Foundations: No.62 Spring 2012

Public Bible Reading: A Neglected Gift of Grace

Derek Bigg, member and former elder of Christ Church, Haywards Heath, West Sussex

We sometimes hear a well-known figure described as having charisma. What is this quality? One dictionary defines it as ‘the power to attract or influence people’. So understood, it can be applied to a wide range of individuals irrespective of their moral or spiritual state. During the Second World War the two most charismatic characters were Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. They both held sway over millions.

Turning to the New Testament, we find ourselves in a different world altogether. It is a world of spiritual and moral values, where grace (charis) reigns supreme and where any charisma is a gift of grace, hence the apostle Paul’s clear statement: ‘We have different gifts, according to the grace given us’ (Rom 12:6). ‘Gift of grace’ is an entirely appropriate translation of the Greek term charisma. Less helpful is the frequently used alternative, ‘spiritual gift’, which can easily be misinterpreted. In New Testament terms, gifts of grace are ‘spiritual’ only in the sense that they are made available to us through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:7-11).

Peter’s treatment of the subject suggests that we should think in terms of two broad categories: speaking gifts and serving gifts (1 Pet 4:11). Both categories are to be found in the passages where Paul addresses this issue (Rom 12:4-8, 1 Cor 12:4-11, 27-31). Particularly apposite for our purposes is Romans 12, where all but two of the gifts in Paul’s list involve ‘serving’ in some shape or form, the most striking feature being their practical nature. They are best taken as illustrative rather than exhaustive, indicating some of the commonest gifts. We might find them in any congregation today.  

New Testament teaching on these gifts is remarkably open-ended. Paul describes one gift simply as ‘serving’ (Rom 12:7), which encompasses a host of possibilities. In similar vein, Peter tells us that each person should use ‘whatever gift he has received to serve others’ (1 Pet 4:10). This unqualified apostolic language opens the door to the employment of gifts not specified by the apostles themselves. My own church has recognised, and is using extensively, the gift of administration evident in one of its members.

Some gifts, like that of administration, come into play largely behind the scenes. Others find expression in the public arena, the most conspicuous being those employed when Christians gather for worship. On such occasions, one of the gifts used to ‘serve others’ is the public reading of Scripture. There is ample justification for treating it as a gift of grace. If Paul in Romans 12 can regard as gifts the very practical activities of sharing generously with those in need, exercising leadership and showing mercy, we can confidently apply his ‘serving’ category to the equally practical activity of reading the Bible in public. As Scott Newling says in his article ‘Devoted to the public reading of Scripture’ (The Briefing, March 2011), ‘Public Bible reading is a gift – and not everyone has it. [1]

As we think about this gift, let us not fall into the trap of separating nature from grace. Since the Lord himself has made each one of us with certain traits and aptitudes, every gift is in reality a natural ability assigned by God’s grace and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. We need to discern and then use the gifts bestowed on us by our Creator. The aim must always be the faithful administration of God’s grace in its various forms (1 Pet 4:10).  

Public Bible reading and preaching

You do not convey the meaning of the words Jesus wept if your voice makes it sound as though he did not care.

This sentence is taken from a book entitled Christ-centered Preaching. [2] It was written by Bryan Chapell, an experienced American pastor. His concern at this point in the book is to underline the importance of the public reading of God’s Word as a preparation for preaching. One brief statement expresses succinctly his understanding of the relationship between the two: ‘The first exposition of the text is the reading of Scripture.’ [3]  

The point he is making here is that the way in which the Bible is read constitutes in itself a meaningful communication, which may be either positive or negative. Style and body language – even how the reader stands or holds the Bible – cannot be ignored because they embody their own unspoken message. This message ought to be ‘Here are some wonderful words from God that I’m eager to share with you.’ However, if the message is ‘Let’s get through this uninspiring part of the Sunday routine as quickly as possible’ or ‘What I’m reading doesn’t really grip me’, it will undermine the message of the biblical text itself. Hence Bryan Chapell’s incisive exhortation: ‘Read the text with the belief that every word carries the power that comes from the mouth of God.’ [4]

Public Bible reading and preaching are mutually reinforcing aspects of one and the same task. They go hand-in-hand. Preaching has been defined as ‘truth through personality’. This is also an apt description of the public reading of Scripture. The meaning of the biblical text is not imparted solely through the words of Scripture themselves. How those words come across to the listener via the reader's personality is absolutely crucial. Lively preaching should be matched by lively reading of God's Word.

The Greek text of Acts 13:15 describes what usually happened in first century synagogues. The Scripture reading (anagnosis) was followed by exhortation (paraklesis – translated ‘encouragement’ by the NIV). The early church adopted this practice but added teaching (didaskalia). Thus Paul urged Timothy to devote himself to anagnosis, paraklesis, didaskalia (1 Tim 4:13). Paraklesis here is rendered ‘preaching’ in the NIV.

Scott Newling's treatment of this text in the article referred to above concentrates on the reading aspect without relating it to exhortation/preaching and teaching. It is on this basis that he argues passionately for systematic Bible reading unconnected with the preaching. The spiritual benefits of adopting this practice in most or all Sunday services could be immense. If there are time constraints, why not simply omit one hymn?

Somebody once said that, if there had been a recognised office of reading Scripture in church services, he would have been happy to serve in that capacity and no other. He viewed it as a sacred privilege. Public Bible reading needs as much care as preaching. After all, it is God's Word, not man's word, which is like fire and a hammer, living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword (Jer 23:29, Heb 4:12). Consequently, we ought to ask ourselves whether we give reading the high profile it deserves. Let us never forget that the public reading of Scripture is a vital ministry in its own right, with power to transform lives as the Spirit of truth applies it in his own unique way.

The effects of public reading

In what frame of mind do we engage in public Bible reading? Are we always enthusiastic? To read God’s Word thoughtfully and compellingly helps to maintain its cutting edge. That cutting edge may become even sharper if people are encouraged to follow the text in their own Bible. Using both ear-gate and eye-gate certainly has the potential for making maximum impact on mind, heart and conscience.

One veteran in the field of Christian ministry has suggested as an alternative that we turn our faces expectantly towards the reader. This would, of course, be appropriate for anyone who through physical or mental disability is unable to cope with the printed page and can therefore do no more than listen. Then there are those who do not possess a Bible or have never learned to read (rare in the UK but prevalent in many other countries). They will all be completely dependent on what they hear. Such situations call for a loving and purposeful response. If the response is to ensure that the reading is audible, well articulated and pulsating with life, it will benefit everyone who is ‘just listening’ and not only those with a special need. Equally helpful will be clear signs that the reader's heart is in this exalted task. If it is obvious to the listeners that God's Word is profoundly affecting the reader himself, they will sub-consciously be inclined to let the truth of Scripture penetrate their own hearts.

What happens if the Scripture reading is dull and lifeless? It will not challenge and arouse Christians as it should. If non-Christians are present when the Bible is read in this fashion, they may well say to themselves, ‘It’s as I always thought. The Bible is boring and irrelevant.’ Are we ever guilty of provoking hostility or indifference to the Christian faith by reading in a perfunctory manner?

In The Briefing of April 2006, an article was published with the title ‘How to read the Bible in church’. The introduction by the editor included this question: ‘Why is it that we cringe and complain about the music in our services, but we hardly bat an eyelid when the Bible is poorly read, or even misread?’ [5] The Christian should do everything for God’s glory (1 Cor 10:31). Do we glorify God when we read his Word carelessly?

It is worth asking why the Bible is sometimes read inaccurately or unattractively. Here is Stuart Olyott’s answer in his booklet Reading the Bible and Praying in Public: ‘… poor reading of Scripture in public reveals that the reader has problems in both his theology and his spiritual life.’ [6] The link between poor reading and unsound theology would be hard to establish; but it is easy to see how spiritual coldness could adversely affect a reader's performance. Is this the only possible diagnosis? I know spiritually healthy Christians who do not read the Bible well in public. The commonest reason is simply that they have not received the gift of grace needed for this ministry.

Our lives ought to demonstrate that we take seriously the two greatest commandments: to love God with all our being and love our neighbour as ourselves (Matt 22:34-40). One way to obey these commandments is through high standards of public Bible reading. If we love God, we will read his Word with evident fervour. If we love our neighbour, we will endeavour to read Scripture so sensitively and memorably that we foster in our listeners’ lives its work of teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). These spiritual objectives are most likely to be accomplished if we observe a long pause after the reading to allow God’s Word to sink in and take effect. To quote Stuart Olyott, ‘Let the Word of God ring in the silence of each listener's heart!’ [7]

Some practical guidelines

No doubt opinions will vary as to what makes a good reading. However, there are certain factors which will always be conducive to achieving God-honouring results. To some extent these factors are plain common sense. They may even be old hat to those with long experience. Nevertheless it is worth re-stating them by way of reminder and also as a fresh incentive to serve our Lord to the very best of our ability.

Preparation

First and foremost, pray that the Holy Spirit will speak clearly and powerfully through the reading so that it affects people's attitudes and way of thinking. Make sure you understand the text and know how to pronounce any difficult words. Consider carefully the length of the passage. A short portion well read is of greater value than a long one that wearies the listeners. A long reading can often be partly summarised or divided into two sections separated by a hymn. To help the vocal cords, drink plenty of water beforehand; but avoid anything that contains caffeine as this makes the throat dry.  

Posture

Stand up straight and look as if you mean business – no hands in pockets or any other body language that conveys the impression of a casual attitude. If you are using your own Bible, hold it or position it in such a way that the congregation can see your face (not the top of your head). If possible, make frequent eye contact with those who are not following the text in their own Bible. This will keep you in touch with your listeners and send a clear signal that God’s Word is for them.

Pace

Read at a moderate pace so that people can absorb what they are hearing. The nature of the text may, however, suggest the occasional change of pace. It is usually helpful to speed up a little in narrative sections, thereby maintaining the momentum of the story, and to slow down when a passage communicates a key thought or reaches a climax. Aid concentration by pausing now and again, especially after a weighty statement, command or question.

Phrasing

Allow the reading to flow naturally by observing punctuation and sentence structure, and by making breaks in the right places. The flow will be disturbed if the reader takes a breath in the middle of a phrase or sentence instead of at the end. Extra care needs to be taken with long sentences so that the message being conveyed comes across as a coherent unit of thought and not a series of disjointed phrases.

Volume

The voice must have enough power to carry to every part of the building. Shouting will not improve the effectiveness of a weak or soft voice but will simply make the congregation feel verbally assaulted. Contrary to what many would assume, it is not an increase in volume but the occasional reduction in volume of a strong voice that will help to keep listeners alert. For best voice projection, read as if you are addressing those in the back row. It is essential to be familiar with any amplifying equipment and to use it efficiently. Any problems with the technology will inevitably be a distraction.

Intonation

Give the passage light and shade by varying the pitch of the voice. The reader should normally lower the pitch (though not the volume) at the end of a sentence and raise it at a comma to indicate that more on the same theme is about to follow. Intonation for a question will depend on the nature of the question itself. A question asking for information cannot sound the same as a question registering disbelief or anguish.

Emphasis

Look for words and phrases that ought to be emphasised in order to bring the passage to life and draw attention to salient points in the original author's message. Emphasis is needed most frequently with adjectives, adverbs and personal pronouns, and also with phrases describing a contrast or something unexpected.

Atmosphere

Try to convey the mood of the passage by expressing feelings of joy, sorrow, wonder, anger, relief, incredulity, triumph, despair, hope, depression or whatever suits the words you are reading. Over-dramatisation would turn the spotlight on the reader rather than the biblical text; but if the right atmosphere is generated, it will enable people to enter into the situation being portrayed as if they were there themselves.

Choosing the right people 

Choosing people for public Bible reading has all too often been a random and haphazard affair in our churches. It would be an understatement to say that we do not always use the most gifted people. Regrettably, church leaders sometimes give the impression that they are not even aware of failure at this point. All sorts of factors may lie behind our choice of readers. In some cases it is assumed that whoever is leading the service will take the reading himself, regardless of whether he is suited to the task. Then there are times when the reader is selected just for the sake of ‘involving someone else’, with no questions asked about the person’s experience or ability. Carol services tend to be occasions when several readers are chosen, not on the basis of aptitude and proven skills, but only because each one represents a specific church activity. Whenever more than one reading is being planned, variety may be the sole or main criterion. There can be no objection to variety as such. After all, the ultimate source of variety is our Creator. Nevertheless, we cannot countenance variety at the expense of quality.

Not surprisingly, there are preachers who prefer to take responsibility for the Bible reading themselves rather than handing it over to another person. They have studied the text and worked out how it should be interpreted. Who better than they to bring out the meaning? Three comments may be made in response to this question.

First, standards vary among ministers of the gospel. A gifted preacher is not necessarily a gifted reader. The two roles require different skills. Second, whatever the minister’s level of competence, he needs to be open to suggestions for improvement from those who listen to him regularly and be humble enough not to feel resentful or threatened by such feedback. He may not know until someone tells him that he drops his voice, reads too fast, shouts, sounds flat and monotonous or fails to enunciate properly. Third, the minister should be willing to accept that other members of the congregation may have equal or greater ability in public Bible reading. Any who display such ability should use their gift for the benefit of all. A reader who possesses the qualities described in the next section does not need the preacher's in-depth knowledge of the biblical text to be able to read well; and a fresh voice will aid attentive listening.

It is wise to choose readers who can be heard and understood easily by the least able in the congregation. Many of these will be senior citizens who struggle if the reading feels like a hail of machine-gun bullets. As Stuart Olyott says, most elderly people have trouble following quick speech’. [8] The same could be true of some whose mother tongue is not English. Both categories are strongly represented in today's churches.

Discerning the gift   

How do we discern the precious but neglected gift of public Bible reading? Should we look for it in both men and women? Stuart Olyott maintains that women should not read the Scriptures in public on the grounds that it would flout New Testament teaching on male headship (1 Cor 11:3). [9] But is headship not safeguarded if a female reader operates under the direction of a male leader who is himself demonstrably under the headship of Christ? There are practical points to be considered in the employment of both sexes. On the one hand, the male voice has the advantage of greater resonance. On the other hand, women who read regularly to children often develop an attractive style suitable for congregational reading. Careful assessment of the available resources could lead to a judicious blend of male and female. Most crucially, those who take up this ministry must show that they have the necessary gift of grace by displaying a number of personal qualities.

The first quality must surely be a passion for God’s Word and the capacity to demonstrate that passion through the reading of the biblical text. If this quality is absent, the reading is likely to feel cold and mechanical. A lacklustre reading will not uplift the congregation and bring them into the presence of God. If someone reads in this fashion, it will convey a negative message about God’s Word and the impact it ought to make on us.

The second quality could perhaps best be described as sufficient Christian maturity to grasp the true sense of the biblical text and then communicate it to the congregation in a meaningful and captivating way. This is not a task for novices. There must be evidence of growth in knowledge, understanding and spiritual vitality before an aspiring reader is ready for such a ministry.

The third quality is skill in adapting the style of reading to the literary genre of the passage in question. An emotionally charged psalm should never be read in the same manner as an explanation of animal sacrifices in Leviticus! And lively narrative sections breathe a different atmosphere from that of portions brimming with Christian doctrine.

The fourth quality is a willingness to spend adequate time preparing the reading. This would include weighing up how punctuation and sentence structure will affect phrasing, noting where to pause, slow down or speed up, and pinpointing those words and phrases which require special emphasis. It is always helpful to rehearse beforehand by reading the passage aloud a few times. If it sounds a little too dramatic, it is probably just about right.

A fifth essential quality is the ability to follow the practical guidelines set out above. How do we find out who possesses this ability? A good initial testing ground is a house group or Bible study group. The leader(s) of the group would need to look out for those with obvious potential. If in this or any other context favourable comments are made by several people about somebody's reading, that will be strong evidence of a divinely-bestowed gift. Individuals who display some aptitude for public Bible reading could be encouraged to consider prayerfully the possibility of undertaking this ministry and then invited to an informal session to discuss together the challenges and blessings of such a task. Those who respond positively would no doubt benefit from some training designed to enhance their skills. They might then be formally recognised as a team dedicated to the public reading of God's Word, as is already the case in a number of churches.

The sixth quality, which is perhaps less common than we might think, is competence in reading smoothly without stumbling over the words. Perfection is unattainable in this life; but there are people who hardly ever falter in the public reading of Scripture. A flawless performance avoids the embarrassment of mangled sentences and irritating repetitions.

The seventh and final quality is clear diction and voice production, resulting in an ‘open’ sound which is easy on the ear. A reader who produces an indistinct or distorted sound will create difficulties for people with any kind of hearing problem. Such people may also struggle when listening to a very strong regional or foreign accent. Let us be sensitive to their needs and look for readers whose delivery will not present a barrier to anyone. Unless compelling pastoral considerations dictate otherwise, nobody with a speech defect or distracting idiosyncrasy should be asked to read the Bible in public.

Long and varied experience suggests that few Christians will exhibit all of these qualities. Those who do will not necessarily achieve exceptionally high standards at every point. We need to be realistic and accept that, as in other human activities, there will be varying degrees of proficiency. We must not, however, allow a realistic approach to become an excuse for lowering our standards. 

We have been considering these seven qualities largely in the context of Sunday services. However, as Christopher Idle reminds us in his review of Stuart Olyott’s booklet (Evangelicals Now, June 2008), the Bible is read publicly in many other settings. These include young people’s and women’s meetings, weddings, funerals, school assemblies, camps, conferences, conventions and informal gatherings in prisons and care homes. We must not under-estimate the importance of public Bible reading in such situations, whether those present are Christians, unbelievers or a combination of both. [10]

Looking for fruit  

Are we expecting spiritual fruit from the public reading of Scripture? If so, we need to take a few simple measures to ensure as far as possible that our listeners will sit up and take notice. Of paramount importance is the selection of suitably gifted readers, men and women with the qualities described in the previous section.

Since many listeners will doubtless be following the text in their own Bible, we must allow time for the slowest person to find the place so that nobody is still searching for the right page when the reading commences. It is advisable to give the reference twice for the benefit of anyone who missed it when first announced.

We must constantly bear in mind that it is our sovereign God who brings forth fruit from our labours. This is just as true with the public reading of Scripture as it is in any other form of Christian service. Let us therefore remind ourselves that we are utterly dependent on the Holy Spirit for spiritual fruit. At the same time let us acknowledge that we, too, have to play our part not only by employing the right people but also by watering this ministry with prayer. We must surely entreat the Lord to speak powerfully through his word of truth. If we need any incentive to this end, one outstanding example from the past will provide it.

The scene is Oxford in the early summer of 1837. The captain of the university cricket team had just completed his three-year classics course and taken his final examinations. As the chest infection which had laid him low for a while was now behind him, he decided to attend the Sunday service in one of the local Anglican churches. It was the usual form of service, with two Scripture readings. The second reading, from Ephesians 2, had an electrifying effect on him. He became aware, when the reader reached verse 8, that God was speaking to him personally. Each phrase was articulated with great emphasis: ‘For by grace - are ye saved - through faith; - and that not of yourselves: - it is the gift of God.’ Those words struck home with divine authority; and our young scholar left the church a changed man. Transformed by the Spirit of God, he now trusted in Christ alone for salvation. The Lord had brought forgiveness and peace to a previously heedless student. That student would shortly celebrate his graduation. However, neither his graduation nor his sporting prowess meant as much to him as his new-found faith. Such was the impression made on him by the apostle Paul’s sublime statement in the second chapter of Ephesians that it featured many years later as the last line on his tombstone.

Who was that young man? None other than John Charles Ryle, who in 1880 became the first bishop of Liverpool and whose writings still teach Christians today what it means to live a godly life. How was he converted? Not through preaching, parental influence or the faithful witness of a friend. Such means are often used by God; but on this occasion it was simply the public reading of Scripture. Are we longing for some Ryles of our own when we plan this part of our Sunday ministry? If so, let us work and pray accordingly.

 Note: The author has produced a condensed version of this article, suitable for any church member prayerfully considering the ministry of public Bible reading as an avenue of Christian service. He will gladly send this to anyone who requests a copy. Email him at: derekbigg@hotmail.co.uk