We need to be careful about how we read the Bible in worship. By doing things the way we’ve always done it, we can lose the attention of worshippers and communicate the wrong messages to them.
Expansive Worship So Far
This summer, I have been focusing on how congregations have often separated people into insiders and outsiders, whether on purpose or not. The last few weeks have been about some of the barriers we find in our worship services and how we can address them. Two weeks ago, I looked at the children’s sermon. Last week, it was the “real” sermon. Today’s target is the reading of Scripture in worship. While all these topics might be most relevant to pastors and worship leaders, we also need the advocacy and expertise of Christian educators and youth leaders, too!
Faith Formation in Worship
Why do we read the Bible in worship, specifically reading aloud? It may seem like too basic a question to even ask, but I find those to be some of the most important questions. We gather for corporate worship both to worship (respond in love to all that God has done for us) and for faith formation (of which worship is a part).
Faith formation has two intertwined parts, just as we use the word “faith” in two main ways in the church. Our faith is both the relationship of trust with the Triune God and the content of our belief system (faith, trust, and belief are all translations of the same Greek word). We learn about God, the history of God’s people, and how all this impacts how we view the world in which we live. We can’t really have a relationship with God if we don’t even know who God is. But learning the teachings of the church without a relationship with God is “dead” faith.
Scripture in Worship
The Bible is a library of writings created over a long time by the people of God. These writings have been identified by the people of God as trustworthy content about God. As a whole, the Bible is a “primary source” for our faith. So, of course, we read the Bible in our worship services. We read Scripture out loud so that we are all on the same page; it makes the reading of the Bible a communal activity.
The Problems of the Bible in Worship
However, the oral reading of Scripture in our worship services is not without significant problems. And these problems exist whether you use a lectionary (pre-written calendar of Bible readings) or choose the readings yourself.
The first problem, as I see it, is one of the same problems we find in a spoken sermon. Aural (listening) learning is only one possible learning style. Even if it’s the most common learning style (which I don’t know if it is, though it’s the most popular teaching style), you are still leaving out worshippers whose strongest learning styles are not aural, and you are leaving out parts of the brain for all worshippers that help with learning and engagement.
The Bible Is Difficult
The second problem is that the Bible is hard to understand. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Despite the ubiquity of the Christian Bible in our lives and even Western culture, we often forget that these are ancient documents. We easily accept that we need help understanding Shakespeare’s plays, which are 1,500 years closer to use than the newest part of the Bible. The writings in the Bible were written in very different historical, cultural, linguistic, and literary contexts than ours. This is true for the stories in Scripture, but it is so many more times true for the non-narrative parts of Scripture (e.g., Psalms, Prophets, and Epistles).
So, when we read the Bible out loud in worship, we are expecting many non-aural learners to get something out of difficult-to-understand readings. Or, so much worse, we are doing it not expecting them to make an impact on worshippers.
The Dangers of Bible Reading
If many (most) worshippers are not able to understand one or more of the Bible readings in worship, what does our continued use of such readings communicating to them?
- The Bible is confusing.
- The Bible is not for them.
- At least parts of the Bible don’t have any practical application in their lives.
Is this really what we want to communicate to worshippers? Does this practice fulfill the very purposes we have to read Scripture in worship in the first place?
Please note that, while the lack of biblical literacy is a factor here, it’s not the only factor or even a major one. I like to think of myself as biblically literate, or I would hope so after a seminary education and many years spent creating and publishing materials designed to increase biblical literacy. I still hate the oral reading of the non-narrative parts of Scripture (again, Psalms, Prophets, and Epistles). I’m not primarily an aural learner and the readings are fast enough that my brain can’t fully process their meanings in enough time. So, to me, they are a waste of time.
Solving the Problems, Avoiding the Dangers
I see two main (overlapping) solutions to these problems. Neither involves stopping reading Scripture in worship.
- Use lectionary-based education. A slower paced, more engaging treatment of the Bible passages will greatly improve the impact of the Scripture readings in worship, when the purpose of the readings becomes reminding the worshippers of what the readings mean, not introducing them. But this only helps worshippers who attend education events/classes. And, as I mentioned above, biblical literacy is only one part of the problem.
- Engage each part of Scripture used in worship. There are so many ways of doing this. Use sermon time to go through and explain the readings; Preface each reading with important context. Perform skits or other activities to engage worshippers. Make the reading time multi-sensory.
- Only include readings which you will use. If you do not have the time or energy to make each Bible reading engaging, then consider dropping the readings you are not using. If worshippers challenge you on this, then ask them how these extraneous readings are benefiting them and the rest of the congregation.
We Can Help
It’s not an accident that we (Spirit & Truth Publishing) have faith formation resources to help with these solutions. We have lectionary-based educational resources for both the Revised Common Lectionary and the Narrative Lectionary,* as well as a Cross+Gen Worship (NL) curriculum to help with the engagement piece. But stating that here might not quite be for the reasons you might think. Yes, I want you to purchase our products (this is how I make my living). But these are the reasons why we create these resources in the first place.
*The Narrative Lectionary (NL) was created, in part, to have a single “preaching” reading each day to eliminate the dangers of the “useless” readings made possible by the four readings of the Revised Common Lectionary. Thus, some of the points I make here are things I have learned from presentations in relation to the benefits of the NL.
With or without our products, I hope you can work to make your reading of Scripture to be most meaningful to your worshippers!
In the love of Christ,
Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
2021-2022 Faith Formation Resources
Our Narrative Lectionary and Revised Common Lectionary products for the upcoming 2021-2022 program year are now available for download. Find out more!
- Home Faith Formation for the Narrative Lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary
- Resources for the Narrative Lectionary (products for all ages)
- Resources for the Revised Common Lectionary (home-based and intergenerational classroom)
- Cross+Generational Confirmation with an optional online community
- Worship and Liturgy Education
- Information page: Our Products and COVID-19.