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Unlocking the Living Word

Tips for Reading Scripture in Worship

Snow falls gently outside the window. Inside, the fireplace spreads its mellow warmth through the family room. Firelight plays on the walls and ceiling as the children snuggle around you on the couch. There are cookies and milk, your favorite tattered Bible, and expectant eyes and ears. It’s time to read the Christmas story from Luke 2 again. What a beautiful family tradition!

The next morning you’re off to the Christmas service at church, where it’s likely you’ll hear the same passage read aloud. But will the reading of Scripture on this cold Sunday morning at church be as engaging and meaningful to the congregation as the at-home reading of the Christmas story is to our children?

The answer: It can be!

It’s true that we’ve all heard Scripture mumbled by well-meaning lay readers as if it were a dry ancient relic, a school lecture, or a race that can’t end soon enough.

But reading Scripture is a wonderful way for the congregation to participate in leading worship. Just as we don’t expect a pastor to preach without significant training and preparation, though, we shouldn’t expect our readers to unlock the living Word of Scripture without any training.

That’s our task. So how can worship planners and leaders help train our readers (or ourselves) in creative Scripture reading?

Start with the Text

Our process starts with the text. Texts are easy to find: if you pick up a lectionary or study Bible and look under “Christmas,” you’ll find a long list of appropriate texts. Sometimes the text will be assigned you, but if given a choice find the one that tells a “story” or is full of images: these are fodder for engaging readings.

Having found the text, we approach the creative task of reading Scripture aloud in three steps: analyzing the text, preparing your text for reading, and finding creative artifacts for the text.

Step 1: Analyze the Text

Find a comfortable place to contemplate your text. Begin with a prayer, clear your mind, and read—really read—as one expecting to hear from God’s Spirit.

Ask yourself some questions. What does the Scripture make you “feel”; what tone is coming through? What does it “say”; what is the message? Can you summarize the text in a few sentences, adding tone and message to create meaning? Write this information down so that you will not forget it! Sometimes you will find that as you “analyze the text” the true meaning can be lost to the exercise; this written note reminds you of your original focus.

Next, begin annotating the text. Underline the nouns. Double-underline the adjectives and draw an arrow to the nouns they modify. If you create a list of all the nouns, pronouns, and adjectives, you will have listed all the places, persons, and things the text describes. If this were a drama, this list identifies the characters, sets (places) and props (objects) of the drama.

Now read the text again, this time not as names on the page but as fully costumed people, bustling cities, and exotic objects of wealth and wonder. Image the text, like a painting or sculpture.

Then circle the verbs and double-circle the adverbs. This list gives us the action of our characters! Then re-read the text with the characters doing these actions: see the text as if it were a movie.

If you are ready and eager to go further into the text, you will need to find the concepts. These are usually the clauses and phrases of the text. For example, in Psalm 23 the concepts include “the valley of the shadow of death,” “the Lord’s table,” “the house of the Lord,” and “the days of my life.” These phrases contain ideas that are packed with meanings you need to unlock. The best way to unlock the concepts is to do some good old-fashioned exegesis: prayer, word studies, background research, commentaries, or check out online helps like www.textweek.org. Unlocking the concepts will make the imaging of Scripture rich and full, and will give your reading depth and focus.

We need focus when we read the text to the congregation. We have to help listeners open their imaginations to the meanings we have uncovered so they can “see” what the Word says. We do this by giving vocal interpretation and emphasis to the text as we read it out loud.

Step 2: Prepare for the Reading

You’ve already marked the text for reading. It has cues like periods (full stops), commas (brief pauses), question marks (raised pitch), colons and semicolons (connecting thoughts or side thoughts), and more. Be sure to read what is already indicated in the punctuation and spacing. Then create a system for “marking” your own textual interpretation. This will help you remember and practice your preferred manner of reading. The words you choose to emphasize will determine how the audience understands your text.

Reverend Jana Childers uses the phrase I never said she stole my purse to illustrate the importance of emphasis. She points out that if you emphasize the I, you might be suggesting that someone else accused her; if you emphasize she, you might be suggesting that someone else stole the purse. If you emphasize purse, you’re suggesting that the “she” in question may have stolen something other than your purse. This example shows how a simple change in emphasis changes the meaning of a text!

So find out which is the focus word in the text. You can recognize the focus in a number of ways: by asking yourself what is new in a repeated phrase; what is the new concept, object, or idea in the sentence; what word in the sentence makes it “important” or “move forward”; what words emphasize the overall meaning (your theme and tone!). Emphasizing the wrong words may send your listener onto “bunny trails.”

Let’s look at Luke 2 for examples.

Luke 2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.

In this passage, we’d want to emphasize the action of the “decree” and the character of “Emperor Augustus” and the concept “all the world,” which brings the emperor’s action to everyone—and that action is to be “registered.” Annotate these words, and try volume increase (underline) for the drastic “decree,” tonal change (squiggly line) for the ever-so-important Emperor Augustus, elongate (underlining apposing arrows) the vastness of “all the world,” and a tonal drop for the fact of being “registered.”

Let’s try another example:

Luke 2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In this sentence we would emphasize “birth,” “wrapped,” and “laid” since they are the new actions; “son” as the new character (we were introduced to “she” earlier). Change your tone on “bands of cloth” and “in a manger” as the concept phrases, which would be unique thoughts for us today. The words following “because” should be read as an “aside”(an explanation), which can be done by dropping the tone as your read with a slight emphasis on “inn” (which will help succinctly end the sentence).

The whole of the text can be marked up in such a manner, which allows you the possibility of repeating the same interpretation of the text.

Step 3: Find Creative Artifacts

By the time you finish analyzing and marking your text, you will be very familiar with it. Now take time to read and practice your interpretation, and try to re-imagine the text. See the characters and actions as a movie in your mind, unlock the life in the Scripture: hear, see, and taste it! Now comes the final question: Is there an artifact (fine art, music, drama, mime, dance, perfume, incense, candles, or lights) that might help bring this Scripture passage to life?

If so, consider using one of the following while the Scripture is read: a single painting; a slide show; a movie clip, drama, mime, or dance; a statue (living or carved). We’ve all seen examples of mangers, reenactments of the shepherds and angels, paintings of the wise men. Which might help engage listeners in the Scripture text in new and fresh ways? Which might emphasize your interpretation? Be creative and create a space where the congregation feels at home.

Excerpts

Marking up Scripture passages

Here’s a legend for marking up a Scripture passage (though you may want to create your own system):

  • Underline = increase of volume
  • Descending or ascending arrow = dropping or rising tone
  • Underlining apposing arrows = elongated word or phrase
  • Squiggly underline = change of tone (such as one affected for a character or concept)
  • Arrow up or down = single word increase or decrease of tone

More Resources

  • Jana Childers, Performing the Word: Preaching as Theatre, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.
  • Clayton J. Schmit, Public Reading of Scripture:

    A Handbook, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.
  • Charles L. Bartow, Effective Speech Communication in Leading Worship, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988.