THE REBOOT BLOG | May 13, 2021
For Youth Reading Scripture in the Church
Summer Series 2021 #2
By Mark W. Stamm
Professor of Christian Worship and Chapel Elder, Perkins/SMU
When someone in leadership in the church asks you to read scripture in a worship service, they have bestowed a high honor on you and called you to an important responsibility. Intentional preparation expresses respect for the Word of God and for the congregation gathered to hear it.
Little says “In my opinion, the Bible doesn’t matter very much” quite like the reader who doesn’t prepare, but that preparation is well informed by reflecting on a prior question: What do you believe about the Bible? You might start with something like the classic line from the Articles of Religion (Anglican Article VI, Methodist Article V) that “the Holy Scriptures (contain) all things necessary to salvation” that they provide the foundation for the church’s teaching and practice, and further, that “(whatever) is not read therein, or may be proved thereby is not to be required of (anyone).” That statement will carry you a long way.
But notice something else that the scriptures claim about themselves and think of how that applies to your work of reading them in church. In each case the scriptures came to us through persons of faith, and thus we have the Book of Amos, the letters of Paul, and the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and so on. We don’t believe that the Spirit somehow dictated them, but rather that God’s faithful servants heard the Divine voice, sometimes wrestling with God, and eventually they wrote out of that experience. Through the long experience of hearing these holy texts together, faithful persons have come to witness that they are inspired, or “God breathed.”
As a reader you become a steward of these ancient treasures that continue to speak to us. As such, you should bring both your preparation and your personality to the task, always remembering that the assembly is counting on you to do this work attentively and carefully. Above all, your role is to read in such a way—clearly and loudly enough—that the congregation will hear the text well.
How does one prepare? Begin by reading the text silently and looking up words that don’t seem familiar to you. A good English translation will render names of people and places phonetically, so you can usually sound them out. As an excellent teacher once told me, decide how to pronounce them and then stick to your decision, reading as confidently as possible. For practice, try Matthew 1: 1-17, as prelude to Matthew 1:18-25. Reading the names of the ancestors clearly and confidently helps us appreciate the Good News that comes to us beginning in verse 18.
Other scripture passages will include words that you may not normally use. You may stumble over them if you’re not prepared. To prevent that, if a word is unfamiliar, look it up or ask someone for help. You’ll read better if you understand what you’re reading. Consider this passage from Galatians chapter 5: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious …” followed by a long list of problematic behaviors—“… impurity, licentiousness … enmities … dissensions …” (verses 19-20) after which Paul discusses “by contrast, the fruit of the Spirit … love, joy, peace …” (verse 22). Practice with Galatians 5:16-26, a passage that expresses a striking contrast, but one that you’ll express better if you know what the words mean and how to pronounce them.
After you’ve become familiar with the passage, practice it aloud. We read it aloud for two reasons: that’s what you’ll actually be doing and that’s the only reliable way to know where the tongue twisters are hiding. Pay attention to the sentence structures and the punctuation; and let them guide you. Read in complete phrases pausing appropriately, essentially at commas, colons and semicolons, and the end of sentences. For example, the phrase should be “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …” rather than “For God so loved the world (pause) that he gave his only Son …”
On the day of the reading, take your time and enjoy the experience. As you move to the place where you will read (often called a lectern), realize that the assembly is watching, and that you communicate the importance of the public reading by your very demeanor. When you arrive at the lectern, pause for a second before opening the Bible. Then state what you’ve come to do, saying something short and direct like “a reading from Mark’s Gospel, in chapter 8.” The reading that follows is where the primary emphasis must lie.
If you provide a clear and accurate reading, you have done your job and served the assembly well. But, never forget that you read the text, so you bring an appropriate measure of your personality and interpretation to the task. Nevertheless, this is a Bible reading and not a dramatization, and there is a fine line of difference between the two. Here I’ll offer a baseball analogy, which in this series shall usually be considered appropriate. Hall of Famer Ted Williams, one of the best hitters ever, taught that hitters should use a slight uppercut, the better to drive the ball. But, too much uppercut becomes a caricature of a good thing, leading to lots of strike-outs and popups. So then express yourself, but remember that the reading is not about you.
Finally, when you finish the reading, pause like you did at the beginning, and say something short and direct like “The Word of God.” Believe it, and say it like you do.