Reading Scripture So They Can Hear
At the 223rd Annual Meeting of the Vermont Conference, United Church of Christ, 16 of us gathered for a workshop about reading Scripture in worship. Here are the notes from this workshop which may be helpful in your congregation. If you have questions about any of the details, please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Acts 2 – “Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions. Your elders will dream dreams. Even upon my servants, men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and a cloud of smoke. The sun will be changed into darkness, and the moon will be changed into blood, before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Fellow Israelites, listen to these words! Jesus the Nazarene was a man whose credentials God proved to you through miracles, wonders, and signs, which God performed through him among you. You yourselves know this. In accordance with God’s established plan and foreknowledge, he was betrayed. You, with the help of wicked men, had Jesus killed by nailing him to a cross. God raised him up! God freed him from death’s dreadful grip, since it was impossible for death to hang on to him.”
- From the day of Pentecost, from the very beginning, the church has gathered together. And as they have gathered, one has stood up and proclaimed the good news through Scripture and sermon. And still, today, most often, when we gather as the church, one person stands up and proclaims the good news. And it is good because the story is good.
OVERVIEW OF WORKSHOP
- Title of worskshop is: “Reading Scripture in a Way They Can Hear”
- In the US in general, and in VT in particular fewer and fewer people know the biblical stories. We cannot count on people, even people who attend worship regularly, to know even our core stories of creation, Noah, Exodus, Nativity, Passion, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, etc.
- Often, the lectionary slices up stories and preaching in worship assumes familiarity with the larger context and the Biblical story as a whole, which often leaves people lost and wondering how this passage or that one fits into the story of Jesus.
- So there are problems with Biblical literacy and problems with the lectionary. But there are also problems with HOW Scripture is read in worship – we often read in a way that people cannot hear. Too softly, too ancient a translation, too often the same readers read from the same place and the reading itself is a non-event…a dead space in worship…that people use as a time to get ready for the sermon, go to the bathroom, to begin dozing, or whatever.
- Which is too bad. Because Scripture is really good, and really needed in this world, and is probably the most important thing we do in worship on Sunday morning.
- Group exercise: recall a time when Scripture reading in worship was memorable and meaningful to you.
- What did you learn?
- How did you feel?
- What about the experience made it “work” for you?
- Scripture is good, like really good. It does not need to be sensationalized. And the ancient Peter-like practice of standing up in the gathered body and proclaiming Scripture is often sufficient. Having said that, though, sometimes Scripture reading does need to be “salted,” and “spiced up” enough so that people will be willing to “taste and see.”
- This workshop will lend theory and practice to help us all go back to our churches and to “salt” our readings so that people can hear the good news that is so worth hearing.
The Craft of Reading
- Volume too soft or too loud? Pace too fast or too slow?
- Send Scripture by email a few days ahead of time so reader can practice!
- Pronunciation – Say it confidently even if not correctly!! See also: http://www.stpiusvbp.org/files/4813/3462/0583/Biblical_Pronunciations.pdf
- Articulation – There is need to practice articulating a text. Speaking words clearly, being mindful of pauses and time to separate clauses.
- Genre of the reading. Poetry? History? Sermon? Ask yourself, “how does this change how I am going to read this?
- Training & rehearsal – consider offering periodic training sessions or rehearsals for special readings with multiple readers.
Who is Reading?
- How are readers chosen to read?
- Think intergenerationally.
- Think about who has gifts for public reading and then invite them.
- Think about not only who is likely to say, “yes,” but who would benefit from being a worship leader. How can this aid them in growing?
- Multiple readers – especially when a reading is long. The presence of extra reader(s) will build anticipation and the variation of readers helps keep people engaged;
- Develop a ministry of invitation to “salt” what you read by WHO reads it!! (see below about challenging readers)
Where is the Reading taking place?
- Consider where the reading takes place in the sanctuary.
- Are readings always in the same place?
- How would a particular reading be better heard by changing locations? (e.g. reading from balcony in a reading where God’s voice booms from the clouds – Transfiguration/Jesus’ Baptism or reading from the middle of the aisle for a reading where Jesus is surrounded by the crowds)
- If you have multiple readers, set up music stands and mics on floor in front of pews. Maybe have one reader in the front, and one in back/balcony. The variation of “where” signals something is different and builds anticipation and interest in the reading.
- “salt” what you read by WHERE you read it!!
When in the Liturgy is the reading?
- In many churches I know, the Scripture readings generally comes as a psalm in the Call to worship and just before the sermon.
- What about opening worship with A Scripture reading (e.g. Acts cycle during the Season of Easter). What about repeating the same passage 3 times in a service?
- “salt” what you read by WHEN you read it!!
- Mics – make sure you have good mics and that people speak loudly enough so everyone can hear. Tell your trustees about the need for proclaiming the world is there is resistance to spending money. If people can’t hear, why read at all?
- Speakers – Are your speakers good? Are they turned on? Do they crackle and pop?
- Projection – If you project, do you do it well? Do the slides turn on time? Is the font larg enough? Do the images help or hinder? Is the technology seamless so people can focus on the story?
- Furniture – Pulpits and lecterns are often moveable. Consider moving furniture, or not using it at all.
- Challenging Readers – Everyone who wants to read Scripture should have a chance, but care must be taken for readers who might not be particularly gifted. Sometimes readers are too quiet or too loud, too fast or too slow, too boring or too something. Try to match challenging readers with others, give shorter readings, choose the service at which they read carefully, etc.
- Translations – There are many. Some churches have pew Bibles and print pages number for people to follow along which make us feel like we always HAVE to use that translation. Some translations of a passage are better than others. Get your congregation into the habit of hearing different translations and not being upset when the passage they are reading is a bit different than what they are hearing.
PRACTICE 1: Multiple Readers
Reader 1: This morning we read one of the more challenging stories in Scripture, a “text of terror” that is found at the very end of the book of the prophet Jonah, ch. 3:10-4:11. In this passage from ch. 3, verses 10 through ch. 4, verses 11, Jonah bristles at God’s mercy towards the Ninevites and becomes angry. Let us listen together for God’s Word.
Reader 2: God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it. But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry.
Reader 3: He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”
Reader 1: The Lord responded, “Is your anger a good thing?” But Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city. There he made himself a hut and sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen to the city.
Reader 2: Then the Lord God provided a shrub and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.”
Reader 3: God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?” Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!”
Reader 1: But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night.11 Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Reader 2: May God bless the reading and hearing of this, God’s holy word.
- What did you experience?
- How did you feel?
- How did having 3 readers differ than having 1?
THEORY 2 – Arts
- Scripture contains not one, but many genre’s of literature: Hymn, poetry, history, story, genealogy, etc.
- When choosing Scripture to read in worship, consider what genre it is. If it is a hymn, could it be sung? If it is story, could it be enacted? If it is a poem, could it be read poetically? If it is history, could it be presented like a brief school lecture?
- The Church has long known that artistic expression has a way of helping people to see and hear differently or at all. Seek to incorporate the arts into your church’s Scripture readings.
- Active Art in Worship (painting banner/canvas of Scripture reading throughout worship service)
- Pottery (e.g. Jeremiah 18: “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O Israel.”
- Storytelling – John Walsh’s “The Art of Storytelling.” Retelling the story and reclaiming verbal heritage of the texts.
- Liturgical/Interpretive Dance – Work with dancer(s) to coordinate dance that occurs while Scripture is being read.
- Dramatic reenactment
- Drawing – distribute paper and colored pencils and invite the congregation to draw the passage as it is read and preached about. Those who wish could post on the sanctuary walls after the service for people to see and discuss
- Project images that describe/contrast/or are about the reading
- Play sounds that enhance the reading (battle sounds/bird sounds, etc).
- Singing/Chanting a reading rather than speaking
THEORY 3 – Special Readings for Special Services
- Some Sundays and some services lend themselves to special ways of reading Scripture.
- Christmas Eve, Palm Sunday, Easter Sunday, Pentecost, Confirmation, Transfiguration, etc.
- Consider matching HOW Scripture is read to the season, festival day and magnitude of the service.
- Or, take the 23rd Sunday in Pentecost and enliven it by reading Scripture in an unusual or surprising way.
- Tableaux (see “Practice 4” below)
- Scripture Echo – great resources at scriptureecho.com
- “Sharing the Word” – Invite people to take out Bible and take turns reading one verse at a time until reading is done.
- Different languages (on a Sunday other than Pentecost)
- Lord’s prayer read in Aramaic
- 10 commandments read in Hebrew
- Easter story read in Greek
- Passage in language someone in your congregation knows and is appropriate for your setting.
PRACTICE 4: Tableaux
- Text: Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9)
- Figures: 1) Jesus, 2) Peter, 3) James, 4) John, 5) Moses, 6) Elijah, 7) Bright Cloud
- Procedure: 1) Read once, 2) Read 2nd time SLOWLY with characters assuming positions, 3) Hold silence while people view Tableaux.
Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain.
He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.
Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.
But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid. ”When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.”
CLOSING THOUGHTS AND RESOURCES
- We end where we began. With an acknowledgement of the tension between the need for Scripture in our live and the reality that so few of us know the stories.
- Perhaps the most important thing we can do on Sundays is simply to tell the story in a way that people can hear.
- Standing up as a lone reader and proclaiming the Word is an ancient practice that still often works today.
- In practice though, often the Scripture reading time in congregational worship is a dead spot, a time to make a note, answer a text, go to the bathroom or reposition before the sermon.
- How can we, NOT sensationalize Scripture reading, but “salt” it so that it “tastes” good and people want to “taste” it at all.
- Today we have spent time with some theory of Scripture Reading and also practiced various ways of reading Scripture.
- Your task, is to go back into your congregations and ministry settings and practice “reading in a way that people can hear.”
- Which is hard work that takes practice and dedication. But it is also sacred work, holy work, and one of the biggest gifts your church can offer to God’s people.
- WorshipWell: worshipwell.church
- Scripture Echo: scriptureecho.com
- Biblical Pronunciation guide by Lana Beyer: http://www.stpiusvbp.org/files/4813/3462/0583/Biblical_Pronunciations.pdf
- The Bible, the more you read it the better your reading will be
- The Art of Storytelling, John Walsh (Moody), 2014
- Public Reading of Scripture: A Handbook, Clayton Schmitt (Abingdon, 2002)
CLOSING PRATICE 5: Passage Talkback (split congregation in half and alternate readings or use two readers)
- Praise the Lord! Praise God in God’s sanctuary! Praise God in God’s fortress, the sky!
- Not everything is perfect. Not everything is in place. Still, we can find our voices to praise God who is both distant from us AND as close as our breath.
- Praise God in God’s mighty acts! Praise God as suits God’s incredible greatness!
- We give thanks, not only for who God is, but also what God does. We give thanks for God who loves us and saves us and who refuses to let us go.
- Praise God with the blast of the ram’s horn! Praise God with lute and lyre! Praise God with drum and dance! Praise God with strings and pipe! Praise God with loud cymbals! Praise God with clashing cymbals!
- There is not wrong way to praise God. We don’t have to fight about hymnals, organs and guitars. Let the worship wars be over! Let’s use what we have. Let’s vary things from time to time. Let’s sing, bang, beat and blow praise into God’s ears.
- Let every living thing praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!
- Praise is not for others. It’s for you and me. All living things are made and loved by God, so all living things have cause to praise. Let every living thing praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!
© Rev. Kevin Goldenbogen, 2018