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Soaking in Scripture: Memorization and public reading

Many churches devote far more planning and worship service time to music, the sermon, and other service elements than they do to public Scripture reading. A feature story exploring the importance of Scripture memorization and public reading.

As Christians, we talk about how important the Bible is. Paul and Silas sang psalms in prison. Jesus announced his ministry in the Nazareth synagogue by reading aloud from Isaiah. He knew Scripture well enough to quote it constantly in his teaching and conversations with Jewish leaders.

You've probably read about hostages or prisoners of war who stayed sane by reciting Scripture from memory. You may even have a relative who no longer recognizes you but can still whisper favorite Bible verses.

For all our lip service to the Bible, many worship services show our confusion about how much memorizing it or reading it aloud really matters.

Ask yourself these questions. Whether you grew up in a tradition of lectionary readings or Bible quizzes, how easily can you remember and quote a Bible passage to guide or heal a conversation? And do you ever zone out when the Bible is read during worship?

Seminary professors Tim Brown and Clay Schmit say that rediscovering the Bible's power is the key to letting it shape our lives and worship.

Rediscover the living Word

Brown has arresting ways of helping people see Scripture through new eyes. During his "Keeping and Talking the Word" summer seminar at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he asked participants to sing "Take, O Take Me As I Am" as a prayer for the Holy Spirit to live in their hearts.

Brown demonstrated what happens when God's word is alive in a person. He preached the Genesis 1 and 2 Creation narrative from memory, pausing along the way to let participants ponder. He led them around the seminary grounds as he preached from the Sermon on the Mount. He stood under a tree to admonish pastors not to hide their lights. On a busy street corner, he warned against praying like hypocrites.

Several preachers went home inspired to memorize the passages they preach on. But they are memorizing to accomplish far more than the ability to recite.

Leslie Steele, a Church of Scotland pastor in Galashiels, Scotland, compares memorizing to downloading a program into a temporary folder on a computer-whereas "hiding God's Word in the heart" is like installing a program into the systems folder. Even difficult passages from Ezekiel or Revelation can function "in our minds in ways akin to how operating system files set up and take control of a computer," he says.

Kevin Adams, senior pastor of Granite Springs Church in Rocklin, California, says, "Memorization is like marinating yourself in the Bible. Preaching comes from a deeper space inside when you've done what Psalm 119 calls hiding God's Word in your heart."

Though he's had 17 years of applying historical, literary, and theological exegesis to sermon texts, Adams learned that "God's living Word is something beyond control and can speak in other ways."

Write it on your hearts

Besides memorizing his sermon texts, Adams plans to encourage church leaders to learn appropriate passages, perhaps 1 Peter 5 for elders, Acts 6:1-8 for deacons, and Acts 2:42-47 for small group leaders.

"The best memory aid is to create a positive, nurturing community that applauds effort and willingness to try memorizing. As pastors, we can model memorization that comes from a deep, passionate desire to know and love God more," he says.

At Lawndale Christian Reformed Church in Chicago, Jim Wolff says that as he meditated on Scripture in Brown's seminar, "it came alive and began to speak to me." The pastor passed on this excitement by asking children to act out parables he'd memorized on the sower and the weeds and wheat. "I see and hear of rappers and hip hoppers who use their art to memorize Scripture. I'm not up to that yet," he says.

For Tim Blackmon, former pastor at River Rock Church in Folsom, California, "The Bible is a book like no other. Every passage has layer upon layer of God-infused meanings. The ancient rabbis believed each passage in the Torah had '70' meanings."

As eager as Blackmon is to see memorized Scripture reshape church members' hearts, he's decided to follow Dallas Willard's suggestion: Before leading a congregation into a new spiritual discipline, a pastor might try it personally, tell no one, and see what God does.

Proclaim that Scripture reading matters

Leslie Steele says that given how few Church of Scotland members regularly read the Bible, he will emphasize memorization but will focus even more on Scripture reading. He'll ask people to read it at home and train them to read effectively during public worship.

"Encouraging biblical literacy and concentrating on systematic biblical preaching have been the focus of my life's work and ministry. Without doubt, the spiritual growth and development I have seen in people has gone hand in hand with biblical reading and contemplation," he says.

Clay Schmit points out that the sermon is really a secondary proclamation, God speaking through a preacher. "Reading the Word is God's direct proclamation to us. You are called upon to be the human embodiment of the Word of God when you read Scripture publicly," he says.

Unfortunately, because so few seminaries offer instruction in how to read Scripture in worship, pastors and churches give this task short shrift. It's not unusual for a lay person to be asked, just before the service, to read Scripture.

"We assume we can all read, so it takes no skill to stand up and read the Bible. Some people think the Bible reading doesn't matter. Others-and I'd like to end this myth-think, 'I, an average person in the church, do not want to add any of my interpretation. To allow the Holy Spirit to work in hearts, I will read in a flat, plain, well-paced, articulate style, and I'll pronounce all the names right.'

"But any lack of interpretation is actually a misinterpretation. If you read without interpretation, you send the message that Scripture is meaningless and boring. If you have no training, then your constant attempts at eye contact send the message 'this person thinks she needs to look up a lot while reading,' " Schmit says.

In his book Public Reading of Scripture: A Handbook Schmit gives practical tips on how to interpret and read Scripture in worship and how to choose, train, and mentor lay readers.

Prepare to engage worshipers

Schmit's suggestions-on how to consult commentaries, prepare for public reading, use pauses and eye contact, know the difference between reading and acting, and modulate your voice-will give Scripture readers the confidence and authority that engages worshipers.

Percussion can help people pay closer attention during Scripture readings. That's why conga drums punctuated this reading of Isaiah 60 during a worship service at a Calvin Symposium on Worship.

Dramatic or multi-speaker readings work well in many congregations. River Rock Church has a group of people who do both drama and Scripture readings. Sometimes two to four people use dramatic blocking and read from the front platform, such as two women who read Proverbs 26 as an interactive reading about fools. When Kevin Adams preached about the Sermon on the Mount, he asked four people to memorize and present parts of that passage.

"Once in awhile, as a gift to your congregation, you might want to do a dramatic reading that might even take the place of the sermon," Schmit suggests.

Friends of the Groom, a nonprofit Christian drama ministry, says that memorizing and telling a Bible passage as a story and miming a story are good ways to use Scripture in a dramatic way. Staged scripture or drama scenes make good lead-ins to the sermon.

Special attention to Scripture reading, especially when drama is involved, "brings things alive for people who've been going through the motions," says Tom Long, director, playwright, and chief storyteller for Friends of the Groom. 

Learn More

Order Clay Schmit's book Public Reading of Scripture: A Handbook.

Dallas Willard describes scripture memorization as a discipline for spiritual formation. Ben Patterson explains how his preaching changed when he began to memorize passages and entire books of the Bible.

So your family easily absorbs the Bible into memory, you might keep a flip-over Bible verse calendar in the kitchen or bathroom. Steve Green's "Hide 'Em in Your Heart" Bible memory songs are available in CD,songbook, and video. From the Navigators' Discipleship Library, you can download or listen to brief free talks about how and why to memorize Scripture.

This long but excellent article on reading Scripture aloud includes the history of public Scripture reading as practiced during Bible times and in the early church.

Howard Vanderwell and Norma de Waal Malefyt, authors of Designing Worship Together, also have great advice on public Scripture reading, as does the pamphlet "So You've Been Asked to Read Scripture."

If your church uses the three-year Revised Common Lectionary cycle, look for interpretive help from Let the Scriptures Speak: Reflections on the Sunday Readings, by M. Dennis Hamm. We're in Year A. Year B begins on the first Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2005. The Center for Excellence in Preaching also has interpretive aids.

Order Visuals for Worship to help you make Scripture visual. The Text This Week suggests art keyed to each week's lectionary readings.

Start a Discussion

  • How many minutes or what percent of the total worship service time does your congregation spend on reading Scripture? What message does this portion convey to your church about the Bible's role in our lives?
  • What Bible-related traditions does your church have? Is the Bible ceremonially carried in and ritually elevated during worship? Do you have a special lectern for Bible reading? Do people bring Bibles to church? Do you stand when Scripture is read? Do you read it aloud together? Does the preacher start a verse and then ask the congregation to complete it by memory?
  • What benefits and pitfalls do you see in encouraging people to memorize Bible verses or passages?
  • What do you think of Clay Schmit's conviction that "any lack of interpretation is actually a misinterpretation"? Would you like to change anything about how your church chooses, trains, and gives feedback to those who read the Bible aloud during worship?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to help worshipers memorize Scripture or read it aloud during worship?

  • If your pastor started memorizing the Scripture texts, what results did people notice in the sermons or other aspects of worship?
  • If you wrote a curriculum for a class or workshop on meditating on and memorizing Scripture, will you share that with us?
  • What have been the most (or least) helpful ways to recruit and train people to read the Bible aloud during worship?
  • Did you find a good way to add drama to your Bible readings?