Reading Scripture Aloud with Animation

Written for The Body Builder, a publication of Highland Park Church.

Today’s article seeks to help us better implement 1 Timothy 4:13, “Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching” (ESV).

One goal of a pastor-teacher is to train believers to better serve our Lord (Ephesians 4:12-16). In my view, one characteristic of a good church is one in which most people are active in some form of ministry. Whether engaging in acts of hospitality and love (like taking meals to a new mom or contributing to funeral dinners) or ushering or youth work or special music or running the video projector or teaching—or salting the ice—we all need to serve. One way many of us can contribute to the Body is by reading the Word aloud.

There are many arenas for reading the Word aloud. Some of you visit friends or relatives in hospitals and nursing homes. Reading the Word to them can be a great spiritual encouragement for them, assuming they are open to this. Others of you have children or grandchildren to which you can read. Some couples read the Bible together. Others read Bible portions as part of our church service or teaching a Sunday School class. You may also be asked to read as part of a wedding, funeral, or ceremony.

Most of us read aloud like we were trained to do for a school classroom. In many cases—where our reading is spontaneous and not planned—this is still the best way to read. This is what I call a neutral (drab) reading. If you raise your hand to read aloud during Sunday School, for example, this neutral way of reading is probably the best way to go.

If you are going to read Scripture as part of a church service, wedding, funeral, or for a Sunday School class—where you know the text in advance—you have an opportunity to read with more animation—and thus increase comprehension and engage your listeners. Let me share some tips about animated reading.

Tips for Animated Reading

First, short Scripture readings (in my opinion) are perhaps the least effective when it comes to animation, unless several short passages are strung together thematically. Why is this? When singing, most people can focus immediately upon the song. Too many songs in sequence can actually reduce focus upon the meaning of the words. Public reading is the opposite. It takes a few verses for people to begin to focus upon what is being read. This is not as true, however, when it comes to a personal visit; in many hospital contexts, a short reading may be preferred, depending upon the health of the individual.

Second, you need to adjust your style to the type of text you are reading. For example, some Scriptures (like the Psalms) are meant to be read with deep emotion. Proverbs, on the other hand, needs to be read slowly with long, contemplative pauses between verses, since each proverb stands on its own and is not necessarily related to a context. The epistles cry out for speed changes; long, run-on sentences are often better comprehended when read quickly. Otherwise the listener will forget the clauses early in the sentence that modify the series of statements that follow. Short sentences beg to be read slowly and sometimes emphatically: “Praaaaaaay without ceasssing” (and a long pause between this verse and the next).

Third (and most importantly), the Scriptures are best read with variety to animate them. How do we create variety?

  1. We need to be alert to our own vocal patterns. Do we end sentences with a high pitch, or draw out the ending of sentences, like British reporters on the news? Any pattern works against variety. We must intentionally break our patterns, because patterns decrease animation and variety.
  2. We need to change speeds. Unlike reading a textbook in class, we should slow down at points for emphasis (I call this lingering). Likewise, we should sometimes speed up to get through lists and long phrases (hurrying). Other portions we can read at a normal pace. Example: [Hurry] “If God be for us” [pause and linger] WHO [long pause and then hurry] can be against us?
  3. Pauses are amazing. They add a certain emphasis. We should not feel awkward about using them where appropriate. While reading a textbook in a class, a pause is awkward. When reading Scripture, well-timed pauses add much. Master the pause.
  4. Before we read aloud, we can underline (lightly with a pencil) the words we want to emphasize, thus slowing down and/or pausing around them. This will help us automatically vary pitch and volume.
  5. It is better to be under-dramatic than over-dramatic. Slight changes can accomplish much, but too much drama is counter-productive. It is like properly salting food—better to slightly under salt than over salt.
  6. When reading interpretatively, the reader must make a decision as to what he wants to highlight. This is not an exact science, and the spotlight may vary depending upon the need.

Let me illustrate the different approaches we can take to reading the 23rd Psalm. When I capitalize or underline a word, it means to say it slowly and a little louder. A pause means stopping about 3 times as long as you would stop for a period, about 2 seconds. Speed up to hurry at not quite double speed. You can also, if you wish, become progressively slower (ritardando) or faster (accelerando) while reading. There are countless ways to read any Scripture passage.

If I want to emphasize what the Lord does for me in Psalm 23, I can read it as follows. The Psalms are meant to be read slowly and with feeling.

The Lord is MY shepherd, [pause]. I shall not want. [pause]. He makes ME lie down in green pastures; He leads ME beside quiet waters.

He restores MY soul; He guides ME in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.

Now let’s suppose I wanted to read the same Psalm, but wanted to emphasize what God is like in relation to me (a better approach). I could read the same Psalm as follows:

The Lord is my SHEPHERD, [pause] I shall not want. [pause]. He MAKES ME LIE DOWN in green pastures; [pause]. He LEADS me beside quiet waters. He RESTORES my soul; He GUIDES me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.

[accelerando —>] Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of [very slow —>] DEATH, [extra long pause], I fear NO evil, [extra long pause] for You are WITH me; Your rod and Your staff, they COMFORT me.

You PREPARE a table before me in the presence of my enemies; [pause]

[accelerando —>]You have anointed my head with oil; [ritardando—>] My cup OVERFLOWS. [pause]

Surely goodness and lovingkindness will FOLLOW me all the days of my life,

And I will DWELL in the house of the LORD [pause] FOREVER.

Of course, these are just two of many ways this Psalm could be read. I often mix and match as I deem appropriate. For example, sometimes I highlight the “green” pastures and “still” waters, while also highlighting the Lord as “Shepherd.” When I am doing a funeral reading, I will emphasize the “valley of shadow of death” section and very clearly emphasize “forever.”

When dealing with more complex portions—like Paul’s epistles—consider highlighting verbs or unusual phrases. When reading narratives where people are speaking (Jesus or Peter in the Gospels, David or Deborah in the Old Testament, etc.), change voices for each person—but slightly. A slightly higher, faster voice is great to represent a secondary player (like an apostle asking Jesus questions), while a lower, slower voice represents an authority figure (Jesus, Moses, etc.).

Practice, practice, practice. The place to begin is underlining words to emphasize. Give the underlined words a slight increase in volume (don’t shout) and a significant slow down. Then work on pauses. This alone will make you an above average, somewhat animated reader. As you gain experience, you can then try to incorporate some of the other ideas I have suggested.

Ed Vasicek Bio


Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.

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There are 18 Comments

Rob Fall's picture

of the KJV is it was translated "to be read" not privately in "silence" but publicly to a congregation.  Not that it can't be done with more modern translations, but many just don't match the KJV for public readability.

Also, mind the commas and periods.
 

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Much appreciate this article. A long standing pet peeve of mine is that so many people read Scripture like it's the vacuum cleaner assembly directions. For many, it's not their fault. They were taught to read this way in school. I don't think the "neutral" reading Ed describes here is really ever the right way to read anything. (Arguably, even those vacuum cleaner instructions deserve a little more respect.)  But teaching folks to read with some expression and phrasing when they've been trained not to for lots of years.... no easy task.

Ron Bean's picture

We encourage those who are reading scripture in services to prepare by implementing some of the suggestions Ed has presented here. (Thanks to Ed, we now have more.)

BTW, we occasionally have a service that is centered around the reading of an entire book of the Bible with just brief (5 minutes) comments. (Purim anyone?) It's proved to be very beneficial.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Mark_Smith's picture

Were you really taught to read monotone like, drone on and on like a robot?

 

My wife and I like to read the nightly kid's books with animation...the kids love it.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Rob Fall wrote:

of the KJV is it was translated "to be read" not privately in "silence" but publicly to a congregation.  Not that it can't be done with more modern translations, but many just don't match the KJV for public readability.

Also, mind the commas and periods.
 

 

I am not a King James person, but i do have to admit you are right -- especially if the one reading it has a BBC British accent!

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Rob Fall's picture

It's one reason I consider the KJV the English language version of record.

Ed Vasicek wrote:
Rob Fall wrote:

of the KJV is it was translated "to be read" not privately in "silence" but publicly to a congregation.  Not that it can't be done with more modern translations, but many just don't match the KJV for public readability.

Also, mind the commas and periods.
 

I am not a King James person, but i do have to admit you are right -- especially if the one reading it has a BBC British accent!

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Nord Zootman's picture

Thanks Ed!

Excellent reminder to myself as to my own reading and I May print this out to share with people in the church i ask to read. Recently I have been doing the scripture reading and I really need to get others involved.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Nord Zootman wrote:

Thanks Ed!

Excellent reminder to myself as to my own reading and I May print this out to share with people in the church i ask to read. Recently I have been doing the scripture reading and I really need to get others involved.

 

Of course!  Glad this is helpful, Nord.

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Mark_Smith wrote:

Were you really taught to read monotone like, drone on and on like a robot?

I'm not sure if I myself was. (Probably was but later unlearned it.) But, sadly, I have seen so, so many students who clearly were. In some cases, I've been in elementary school classrooms and watched while they took turns reading aloud... the emphasis was entirely on verbal accuracy. I can certainly appreciate the need to teach one thing at a time, but I'm deeply convinced that as soon as children can read "see Dick run," it's time to have them practice reading it with at least conversational tone before moving on to vocabulary and syntax expansion. It's just as important as accuracy--in fact, is an extension of accuracy, because when you get to long sentences with lots of subordinate clauses, the intonation is a huge part of the clarity.

Mark_Smith's picture

Our oldest is 8 and she is a good reader. We work on her using expression while reading. She likes to read to the 2 year old twins...

 

Ron Bean's picture

Bad weather forced the cancelation of our service this morning so I went to church on line. I visited a number of churches with this post in mind and listened to the reading of scripture, both responsively and by the speaker. Expressionless and monotone was the norm. One reader who shall be anonymous because I think he lurks around SI, had a passage that literally begged to be read with some enthusiasm. It had dialog and a climax and yet was read as flat as a pancake. If the guy had been in my speech class I would have failed him. 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Mark_Smith's picture

Did you stream? Most video posted doesn't have things like Scripture reading...

Anyway, I think there are 2 issues here.

1- I am convinced that reading has become a lost practice for far too many people. They might read technical things for work, or search for things on the internet, but in depth reading with comprehension is slipping away. I think this is one of the causes of the rise of "experiential Christianity" in recent years. People don't connect with God through His written word. They want to "feel" it because they don't get relationship from written words anymore. 

2-Some people believe the word SHOULD BE read monotonically so as to keep the flesh out of it. I think they go too far with it, but apparently even John Edwards thought this way, reading extremely monotonically his sermons.

Ron Bean's picture

I live streamed a number of services so I got the whole picture.

BTW, the stories of Edwards reading his sermons may be apocryphal. Edwards was the academic of the Great Awakening but Whitefield was its most prominent preacher and, according to witnesses including Benjamin Franklin, he was dynamic.

I agree that we should keep the flesh out of preaching but that does not exclude emotion and proper use of public speaking techniques. 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

When God hands us a dramatic text and we think we should read it flatly... that's "the flesh"!

(But not all texts are dramatic.... the genealogies come to mind. Still, even in theologically deep and complex portions of epistles, there is no question at all that Paul is excited about what he's revealing. This is profound, life-altering truth, not the minutes from last year's annual business meeting.)

TylerR's picture

Editor

I like to think of myself as a good reader. I've always known that you need to use animation and a bit of flair when reading, or else you'll be as boring as can be.

For example, when reading bits of dialogue, especially in the Gospels, why not put some real emotion into your voice when reading it! Do you really think this:

"Simon Peter said unto him, Lord, whither goest thou? Jesus answered him, Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterwards. Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake," (Jn 13:36-37)

was originally spoken in a monotone voice! Pretend you're Peter, and say it like he would have said it! It makes a big difference. Since reading this article I've doubled down on trying to make my Scripture reading on Sunday Mornings especially good. I think it's made a very big difference.

Thanks for the reminder, Ed! 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ron Bean's picture

I recall preachers who demonstrated two emotions. One was humor, often seen in the obligatory stale jokes at the start of the sermon. The other was anger accompanied by raised voice and gestures. (There were the rare crocodile tears, but they were rare.)

There are some texts that I find it hard to read aloud. I often laugh at Elijah's comments to the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, I share Paul's frustration in Romans 7, and get choked up in the accounts of Christ's suffering for my sin.

At our church, we've been conducting brief workshops for our Scripture readers that have been a great help. We occasionally have an entire service in which we read an entire book of the Bible instead of the sermon. (I think the churches at Corinth and Thessalonica may have done that a couple of times.)

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

pvawter's picture

When reading dialogue, you might try using different voices to differentiate between the speakers in the passage. Who says church can't be any fun?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Ron Bean wrote:

I recall preachers who demonstrated two emotions. One was humor, often seen in the obligatory stale jokes at the start of the sermon. The other was anger accompanied by raised voice and gestures. (There were the rare crocodile tears, but they were rare.)

There are some texts that I find it hard to read aloud. I often laugh at Elijah's comments to the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, I share Paul's frustration in Romans 7, and get choked up in the accounts of Christ's suffering for my sin.

At our church, we've been conducting brief workshops for our Scripture readers that have been a great help. We occasionally have an entire service in which we read an entire book of the Bible instead of the sermon. (I think the churches at Corinth and Thessalonica may have done that a couple of times.)

Some great ideas here!

... about diff. voices for diff characters, I have seen this done effectively, but when you do that you're definitely crossing over from reading into a bit of theater--and there is some special skill involved in doing it well. I have come sort of close to this a few times--not really consciously--when reading dialog where there was a good bit of back and forth. I realized part way through that I was kind of doing one 'character' a bit lower pitched and the other a big higher... I can't remember if one was female or a child or what. But I kept it subtle. If you're not careful--or just really good at it--this can become comical and distracting.

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