Reading Scripture Aloud

This article first appeared in Reformed Liturgy and Music 30:2 (1996)


This essay is directed at lay persons and pastors who need to encourage full participation in the worship ministries of their congregation. It deals with proper techniques of oral interpretation for a biblical passage.



P.O. Box 189 Nashville, TN 37202 Phone (615) 340-7284

[Please note: this document was scanned by computer for the Fourth Fosdick Convocation on Preaching and Worship, The Riverside Church, New York City, 1997. All apologies for any misspelled words, deleted words or formatting errors that may have occurred. Riverside Staff]


How do we plan for worship? How can our ushers and greeters do their jobs more effectively? How can I lead congregational singing? How can I more persuasively read aloud scripture? As a choir member, what should I know? How do we plan for our marriage?

 These questions and many others confront pastors, musicians, and other worship leaders each week. And leaders of worship provide answers to these questions.

 "Your ministry of . . . " series is one approach to helping pastors, musicians, and others develop and enhance their liturgical skills. Each booklet is written for lay persons and clergy in congregations. Each will focus on one particular skill needed for effective worship leadership. Each is written by a person with distinguished worship skills. And each will provide practical advice that will improve the worship in your local church.

Richard F. Ward's Reading Scripture Aloud is directed at lay persons and pastors who need to encourage full participation in the worship ministries of your congregation. You will learn the proper techniques of oral interpretation for a biblical passage. You will be amazed at the satisfaction which comes from sharing the words of God in your services of worship. 

This series is for all those leaders of worship who wish to expand their skills as they offer themselves to God and others in worship. We now offer it to you with the hope that you will use it to offer Jesus Christ to all persons through your ministry of worship.

 Andy Langford, Assistant General Secretary Section on Worship, General Board of Discipleship


Why Me? 

The phone rings. You are busy but you decide to pick it up. You recognize the voice. It's Mr. Jackson, chairperson of the worship committee at your church. Immediately you are on your guard. You know that he is calling to ask you to do something, and you feel you do not have time to give. What might it be? 

"We're getting ready for Advent," he says, "and we are putting together some special worship services. We'd like it if you'd be willing to participate." 

"Well, I'd like to do my part, but my time is limited," you say cautiously. "What did you have in mind?" 

"You have a good voice and you're very good with people. We'd like to know if you're willing to read the lessons in worship." 

You think to yourself, Why me? Isn't the pastor supposed to do that? 1*11, there has been that interest in more lay involvement. I myself have supported that. Besides, reading scripture would be easier than some other things. 

"I guess so; yes, I could to that," you hear yourself say. 

"Great, Lu! We will look forward to it. We know you will do a good job. Thanks." 

You hang up the phone, vaguely disturbed about your commitment. 

This book is for you. Reading scripture does not have to be a chore but can be a satisfying ministry that draws upon your gifts, while helping you to grow in your knowledge of the Bible. Reading Scripture Aloud will acquaint you with a process of preparation and rehearsal. We hope it will enrich your experience of performing scripture.


Why Work at It? 

One day a church member stopped her pastor after worship. The look on her face suggested that she was very excited about something. "I have a wonderful idea I want to share with you! " she exclaimed. "I know how we can cut out 10 minutes in worship every Sunday! " The pastor was naturally curious and anxious to hear her idea, and was quick to tell her so. "We could just do away with reading the scripture! " she said. 

Sadly, this is the way most people feel about the reading of scripture in worship. It is one of the least interesting aspects of the service. Parishioners see it as a "warm-up act" for the sermon and do not take it very seriously. Perhaps there is a good reason for this attitude. Mark Twain was quick to comment on the way scripture was read in the churches of his day:

 The church is always trying to get other people to reform; it might not be a bad idea to reform itself a little, by way of example... the average clergyman could not fire into his congregation with a shotgun and hit a worse reader than himself, unless that weapon scattered shamefully. I am not meaning to be flippant and irreverent, I am only meaning to be truthful. The average clergyman, in all countries and of all denominations, is a very bad reader.'

How different was the attitude among the early Christians toward reading! Scripture reading was central to the worship experience. 

Pliny, a keen observer of life in the first century AD noted the importance of recitation in the early Christian community. In a letter to the Roman Emperor Trajan he wrote: 

But they declared that all their fault or error amounted to was the custom of meeting on certain days before daybreak and singing a chant to Christ as to a god, taking turns, and binding themselves by solemn oath not to commit any crimes.2

The word for "chant" is dicere carmen, which more appropriately describes the act of reciting a set form of words than it does singing. "Taking turns" refers to antiphonal recitations Justin Martyr, a pagan converted to Christianity in the second century, composed the First Apology and sent it to his Emperor, Antonius Pius. His treatise includes a description of the early church's liturgy:

And so on the day called Sunday, there is an assembly in one place of all who live in the cities or in the country; the memorial of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time allows. After the reader has finished, the presiding officer verbally instructs and exhorts us to imitate these shining examples.

This practice of reading in Christian worship had its roots in Judaism. The first record of the use of oral performance of texts is in 2 Kings 22:3. In the eighteenth year of the reign of King Josiah (which is dated 621 BC), the Book of Deuteronomy was discovered in the Temple by Hilkiah, the high priest, and was given to Shaphan, Josiah's secretary. Josiah heard it read aloud, then ordered it to be read aloud to the people:

          Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. The king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant (2 Kings 23:1-3).

In 605 BC Jeremiah dictated and Baruch wrote a scroll which recorded, as the Lord God had instructed Jeremiah, "all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until .today" (Jeremiah 36:2). Baruch's reading of the scroll provoked the wrath of king Jehoiakim, who heard it read:


Jehudi read it to the king and all the officials who stood beside the king. Now the king was sitting in his winter apartment (it was the ninth month), and there was a fire burning in the brazier before him. As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the brazier (Jeremiah 36:21-23).


It is clear from these writings that, in contrast to current attitudes, the oral reading of scripture was vital to building up the community of faith in ancient Israel. For example, one of the first official acts upon commemorating the rebuilding of Jerusalem, following the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile, was a public reading:


When the seventh month came-the people of Israel being settled in their towns-all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday (Nehemiah 7:73b-8:1-3).


These vignettes from the history of the community of faith in Israel help us understand the importance of oral reading of texts in the emerging Christian community. Services of worship were organized for the public reading and oral interpretation of scriptures.

 In the services of worship in Judaism, a-strong connection had always been made between the act of reading the sacred word aloud and the praise of God in the worshiping community.5 Jesus ' for example, chose this important act of oral reading to inaugurate his public ministry:


When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him, and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth (Luke 4:16-22a).


Jesus' reading reflects the established convention of oral interpretation in worship. Public reading was a privilege shared by all men. By the middle of the first century, any male might be called upon to read, whether he be a minor, a beggar, or even a blind man! 6 Members of the community performed the scriptures by chanting them together.

The Apostle Paul certainly expected that his letters should be read aloud in worship, and he wrote them with that understanding. At the end of 1 Thessalonians, Paul instructs "that this letter be read to all of them" (5:27), and in Colossians, Paul says, "when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea" (4:16-17). Oral reading was so important at this time that silent reading was often forbidden! One Jewish rabbi admonished another as follows: "O keen scholar, open your mouth and read (the written tradition), open your mouth and repeat (the oral tradition) so that (your knowledge) may be maintained in you and that which you have learned may live." 7

In I Timothy 4:13, Paul exhorts Timothy to "give attention to the public reading of scripture" until he arrives. One scholar believes that the reading of 1 Thessalonians was an "event which contributed to the formation of the Christian church at Thessalonica.118 First Thessalonians is an example in early church history where an act of public reading "allowed the believers at Thessalonica to come into existence as the church of God."9 Public reading of the apostolic letter was aimed at "building up" the "Body of Christ"! (1 Corinthians 14).

If the readers of texts in both the Jewish and Christian communities took their responsibilities seriously and understood that they were making a significant contribution to worship, we too can recapture the enthusiasm for public reading which the early Christians enjoyed!

Each of us has spent much time learning and practicing how to read in silence. To read the words on this page you have mastered a set of rules designed to teach the art of reading in silence. Now you are interested in learning specific guidelines on how to enhance the meaning and experience of a text for your faith community.

 Your experience as a listener in worship is your best guide to what you should work toward as an effective oral reader. You have already been in situations where you experienced readings that enriched worship for you and many more of those that distracted from worship. The best readers were those who prepared! 

How Do I Prepare?

 I attended a service of Christmas carols and readings in our church once on Christmas Eve. You probably have such a service in your church. Christmas is a time of expectation, wonder, joy, and surprise. I cannot think of Christmas without thinking of music. Musicians through the ages have been able to catch the spirit of the season through their art so that at any music program given at Christmas, the story of our Lord's birth is richly portrayed through a variety of musical texts. Those of you who sing in choirs know how important preparation for such an event is. Soloists and choruses practice for hours so that when they sing the story of Jesus' birth, it is done with dignity and joy! That was the case with this particular service. The singers performed with skill in a humble spirit which served the story. Not so with the readers! It was apparent that those who read had not prepared their text, reading as if they thought their contribution was not as important as the music. As a listener, I had to endure inaudible voices, mispronounced words, solemn faces, and distracting mannerisms in the reading of the story. Needless to say, the meaning of the story was lost on these readers and on their audience! How absurd it would be for someone to be asked to sing a solo for worship and then not practice! Yet that is often how it is with reading scripture. Readers must prepare! 

The first sign of a prepared reading is one that is loud and clear., All of the meaning of a text is lost unless the congregation hears and understands you. Even though worship depends heavily on singing, liturgy, and sermon, most churches are difficult places for readers. Thick carpets, rugs, and seat cushions absorb sound. Some churches have acoustical tile in the ceilings, making it very hard for the reader's voice to carry in the space. Other churches are so large that the sound of the reader's voice is swallowed. In spite of these obstacles, the reader who works for audible, clear speech is remembered for her or his contribution to worship. 

A second sign of a prepared reading is the. reader's familiarity with the text. There is a basic difference between reading' an "recitation." In a recitation, the text is internalized through memorization; in an oral reading, a reader occasionally refers to the text itself. Some texts, such as narratives, lend themselves to memorization. Others, such as Paul's epistles, were intended to be read orally. Even though the reader is not working for complete memorization, one must be so familiar with the text that one does not stumble over words or phrases, lose a place, or otherwise distract from the listener's experience of the text. A well-prepared reading is one that is free of breaks in the listener's concentration on the text as it is read. 

Finally, and most important, the goal for the reader is to "know" the text. Any reading is an interpretation, your interpretation. If you have not adequately prepared yourself, you communicate the message that "this text was not worthy of my attention, so it is not worthy of yours." Or "I did not have the time or interest in preparing this reading; you need not prepare yourself now to hear it." Our knowledge of a text goes far beyond whether or not it is delivered properly through clear speech. Our task as readers is to remember and serve the intentions of those communities of faith who preserved these documents, to nourish the conviction that they are authoritative in our lives today, and most important, to communicate their worth as resources for our lives. We will not reach this goal until we enter into a dialogue with the text and allow that text to penetrate and inform our experience. 

A student was pastoring a church while attending seminary. For his final presentation in class, he had chosen to work on a reading of a section from 2 Corinthians 11, where Paul speaks of his "weakness" as an apostle of Christ. This student had a fine, well-trained voice, and he had researched the circumstances in Paul's life which caused him to write this text. Paul was facing a severe test in his ministry. There were those in Corinth who challenged his credentials as an apostle, mainly because there was no evidence in his life and ministry of power to perform miracles. Consequently, the Corinthian Christians were now turning against him and were starting to ridicule his apostolic ministry. In the face of this terrible situation, Paul found the strength to claim his "weakness" as a sign of his identification with Christ.

On the day this student was scheduled to perform, he received a call from the church and heard some tragic news. One of the parishioners had murdered all of the members of his family, then had turned the gun on himself and had taken his own life. I asked the student pastor if he would like to postpone his reading. He declined my offer, stating that he "needed to read it today." Then, just before he left to offer comfort in that terrible situation, he stood and read these words of another beleaguered apostle:


But whatever anyone dares to boast of-I am speaking as a fool-I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am 1. Are they Israelites? So am 1. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am 1. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman-I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the for@? lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus (blessed be he forever!) knows that I do not lie (2 Corinthians 11:21a-31).


That student "knew" his text, and his audience "knew" his experience. Paul's words became his words because of his experience in ministry. His reading taught the lesson more fully than a teacher ever could. When a reader identifies with what she or he reads, the audience, as well as the reader, is transformed. 

The first step in "getting to know" a text is to establish a dialogue with it. Have a piece of paper handy when you start to prepare a text for oral reading, or better still, keep a journal or notebook for developing your impressions of the texts you select. Another idea is to keep an audio cassette with you. Some persons like to record whatever ideas, questions, or impressions come to mind when they encounter a particular passage. In any case, do not plan to keep inside you all of your thoughts about the scripture selection. Find some way of writing or recording the ways the text affects you as you begin to read and study it, even if at first you do not receive much from it! 

Read the text aloud. At this stage, you are not primarily concerned with "analysis" or "interpretation." You are simply gathering impressions, sensations, questions, or noting possible problems. At the first reading you should write out words that you will have trouble pronouncing or that you do not understand. (If you do not know how to pronounce a word, or if you do not know what it means or refers to, how can you expect your audience to know?) 

One person decided to prepare a reading of the first chapter of Matthew. This chapter contains the entire genealogy of Jesus and can make for some very dull reading. In fact, most readers and some pastors may even avoid it because they think it is so difficult to get through! This person knew that the chapter was full of meaning and featured the rich, evocative sound of names, names which mean very little to a contemporary audience but names of people who were a vital part of Christ's story. In preparation, the reader researched and practiced the pronunciations of the names in the genealogy. Then the person consulted a Bible dictionary and began to find out who these people were and what they meant to the audiences that heard the passage recited. One Sunday during Advent, this reader stood and read the genealogy. Many listeners said it was one of the richest events of the season! He had prepared himself so well b@ practicing the sound of the names and by getting to know their stories, that he was able to create a sense of anticipation in the audience's experience. 

How Do I "Get to Know" My Text? 

During and immediately after your first reading of a text you should write out or record your questions. These questions will be the pathways for your personal study. Take the story of Zacchaeus, for example, in Luke 19:1-10. 

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek out and to save the lost."

This may be a very familiar story to you and to your hearers. One of your tasks will be to make the familiar unfamiliar during your preparation! You may feel that you know the story so well that you overlook some of the contrasts that appear in the story! For instance, consider the fact that Zacchaeus was chief among the tax collectors. Even though tax collectors were hated by those who heard this story first, Zacchaeus' position suggests high standing in the Roman order. Yet the writer depicts him as so "small of stature" that he has to climb up a tree to see Jesus pass by! Writing or recording that kind of impression during your first reading helps to sharpen your eye for interpretation. Look at the story again. Are there other questions that come to mind? Why is it such a scandal for Jesus to be a guest in Zacchaeus' home? Who is Jesus addressing at the end-Zacchaeus or someone else? Why is Jesus so specific about calling Zacchaeus "a son of Abraham"? How is that designation meaningful to today's audience? 

These questions show that you have entered into dialogue with the text. As you begin to work more fully with it, you will begin to find answers to some of your questions, while other questions will surface. This lively process is the sign of a vital relationship which you are having with a story, a letter, a psalm, or whatever form of biblical literature before you. Now that this process has begun, you can begin to go outside the text to find some of your answers and to uncover some new questions. 

Many people will have different ideas about what sources you should use in preparing your reading. I suggest that you have at least one good single-volume commentary on the Bible available for your use. The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, edited by Charles M. Laymon and published by Abingdon Press, is a fine resource for the lay reader. At this writing, an excellent study guide is being prepared by Harper and Row. The Harper Bible Commentary has just been released as a companion piece to the Harper Bible Dictionary and the Harper Bible Atlas. Whatever sources you choose, your intention for your preparation at this stage is to penetrate the "world" or context of the scripture lesson. 

One common mistake we make in oral reading is overemphasizing what the text means to us personally. In our personal involvement with scripture, it is easy to forget that these texts were written by authors who lived in a time, a place, a historical and cultural setting very different from ours. Their writings reflect the values, the conflicts, the questions, problems, and witness operative in their community. While we recognize the universal application of these writings to our situation, much of their meaning is lost on the reader and hearer when we overlook the importance of context. A study of the context of a passage helps uncover vital clues to the set of meanings in a lesson. The most obscure and difficult texts start to come to life in our experience. 

For example, I was once working on a very perplexing passage from the Epistle to the Romans. Some have called this epistle "the Gospel according to Paul" because it is the most complete statement of Paul's system of beliefs in the New Testament. If you have ever tried to work with Romans, you know how taxing it can be to read aloud or even to hear! I had been assigned a passage out of Romans 11:13-33 to read at a conference for improving Jewish Christian relations. Here is a portion of that lesson: 

Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead! If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, "Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in." That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. 

This passage raised many questions for me. I simply did not have enough information to interpret it orally until I investigated the context of this letter. Most scholars believe that Paul was in Corinth when he wrote this letter and hoped to stop at the church in Rome on his way to Spain. When this epistle was written (AD 54-58), Claudius was emperor of Rome. Claudius became angry with the Jews in Rome and began expelling them from the city. This set up a crisis in the Roman church which was made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers. Some Gentile Christians wanted to protect themselves from Claudius, so they began to disassociate themselves from their Jewish brothers and sisters in the faith. The Gentiles started developing "theologies" which cast aspersions on Jews, claiming that the Jews' rejection of Christ allowed Gentiles to be included in the kingdom of God. Therefore, Gentiles had superior standing in the community of faith. 

Paul found these ideas unacceptable. To respond to these aberrant "theologies" Paul uses the image of the olive tree, a very familiar plant in that part of the world and in Palestine, and a common technique of cultivation. The keeper of an olive grove would improve the output of his cultivated olive trees by cutting away unproductive branches and grafting shoots from uncultivated olive trees onto the stump. Now we have enough information to bring this image to life for the hearer. Paul is saying emphatically that the Gentile "branch" that grew in the wild is dependent on the Jewish "stump" for its growth and productivity. It is absurd to think that a wild shoot can grow independently from the tree to which it was grafted. Therefore, it is unthinkable that Gentile Christians can exist apart from their Jewish brothers and sisters.

Once I had gathered this important information from a study of the context of the passage, I was better able to serve the occasion of reading the text in the conference setting. I might also add that I was changed in the process of researching and reading this text aloud. I came to a clearer understanding of the Christians' indebtedness to the Jewish community and am now more committed to improving the dialogue between Jews and Christians. 

What Is My Goal and How Do I Reach It?

 Transformation of both reader and listener is the goal of any reading of scripture. Whenever a reader has a meaningful interaction with a text, the reader is changed! The ongoing witness of Christians throughout history is that this collection of stories, poems, prayers, epistles, and prophecies, which we call "scripture," has the power to transform lives and situations. As you work at bringing these scriptures to "oral" life, note how your mind changes, your heart is sensitized, and your love for God deepens. The devotional values are certainly a part of preparing scripture for oral reading. But how do I work to effect such transformation in the minds and hearts of the hearers? 

One dimension of "silent" reading, which is also apparent in "oral" reading, is the presence of the voice and body of the reader. The effective reader is the man or woman who lends her or his voice and body in serving the text. For most oral readers, this is the highest hurdle to overcome in the process of becoming effective oral interpreters. As long as we can work alone and in silence with a text, we feel fairly safe and comfortable. When we face the prospect of being on our feet, we get anxious. We need to learn how to relax our bodies and voices so we can provide the text with a supple instrument for coming to life through speech and gesture. 

The first rule of successful preparation for oral reading is get on your feet and practice as soon as possible! Find a place in the church or your home where you can lay the text out in front of you and stand comfortably. Begin to be aware of the points of tension in your body. When you stand, do your shoulders begin to tense up? Your neck? Your back? The rehearsal period is the best time to become acquainted with the factors causing "butterflies" in the reading before an audience. First, remember to accept the nervousness as a good sign. Your body is telling you that it is ready to energize your reading. Your task is to learn to channel that creative energy to work for you rather than against you. We are all aware of those readings where we were distracted by twisting hands, shifting weight, or stiff bodies. Practice the following exercises during your rehearsal period When the time comes for you to present your reading, you will have a comforting routine to prepare you to do your best. First, breathe deeply and easily. Breath is a natural stimulant and also relaxes tension. Imagine that the breath is going into those places that are tense. Let go of the tension in those places. Next, begin to roll your head around very slowly. Think about stretching those muscles easily; do not force them. Pretend that you are waking up after a long nap. Stretch as if you are getting up out of bed. Bend over and "spill out" all the tension. Imagine that your vertebrae are on a line in your spine. Then come up very slowly and easily, as if you are floating. Try to picture each vertebra fitting on top of another. 

Once you have "warmed up" your body, work with your other instrument, your voice. Imagine that you have a huge piece of gum in your mouth and "chew" it. Push the "gum" into different parts of your mouth and work it. Form your lips into an "o," then stretch your face to make an "e." Go from the "o" to the "e" and exaggerate the movement. 

Now begin to practice reading the text aloud. Since you have already done your homework, you will begin to get a sense of which words and phrases ought to be emphasized, what the mood or attitude of the author is, and what response the text invites from the hearers. During this period of working with the text, you may get some specific ideas for gestures or movement. For example, the remarkable story in 2 Kings 2:1-22 has some definite clues to the reader for movement. Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, an action which Elisha witnesses. Here is a part of that dramatic story: 

And Elijah went up by whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, "My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" And he saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and rent them into two pieces. And he took up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back to the bank of the Jordan. Then he took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him and he struck the water, saying, "Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?" And when he struck the water, the water parted to the one side and to the other. And Elisha went over. (Paraphrase) 

There are a number of clues to speech and movement in this passage. Elisha looks up to see the "chariots of Israel and its horsemen." How absurd it is for the' reader to have his or her nose buried in the text at that point! He also "cries" out. Is there any doubt how that line should be rendered? Elisha then takes his own clothes and tears them into two pieces, a gesture easily pantomimed by the prepared reader. Finally, Elisha takes the mantle dropped by Elijah and strikes the water with it, crying, "Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?" When the reader imitates this action, the listener "sees" the mighty prophet Elisha in his or her mind's eye! 

Suggesting these vocal and physical actions makes the dramatic images vivid in the reader's presentation of the text. Sometimes there are clues or "stage directions" in the text itself, and we overlook them, largely because we have become more adept at reading silently. Most of the time the spirit, the author's attitude, and the ideas presented in the text all give us clues on how to use our voice and body in our presentation. Without such limits, we must trust our knowledge and understanding of the text and trust the process of practicing it on our feet before presenting it. As you begin to work with the lesson, you will start to establish patterns of vocal and physical emphasis. You will find that your intuition serves you well here. You will sense that particular gestures are appropriate, that certain words and phrases stand out in your practice readings, and that various meanings of the texts will be coming into sharper focus. You will also discover that you will never completely grasp the full complex of meanings or spirit of the texts you read. This ambiguity should not discourage you but rather inspire you to appreciate the richness of the scriptures that continue to be spiritual resources for our lives. 

How Do I Develop a "Concept"? 

Once you have arrived at a "concept" for the reading, you are ready to go before an audience. A "concept" for a reading is your idea of how the text is to be read. It includes your understanding and interpretation of the passage and how that text is to be rendered through physical and vocal patterns of emphasis. A reader arrives at his or her concept in a spirit of humility. No reader ever works to achieve the "right" interpretation of a text. Many readers are guilty of imposing themselves and their interpretations onto texts without considering the context of those passages. The result is a distorted presentation of the ideas presented by the texts. Other readers present more of their own personalities in a reading than they do of the text. If you are a reader who cares more about communicating the message of the lesson, and you trust the process of preparation as outlined here, then you are on your way to becoming an effective public reader! 

Take 2 Corinthians 11:21-31, the passage of scripture mentioned earlier (pp. 10-11), and work at a "concept" for reading it aloud.

First, type this passage on a separate sheet of paper.

Second, read this text aloud once or twice. 

Third, begin writing out (or recording) your questions about this text. One set of questions immediately surfaces: Of whom is Paul talking? Who are the "Hebrews," "Israelites," "servants of Abraham," and "servants of Christ" in the passage? Even though the focus of this passage is on the things Paul is saying about himself, we certainly will need to know to whom he is comparing himself. Another important question emerges: Why does Paul use the terms fool and madman to describe himself? These words are particularly important to the reader because they suggest Paul's emotional state as he reviews his situation. Is Paul presenting a caricature of himself to the Corinthians? Why is he prompted to exaggerate his self-presentation? Is he deranged and incoherent? There are some definite clues here for the reader's delivery of the text. 

Fourth, if you look carefully, you will see some clues to how this text should sound when read aloud. Paul liberally uses the term boast to describe this letter. You need to find out the meaning of that term in the context of the situation. There are many other questions we could ask of this text, but we have enough direction for developing our concept.

Fifth, we want to consult our sources. The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary gives an excellent profile of the city of Corinth in Paul’s day. We get a picture of Corinth as a thriving commercial center, enjoying renewed prosperity after being destroyed in 146 BC. Because it was so important to the commerce of the ancient world, many different kinds of people settled there and found their way into the church Paul had established. A cursory reading of 1 Corinthians reveals that life in the church was often turbulent, to say the least! There is also the indication that there were many different factions in the church and that these factions competed for apostolic authority. Corinth was at a crossroads in the ancient world, where many missionaries of different persuasions were eager to establish a following. 

One interesting feature of the cultural life of Corinth often goes unnoted. Corinth was near one of the most important centers for competition among oral performers or artists in the ancient world. The Isthmian games were held barely ten miles from the city and attracted not only athletes but oral poets, rhetors, and singers anxious to build reputations for themselves. Members of Paul's church were certainly familiar with and probably appreciative of the speech arts. Paul admits in 2 Corinthians 11:6 that he is "unskilled in speaking" and in 10:10 that it is said of him "his speech is of no account." Whoever Paul's opponents were, they certainly exploited his "weakness" in the area of public speaking. We have already seen how important reading was in the early church; in the Corinthian church there was an even greater appetite for skillful renditions of texts. According to the Corinthians, Paul was woefully inadequate as a speaker. Yet as this passage shows, Paul was able to use the form of the letter to express the deep hurt and outrage he was feeling at the time when 2 Corinthians was written. 

Sixth, the level of Paul's emotional involvement with this text is a good place to begin "feeling into" this passage. Can you remember a time when someone you loved and respected betrayed you? When someone accused you of being inadequate? When you found it necessary to defend yourself by pointing to all that you had done as a friend? Church worker? Employee? By reflecting on those painful episodes, you will begin to catch a bit of what Paul was feeling as he was writing this letter. In spite of being stung by the charges leveled against him, Paul manages to "boast." He feels "foolish" (as one is likely to feel when defending oneself) but also firmly believes in the legitimacy of his call to the apostolic ministry. As you begin to practice reading this letter, note the weaving between "foolishness" and strength of conviction and character that emerges from the text. 

The wide range of emotion in this selected passage will affect each reader's voice and body differently as he or she rehearses. You may find yourself wanting to lash out at Paul's opponents in one reading; at another reading you will feel the brokenness and hurt Paul is experiencing at this writing. This kind of engagement with the text as it is rehearsed will suggest vocal variation and bodily movement. Learn to be selective in your choices, but do not be afraid to improvise in your preparation. 

Now you are ready to give vocal and physical expression to Paul's "voice" in 2 Corinthians 11:21-31. You have learned something about Paul's situation and realize what is at stake for Paul at this point. You have identified with his feelings and have begun to show those attitudes through the language of gesture and movement as well as the rendering of the powerful words. From here you will learn on your own how to engage a text in dialogue, how to give it form and expression through your body and voice, and how to introduce your audience to a lively experience of a sacred writing. All@ art-and the art of oral reading is no exception-requires discipline and commitment. However, there is nothing quite like having a fellow church member smile at the end of your reading and say, "I've never heard it quite like that before! " There is no better way to do honor to the scriptures that we all hold sacred.




1. Mark Twain, Tramp Abroad, Chapter 7, Vol. 2, p. 92.

2. Herbert A. Musurillo, The Fathers of the Primitive Church (New York: The New American Library, 1966), 105.

3. lbid., 106.

4. Ibid., 104.

5. George W. Buchanan, "Worship, Feasts, and Ceremonies in the Early Jewish-Christian Church." New Testament Studies 26 (1980): 290-91.

6. Roger Beckwith, "The Daily and Weekly Worship of the Primitive Church in Relation to Its Jewish Antecedents; part I." Evangelical Quarterly 56 (1984): 80.

7. Quoted in Thomas Boomershine, Jr., Biblical Storytelling. Unpublished manuscript, 1985, 40 (forthcoming from Abingdon Press).

8. Raymond F. Collins, "I Thessalonians and the Liturgy of the Early Church." Biblical Theology Bulletin 10 (1980): 64.

9. Ibid., 64.



How to Organize a Lay Reading

Ministry in Your Church


An effective, ongoing lay reading ministry can grow out of existing programs at your church. The adult and/or youth choirs, small groups, Bible study groups, worship committees, or Sunday school classes are just a few "seedbeds" for this type of ministry. How do you take that first risky step into a new activity? 

We can learn a lot from the story of Gideon (Judges 6-7). Gideon defied conventional wisdom in organizing his plan. Most people would think that the best way to succeed is to involve as many people as possible in a project-not Gideon. Under the leadership of God's Spirit, Gideon started with a very small band of followers on whom he know he could count. Those who signed on with Gideon knew what was expected of them and dedicated themselves to it.

If you want to organize a lay reading ministry, remember Gideon, who started with a handful of people. Can you think of some in your choir, Bible study group, or Sunday school class who would be interested in this idea that you have? Once you have identified them, you are ready to start. 

Step One 

Plan a time when you can all come together and discuss your overall objectives for a lay reading ministry. How many times would you like to perform a longer program for the church in the coming year? How many times will you meet to prepare? I suggest that for every major performance date, you have at least two meetings. During the first meeting, study the issues related to the texts so that you understand them. The second meeting should include a rehearsal period where you critique each others' readings and make suggestions for improvements. Mark all of these dates on the church calendar. Notify the pastor and church musicians of your commitment to present the texts at those times. Look at the lectionary for those dates and determine what texts are appropriate for the occasion and decide who will be responsible for each text. 

If your congregation will permit lay readers during the Sunday worship services, plan to meet each quarter. Work with the worship committee and the pastor to establish a schedule for lay readers who use the lectionary. Post that schedule in any weekly or monthly mailings which go to the church membership. Identify the lay reader(s) in your Sunday bulletin. Though the pastor may often read the scripture in your congregation, the reading of scripture by lay persons, that is, lay ministers, can reap great rewards by developing leadership and encouraging full participation in the presence of God. 

Step Two

 At training sessions, make a covenant with each lay reader of the group to read over the assigned or chosen text, become aware of the issues, dialogue with it in a journal or notebook, then become prepared to "teach" that text to other members of the group. Lead a discussion on the text and see if you can arrive at a concept for presenting it. Is this text best presented as a solo reading? Or is there a way to include other readers? Take the story of the temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). What might be gained if the Tempter is given a voice? Indeed, does the Tempter speak with one voice? Or three? It depends on your interpretation. A solo reading can leave one impression; an ensemble reading can leave another. Once you have made these choices you are ready to put the text on its feet. 

Step Three

 Arrange a time when you can practice as a group. Before coming to a practice meeting, rehearse your text two or three times. Be prepared to ask questions and get help from the group with your reading. They will be able to tell you what is or is not clear to them, what words and phrases need work, and whether your concept is comprehensible to an audience. This is the kind of feedback you will need before presenting your text. 

Now you are ready. You have prepared yourself and each other for a remarkable ministry of the Word. You will find that other members of the congregation will come up to you and tell you how "different" your reading was from any they have heard. Some will want to know how to become involved in this ministry. All of a sudden, you are the authority!


There are many ways to adjust the basic steps outlined here. I suggest that you allow some time to pass between meetings. You may, however, discover that you can accomplish your objectives by holding workshops on Saturdays or by preparing a unit on oral reading as an adult Sunday school class, which can also recruit lay readers. However you decide to do it, you will soon learn how you, your group, your church, and your public life in the community can benefit from the lay reading ministry.