Q. Our church has been involving members in worship by having them read Scripture. This has been a blessing in many ways; however, some of them aren’t the best readers, and we wonder if we should stick with a “professional” like the minister. Should we?
A. Many churches are embracing the “office of all believers” and involving laypersons in a variety of worship leadership roles—playing instruments and leading songs, drama, and liturgical dance as well as reading Scripture. You’re right that it can be a rich blessing to hear the Word of God read by people of a variety of ages and backgrounds. We hear the Word through their voices and accents in different ways and learn to appreciate the diversity of Christ’s church. And we do appreciate the gifts of the people in this way.
But you’re also correct that Scripture reading should be done as well as possible. As the central part of the worship service, it should be planned and led with at least as much care as any other element of worship. Imagine choirs or soloists who didn’t practice their songs, or a preacher who didn’t run through his or her sermon at least once! Bible readers should also prepare well and practice their reading.
In Reformed churches we often refer to the sermon as the proclamation of the Word, and sometimes think of the Bible reading as preparatory to the sermon. When my Catholic friend reflected on the honor of proclaiming the Word in worship and the preparation she did throughout the week for that purpose, she was referring to her role as Scripture reader or lector. This attitude could be encouraged in our churches as well.
At Calvin College, guidelines for chapel services include instructions to read Scripture with intelligence, passion, and hospitality,and to prepare the Scripture reading ahead of time. Among those guidelines are these three:
- pace: read slowly, but use some variety in the pace.
- space: allow time for the text to be heard and absorbed.
- grace: read with expression that makes Scripture come alive, yet not so much drama that it calls more attention to the reader than the message.
The Scripture reading can also be offered in various ways—as a choral reading if the passage includes several “parts” or characters, or enhanced by visual images projected while the Word is read. In many churches, worshipers are encouraged to follow along in their Bibles, but another way to focus on the Word of God is to simply close your eyes and hear it without visual distractions. Hopefully, the reading is offered in a way that draws attention to God’s Word more than to the one reading it. Our goal should be for worshipers to return home with the words of the Bible on their minds and in their hearts.
Note: The following question was fielded by Greg Scheer, music associate at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and minister of worship at Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Q. I’m curious about how different churches practice giving/tithing/offering? We are looking at instituting a change in that area, and we really desire to do it well. There’s a lot of fuzziness about where to do it and how to do it. Any ideas?
A. First, it’s important to understand the offering as a liturgical act. A recent trend in churches is to simply have a box in the back of the church for people to give their offerings after the service or during the week. Another trend is to have offerings automatically withdrawn from your bank account. These churches do not want to be seen as “money-grubbers”—but are they presenting a biblical view of the offering?
Biblically the offering is an act of worship that takes place specifically within the worship service. Every single time worship is mentioned in the New Testament, the offering is one of the items on the liturgical “to-do list.” It’s mentioned more often than preaching! Add to this the overwhelming amount of instruction given to offerings in the Old Testament, and it becomes clear that God cares about how we give. Therefore the offering should be part of our worship service and is worth doing well.
In the New Testament the offering seemed to be tied directly to the communion liturgy. Gifts were brought forward after the Word, and some of the gifts—the bread and wine—were set aside for use in communion. The rest of the gifts were immediately taken to those in need. My congregation mimics this early practice by beginning our weekly communion liturgy with the words “Sisters and brothers in Christ, the gospel tells us that on the first day of the week, the same day on which our Lord rose from the dead, he appeared to the disciples in the place where they were gathered and was made known to them in the breaking of bread. Come, then, to the joyful feast of the Lord. Let us prepare the table with the offerings of our life and labor.” After that, people come forward and place their offerings in the baskets at the communion table. Then we sing a song or the doxology, while some members bring forward the bread and wine for the communion—often home-baked bread.
This practice ties together the communion table—Jesus’ gift to us—with our own giving to Jesus’ work in the world. It also emphasizes the profound mystery that Jesus comes to us in bread and wine that we make with our own hands. Jesus himself is the gift, but he allows us to take part in incarnating that gift with the common stuff of life on a weekly basis. Walking forward with our gifts emphasizes that the offering is a liturgical act (the work of the people) rather than merely a “collection.” Obviously, many congregations don’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, but the principle is the same and could be implemented whenever the sacrament is celebrated.
Periodically we hear murmurs from people who feel uncomfortable with public displays of giving. Some Asian churches, for example, take very seriously the admonition that “one hand shouldn’t know what the other is doing,” and some of our members felt like they were showboating their giving. Providing offering envelopes as an option seems to have diminished this concern somewhat.
In my Pentecostal upbringing, one of my favorite things in our services was the offering—which basically combined the passing of the peace and the offering into an extended period of shaking hands, singing, and walking or dancing forward to the offering bowls. I’ve often thought that this “cheerful giver” model has a lot of merit.