an Epistle reading). While some feel that the passages provided in the three-year cycle do not provide a sufficiently balanced selection of Scripture or prefer not to give up their own liberty to make such choices, such a plan does encourage us to include multiple Scripture readings in each service so that worshipers receive rich variety and regularity.
Methods of Scripture Reading
Scripture reading in worship must be effective and meaningful. The Word of God is too precious for it to be read in any way that obscures his voice! Consider using a variety of methods:
1. The pastor reads Scripture. Traditionally this has been the standard method, since the pastor was perceived as the one most fitting to read the Word of God. Especially for the passage on which the sermon was based, it was expected that the pastor would be the reader.
2. Lay persons read the Scripture. Increasingly we have come to appreciate the value of lay readers. The office of believer gives each of us the privilege of reading God's Word to his people. When multiple passages are read, multiple readers can be used.
3. Songs proclaim the Scriptures. Both congregational songs and those sung by choirs or soloists can be effective means of setting God's voice before his people.
4. Dramatic readings of Scripture. Many passages of Scripture include multiple voices within a story and require multiple voices in reading to convey this. Other passages have different emphases within them that can best be represented by multiple readers. Narratives will become more real if they are presented in dramatic fashion by a readers group.
5. Recrafting Scriptures. At times the occasion may call for efforts that make God's voice more striking by setting it next to other passages or readings. Perhaps some of the complaints of lament Psalms can be juxtaposed with some of the promises of God. The words of warning from the prophets can be set alongside promises of hope. After the national tragedy on September 11, 2001, some pastors read the verses of Psalm 46 interspersed with dramatic headlines from the news.
6. Developing Scripture-theme services. These are worship services which focus intensively on one chapter or passage of Scripture. The Scripture passage determines both the content and the structure of the service of worship. Over the course of the worship service, the entire passage is read. You will find several examples of Scripture-theme services among the worship planning resources of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. We point you to four examples that we have previously provided:
God Is With Us, Zephaniah 3:17 (July 6, 2003)
Praise That Won't Forget, Psalm 103 (July 27, 2003)
My Light and My Salvation, Psalm 27 (January 4, 2004)
God Knows Me, Psalm 139 (July 25, 2004)
Partnership of Song and Scripture
Song and Scripture reading should not be two separate elements in a worship service. In many ways they join together and reinforce each other. Historically the book of Psalms has been considered both the prayer book and the song book of the ancient church.
Congregations can sing metrical versions of entire passages of Scripture, as in the first 150 selections in the 1987 edition of the Psalter Hymnal (which are the 150 Psalms) and in Bible song selections from the same hymnal.
Congregations can also join in a responsorial form of song as part of the Scripture reading. In such expressions a repeated refrain is woven through an extended passage. Examples of this form can be found in Sing! A New Creation (see, for example, SNC 199 and 242). Many times it is helpful to play simply and quietly under the reading of the passage (perhaps simply by outlining the basic chord structures) so that the unity of song and word is evident. The underlying music should never draw attention to itself, but serve to provide a seamless quality to the reading of the word and the response.
Using these as models, worship planners and leaders can design their own responsorials by combining shorter refrains with either Old Testament or New Testament passages.
Choirs can also participate in presenting Scripture. The words of anthems are both taken directly from Scripture and based on Scripture, and thus anthems can replace the reading of the passage, introduce the Scripture, or reflect on it following the reading of the Word. It would be helpful for music directors to keep a file of anthems organized not just by title and composer but also by Scripture passage. Similarly, choirs and praise teams or soloists can lead the congregation in singing responsorial Scripture.
Some Practical Suggestions
In the interest of making Scripture reading in worship more interesting, noteworthy, and formative, we offer some suggestions for worship planners to consider.
1. Consider including more Scripture passages, not less. Let God's voice come through multiple times in multiple ways in a worship service. When this is done it's usually best to carefully examine the length of each passage. A larger number of brief passages may be more effective than one long passage.
2. Take a new look at the prayer for illumination. Sometimes the church neglects this vital element of worship. When the Word of God is read and proclaimed, the worshipers acknowledge their need for the Holy Spirit's guidance in reading, preaching, and listening. This prayer may be offered by the preacher or a lay member, or sung by the congregation; it may take place before the Scripture reading or after it. But it makes very clear that we can receive God's Word only when the work of the Holy Spirit illumines our hearts.
3. Consider using an introduction to the reading of Scripture. Since this is such an important act in worship, the congregation's attention should be carefully invited and encouraged. Identify the book, chapter, and verses, and possibly point the congregation to the page in the Bibles that are provided. A brief introductory statement may aid the worshipers in understanding the type of passage being read and knowing what to listen for. To invite their attentiveness, you may want to begin with, "The word of the Lord from . . ." or "A reading from . . ." or "Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church . . ." or some similar statement.
4. Encourage the congregation to respond to the reading of Scripture. Whatever we do to highlight the importance of our reception of God's Word will aid our worship. A thoughtful response to the reading of Scripture reinforces in the mind of the congregation that this is no ordinary book. A response helps them to receive this as nothing less than God's voice to us. A time-honored practice is to use a response such as one of these:
The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God!
The Gospel of Christ.
Praise be to you, O Christ!
The grass withers
and the flower fades,
but the Word of the Lord endures forever.
5. Encourage the use of multiple readers. The Word of God belongs to the entire congregation and we exercise a great privilege when we read it to one another. Different voices of different ages illustrate the office of believer and the oneness of the body of Christ in receiving and sharing his Word.
6. Provide both encouragement and training for readers. All Scripture reading, because it is public, must be done in such a way that will enhance its meaning and make it easy for others to hear, follow along, and become engaged in it. Those who are readers must possess some gifts to be able to do this well, but we should also consider providing some encouragement and coaching for them. Reading publicly is a craft to be developed, especially when it is for a large group. With some, instructions and guidelines may be sufficient; with others times of rehearsal and practice may be necessary. At a bare minimum all readers must be sure they are familiar with the content and spirit of what they are reading. You may find it very helpful to get in touch with folks at All Nations Heritage Christian Reformed Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia. They have developed a Worship Renewal Project that involves multiple weeks of training sessions for those who are lay readers of Scripture in worship. You will benefit from their insights and materials. Contact Doug Porter (email@example.com).
7. Historically, some groups stood for the reading of Scripture. Consider asking your congregation to do this, at least on an occasional basis for special seasons such as Advent or Lent. It will be impossible to overlook the seriousness of what is being read.
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