Affirming the Ministry of Lay Readers

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Theodore May says reading scripture in worship is a profound and meaningful way to connect people with the Bible, worship, and the church. Congregations need to help people overcome their hesitations by setting reasonable expectations and helping them prepare in more than superficial ways.


Performing a role in a play binds an actor to that play for life. For years afterwards, the actor remembers the play, the production, and even the theatre space and time in which the play was performed, continuing to recall some of the lines and even some lines of other characters in the play. It’s a meaningful, memorable and even formative experience.

One of the most meaningful ways a church can bind new members, youthful members, casual attendees and even old reliable members to scripture, worship, and their church is to invite them all to read scripture aloud.

Overcoming hesitations

Reading scripture aloud in church can be a thing of mystery to most of us and even a little bit intimidating. Many of us don’t feel physically or emotionally equipped to attempt it. We may even feel unqualified. We may be daunted by the significance and gravity of such a role and the number of appointed tasks that are often associated with it.

Just what it is that we are called to do as readers can be easily confusing. I think it’s no accident that there are almost as many different approaches and techniques put forward on how to read scripture aloud as there are excuses offered for not doing it. When we refer to the reading of the Gospel in a church service as a “lesson,” many of us hesitate. What lesson should we take from this passage? Which one of several possibilities for interpreting the text is the right one? Aren’t these really the responsibility of the pastor?

When we see the same rotation of people performing the role of lay reader again and again, we begin to assume that some level of faith, devotion, and training (at the very least, chutzpah and experience) must be required that we don’t have. We have serious doubts. And that invites easy excuses:

  • I dread public speaking.
  • I’m nervous.
  • I feel shy or uncomfortable.
  • I don’t have “the gift”.
  • I don’t want to make a mistake or appear foolish.
  • I don’t want to sound actor-ish or draw attention to myself.
  • I don’t really know what it is I am doing or exactly what it is I’m supposed to be doing.
  • I read some tips online, but it’s hard to remember all the things they tell you to do.…

And so, we take a pass.

The risk of making it sound too simple

Clergy are usually just glad to have anyone volunteer. If they offer any coaching, they tend to focus on the minimal and most superficial aspects of reading aloud in public so as not to scare anyone off. It’s easy. Just stand up at the right time in the service, as printed in the bulletin. Make your way to the pulpit or lectern. Open the Bible to the right chapter and verse. Speak in a loud voice. Here’s how you pronounce this name or place. Say something like “The word of God for the people of God.” And then go sit down again. Great success!

In fact, focusing only on the superficial performance aspects of public reading places more emphasis on flawless execution as the measure of success. It’s a little like having no upper body strength and being called upon to execute some awkward maneuver on the parallel bars in middle school gym class. There’s no pleasure in it. Only dread of failure, abject humiliation, and intense relief when it’s over. And that means there’s a very low reward for such high risk. And, consequently, it is hardly worth the risk at all for most of us.

All should be able to answer the call

And that’s too bad. Reading scripture aloud before a congregation is an experience everyone should have. To encourage more people to read aloud as a part of the worship service, pastors need to keep it simple, lower the barriers, remove the impediments, and set expectations at more realistic and attainable levels. All should be called and feel able to answer the call.

Reading the Gospels aloud in church offers readers encounters with scripture that can lead to transformative experiences. Those experiences can be surprising and richly rewarding for both the reader and the listening congregation: shared experiences that can be memorable, meaningful, formative, and ultimately binding.


Copyright 2018. Theodore May. Used by permission. Theodore May has written more extensively on the ministry of lay reading at Hear the Gospel on Beliefnet.com. You may follow him on Twitter at @GospelHear.

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About Author

Theodore May

Following a long career as a executive in media, entertainment and technology, Theodore May now teaches communication to executives and business students. He is active in his local Episcopal congregation with a particular interest in the ministry of lay reading. And he is a Christianity columnist for Beliefnet.com and tweets at @GospelHear.


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