Tips for public Bible Readings

Some tips for reading bible passages in public

[Content: Copyright Peter P. Kenny, 1999-2003].

When most readers begin, they read as if they have been asked by a teacher in a lower school to fulfill a lesson: they read too quickly, without emphasis or phrasing, and without eye contact. They are often not loud enough.

Whenever we read in public, we are communicating a message with our presence, mostly in our voicing the words, but also in our body language which also should be given some attention.

Body Language: Eye Contact is the Start

Eye contact is the most important part of this body language. It reflects a care for the hearers of this Word. Among other things it is a sign that we are pilgrims together in receiving it. Eye contact is made possible when the lector is thoroughly familiar with the reading and doesn't need to see the lectionary for every word. The beginning lector has a fear, I think, that they would "take too long" if they purposively looked up now and then. Rather, by looking up now and then throughout the reading, they are making possible the necessary pacing that gives the reading meaning and enables it to be remembered. At the beginning of the reading, one helpful hint is to put one's finger on the first line in the lectionary, refresh for oneself the first sentence in memory, and then look up and proclaim at least the first half of it while continuing to look up at the people. In the first part of this simple practice, you probably have also given the people the chance to get settled and ready to listen to the reading.

In a church where there are people not just in front of the lector, but also to his or her sides, keeping eye contact is more difficult. One suggestion would be to alternate glances during the reading to one side, then the other, rather than attempting to do a 90 or 180 degree "scan" which would be distracting. I would not ignore the "side wings" altogether: they are part of the community which is hearing this word and the eye contact brings them into it. At the end of the reading, our eye contact, along with our voice, is part of the sign that it is coming to a conclusion. It is very important that a phrase such as "This is the Word of the Lord" is not said into a book or pile of papers, but is proclaimed as it is meant to be: toward the people, inviting their prayerful response.

Our general body posture is also important. Do we give the impression through our standing that we want to flee as soon as we are finished? Or are we clinging to the lecturn as if we are terrified? Or lean on it in the casual manner of an after-dinner speaker attempting a joke? I would describe the proper posture as: alert, relaxed, with a gentle purpose ... In this way the message of the words can be heard and the people not distracted by our nervousness or perhaps some other even less helpful attitude. Here nothing is as insightful as videotaping a lector in practice and then showing her or him the videotape afterwards. It helps anyone to catch the little "ticks" that we all unconsciously have, such as starting out by leaning on one leg and then shifting a few seconds later to the other and maybe then back again. Or weaving toward the microphone at the beginning of a sentence and then drawing back away as one comes to the end of it. This does not mean that we should become motionless statues. But rather it suggests that the body gesture is relatively restrained and connected with the overall meaningful expression of a passage. For example, there could be a slight shift in position for a new "speaker" within the passage or a shift in tone or argument.


Using our Voices

The main part of this human communication of the reading will be through our voices.

To start with what seems obvious, but is often overlooked: we must be 100% sure that we can be easily heard. Make friends with the microphone. It is not just the direction toward which the microphone is aimed that is important, but also its distance from the speaker since many microphones also have an ideal separation distance from the speaker. This depends on how the amplifier and other elements of the sound system are set up and needs to be respected. With practice one senses when the volume of the amplified sound is right and also how much the lectern may help reflect our voices. Where there is no microphone, or it is not working, the classical techniques of public speaking come in. There is no room here to give much guidance other than to say that strength of voice comes from projecting from the diaphragm, not from one's throat (i.e., think of projecting from your "gut", not your head).

Another practical aspect is to know the acoustic characteristics of the church or the "space" in which you are reading. In a large church where there is a good distance between the reader and the last pew (or between the loudspeakers and the farthest person), the reader may needs to speak more slowly to allow the words to be more easily heard. (One could add that the size of body movement and of gesture should also be adapted to the size of the liturgical space. The bigger the space and congregation, the more pronounced the gestures should be.) Another aspect to consider is how much the sound is absorbed by the materials of the building as well as by the people themselves and their clothing.To read in a church filled with people in winter clothing requires more sound energy than for the same number in summer!

Practical wisdom is also important: learn how to turn on and off the amplifier system in your church, in case those regularly in charge are not present at your service.

Another point is to be aware of "feedback", the annoying, howling sound that occurs when previously amplified sound is fed again through the microphone system. It usually is caused by setting the microphone amplication level too high, or having a loudspeaker too close to the microphone or too directly behind it. When it occurs, you should not ignore it. Try first to reduce it by stopping speaking for a moment and moving back from the microphone before starting again. If it continues, try turning off the microphone or covering it with your hand until the feedback resides.

In general, it disturbs the rhythm of liturgy less when, if things go wrong, you stop and calmly try to fix things and then restart, rather than ignoring the disturbance and continuing on with what you are doing.

Another important point is to try to proclaim the reading slowly enough for the meaning of the passage to be received. Paradoxically, long passages of Scripture that are read very quickly and without meaning, though shorter on the clock, are more burdensome and thus seem longer than the same passages when they are read with a varied pace and full of meaning, even when they take a few extra seconds. (This is especially true of the Passion narratives or the Johannine miracle stories.) Liturgy is about sacred time and a liturgy poor in communication and meaning is the one that drags, both in one's terms of one's perceived sense of time as well as one's spiritual need.

To respect the scripture as something holy does not mean that we cannot bring meaning to the words through emphasis or dramatic pauses. The Bible is full of sacred drama, and to be faithful and reverent to it means to allow that this drama be shared with the listeners.We should not be afraid to allow emotion to be expressed in our voice (as long as it is not "over the top") if it reflects the emotion that is in the Scripture passage. This is a challenge for the beginning reader at first, for, because of our cultural backgrounds, it seems "irreverant" to bring emotion into the reading. Yet, to take an example from the gospels, something basic in the Christian message is lost if the passage in John's gospel about the death of Lazarus is read in such a way that the sense of pain and care and love in the action of Jesus responding to the death of his friend Lazarus is lost through a flat reading without emotion. We need to hear the message that the Lord of the Universe is a God who is able to mourn the loss of one person He loved, that God loves us as individuals as well.

Another example of a poor reading because an essential emotion was missing would be a "wimpy" or weak — rather than a strong, forthright — reading of 1 Cor 15. If there is no emotion at all in our reading, we are reading words, but not God's Word. Obviously, one needs to temper the expression of the emotion to the passage, but there is almost always more "sinning" on the side of too little emotion in reading the Scriptures in Church rather than too much.

Another danger here is to assume a false emotion of stately dignity that suggests that one has been invited to substitute for a television announcer of the old school. In doing this one gives the impression: "I am more than pleased to be reporting to you from a service in Westminster Abbey which the BBC is proud to present."

If there are different voices in a scripture passage (e.g., a narrative voice as opposed to dialogue or within a dialogue between the different characters, such as disciples or skeptics), then these differnt persons or roles should be "heard" through a change in the lector's voice and emphasis. A pause or mini-pause in our pace and / or a different tone of voice are usually part of this expression of different voices.

To read with emphasis does not mean accentuating every word or phrase. A very rough rule of thumb suggests giving more attention to verbs and then meaningful phrases while being careful not to overemphasize adverbs and adjectives. A beginner's mistake is to try to emphasize all or almost all of the words of a sentence. But then the "thread" of meaning can be lost. What is most important is finding the sense of the passage, the "story" being shared, or the spiritual insight that an apostle wanted the community to hear. And then through the right rhythm and use of pacing, allowing that story or insight to be heard and remembered. Pauses are very important for they allow an expression or idea to be distinctly heard and they help to mark a change in speaker or emphasis in a passage.

A good lector, having read beforehand the passage several times and having prayed over it, will find himself or herself drawn to one or two lines in the reading that may be the "highpoints". There is often more than one way to read a passage and still be faithful to it. Another reader may highlight different elements of the reading. A good lector would be close enough to the reading so that none of the "main themes" would be lost and the whole would be read such that a meaningful message from God can come through.

Preparation includes reading the passage aloud, and more than once, if only to yourself. This is really important. There is a need not just to let your mind become familar with the ideas and words, but also to let them "get around your tongue" as you practice the rhythm of the phrasing of the words. Otherwise even if you think you have prepared the reading, you will find yourself sometimes "off-step" in your verbal rhythm in the middle of a sentence when you read before the community. This is especially true for the longer sentences which are often found in the New Testament letters. To be honest, many of the sentences in the Pauline or other NT letters have to be studied and read very carefully and with a lot of emphasis in order for their meaning to be fully grasped by the average congregation.

Part of studying the lectionary passage is discovering what genre it is and letting that be expressed in our reading. In storytelling (and much of scripture uses this genre), repetition of phrases is a important part of allowing the story to be remembered. There is often a rhythm built up in the way the words are used. The lector needs to find that rhythm and pass it on so that this reading this day in Church can also be remembered.

Pastoral exhortations (found in most of the epistles of the NT) are read differently than one of Jesus' parables. They should be read "pastorally", i.e. with care and concern, and not as a list of evil things to be righteously condemned: lest what is heard be not the real need of correction and growth that all Christians share, but "zingers" which are "obviously meant for someone else."

[Content: Copyright Peter P. Kenny, 1999-2003.]


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