The public reading of Scripture is often one of the most neglected aspects of liturgy. The complexity, length, and depth of Scripture are intimidating, and most lectors feel somehow ill-equipped to read something about which they know (or think they know) so little. The truth is, everyone has some valid interpretation to offer when reading Scripture. What’s important is to gather the basic skills and resources to consult when preparing for the public reading of Scripture.
One possible danger of reading Scripture publicly is not treating it seriously enough. We read a lot in our busy world, and Scripture might seem like just another set of words. And if we perceive that we can’t really understand Scripture because of its seeming obscurity, we might resort to reading it only at surface level. When read in such a fashion, it is no more interesting than reading a take-out menu. The challenge, though, is to bring it from head to heart and then to those listening to it.
A final possible pitfall when reading Scripture lies in reading the Bible without imagination. We twenty-first century Christians are so far removed from the historical context of 1200 BCE or first century AD that we fail to enter into the living world of the Bible. And then we fail to convey the relevance of the Word as spoken in ancient times for the Word spoken today in community. That is the primary task of the lector.
1) Prepare! There’s no substitute for preparation. You can’t effectively convey the meaning of the text without having some grasp on the meaning yourself. Read the text silently and aloud, many times. Pray with the Scripture. What speaks to you? Try to understand what it means. Exegesis is a fancy Greek word that refers to what we read “out of” a text. Like detectives searching for clues, we as interpreters of Scripture mine its depths and try to pull out choice morsels for the soul. There’s no one correct meaning, but there are certain meanings that are more grounded than others in sound understanding of the Biblical context. You should strive for a reading of Scripture that is faithful to the whole of Scripture, academic scholarship, as well as the way in which the Holy Spirit is speaking to you as the reader of Scripture. Again, you need not be a Bible scholar to read Scripture in public! But the more you understand how Scripture is interpreted by scholars who devote their lives to Biblical interpretation, the more insight you will have in conveying meaning from the text to others.
Interrogate the text. Don’t be scared of it. There are a number of questions you can ask the text. What is the context? What is going on? What is the genre? (There are numerous literary genres represented in the Bible.) Why are certain words used? What’s the central message? Why do you think it was included in the lectionary?
Use your imagination. Put yourself inside the text. Remember, the Word is still alive and active in the 21st century. Consult an annotated Bible or even a commentary or two. Look up any unfamiliar words and their pronunciation.
2) Mark the text. One specific technique in preparing to read Scripture in public is marking the text. This involves printing out a copy of a Bible passage and visually noting, on paper, cues that will aid you as the reader. Rather than leaving everything to the whim of the moment when you might be nervous reading in public, marking the text is a visual cheat sheet. It is also an invaluable means of becoming more intimately acquainted with the passage. And the better you know the text, the better you will be able to effectively communicate the text’s meaning to a congregation. A vertical line or slash can be used to denote a pause of some sort. Two slashes might be used for a long pause. Sometimes, it might be useful to draw an arrow over a series of words to signal that you wish to move the words forward in pacing so that they have a sense of direction. You can also note where you’d like to look at the congregation when reading; do this sparingly and intentionally! The important thing is to use a system of symbols that are meaningful to you as the reader.
3) Embody the reading. There is an incarnational aspect to reading Scripture aloud. Our bodies have been blessed with a certain goodness by virtue of God becoming human in the person of Jesus Christ, which we call the Incarnation. We are called to use our bodies to the glory of God. When we read Scripture aloud, our bodies—as well as our souls, minds, and spirits—become the vessels through which God speaks to the congregation. It is therefore important that we internalize what we are reading so that its message emerges organically from our processing of it. We must feel natural in our bodies so that nothing impedes the Word getting out to the congregation. One good exercise in preparing to read Scripture aloud, although not practical for use all the time, is to try memorizing the reading, or at least to try summarizing the reading. Tell the passage in your own words. When proclaiming Scripture, the Word as delivered through spoken words, should flow naturally from your own assimilation and processing of the text.
We must also learn how to use our voices to their fullest potential. Good vocal technique is important so that the Word is heard and understood. Clear delivery of the Word is a primary quality of all good public reading of Scripture. A few tips are helpful to remember:
- Breathe fully from your diaphragm, not your chest. The tone of your voice must always be supported by sufficient breath.
- To determine the natural resonance of your voice, sigh aloud a few times. Listen and feel where the natural pitch of your voice lies. This is different for every person. If you are speaking in a range that is either too low or too high, the Word will not be naturally delivered.
- Stand with your feet firmly grounded, but give yourself permission to release unnecessary tension from your body. Keep your legs relaxed and not locked. Imagine your breath coming from a deep well within the center of your body, forming into sound, and flowing up through your body and out to those listening.
- Speak at a reasonable pace and clearly. Rely on your own vocal instrument to deliver the texts and not on a microphone.
- Consider recording yourself on a smartphone or other device to listen to your reading aloud. Things do sound different when you listen to them after the fact than in the moment.
- Avoid dairy products right before reading, as they can produce phlegm. Stay hydrated. And if you do have phlegm in your throat before reading, avoid unnecessary clearing of the throat. Try to swallow hard rather than constantly clearing your throat, which is abrasive to the vocal cords and can lead to vocal damage. Your vocal cords are a very delicate instrument. Please do protect them. And this also applies to life outside of church. The way you use your voice in everyday life affects how your voice will be used when reading Scripture aloud.
Our general resources portion of the website has a bibliography of liturgy, music, and preaching resources, including resources related to lectoring. The role of the lector is crucial to the flow of liturgy and to getting the Word of God off the written page and into the ears, minds, and hearts of the faithful people of God at worship. As you continue your ministry of reading the Word of God in public worship, remember these words taken from the Book of Deuteronomy: “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” Thanks be to God.
Kyle Babin is Administrative Assistant for the Center for Liturgy and Music.