Sunday, October 10, 2010


In many, if not most, Protestant churches these days, members of a congregation come forward each Sunday to read the Scripture lessons. This has become popular since the modern “liturgical renewal movement” was crystallized by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s.

The idea is that the Christian Scriptures themselves arose out of the early church gatherings, and even then non-clergy would read from the ancient writings, and from new gospels and letters that would one day become “scripture.” Therefore it’s appropriate to have people from our congregations do the reading today. In many churches, the reader actually emerges from the pew to the lectern as a physical symbol of this meaning.

It’s a good idea because it stresses the responsibility of the people in the pews to be conversant enough with the Bible to be able to read a passage publicly every now and then.

Certainly, a prime principle of the Protestant Reformation was the restoration of the Scripture to the people, available to everyone in their own language. Having lay people read from the Bible in Lord’s Day worship emphasizes that principle.

One other advantage is seen on the other side of the coin. A layperson reading Scripture counters any notion that the Bible belongs to the clergy, as though no one else were worthy of presenting Holy Writ orally. Even if rank clericalism is rare, it can be implied if lay people are not permitted the privilege of reading Sunday’s lessons aloud in worship.

All that being said, there are some issues to be considered.

First of all, not everyone in a given congregation should be a reader. Shyness, incapability, lack of interest, and any one of a hundred other reasons would eliminate one from the list of potential readers. Therefore, some selection process is needed.

The reading of the Word of God in Scripture to the gathered faithful is a critically important task. It requires at the very least people who are capable of communicating what is on the printed page through their voices.

Some Lutheran churches today, for example, will reserve the reader’s role to the deacons. As servants of the worship service, this is one duty that fits their title. But they do not leave it at that. Just because a person is a deacon doesn’t mean that he or she can do the job. So, deacons must be trained to do what deacons do, including read Scripture out loud.

People who would be readers, however selected, should be trained most likely by the pastor. All the important lessons learned in seminary speech classes should be resurrected and taught to the lay readers—projection, inflection, diction, pronunciation (especially of names) and so forth.

Busy pastors may not want to be bothered with this, but there is nothing more deflating than having a great sermon undermined by a poor reading of the Scripture lesson it is based on. If for no other reason than self-protection, pastors will see to it that lay readers are equipped to do an outstanding job.

One way to support initial training is to call brief after-church meetings of lay readers for the up-coming month or season, just to run over the lections they will encounter. This will help their comfort level and improve the quality of their reading.

Lastly we come to the issue of who reads the Gospel. In many churches it is reserved to the preacher (pastor/minister) rather than the lay reader. The reason behind this is that the pastor is the “Minister of Word [and Sacrament]” and by virtue of this office is the one to read that part of God’s Word where Christ is seen in his public ministry. Since as often or not the sermon is rooted in the Gospel reading, this makes considerable sense.

The Gospel narrative is set apart in another important way to indicate that it is of a different quality from the other readings. Because the Gospel presents Christ, the Word Incarnate, it is appropriate that the congregation stand to hear it read as a sign of reverence and respect.

A practical consideration is that it may be good for the preacher to hear the sound of her own voice just before speaking. On the other hand, as a friend of mine suggests, he welcomes the opportunity to hear the Gospel in another voice before he begins to preach on it. Sometimes it prompts a fresh insight for the sermon.

The role of lay readers is an important one, and is worthy of attention and encouragement from the pastor and others responsible for the worship of the congregation.

Do you have lay readers in your congregation? Are they usually deacons? What training do they receive?

1 comment:

  1. Personally, I like the experience of standing for the Gospel. However, there is the question of whether it makes good theological sense in a Presbyterian/Calvinistic worship setting, since Calvin believed that Christ is equally present in all the Bible. In addition, historical scholarship tells us that Paul's letters are all prior to the Gospels, and thus presumably are able to tell us more about the "real Jesus" than do the Gospels. And yet, the Gospel reading is symbolic of the presence of Christ -- and it is that symbol with which I guess I resonate when feeling happy to stand for the Gospel.

    PS Not so germane to today's topic, but of significance, is the matter of what to say when the worship leader wants worshipers to rise -- especially since some will not be able, or easily able. The late Howard Rice (confined to a wheelchair for many years) had strong preferences for "Please rise **as** you are able." Not **if** you are able. Why? Because, so he said, "I may not be able to stand, but I can lift up my heart, I can rise from within." So **as** you are able is the preferable form.


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