Long readings in worship: example and solution resource

The more emphasis a church places on edification (as opposed to sacramental mediation or even social service) the longer the readings seem to get. This sometimes works if you learn by hearing (I don’t) and if someone has taken great pains to make a long lesson really — to draw a metaphor from advertizing — soft and absorbant. Otherwise, even a good reader is likely to sound like Miss Othmar, and not all of us have Linus’s devotion. A small word of blessing to televangelists: they keep the lessons short, and caption them on the TV. And the mikes work. But if you’re in church, the best you can hope for is a swift and painless end: for the reading or yourself.

Sunday I was visiting a church and the preacher was in a particularly academic mode. Four lessons. Over 1,200 words. No significant break between them and the microphone had a reverb. Since I started to glaze over, I looked around to see how the other people in the pews were doing. It was Krispy Kreme land. If we were expected to be acquainted with the lessons before the sermon, we would have failed. I can’t recall them now.I hate feeling like I fail at church; so would other newcomers.

So, I have some expectations about what a reading should be:

  • One of two or three at most. Long enough to get the point and trimmed if necessary. A lovely translation is desirable, but one that can be well understood by hearing is best. This isn’t exegesis or even in-depth Bible study, so read what people are liable to recall. For the Bible, I prefer The Revised English Version.
  • If the church is not very small and acoustically alive, there should be a microphone and sound system that works. And is used correctly.
  • A proper introduction, telling the reader where the reading is from even if it is listed in a printed order of service
  • Perhaps an interpretive introduction putting the lesson in the context of readings in earlier weeks and a notice of uncommon names or words.
  • If there are more than two readings, I want some kind of non-reading interruption, and preferably something to jog the congregation. If a psalm appears as a “lesson” it should be restored to congregational reading or singing. No psalm? Add a hymn.

I’ve become more sympathetic to those who are less sympathetic to the Revised Common Lectionary, too. It makes more sense for congregations that have a lot of resources to interpret scripture — classes, say — and which have a large core of scripturally fluent attendees and members. And has a large percentage of members and attendees that come every week.

I have become more sympathetic to a reading plan that values short readings that can be appreciated at a number of levels of faith maturity and have enough internal cohesion that they can — at least some of the time — have a thematic unity. Otherwise you feel you’re drowning this time of the church year — where are we now, the hundred and ninth Sunday after Pentecost?

Alas, my favorite lectionary for this use is not available online: the Sunday lessons from the Church of South India Book of Common Worship.

Categorized as Worship

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Agree with all you’ve said here. two additonal ideas….

    I’ve been toying with the idea of providing printed copies of the readings where copyright allows. This would allow the visual learners to follow along, and it would put the text(s) of the sermon in their hands. In a Unitarian Universalist church, people are very unlikely to bring their Bibles along (if they even own a Bible!), so why not give them the Bible text that you’re preaching from? Or if you’re preaching from the Bhagavad Gita, or the Analects (as I have been known to do), again, why not give them the text? Although this idea really came to me because I often use a reading from Hosea Ballou as commentary on the primary text for the sermon, and I would love to get Ballou’s words into the hands of the congregation. In short, knowledge is power, giving texts to the people gives them power.

    On another topic, I’ve been thinking about the role of the readings given what I’ve been elarning from the Emergent Church people. SCott, you write: “Perhaps an interpretive introduction putting the lesson in the context of readings in earlier weeks and a notice of uncommon names or words.” — and more and more I’m thinking that is a key point. We can’t count on any level of “bible literacy” or even “religious literacy” in congregations any more, particularly among younger folks. We need to explain everything — concisely, and with gentle respect for those who don’t know religion at all. (I’m also coming to think that the explanations have to continue into the sermon, so that at least half the sermon becomes simple explanation of the text, maybe from multiple viewpoints.) Along these lines, some emergent churches are even explaining the hymns — you can’t assume that anyone in the congregation can understand the hymns — and this makes good sense to me as well.

    ((For someone like me who’s very low church and serving in North America, the New Revised Standard Version works really well for readings — the translators designed it for reading aloud, and while far less poetic than REV it’s much closer to idomatic North American English. I can understand how it might sound awkward to someone from a higher church background, but to me it just sounds like plain English.))

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