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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.