For beginners, read the Introduction to this series, then visit the categories menu and hit “Evangelical Liturgy” for all previous entries. In a sentence, I’m walking through all the parts of the traditional Protestant worship service and discussing the value of recovering our own liturgical tradition.
In March 07, I wrote “The Strange Case of the Missing Scripture Lessons.” It is a good companion to this topic.
In most liturgical worship services, somewhere between 10-15 minutes of the worship service is taken up in the public reading of scripture. In the most common traditions, the lectionary texts for the day are read or sung responsively and/or by readers. This may include a Psalm of the day, an Old Testament lesson, a New Testament lesson and a reading from the Gospels, which is often the basis of the sermon. Scripture sentences may punctuate other portions of worship and it isn’t unknown for the sermon to occasionally make use of a different text than any of the lessons.
In many evangelical churches, particularly those of a more contemporary flavor, public reading of the Bible is avoided. Scripture will be scattered across a few song lyrics and inserted as point prompts or proof texts in the sermon. There will be no scripture lessons, no reading of scripture outside of the use of scripture in some function of the service and no sense that extended scripture reading is a high and worthy use of time in worship.
Ironically, it will be the liturgical church and its scripture saturated service that will be called “liberal” by the Bible-waving, but not Bible reading evangelical church. Declarations of confidence in the Bible as the inerrant Word of God will dwell in puzzling juxtaposition with worship services where the most scripture encountered is in popcorned bits projected between film clips and other visuals.
All this against the backdrop of multiple commands and examples in both Testaments leading any reasonably bright fifth grader to the conclusion that the public reading of scripture is an essential component of worship. As Paul says in I Timothy 4:13 Until I get there, focus on reading the Scriptures to the church, encouraging the believers, and teaching them.
It’s here that the logic of the church growth/seeker sensitive approach to worship runs into a wall. Reading scripture publicly is boring, it takes work and it takes time. It requires explanation and if your mantra has been “we aren’t like your old boring church,” you could get sued.
Churches that undertake the reading of scripture lessons as a discipline give this a high and prominent place in worship. Readers should be trained. Attention should be paid to diction and the proper rubrics. Names, places and other obstacles should be anticipated.
This is not private scripture reading- a valuable discipline that should never be demoted- but the public reading of the Word of God in the church. The reading of scripture lessons is the reading and hearing of the Word of God- his covenant book- in the presence of his people. It is full of warnings, blessing, promises, curses and examples. It is the primary Gospel story and Gospel announcement. There can be no talk of submission and confidence in a Word that we are reluctant to read to one another.
Some small churches I know simply read a full chapter at every service. Yes, Ezekiel and Leviticus, too. Others use the lectionary and three lessons. Many liturgical churches have a copy of the Gospels and they carry it into the congregation for the reading, with the people singing Alleluias all around. It is a beautiful thing.
Readers can be of many ages, both genders and every station of life.
The Word can be read plainly, responsively, dramatically and creatively. Varying translations may be acceptable unless leadership is seeking to unify around one.
The reading of the Word can be followed by responses or silence.
Lectionaries can be printed for the congregation so that everyone will know what scriptures are being used in Lord’s Day worship. When devotional life, reading, worship and preaching revolve around the lectionary, there’s real unity in the community.
If your church does not read scripture publicly, start modestly. Don’t turn them into Anglicans or Lutherans in a week. Train readers. Explain why you are using more scripture reading. Use the phrase we used in soli deo: “The sermon is the servant of the scripture.”
Encourage people to hear the Word and to follow along. There is no compelling reason to say worship requires one or the other.
Pray for a reformation of the public reading of scripture among evangelicals. What a shame that among those who claim so much love for the Bible, one hears so little of the Bible.
Until that reformation comes, read Eugene Peterson’s excellent take on the role of scripture in worship. Any of his books will address this.