When You Read Scripture...: Suggestions for helping lay readers be more effective

"This morning our Scripture passage will be read by ... "

Sound familiar? Some churches make it a practice to have the Bible lessons read regularly by members of the congregation. Other churches do so occasionally—perhaps when there is a "special" service or when the pulpit is occupied by a guest preacher. (The latter always strikes me as an odd practice. Doesn't the guest preacher read as well as the regular pastor?) These congregations are discovering that the use of lay readers is one way in which worship planners can use the gifts of members to achieve a greater level participation.

The practice of inviting the laity to read the Scriptures has much to commend it—provided the participants are able to read clearly and interpre-tively. On this score, my experience has sometimes been discouraging. A well-intentioned reader stands nervously before the mike. The reader announces the passage, but proceeds before the worshipers can find the page in their Bibles. While the reader's diction may be flawless, it is also rapid and often lacks inflection and emotion. When the reader is finished, you feel a need to catch your breath.

I honor the courage and willingness of such readers, especially the young, but as preacher and listener I also feel frustrated. I know that such Scripture reading does little to stir the interest of the listeners.

Am I overstating the case? I don't think so. I firmly believe that the way Scripture is read (whether in church or at the supper table) is critically important in capturing the attention of the listeners. An effective reading of Scripture draws the hearers into the drama (tension, conflict, humor) of the passage. It makes them sit up and take notice and starts them anticipating and wondering. What is this story about? Why is this passage in the Bible? What is God telling me here? Why is the psalmist so excited (or so sad)? Why is the prophet so upset? Why did Jesus react that way? What an amazing thing for Paul to write! What does this have to do with our lives?

Is this expecting too much from congregational readers? Not really. One doesn't have to be a professional to read effectively. When I hear my seven-year-old reading the Berenstain Bears to her little brother, I realize that even young readers know the importance (and delight) of reading with feeling to get the most out of a story. I only plead for that same feeling (and delight) in reading God's story.

To that end, I offer some practical suggestions for worship committees:

1. Develop a pool of readers.

Select a group of people with recognized ability or potential for public reading. The group should include young and old, male and female. When readers are needed, the pastor and /or worship committee can choose persons from this list, thus saving them from last-minute scrambling to find a willing participant for next Sunday's service. The pool can be changed or expanded each year, depending on the congregation's size and resources.

2. Provide coaching.

Solicit the services of a gifted reader in the congregation and appoint this person to coach your team of readers. Whether working with an individual or a group of readers, a coach can offer helpful suggestions that will result in more confident, relaxed, and effective readers.

3. Provide opportunities for practice.

Practicing at home in front of the mirror is important. But of equal or greater importance is practicing in front of the microphone in the sanctuary. Such a practice need not be a time-consuming affair. The coach can meet with the reader(s) an hour before the service, or after the previous service, and run through the reading a few times. Such rehearsals will go a long way toward relaxing readers for their actual reading during the service. It might also be wise (as well as fun) to have practices with the entire pool of readers. Practice together. Spend an evening working on readings from the Psalms, another on readings from biblical narrative, and so on.

4. Require contact with the preacher.

When the reader is responsible for the preaching text, it should be understood that he/she will discuss the passage with the preacher beforehand. I often make introductory comments before Scripture readings and also interject notes in the reading. It's essential to share such plans with the reader before the service.

Above all, I would urge worship planners to resist the temptation to see Bible reading as merely a simple and easy way to involve more members in worship. Remember, when it comes to the preaching text, effective reading sets the table for a gospel feast. Once the Lord's people have had their appetites whetted, they'll be ready to "dig in"!


Rev. Kenneth Baker retired from full-time pastoral ministry in 2018 after serving four churches in Canada and the U.S. He now serves as a Gallup Strengths Coach, mentor, and itinerant preacher.

Reformed Worship 21 © September 1991, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.