Read Scripture Well
Warren E. Berkley
“I put you under oath before the Lord to have
this letter read to all the brothers,”
(1 Thessalonians 5:27, ESV)
The public reading of Scripture has long been a central part of what God’s people do. When this is done well, it is not some humanly perpetuated ritual that merely occupies time. It is a practice taught in Scripture that both expresses and at the same time enriches our faith.
This is valuable because, as Paul said about his writings: “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ,” (Ephesians 3:4). Within our hearts there is the desire to “Seek and read from the book of the Lord,” (Isaiah 34:16). Nehemiah chapter eight gives us a dramatic account of God’s people listening to God’s law. “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading,” (Nehemiah 8:8). They did this “clearly.”
Nevertheless, this scene plays out in some places on a regular basis. During the break after Bible class and before the assembly, a deacon rushes to grab a young man. “You have Scripture reading today,” he says. The reader quickly picks up a pew Bible and scrambles to find a brief paragraph. He doesn’t really know much about that part of the Bible, but upon first glance this passage seems like it will work. He reads it once and marks the place. At the designated time, he takes his place, buries his head in toward the open Bible at his waist and reads in low volume, missing a couple of words and without much regard to inflection, timing, punctuation and appropriate pauses. At the end of the reading, he is relieved it is over (and so are most of the audience members.)
We can do better! God’s word deserves the highest reverence and excellence. The people who assemble need to hear and understand. Above that, God is hearing His own words repeated. Careful!
An illustration may help us. During World War II, men who were serving in combat wrote letters to their families. The scene was repeated daily in cities and rural areas: Children watching and waiting for the mail carrier and with Daddy’s letter in hand they would run into the house. Everybody would come together at once and the letter would be carefully read. The mother and children would lean toward the reader and the reader would use his or her best voice, considering it an honor to have the assignment. It was the most important mail the carrier brought, thus required the best reading. It was remembered; it made an impression on the affection and memory of all who listened.
Something like that but even greater ought to occur in the assemblies of Christians today. We have, in Scripture, a letter from God for us. The way we read it and listen to it should reveal our love for God and His Word. So …
How Can Readers Do This Better?
Guard against familiarity breeding contempt. The majority of people in the audience know that when the reader gets up, he is going to read a passage from the Bible; and many may expect it will be much like all the other times this was done before. As a reader, your task is not to fall into the familiar routine and get it over with. Your function is to help people listen to God’s word; to move them by your exact reading of the selection. This requires reverence on your part that conveys to the audience their need for reverence. Your commitment of heart and attitude toward God and His Word must play the fundamental role in your reading. As a public reader, your purpose is not to do just what others have done, nor to compete with other readers. Do your best to set before the people a reading of God’s word that is centered on Who wrote it and what He said.
Do not attempt exaggerated dramatics. In popular media and evangelical circles, Max McLean and Ryan Ferguson are well known for their dramatic readings and recitations of Scripture (if not familiar, Google search those names). While you may enjoy listening to their presentations, those “special effects” dramatic presentations are not appropriate in our worship assemblies. In my opinion, some of these type offerings cross the line into entertainment and call attention more to human talent than divine communication. Listening to McLean may prove helpful to you in learning some of the skills of reading, but imitation can come across as extremely artificial. Learn from those who do it well, but don’t imitate. And leave off the exaggerated dramatics.
Prepare. First, select (if you don’t already have an assignment) a passage that is a complete unit of thought. That will require that you read through the whole chapter, know something about the theme being developed and have a good sense of the main idea. Second, as you read that passage through several times, work on picking up the tone. Is it joyous, somber, a simple narrative, poetic, argumentative, declarative, a warning? You cannot – with your inflection and timing – capture the tone of the text without first knowing very well what it is. “The proper inflection helps me find the emotional undertow within the text. It connects the passage more viscerally to the congregation,” (McLean, Bird, p.#35). Third, read that text aloud and alone several times, almost as commitment to memory. As you read (in some private place), make good adjustments each time, to fully use your mind and voice to express the meaning. Pray over the task at hand and understand that “[w]hen the Bible is read aloud with emotion and conviction appropriate to the context, infused with the fact that this is what we base our lives upon, it’s earthshaking,” (McLean, Bird, p.#35). (See Nehemiah 8:12). [As young men prepare to read before an audience, one form of valuable preparation is – to read the text of Scripture in a family setting. Let us assume that Christian parents have time set aside in their homes to read Scripture. What a great opportunity for young men to read aloud, get feed-back and encouragement in the family setting.]
Understand that everything communicates. How you approach the podium; your dress; how you hold your Bible; eye-contact with the audience; volume; use of the PA system; clarity of voice; careful enunciation – all of that must be carefully combined and balanced to read Scripture well. In almost every local church, there is someone who does this well. Ask them to help you. Study those who do it well and work on each aspect of this important task. Listen to good readers and let them teach you.
Speed is not primary. Reading Scripture is not something put into the agenda just to break up the routine or fill space. You are reading God’s word to the people. Announce the text you will be reading; craft a one or two sentence simple introduction that describes the context – pause – then take your time, read distinctly, then later – ask someone who does this well to give you some feed-back for future improvement.
Attention Preachers: You cannot tell people what they need to know and do, if you don’t read it to them from Scripture! Just telling people that what you are saying is in the Bible is not enough. Just giving people the location is not enough. To Timothy Paul said: “…devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching,” (1 Tim. 4:13). In order to exhort and teach, we must read to our audiences from the source. And it should not have to be argued or debated, read Scripture well. Do not read Scripture quickly, as if to get that part out of the way so you can talk! No. Make the reading of Scripture a vital part of your preparation and rehearsal. Understand the text well enough to read it with exactly the tone, emphasis and enunciation God’s word deserves.
“So why is the reading of the Bible so flat, when many preachers are gifted communicators? The answer is that the dynamics of reading and speaking are totally different. Reading from a page represents a different skill set than speaking impromptu or from prepared notes. Chances are pretty good that most preachers haven’t spent time practicing reading the Scripture passage out loud. In addition, they’ve probably never had training in reading aloud, and they may have never seen it done well,” (Mclean, Bird, p.#39).
My recommendation to preachers on this subject is, after reading this chapter, if you determine you really need to do this better, find someone to help you. Listen to people who do it well – among brethren – and ask for their help. We have an elder in McAllen who knows Scripture and knows how to read it publicly. Just in listening to him for over twenty years, I’ve learned how to improve my reading. There is likely such a man where you are or near you. Listen and learn and practice and pray.
What can be the result of reading God’s word well? “…great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them,” (Nehemiah 8:12)
- What is the scriptural basis of reading Scripture in our assemblies?
- Give some reasons this is not done well sometimes..
- What preparation steps are sometimes neglected?
- What is the public reader’s purpose?
- Why not imitate exaggerated dynamic readings?
Bird, Warren and McLean, Max. Unleashing the Word, Rediscovering the Public Reading of Scripture, Zondervan. Available in Kindle.
Humes, James C. Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln. Three Rivers Press; Available in Kindle.