My Dear Shepherds,
I must admit, when I hear someone (especially a young person) say, “I just loved the worship at that church,” I’m pretty sure they don’t mean the Scripture reading, prayer, Communion, creed, or the offering. Perhaps you’ve noticed that for many today, worship is synonymous with music. And that’s it. One of our great privileges and responsibilities as pastors is showing God’s people these unsung treasures on Sunday mornings, a duty we cannot leave only to others.
Take the reading of Scripture. I’ve spent all my life in churches with a high view of Scripture. One of the mottos of my denomination is, “Where stands it written?” Ironically, we didn’t actually read the Bible very much on Sunday mornings, especially apart from the sermon text. Paul said,
Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture; to preaching and to teaching. (1 Tim. 4:3)
Of course, now people aren’t dependent on us to hear the Bible; they can read it themselves. What’s more, most pastors do read Scripture as part of their sermon. But simply hearing the Word read aloud by itself is meant by God to be music to the ears of believers.
Pastors must see to it that Scripture readers are as well-prepared as our best musicians, and that begins with the heart. Some forty years ago I asked Gleason Archer, an eminent Old Testament professor in our congregation, to read the thirty verses about Elijah and the prophets of Baal from 1 Kings 14. He read expressively with apt gravitas but what made it so memorable was that he took so seriously simply reading for us this account of God’s holy might. When he finished we sat in silent awe.
I suspect that worship leaders who are strong on music assume that just listening to Scripture is boring; that the service will lose its mojo. But we’re not reading the Iliad here! When the Bible is read thoughtfully and well, God’s Spirit makes sure that his people develop an ear for it.
The word of God is alive and active. (Heb. 4:12)
Perhaps your church observes the rich tradition of having four lectionary readings each Sunday from the Old Testament, the Gospels, a Psalm, and an Epistle. Other congregations focus on Scripture in creative ways with readers’ groups, litanies, memorized recitations, and passages accompanied by art or other images.
One church I pastored developed a small cadre of readers with different voice colors to fit different kinds of passages. Sometimes they read alone, sometimes in groups. Other people wrote scripts from biblical narratives or wove together several texts on a theme.
Some tips. Before reading Scripture to God’s people the reader should pray it through, internalizing and meditating on it, attentive to the Spirit’s coaching. Then practice aloud, like a singer practices, till its phrases come naturally, conversationally. And don’t go fast! Pauses give listeners time to absorb what they’re hearing. Finally, read as an act of faith, believing that God himself is speaking.
When I was a boy growing up in our rural church in South Dakota, a missionary to a nearby reservation would occasionally come to preach. He was tall and solemn with thick white hair, and he required something of us that our pastor never did. Before he preached he would intone, “Let us stand for the reading of God’s Word.” Lazy me would think, Why do we have to stand up? But now I realize that simple requirement was my first introduction to the unique, sacred responsibility I had to hear and receive Scripture. May his tribe increase.
Be ye glad!