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.