Reading Scripture in Public
Reading Scripture in Public
There still is tremendous power in a person publicly reading the Bible well.
" Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, " (1 Timothy 4:13).
As a long-time church planter, Paul knew the essentials for the growth of the body, and he urged young Timothy to concentrate on those things. Public reading of Scripture is one of the essentials. In the first-century, public reading was indispensable to the Christian life because few people had Bibles. Texts were rare, so God's Word had to be transmitted orally. Today, of course, we have plenty of Bibles (I have seven in my office), but I believe the command is still essential because most people do not read their Bibles. This includes believers.
Just as we preach and teach expositionally, so should be read expositionally. We should " lead out " the ideas and emotions God has put into the text. We do so by matching our nonverbal communication with the verbal message — the words of the text. (The term nonverbal literally means " not dealing with words. " How we say words [tone of voice, and so on] is a nonverbal matter. I divide nonverbal communication into two parts: what we look like and what we sound like when speaking words.)
What research shows
What we look like and sound like influences how listeners react to the words. The power of nonverbal communication is well documented in communication scholarship. For example, in a 1968 article in Psychology Today, Albert Mehrabian argued that when the verbal and nonverbal channels seem to contradict, listeners decided what the speaker meant by observing facial expression and listening to tone of voice. Listeners based only 7 percent of their interpretation on the words themselves. If we scowl through Psalm 23, or sigh through 1 Thessalonians 4, or listlessly describe the escape from Egypt, we perform oral eisegesis. We add foreign elements to the text.
Nonverbal communication affects not only perception of the content of what is read but also the context of the reading. If the Scripture reading is done in a church service, listeners make judgments about the entire church based on what the reader looks and sounds like. Communication scholars estimate that 65 percent of all " social meaning " and 93 percent of all " emotional meaning " come through the nonverbal channel. People get impressions like " this is a friendly church, " or " they value excellence, " or " this is a solemn occasion " based on the Scripture reading and other communications that take place.
Two qualities of effective public reading
Knowing the power of delivery, and desiring to " devote ourselves to the reading, " how should we read? Two qualities mark effective public reading.
First, we should read conversationally. The old days of orating are gone. Large gestures, orotund voices, and exaggerated inflection were necessary in lecture halls, but they are out of place in a world dominated by the intimate media of television, movies, and radio. Audiences born and reared on television have been socialized to expect all public communication to sound like TV — conversational. Today's public communicators should adopt a style that is intimate and natural.
The second quality is conviction. While public reading should be conversational, it should not be casual chatter. One-way communication intended for a group demands more energy than chatting. It is like one friend trying to persuade another on an issue of deep conviction. Readers should internalize the ideas and feelings of the text so that when they speak, they speak out of the fullness of their own hearts.
Silence, phrasing, eye contact
The general principles of conversation and conviction can be exercised with three specific techniques: Silence, phrasing, and eye contact.
Silence is a powerful but underused tool for reading expositionally. It gives listeners time to think, allows time for response, increases tension, and separates ideas. Readers neglect silence because it makes them feel exposed, but readers need to get over this feeling. Audiences are comfortable with silence. It helps them process and imagine. It could be used to lead out the ideas and moods of Genesis 22 (Abraham sacrificing Isaac) by inserting a pause after the first line: " Some time later, God tested Abraham. " Since this line serves as a headline to the whole story, a pause would set this idea apart from the details of the story itself that follow. A pause would also allow the audience to internalize the sobering truth that God tests his friends.
The second technique, phrasing, is crucial in helping audiences understand the ideas of the text. Effective readers spend enough time preparing to read that they know how the subordinate ideas relate to the main ones. By using a louder voice, higher tone, or slower rate, they emphasize the main ideas. A brief pause before and after a key idea sets it apart from subordinate ideas that should be expressed more quickly or with a lower voice. Listen to a conversation, and you will see that this is how we talk naturally, but public readers often sound like they are reading because they lack natural changes of pace. Only a few readers are monotoned, but many readers are monopaced.
The final technique is eye contact — a most difficult technique to utilize when reading. But it must be done. Of all the channels of nonverbal communication, eye contact may be the one to which we attach most significance. By eye contact we judge preparedness, sincerity, poise, and interest in the listener. Communicators should use lots of eye contact even when reading.
How much? Your eyes should relate to the audience more than to the page. This obviously demands practice, but it may take less work than you think. If you read the text out loud five to ten times, you will have it half-memorized, and you should be comfortable looking away from the page for a few seconds. When making eye contact, look directly in individuals' eyes for a second or so. Longer contact is usually unnecessary and may even distract the listener. For large auditoriums, look at individuals in each section. Each person in that section will feel contact with you.
Occasionally eye contact is not appropriate, as when the text is a prayer or highly personal like the psalms of lament. In these cases look just over the heads of the listeners or focus within the audience without looking into anyone's eyes. That technique allows the audience to " overhear " the personal ideas and feelings.
W. E. Sangster said, " When the Book is well read and made to live for the people, it can do for them what sermons often fail to do: it can be the very voice of God to their souls " (in Fasol, A Guide to Self-Improvement in Sermon Delivery, Baker, 1983).
By giving thought and a few minutes of practice to our public reading of Scripture, we can embody God's mind and heart for our parishioners.