The early church followed the Jewish synagogue’s regular reading of Scriptures on their weekly assemblies. Their worship services were in two main parts: The Service of the Word and the Service of the Supper. The medieval church favored the pomp and pageantry of the popish Mass over the simplicity of these two parts. But the 16th century Protestant Reformation restored much of what was lost from the early church, especially the emphasis on the reading and preaching of the Word of God.
The public reading and preaching of Scripture is a means of grace, because it is through the preaching of the gospel that the Spirit regenerates the hearts of people, enabling them to willingly repent and believe in Christ. As Paul says, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17; see Gal 3:2, 5). And he exhorts Timothy, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1Tim 4:13).
As such, we are to honor this means of God’s grace through diligent preparation and proclamation. So the Westminster divines couldn’t emphasize enough that all of God’s people are to prepare for hearing the Word of God on the Lord’s Day, “we are to prepare our hearts, and with such foresight, diligence, and moderation, to dispose and seasonably dispatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day” (Larger Catechism 117).
Who are to read the Scriptures during the public worship of God on the Lord’s Day? The pattern from the Old to the New Testament shows that only men appointed and ordained by God are to lead the people in worship: these are his anointed priests and prophets. Today, we have pastors, elders and occasionally, even deacons.
The Scripture is not to be taken or read or preached lightly. Since it is holy, it must be read with reverence and solemnity so that the hearers will regard it with respect, honor and gravity as well.
But how are we to publicly read the Scripture during a worship service, with the goal of eliciting not only reverence, but also understanding and positive spiritual response from the congregation? Many pastors, even those who are seminary-trained, are ill-equipped for this task. Much less equipped are elders and deacons who may at times be called to this duty.
Since I myself sometimes don’t read the Scripture as I should, I’ve gathered several tips on how to prepare, starting at home, then before the service, and finally, how to read during the service. These will not make you a Max McLean, but will help you be a better public reader of Scripture.
1. Read prayerfully the texts assigned to you. Since the Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture, pray that he will illumine your heart and mind.
2. Understand the genre, tone, purpose and audience of the text. Even its redemptive-historical context, if you know it, will be very helpful. A proper reading of the text involves understanding what the passage is all about. If you don’t understand the text, ask your pastor who assigned you the text.
3. Practice reading the text, preferably reading it aloud. Make sure that you know how to pronounce every word. If you have a hard time pronouncing “Syntyche” (Php 4:2), go to ESVBible.org to listen to a Max McLean recording of the text. Practice reading enough times until you are confident of your reading.
4. Fumbling and stumbling through the reading will be an easy sign to the congregation that you did not prepare, and did not regard the text worthy of attention.
5. Practicing before a mirror will help you see your posture, gestures, facial expression, and mannerisms.
Before the Service at Church
6. Dress appropriately, preferably your Sunday best. This is as it should be for all who attend the worship service. Dressing casually is a dishonor to the Most Holy and Most Glorious God of the universe.Wearing a shirt or a tie with a slogan, symbol, or cartoon, for example, will distract the congregation.
7. Make sure the passage has been bookmarked in your Bible, so the audience is not left waiting awkwardly while you flip the pages of your Bible back and forth. Read it through again one more time before the service so the reading stays fresh on your mind.
8. The pastor (or the church secretary) is not perfect. Make sure that the assigned text is correct a day before the service. He might have made a typo or changed his mind.
During the Service
9. At the appointed part of the service, walk to the front at a normal pace, face the church behind the pulpit, and open your Bible to the passage. Introduce the reading with these words: “This is what Holy Scripture says …” or “The Word of the Lord from …”
10. Read the Bible in your hand instead of reading it resting on the pulpit. Hold it high enough that you can look over it to make eye contact often with the congregation.
11. Stand straight, and do not slouch. A dignified stance is required of those who read the Holy Scripture.
12. If the readings are shown on the bulletin, there should be no need to wait for everyone to get to the text in their own Bibles.
13. Reading with or without emotion depends on the text. Hannah’s pleading to God with tears is not to be read like the genealogies in Genesis. Emphasis is done by regulating volume, pitch or tone. Change of pace and pauses are helpful in long readings. But overly-dramatic readings or gestures will also be inappropriate.
14. Refrain from editorializing or humor. We had a pastor who said after he read Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus, “Nick at Night!” with the resulting laughter in the congregation. This is disrespecting God’s holy Word. And remember, you’re the reader, not the preacher. The congregation will not appreciate two sermons in one worship service.
15. Be conscious that your voice does not trail off during the reading, especially when sentences are long. Keep the volume and clarity even throughout the reading, except when emphasizing (or de-emphasizing) portions of the reading.
16. Enunciate words clearly—and loudly—even with exaggeration.
17. At the end of the passage, pause for a moment, and then conclude the reading with these words: “Thus far the reading of God’s Holy Word,” or “May God bless the reading of his Holy Word.” Head back to your seat at your normal walking pace.
18. Remember, you are acting as the herald announcing the arrival of the preacher of God’s Word. Imagine yourself as John the Baptist crying, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23).
“The Public Reading of Scripture” by Tim Challies
“Helps for Reading Scripture in Worship” by Cardiphonia.org