Opinion—Reading Scripture Publicly: A Lost Art?
By Jeff Frymire
Editor’s note—Views expressed in the following op-ed do not necessarily reflect those of Church of God Ministries, Inc., or its affiliates. We publish op-ed features to provoke thought, stimulate healthy discussion, and inspire us to be with Jesus, become like Jesus, and do what Jesus did. We’ve asked to hear from a diverse range of voices across the Church of God movement. This op-ed features one of these voices.
Daniel Warner and Andrew Byers collaborated to produce one of our great heritage hymns, “By Your Blessed Word Obeying” (Worship the Lord hymnal, #348). The second verse is particularly well penned:
Ev’ry precept You have spoken
is essential to our life;
All Your mandates are love’s token,
to oppose them is but strife.
Dear Redeemer, we would hallow
all Your Word, so firm and true,
in Your footsteps meekly follow;
Your commands we love to do.
Warner’s poem expresses the long-held Church of God value that Scripture holds a central place in our lives, doctrine, and worship. The problem today is that you would not know that by attending a typical Church of God worship service. Scripture is rarely read in our services.
Scripture reading has become a lost art, often reduced to a single reading done by the preacher just prior to delivering the sermon. Is that enough? Does it say Scripture is “essential to our life?” Have we lost Warner’s idea to “hallow all [God’s] Word,” replacing it with a hollow worship experience where the Word is never featured? I would challenge you to time the elements of your worship service. Do you spend more time in announcements than in the Word? More time exhorting the congregation for an offering than allowing for the honoring, venerating, and consideration of the Word of God? Do churches spend more time greeting one other than being instructed by the Holy Spirit through the reading of Scripture? Have we gotten to the point where the Word of God has fallen into such disuse that, like Josiah of old, it has to be freed from behind a wall and set before the people (2 Kings 22)?
There appear to be at least two major reasons for this lack of Scriptural usage in our worship. First, we have forgotten how to read out loud. With the explosion of the arts (television, movies, Netflix) we appear to have ceded the idea of performance to Hollywood. This is truly unfortunate. After all, the spoken word is at the very heart of Creation; of the Gospel of John’s opening expression of who Jesus is. If Jesus is the spoken Word, the expressed Word, the creative Word, then the reading of Scripture releases the presence of Jesus into the midst of the worshipping congregation. While Jesus is always present in our worship (he is always present, period), when the Word is spoken aloud the active, dynamic presence of Jesus Christ is unleashed. We should be reading Scripture aloud because so others can experience the presence of Jesus through the Word.
We should understand that there is an art to reading Scripture publicly. Every reading of a biblical text is an interpretation of that text. Unfortunately, when Scripture is read in our worship services today it is most often read without expression, without meaning, and even without understanding. The way we read Scripture communicates that we just want to get through this long, boring reading and get to the important things the preacher will preach. This devalues the importance and power of the Word. Done this way, Scripture is read quickly, often monotone, lacking vocal and interpretive expression. This hurts the worship of the church. If we require the preacher to spend hours learning how to interpret a text, should we not also give the Scripture reader time and freedom to learn the text before reading it? The goal of Scripture reading is to give sense to sound; meaning to the reading; understanding to the vocal presentation. In worship, we expect these things of a soloist or worship leader. Why not expect it of those who read the Word of God? If how we read Scripture were more dynamic maybe the listener would become more interested in reading it on days other than Sunday morning!
The second problem is even more egregious to someone who, like me, teaches preaching. Too often our sermons are “Scripture light/application heavy.” Most preaching today is so heavily weighted on application that a deep dive into the text is likely to be sacrificed for the application process. In too many congregations listeners leave the church knowing little to nothing more about the Word of God than they did upon arrival. They are encouraged to remember the three points (all alliterative for easy recall) but we have imparted precious little insight about the biblical verses from which the alliteration sprang. If it is true that we are living in a biblically illiterate age (and all research points to this being true) then preachers in the Church of God have to confess that our preaching is significantly responsible for this. When we preach, we must honor the Word of God by reading it aloud and preaching it with depth and insight.
The solution for this “un-hallowness” of Scripture is to find ways to fall in love with the Word all over again. Why not form small groups of folks in your church to be Scripture readers? I believe there are people in every congregation that are called to the public reading of Scripture but have never been trained in how to do that. Pastors, train them how to do basic exegesis so readers can study the text and understand what they are trying to communicate.
Give these readers the freedom to be expressive in how they read; give them permission to incorporate paraphrases such as The Voice and The Message into their reading of texts; introduce them to internet sites (biblegateway.org; blueletterbible.com) so they can see the various translations and paraphrases available and learn the basics of how to interpret a text. Most of all, let us put an end to the practice of asking someone five minutes before the service, “Can you read the Scripture passage today?” Reading a text requires study, practice and divine insight. God is honored when we honor his Word with our minds and effective expression.
If you want more resources on this, just Google the public reading of Scripture or search Amazon for such materials. Training laypeople to read the Scriptures is a disciple making, spiritual formation experience that will help your congregation grow and “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). And, by all means, preachers, preach the Word! We don’t need more Dr. Phil’s in the pulpit. We need preachers who are “rightly dividing the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
Questions or comments? Rev. Dr. Jeff Frymire can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Frymire is a long time Church of God pastor who has led congregations in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Florida, and California. He is a graduate of Anderson University and the AU School of Theology, and has a PhD from Fuller Seminary in preaching. He currently serves as the associate professor of preaching and dean of the chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and is a member at-large for the leadership board of the National Association of the Church of God.