How many sermons open with a speed reading of the Bible?
The pastor stands before the congregation not fully prepared, still trying to collect his thoughts and hoping to create a last-minute opening, and begins painfully reading the sacred text. His dry and monotone voice coupled with both his (obvious) disinterest in the text and his anxiety to get the good stuff (his sermon) communicates to the congregation that reading the Bible is just a warm-up act. An interested observer may be tempted to believe that the preacher is merely checking an obligatory liturgical box. Sadly, we tolerate this anemic presentation of the Holy Scriptures.
A DIFFERENT (BUT NOT NEW) APPROACH
Because I noticed that the congregation has very little time to hear, reflect on, and then consider the biblical text before the sermon, I’ve elected to approach the public reading of Scripture differently. The public reading of the preaching text, regardless of its length, is read at a distinct time in worship at least five minutes before the sermon. The following partial outline of a worship gathering will illustrate my approach of Scripture being central in worship:
Welcome & Announcements
Call to Worship – Scripture Reading
Congregational Singing (several songs)
Public Reading – Reading the Preaching Text
Children’s Message – Q & A on theological and biblical topics
Sermon – Explanation and Exhortation of the Preaching Text
Congregational Response to Sermon & Singing
Closing – Scripture Reading
Notice the break between the Public Reading and the Sermon. On a typical Sunday, this transition is between 5 to 10 minutes. Although the congregation may be listening to the children’s message and/or concentrating on the words of the “song of preparation,” this time also permits reflection and consideration of the biblical text. It should also be noted that during the public reading of Scripture, which is the preaching text, there is nothing else happening or anticipated in worship. That is, the people are not expecting a rapid transition into the pastor’s opening comments.
When this approach is explained (on numerous occasions) and the practice is incorporated in a consistent manner, the church will inevitably develop the discipline of listening for the singular purpose of hearing God’s Word. Thus, when the pastor stands to preach, the people have a reference in mind when he begins. The listener will (over time) learn to assess the preaching based on the text.
When everyone doesn’t have access to a Bible.
Throughout Christian history, the majority of believers did not have access to a Bible. The same is true in many Third World countries today. Thus, the public reading of Scripture has played a pragmatic role in worship. Namely, it was likely the only opportunity the congregants had to hear the Scripture. Under these circumstances, preachers should take great care and put forth maximum effort in reading the Word of God. Yet, history is filled with numerous examples of the Bible being neglected in public worship.
When everyone does have access to the Bible.
We live in a society where people own several copies of the Bible, have an app on their phones or electronic devices, or can easily access the text via a search engine. This fact has tempted many pastors to devalue the reading of Scripture. However, others are convinced that the availability of the Bible has not increased the meaningful reading of the Scripture among Christians. We can all agree that people need to hear God’s Word. Although the Bible is more available today then at any other time in history, we must still make the public reading of it a priority in corporate worship.
Reading the Bible before a sermon serves several important purposes:
1. It provides the congregation an opportunity to hear God’s Word.
2. It distinguishes inspired revelation from opinion.
3. It vividly illustrates a high view of Scripture.
4. It allows the congregation to be familiar with the text and be prepared for the sermon.
Getting Started: How do you read the Bible to your children?
The biggest challenge to implementing the public reading of Scripture into worship gatherings is those who will be reading the Bible. Sadly, most people have never been taught how to read aloud in front of a group. This practice was a requirement when I was an elementary student. Although it was a painful experience, I learned the value of reading in such a way that the text would come alive, literally “to speak for itself.”
About ten years ago, I pulled aside the children’s pastor and asked how he taught his daughter at home. She was three at the time. He was shocked by the question and appeared to be offended. I followed up by asking him if his daughter could understand his children’s message on Sunday mornings? The proverbial light came on and he quickly realized where I was going with my line of questioning. My point was simple, consider your audience. Afterwards, the children’s messages started coming alive.
Before you read the Bible publicly, I’d suggest you consider how you read the Bible to your children and/or grandchildren.
- When reading the Bible to your children does every character have the same voice, volume, and tone?
- Would your kids recognize the transitions from one character to another?
- Would the keywords or main points stand out to the listener, or does it all (sadly) bleed together?
Next Steps: A Plan of Action
- Read the Bible as if you were before an audience who has never heard it, has no idea that there are numerous characters in the narrative, and would never recognize the main point.
- Don’t assume your audience is reading along with you. Imagine that their eyes are closed, and they are listening to your voice.
- Read the biblical passage multiple times throughout the week to become very familiar with the main points and the flow of the text.
- Even if it is awkward at first, don’t give up. Over time, reading the Bible publicly will begin to feel more natural.
Is the Bible boring?
No. However, many of us, relatively speaking, are very boring. The Bible is the Word of God; it is alive and active. Thus, when we read it, we should be excited to announce God’s revelation to humanity. Furthermore, we should be anxious for people to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Over the years, I’ve discovered the best people to read the Bible publicly are those who are the most excited about what God is doing in their lives. Trust me, someone who is excited about God’s work in their lives will demonstrate that the Bible is not boring when they read it.
Moving the furniture is not enough!
Have you ever wondered why Protestants (by and large) moved their pulpits to the center of the platform? The Bible and not the Eucharist was to be the center of worship. However, moving furniture or placing a Bible on the Lord’s Supper table is not enough. Those who confess sola scriptura (Scripture Alone) should demonstrate this belief by making both the reading and preaching of the Bible a fundamental element of corporate worship. The Bible is not the warm-up act; It is central to Christian worship.
Pastor T.J. Francis
12 Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Timothy 4:12-16 ESV).