Are we devoted to the public reading of Scripture? Part 4: ‘Devotion’ in readers and the church

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. (1 Tim 4:13)

This is the fourth post in Scott’s series on the public reading of Scripture. You may want to read the first part, the second part or the third part of this series.

In this fourth post, we turn to think about the implications of devotion to the public reading of Scripture for readers and congregations.

I suspect that some of us have feelings of reluctance about increasing our public Bible reading because we’ve sat through some truly awful attempts at reading the Bible. Attempts that confuse the meaning of the passage rather than make it clear. Attempts that call for the ‘patient endurance of the saints’! And most of us have probably been perpetrators of such readings at some point in the past.

I’m not writing this as a mockery of people who simply want to serve God and his people—devotion is an issue of the heart for the reader, not skill. But the fact remains that, in many of our churches, reading the Bible is the thing we get people to do simply to get them involved. Admirable in one sense, but in another it is predicated on a fundamental flaw: that just because I know how to read (literacy) means I know how to read audibly. Public Bible reading is a gift—and not everyone has it. How much of our reluctance to sit under the word is simply that we’ve created a rod for our own backs; we are so used to poor public reading that the idea of reading more than a few verses really does feel like misery?

Speaking corporately, let’s show our devotion to the public reading of the Bible by having gifted reading of the Bible, where we aren’t fighting through the reader to hear the Bible, but where the Bible reader fades from view as they bring us into the text. That means training our readers, making reading an invitation-only service, and having the guts to ask people to stop (or step back ourselves) if the person is not a good reader. Being devoted individually to the public reading of Scripture doesn’t mean I have to do it. Most often, it should mean we seek out those who can do it well (i.e., are gifted at it). [As an aside, how much of our distaste for written liturgy stems simply from the inability of the minister to read it well?]

A entire series could be written on this alone. But let me suggest the following qualities for our Bible readers:

  • They understand and can naturally convey in tone that public reading of the Bible is not reading out loud in front of people, but speaking the text to people.
  • They are therefore comfortable with speaking to groups of people.
  • They understand that good public reading is a result of good exegesis; they understand the passage—key points, emphases, tone—and are able to speak that without sounding forced or contrived.
  • They are therefore gifted with, and devote themselves to, exegesis of the Bible before they read.

With a good Bible reader we forget the amount of verses as we are immersed in the text and the world of the text is opened to us. A good Bible reading ‘interprets itself’, revealing clarity rather than obscurity.

For the rest of us in the congregation, let’s show our devotion to the public reading of Scripture by identifying good readers in our Bible study groups and letting the elders know. Let’s ask our elders to have more of the Bible at church (what minister of the Word could legitimately say no to that?), let’s support our elders and thank them as they move God’s word from being closed up in a book in front of us to being spoken often for all to hear. Let’s be glad to have come to the waters to drink (Isaiah 55) at the end of a ‘long’ reading, rather than shuffle our feet.

Let’s keep discussing this, but I thought you might like some Austen. This is from Mansfield Park, which was written during her evangelical phase:

The subject of reading aloud was further discussed … the too common neglect of the qualification, the total inattention to it, in the ordinary school-system for boys, the consequently natural—yet in some instances almost unnatural degree of ignorance and uncouthness of men, of sensible and well-informed men, when suddenly called to the necessity of reading aloud … The want of management of the voice, of proper modulation and emphasis, of foresight and judgement, all proceeding from the first cause, want of early attention and habit …

“Even in my profession [ordained evangelical Anglican ministry]” said Edmund with a smile—“how little the art of reading has been studied! How little a clear manner, and good delivery, have been attended to! … but among those who were ordained twenty, thirty, forty years ago, the larger number, to judge by their performance, must have thought reading was reading, and preaching was preaching. It is different now. The subject is more justly considered. It is felt that distinctness and energy may have weight in recommending the most solid truths [while reading].”

10 thoughts on “Are we devoted to the public reading of Scripture? Part 4: ‘Devotion’ in readers and the church

  1. Knock me down with a feather!  A man quoting Jane Austen!

    The choice of readers is a difficult question, and I suspect that un-asking people who are already reading would be very difficult.  Maybe a team of good Bible readers to coach the fledgling or poorer readers would improve, rather than un-asking?

    I have also seen a minister running regular training sessions, and giving notes to readers before the service to ensure they prepare – and again this underlines that this is an incredibly important duty in the service, for it is here that we speak out the very words of God.

  2. Well, if we have poor readers on the roster we have an opportunity to develop patience!  And everyone who reads or speaks up front needs to be TAUGHT to use a microphone.
    Speaking as a reader, it’s convenient to know roughly what tack the preacher is taking with the passage so as to know where to concentrate.  Do any preachers here do this regularly?
    One question, though: how to deal with funny passages.  I read the transfiguration passage from Luke at church and yes, it is funny that Peter is a bit hysterical (and I heard some giggles).  And it’s funny when Paul talked on… and on… and Eutychus fell out the window (well, it wasn’t funny for Eutychus until afterwards).  So ought I to read in an engaging way that makes people laugh?  Or am I at risk of offending someone?

  3. That’s a great observation Ellen, what do we do with humorous sections or pronunciation that sounds humorous?

    There is a fine line between irreverence and humour. We rightly don’t want to be blasphemous but also don’t want to be falsely and pompously reverent when God intends humour.  What to do?

  4. Hi Jennie,

    smile Yes, and I’ve been re-reading Austen since I originally wrote this too, which has given all kinds of entertainment … but, having read Mansfield Park again, there are all kinds of other great things in there too.

    One of these was Austen’s preference for the continuation of daily morning and evening prayer, which I’d missed when I last read it years ago.

    So, bringing us back to the second post, in terms of English heritage, we have something either established or continued by the English reformers in Cranmer in the sixteenth century, preserved in the 1662 prayerbook, and still in practice in the early 1800’s.

    Moving to Australia out of this, and moving to the background to the current Scripture/Ethics debate, is that the original provision for NSW scripture in schools (in the 1880’s from memory) was a *daily* lesson from the Bible, not 30mins once a week.

    Just trying to get a feel for how much we really are the anomally.

  5. Thanks for the comments on humour Ellen (and for the microphone comments! Yes, people really do need teaching. Sound desk people too).

    The humour is to flow out of the passage, and there are some genuinely funny things in the Bible, especially in narrative, that is part of the author’s intention.

    It’s actually part of the technique of Judges for instance. As Judges 2 makes clear, the circle of sin/judgement/grace is actually an ever-increasing spiral into darkness, and there are all kinds of literary techniques the narrator employs to emphasise that. One of them is humour: you start the book chuckling that this extraordinarily fat man is called Eglon (‘skinny calf’). But the humour declines such that, by the shift in tone in chs 17-21, we feel sick at the lengthy descriptions of wickedness.

    The humour can be imported, which isn’t helpful, but sometimes it genuinely flows (ie, fruit of exegesis), and it’s good for us to notice it in how we read. And when people laugh – which I and I know a few others have experienced too – then I take it as encouragement that we’ve managed to fade from view as readeres and let the congregation be immersed in the text.

    And not just for humour. It’s like when people read the sarcastic bits in Paul’s letters as serious statements – that the Corinthians are so wise and Paul so foolish, etc. Or, when people use a ‘religious voice’ to read the Bible: such that Jesus’ anger in the temple is reduced to unaffected, distant, commentary on the situation.

  6. Thanks for the comments too about the trickiness of asking people to step down.

    Yes, it can undoubtedly be a tricky situation to ask someone to step down. I have so much to say on this, but 4000 words later and Em wisely telling me to leave it for another day (I got more than a little off topic but method in ministry etc!), means I’ll keep it fairly brief.

    Whatever we do, we need to be training people to read the Bible, and using such training to identify and grow people who are gifted to read the Bible.

    And ideally (I wished to do this, and now acutely wish that I had done this), the preacher will let the reader know what they understand the passage to be about (for the sermon reading anyway. The readers still need to be good exegetes themselves – especially for the independent readings).

    But at some point we need to be willing to call a spade a spade and let someone know that this is not the best way they can serve the body (and God). How we do that is very important, of course, and needs to be done pastorally/teachingly.

  7. I can’t help myself. I’ll jot down a few thoughts. I won’t inflict the whole essay, however smile

    First, I’d own the responsibility, as a shepherd of the sheep. Public change (repentance / growth) is difficult all the more for individuals because it is public. Since I was responsible for the parcelling out of PRS to anyone who wanted, or to give everyone a go, I need to wear the possible hurt it may cause some to be asked to step down, and any perceived public ‘shame’ in the change. I take the ‘shame’ such that, when Heike notices Fredestair is no longer on the roster, she doesn’t think less of him (and how she could I’m not sure), but that Fredestair also knows no one thinks less of him.

    Second, as an exercise in public change, I’d make it a corporate activity, rather than only an individual one. What do I mean? I’d (this is just thinking quickly out loud) perhaps suggest that *all* the readers be taken off the reading roster for a time, and a small handful of people (even just the minister if need be) who are very clearly gifted at reading take on the responsibility for a while. Then run a training course on reading that invites anyone who would like to learn to come (but with no expectation that they’ll go onto the roster: at the very least it’ll improve 1-1 reading, private and family reading, Bible study group reading).

    [Just while on that, if exegetical ability is one key to being a good reader, it is a little ironic that our ministers tend never to be on the roster for Bible reading. Not all ministers are good readers, but they do tend to be more capable because of their training and other gifts]

    Third, I need to teach my congregation more generally to be responsible for how they choose to respond to critique.

    We live in a world where it is almost by definition offensive and wrong to ask someone to change. If they are offended by the critique, it is the critiquer’s fault, never theirs. How many times have we tried to excuse a true observation about ourselves ‘because it’s not what they said, but how they said it’? The how doesn’t preclude the what. But in our world the ‘how’ is by definition always wrong, from the simple fact that it exists at all.

    I need to make sure, however, that I treat people as responsible people: they are responsible for how they choose to respond to words spoken in love.

    Fourth, having said that, I need as far as it is possible for me to make sure that I am teaching and pastoring them on this issue to provide them with the best means for being able to choose to respond well. The teaching happens at all levels (publicly and 1-1 etc), but we must get alongside people too, to let them talk about their fears and hopes and how they react to the change.

    Fifth, more generally, then, we need to free people from defining their identity in what they do. Their participation in church is not because of ‘their ministry’, but because of who God has made them in Christ, and where he has gathered them. It’s okay to not read the Bible in church, and our being a part of church is not compromised as a result.

    Sixth, we are still members of a body, however, so I’d take the opportunity to explore with each person what they’d like to do to edify the body. Get them to prayerfully dream dreams of how, God willing, they may be able to serve him and his people.

  8. I forgot to say: it always helps if the congregation members know that we love them. It makes it easier for them to trust that though it may wound them a little, we really are trying to do what is best for them and the church.

    I also suspect that if we’ve taught and pastored them well about the change, they’ll take it a whole lot better than if we tell them they can’t read because their reading isn’t professional enough. But that’s another issue again wink

  9. We live in a world where it is almost by definition offensive and wrong to ask someone to change. If they are offended by the critique, it is the critiquer’s fault, never theirs. How many times have we tried to excuse a true observation about ourselves ‘because it’s not what they said, but how they said it’? The how doesn’t preclude the what. But in our world the ‘how’ is by definition always wrong, from the simple fact that it exists at all.

    Yes, well said! There’s this assumed wimpiness about Christian organisations. The mentality seems to be that because we’re Christian, anyone can have a go and not feel repercussions of a shoddy job. The mentality seems to feel that “If that Christian mob EVER DARE say anything negative about me, I’m leaving!” 

    It’s also delicate because church is driven by volunteers. Do we want to burn out our talent because they’re called on too much? I’d address this concern by asking how essential the service is, and are there really no other talents in it? EG: If Musicians are getting burnt out, would it really be the end of church as we know it to play a CD now and then?

    If our readers are getting burned out… and here’s a REALLY heretical thought… would it really kill us to play an excellent mp3 bible reading now and then?

    (Especially with dramatised donkey’s braying in the background. Just can’t get enough of those donkey’s!)

    All right: maybe not an over-the-top dramatised version. Or maybe? What do people think?

Comments are closed.