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listening to the Bible in church

Reading-BibleHow much scripture was read in your church community last Sunday?

If you go to a synagogue, for thousands of years they have systematically read through the scriptures. Some part of the readings may form the basis of a sermon, but the readings do not have a narrow “theme” – those listening can allow God, through the scriptures, to address them individually in their own particular context and situation – which may be very different from that of their neighbour.

A significant Reformation principle was that each person had the right and obligation to listen to God through the scriptures without the need of an intermediary. That same insight has been picked up in the Roman Catholic Church through the Second Vatican Council.

How much scripture was read in your church community last Sunday? Recently I reminded readers here of the early church practice to “read from the scriptures and from the writings of the apostles for as long as possible.”

Nowadays, many Christian communities, who claim to stand in the Reformation tradition of a personal relationship with God through individuals being encouraged to have an “unfiltered” access to the scriptures actually in their services only use the scriptures as chosen by the preacher. The preacher chooses what is read. And only what is preached about is read. This encourages a culture, not of individual access to the scriptures, but the scriptures are to be mediated by another, by a preacher, or authorised teacher. The scriptures are reduced to illustration points for the sermon – and often they are verses chosen jumping around the Bible, rather than reading through the scriptures as written – in context, as part of a larger work.

Those who follow the lectionary, last Sunday read 2 Kings 5:1-14 or Isaiah 66:10-14; then Psalm 30 or Psalm 66; Galatians 6:1-16; and Luke 10:1-20. About 70 verses of scripture – give or take a few possible variants. Done well, that could be a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes of listening to the scriptures as individuals in community. Yes – with some effort you could make the Isaiah text connect to the Gospel text, but generally these are different texts read for their own sake. If God does not connect with you in your particular situation in one of these, there is the hope that God will make that connection in another. If God does not connect with your community in your particular situation in one of these, there is the hope that God will make that connection in another.

How does this compare to your experience last Sunday?

From the Documents of the Second Vatican Council:

“All Scripture (both Old and New Testament) is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproving, for correcting, for instruction in justice that the man of God may be perfect, equipped for every good work.”
Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Section 11 (2 Tim. 3: 16 & 17)

“The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body. …For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. Consequently these words are perfectly applicable to Sacred Scripture: “For the word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12) and “it has power to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32; see 1 Thess. 2:13). Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Section 21

“This sacred Synod earnestly and specifically urges all the Christian faithful… to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the excelling knowledge of Jesus Christ. For ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ…And let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together.”
Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Section 25

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8 thoughts on “listening to the Bible in church”

  1. At the United Church of Christ congregation I pastor, we currently use 3 lections from the RCL, omitting the psalm (though I hope to add it in good time). I understand that this much reading is quite rare in our tradition.

    I have a distinct memory of attending a worship service where a single verse was read. Just one verse! And of course it was simply abused as a proof text for the homily.Thanks for the reminder and encouragement to “read scripture for as long as possible.”

    Could you elaborate on ways that churches can do this portion of the liturgy well?

    1. I wonder if Chapter 7 of my book Celebrating Eucharist expands this a little, Joel? I think that creatively involving the congregation in eg. singing/chanting the psalm between the first and second reading enhances the community’s listening to scripture. Then another congregational singing between the second reading and the gospel – some use a hymn, but there are wonderful, simple alleluia chants/songs that can welcome the gospel.

  2. Good post Bosco. We had a lot of fun a few years ago creating space in which we read in depth around the preaching. We were doing a series on the minor prophets and we set up a space to read the entire prophet each week. it was a great experience. I blog about it here (http://www.emergentkiwi.org.nz/archive/stoning-the-prophets-the-pics/) and here (http://www.emergentkiwi.org.nz/archive/stoning-the-prophets/).

    One of the spin offs was reading the lectionary simply for the lectionary’s sake in regular worship. We still preached, but always gave space to simply hear the Scriptures. A good discipline for us as Baptists,


  3. Pardon the caps but I want to shout it from the rooftops and will be forwarding it on.


    The Lectionary is so much what I appreciate about practicing Christianity as an Episcopalian. I have never been so connected with scripture as I am now.

  4. Our church used to read the full lectionary: OT, Psalm, epistle, and Gospel. Recently, for some reason that hasn’t been explained (possibly to save time?) at least one of the non-Gospel readings has been dropped, usually the Psalm. I really miss it, especially as the Psalm always involves the entire congregation in reading or singing responsively. Even when the sermon is based particularly on one of the scripture passages (usually the Gospel), the other lectionary readings often echo or reflect its themes in some way, so contribute to the overall message.

  5. I think the RC liturgy does a pretty good job of allowing scripture to be read at some length without turning off the congregation. They key is (1) participation and (2) a strong sense that reading scripture is a vocation. At my (Episcopal) congregation we read the three RCL lections every Sunday. It would be disastrous (as I’ve seen in some other settings) for the three texts to be read back-to-back without interruption or (even worse) by one person. Instead, in liturgical churches there is often a brief silence after each reading, followed by a response. In our church, that means: a sung responsorial psalm — with a cantor or the choir singing the verses and the congregation the refrain — following the OT reading, then after the second reading and Alleluia and hymn before the Gospel. Standing at the alleluia and remaining standing through the proclamation of the Gospel is not only appropriate liturgically, it gets the congregation to their feet: an excellent way to alleviate what otherwise might be a tedious exercise of passive listening. Standing, responding and singing gets the congregation physically involved in the proclamation.

    Training for lay readers is also critical. In the Episcopal church (and I think in the RC church as well) readers are trained and licensed by the diocese. After preparation, they’re often commissioned for their ministry at a Sunday-morning service. The ministry of lay reader is taken seriously as a ministry of the congregation.

    Training should include some insight on preparation for public reading of holy scripture as a spiritual exercise: the reader should read through the text several times, preferably out loud, tasting the words. He or she should own and consult a one-volume Bible commentary. Some time in prayer over the text is appropriate: many lay readers simply incorporate the text they are going to read the following Sunday into their daily prayer.

    By Sunday, the reader has absorbed the text, and this affects the quality of the reading. Otherwise, training can help the reader learn some of the basic “do’s and don’ts” of public proclamation (avoiding the extremes of melodramatic proclamation on the one hand or robotic, monotone delivery on the other).

    Some congregations organize lay readers into a prayer and Bible-study community that meets once a week. The participants read the lessons out loud, talk about the meanings, and pray together with the inspiration of the text.

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