To paraphrase Paul’s letter to Timothy: “Give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching… Do not neglect the gift that is in you… Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
I have been a reader at church for many years, but it was not until I studied for my speech arts diploma that I really understood the responsibility that comes with this task. Projecting one’s voice, reading at an intelligible pace, and pronouncing difficult words correctly is not enough. Every time a reader speaks the words from scripture they must give of their whole self, drawing listeners into the story and delivering the text (especially a very familiar text) so that it always sounds fresh and new.
So how does one do that? The first thing is to understand that the Bible contains various literary styles that must be delivered in a way suitable to each genre. Generally speaking, there are three main styles: Narrative (43%), Poetry (33%), and Discourse (24%). Narrative is storytelling, including historical accounts, parables, and the gospels. Narrators and characters have distinct voices and viewpoints. Interpreters must consider subtext and engage listeners through expression, vocal inflection and tone. Poetry includes songs or psalms, the wisdom books, and poetry of the prophets. They speak in dense, creative language using metaphors and linking images to evoke our emotions and imagination. Attention to rhythm, flow and cadence is important for good delivery. Discourse includes speeches, letters, and essays that are found in the laws, wisdom collections and letters of the apostles. These build on ideas and often present arguments, requiring an instructional tone.
Secondly, one must take the time to study and prepare. Below are some basic procedures that I follow when preparing to read in church.
- Prepare and practice your reading 5-7 days in advance. If you do not have access to your text early on, you can find it online. Google “Anglican Church of Canada Lectionary” and follow the link. Enter the date you are wanting and then click “Link to full text for this day.”
- Identify the type of reading that you will be presenting – poetry, prose, or discourse.
- Read the text for comprehension and structure. Determine your point of view as the narrator/character and your tone.
- Look up difficult words for proper pronunciation. Some websites have voice clips you can listen to.
- Score your reading – In other words, edit the look of it in a way that will help you deliver the text easily. I copy and paste my texts into MS Word so that I can play around with the formatting and enlarge the font. I then break down paragraphs into separate lines or points for clarity. I also separate narrator text from character dialogue.
- Print out your reading, and then mark things like key words, pauses, run-on lines, breathing spots.
- Practice reading out loud daily so that the words flow easily.
- Enunciate well and project your voice whether or not you will be using a microphone. Mumbling into a microphone does not magically make one’s speech intelligible.
- Practice lifting your eyes from the page as you read. Your delivery will be much more effective and engaging. This will become easier the more familiar you become with your text.
For those wishing to further explore this topic and to get feedback on their reading skills, I am considering offering in-person and online workshops during Lent. Please contact me if you are interested. [email protected]