Ten Tips for Reading Scripture in Public Worship

An article offering practical tips and exercises for public reading of Scripture.

In workshops and his book Public Reading of Scripture: A HandbookClay Schmit, a Lutheran minister and Fuller Theological Seminary professor, offers practical tips and exercises for public reading of Scripture.

  • Acknowledge that public Scripture reading is an important ministry. If you are asked to do so, say no if you don't have the gift or have no time to get ready. If you accept, be sure to prepare. If you are in charge of finding Scripture readers, look for people who are comfortable working a mike, have an emotional range in their own personality, and are confident in front of a group. “If God hasn't placed such a gift in your church, you might pray it arrives in a new person,” Schmit says.
  • See for yourself how interpretation makes a difference. Consider the words “Her name was Elizabeth.” Say it aloud four times, each time emphasizing a different word. How does your emphasis change the meaning of that simple sentence?
  • Make sure you understand the meaning of the passage you will read during public. Your pastor can suggest commentaries that have the right take for your denomination and congregation.
  • Get comfortable with expressing an emotional range. Just for fun during practice, go overboard with gestures and vocal style. Read the same sentence in different ways to suggest different emotions. Try falsetto, trilled “r” sounds, deep, sing-song, staccato, chanted, fake foreign accent, disgusted, whiny, ultra smooth, monotone, and other voices. 
  • Next read some children's books aloud. “When you're reading to kids or talking to kids, you sometimes become excessively expressive, don't you? Yes, you do…. Now back it off about a quarter and you'll have a good voice for reading Scripture in church,” Schmit says.
  • Use pauses effectively. Note the difference in these readings of Luke 2:16:
    • They went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in a manger.
    • They went with haste (pause) and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in a manger.
    • They went with haste (pause) and found Mary and Joseph (pause) and the child lying in a manger.
    • Look up from your reading only to reinforce the message. “Avoid the bobbing head effect,” Schmit says. “The eyes are the mirror of thought and imagination, so it's fine to look off into space as you're thinking of an image, say when the father looked up and saw the Prodigal Son at a great distance…or the Psalmist says ‘I lift my eyes to the hills.' If you do this, look far off, not at individual people.” Other good times to look at worshipers would be on a sentence such as Jesus asking his storm-tossed disciples, “Where is your faith?” or Paul's admonitions in Colossians 3 to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
    • Read; don't act. “People understand you are reading, so don't think you have to move your body or gesture a lot,” Schmit says. Simply stand tall so your voice projects, use the mike, and read the text. However, do try to read so that your facial gestures are evident, even if you have to hold the Bible above the lectern.
    • Prepare ahead of time by reading aloud. Simply reading silently to yourself will not help you identify potential problems of pronunciation, pauses, and pacing.
    • Consider forming a small group of people to meet for six to eight weeks. Together you can practice reading aloud, critique each other (for the congregation's benefit), and gradually invite new people into your group. Schmit says such groups sometimes become ongoing small groups that bond and pray together.

    Schmit's book has further advice on vocal do's and don'ts. Tim Brown also has good tips for reading Scripture aloud.

Using Drama in Worship

It happens in Episcopal, nondenominational, and Baptist churches. Friends of the Groom, a nonprofit Christian drama ministry, gives worshipers a new twist on the old, old story.

A woman praying the Lord's Prayer is stunned when God answers her. Actors mime the story of Jesus healing a sick woman and Jairus' daughter. During a hymn about how the Holy Spirit moves in us, someone gently floats a dove-shaped kite above the congregation.

After the service, people come up to talk, some with wet eyes. “They say things like ‘I've been coming to church a long time, but I've never felt a sense of Jesus as a person I could have a relationship with. That drama made me fall in love with him,' ” says Tom Long, director, playwright, and chief storyteller for the Cincinnati-based Friends of the Groom.

Reconnecting worshipers with God

“Theater can do an end run around people's defenses. It brings things alive for people who've been going through the motions, especially if the music or message ties in with the drama,” Long says.

The best place to use drama in worship depends on the congregation. Mainline or liturgical churches often ask for drama to replace the sermon. “In more evangelical churches, the preacher must preach, so we do something else, like staged scripture or a drama scene that leads into the sermon.

“Churches vary in their attachment to the concept of ‘sacred space' or openness to dramas with a ritual feel. Know your congregation, and, if necessary, educate them,” he says.

Compared to what they might do for a Christian education hour or church retreat, Friends of the Groom chooses dramas for worship that “require less props, sets, or flamboyant theatricality.”

How to start

Look to Scripture for two easy ways to introduce drama into worship. First, have someone memorize a Bible passage and tell it as a story, instead of reading it. Second, try tableau vivant (French for “living pictures”).

“Divide a Bible story into six or seven scenes. Rehearse the actors in frozen poses to show each scene. Have actors wear dark solid colors, and dress Jesus more obviously. Use a musical triangle or bell and instruct the congregation, ‘When you hear a chime, bow your head and listen. When you next hear the chime, open your eyes to view the scene,' ” Long explains.

You might use ladders or boxes for height, but the main focus will be actors' poses and facial expressions. You'll also need someone to read or narrate the Bible passage and a musician, someone good at improvisation, to play continuously. Piano, flute, cello, guitar, or harp all work better for this than organ.

As you sift through short scripts from Baker's Plays, Drama Ministry, Friends of the Groom, Lillenas Drama, and Willow Creek Association, Long advises looking for gems that show more than tell.

The main thing is to start small. “Start with hand-picked people who are good and committed. Keep it short. Prepare so you can do your drama with excellence, as a prayer to God. Pray ahead of time, because nothing will happen unless the Holy Spirit is there. Work collaboratively, so you model John 13:35, ‘By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.'

“If you do all this, then talented people who've been hiding—because they're embarrassed to be part of church drama done badly—may join you,” Long says.

Friends of the Groom members never critique their performances till they're well away from the church. They don't want to be chattering about how they messed up when someone walks up to talk about being deeply moved.

“It's always a surprise, both humbling and affirming, to hear how God has worked through our drama,” Long says.

Methods for Scripture Memorization 

Tim Blackmon, lead pastor at River Rock Church in Folsom, California, has generously offered to share his “Keeping and Talking the Word” seminar notes on how to memorize Scripture.

1. Get intimately acquainted with God through this particular text using Lectio Divina. Let the passage sink in through the practices of spiritual reading:

  • Lectio
  • Meditatio
  • Oratio
  • Contemplatio

2. Engage the passage kinesthetically.

  • Write the passage out in longhand numerous times.
  • Draw images in the margins for key words. Tim Brown called this “building the scaffolding” that will help you remember the passage. After a while, as the passage enters long-term retention, the scaffolding will fall away.
  • Pray the passage around a set of prayer beads.
  • Engage the passage physically. Find appropriate gestures and postures.

3. Engage the passage imaginatively.

  • What kind of art could I begin to associate with this passage?
  • What kind of music would help me understand and experience this passage more deeply?
  • Ask imaginative questions. What did it smell, feel, look, or sound like?

4. Develop mnemonic devices

  • How is the passage organized?
  • How many main ideas are there?
  • Is there a way for me to organize them, such as acrostic, acronym, rhyme, or chaining?

5. Practice

  • Recite the passage out loud consistently.
  • Practice variations of sounds and intonations with words.
  • Recite the passage in the place you will be “performing.”
  • Review regularly.
  • Take it one step at a time. Begin with a phrase. Complete a verse. Add the next phrase, and recite two verses.

6. Insight

  • Do not consult secondary sources until you have memorized the passage.
  • Do not consult secondary sources until you have jotted down your own insights into the passage.
  • After this begin to take the traditional exegetical steps, such as the four senses of Scripture and 2 Timothy 3:16 standards:
    • Teaching: Where does this story fit into the big story of redemptive history?
    • Reproof: What worldly ideas does this passage refute?
    • Correcting: What wounds does God heal?
    • Training: What Christian practices could we draw out from this passage?

7. Help people find their way into the text. Use the mnemonic devices in the structure of the sermon to help people remember the sermon and the passage.  

8. Don't underestimate how difficult this is.

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