For no particular reason except that it has been on my mind, this goes out to lectors everywhere who have been given the wrong instruction manual on proclaiming scripture in worship. I am here to correct any misconceptions you may have about the task. You may thank me later.
But first, let me establish my bona fides. In the past I have taught college speech, many times. Along with requiring from students the usual sorts of speeches conforming to the usual sorts of categories, I always included sections on poetry recitations (they usually hated that) and public reading in front of a group, say, at church. Public reading is an art form, I believe. At least I taught it that way.
My third grade teacher had it cold. I have only one real memory from that year. She read Bambi and Bambi’s Children to the class. She sat at her desk—I can still see her—holding the open book and reading aloud to us, chapter by chapter. I remember her voice and words washing over us, capturing us in the tale. She did it with the words, only the words, clearly spoken, her voice matched to the contexts of humor, narrative, conversation, sadness, as demanded by the text, all from her desk as the class sat at theirs, listening.
That’s where I want a lector to take me, back to the third grade. Done well, the public reading of scripture is more than just Bible reading. It is hearing God’s story for us, and the reader reads life into it.
So, start here. Public reading is not public speaking. That runs the other way, too; public speaking is not public reading. Too many times the one is mistaken for the other.
But what does it mean to say public reading is not public speaking? In public speaking, the speaker must visibly connect with the audience to establish an authentic relationship. It requires sustained eye-contact, gesture, an engaged and energetic body language, facial emphasis, all of that. The speaker combines all these to draw the listener’s attention to himself to gain an audience for what he says. It is the speaker’s presence in the moment that conveys as much of the speech to the listener as the words themselves. We see the speaker and thereby gain some knowledge of his or her character.
But a public reader, a lector, should be invisible. A public reading is an appointment with a text, and often a text that is not unfamiliar to the listeners. It is the text—familiar though it may be—that must capture our attention, not the reader. The reader, so to speak, must stand aside. The lector’s job is to speak the text in such a way that it may catch us and thereby speak to us.
Of course, some of the usual rules for speaking in public apply: Careful attention to enunciation, pronunciation, vocal quality. Nonetheless, the very features that in fact go into public speaking detract from a public reading. I say it again: the lector’s job is to bring our attention to the text, not to the speaker. Public reading is not public speaking.
Eye-contact? I haven’t read a lector’s guide yet that did not emphasize eye-contact with the congregation. Nope. Ignore it.
There are only two occasions that actually require one to look at the congregation, and neither happens during the reading itself. The first is when the introductory line is said: “This is a reading from . . .” and, last, when the conclusion is announced, “The Word of the Lord.” Pause after saying the introduction. Mentally count to five before launching into the text. After the reading, pause again, same count to five, look up and then say, “The Word of the Lord.” Silence is probably the best attention-getter available. Use it well.
Where should your eyes otherwise be? On the text, naturally. To emphasize the scripture you are proclaiming, pick up the lectionary and read from the book. Don’t let it sit hidden on the ambo or lectern; make it visible. As your attention focuses on the reading―raising the book as you read reveals your focus―the text you hold will become the congregation’s center of attention as well. If the book itself is too heavy or clumsy for easy use, photocopy the text and place it inside a choir folder and read from that.
Preparation? You must practice aloud. I’d say, reading the text ten times is not too many. Out loud. That is after you have read the text silently to yourself perhaps an equal number of times. You must become familiar with the words, their flow, and learn where a pause will aid clarity. Explore the different ways the text might be illuminated by the tone of your voice. There is irony in scripture, humor, playfulness, somber warnings, lament, conversational exchanges, narration, and more. I cannot think of any verbal characterization that isn’t in scripture. Let the weight of the words indicate your mood and tone and delivery for the reading.
Microphone? Do not depend on the microphone to project your voice. Find the right distance you need from the microphone so your voice is neither lost nor overwhelming. Um, yes, get there well beforehand, with a friend listening from last pew, so you can figure that out ahead of time. And listen for your p’s and t’s; they sometimes come spitting out of a sound system like explosive cap guns. Move slightly back from the microphone if you hear the pops as you practice.
There you go. That’s some of the technical stuff. Non-technical: say a prayer, one of gratitude for the service you have been selected to perform. In fact, start there, and then tackle the technique.
Russell E. Saltzman, who writes from Kansas City, Missouri, is also a contributor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at email@example.com. His previous First Things contributions are here.