Performance of the Lectionary in Worship

How do we hear the Scriptures in worship? How do readers perform them? We rarely think about such questions. Too often, ill-prepared readers stumble through whatever is printed on the bulletin with little recognition of the emphases and patterns in the text. There is no familiarity with the text, and the hearers – or more likely readers (for the text is printed in a bulletin and the reader at the lectern become superfluous) — are left to fend for themselves in order to make sense of the text.

David Trobisch, in the Fall issue of the Concordia Journal, describes how ancient biblical manuscripts were used by the church in worship. He notes that biblical manuscripts were written to be memorized so that the text could be performed orally to the congregation; reading from a written text to the congregation is a later development. Trobisch then suggests that the church revive this ancient practice. He observes:

When a biblical passage—a story, a psalm, or an exhortation—is performed paperless, from memory, the performer will typically translate the text “from English into English”. The intonation, gestures, movements will provide a subtext that interprets the script and often speaks louder than the exact wording of the translation. Just like preachers, performers have to choose from the possible meanings of a passage the one reading they want to convey to their audience on that particular day.

He concludes,

For many years now, together with friends and colleagues, I have encouraged congregational leaders to revive the Early Church practice of performing Biblical texts from memory instead of reading them from a printed Bible. I have worked with congregations and taught the approach in the classroom, helped lectionary groups prepare for the Sunday reading, and taught three credit courses that focused on the memorization and performance of a letter of Paul or a prophet or a gospel. The experience has been overwhelmingly positive.

When Bible texts are performed, they are heard with fresh ears by the audience and also by the performer. Over and over have I witnessed the moment when a familiar Biblical text becomes meaningful through performance—or to say it in Biblical language—the moment, when the Word of God becomes flesh in our human existence.

This video is from Dr. Trobisch’s Day of Exegetical Reflection presentation at Concordia Seminary, during which he “performed” — word for word — the pericope on the women caught in adultery (John 7)

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This can be incredibly helpful to hearers. For example, when I teach Galatians, both in the classroom and in congregational Bible studies, I will read, in its entirety, the letter. It takes only about 18 minutes — the length of a sermon. And then we talk about what the issues were in Galatia: Why does Paul seem disgusted in some places and pastoral in others? Who, in that gathered congregation, is Paul addressing in the different sections? Is it the confused Galatians? The false teachers? The faithful teachers? “Drive out the slave woman and her offspring” — in the context in which those words were originally heard, there was no doubt about the application. The biblical texts — even the narratives, like the gospels — were written to be performed, “declaimed” to use the ancient terminology.

Give it a shot; you as reader/teacher will understand the text better. And so will the hearers. And when we become better hearers of the Word, good things happen.

The Fall Concordia Journal has likely arrived in pastors’ mailboxes (assuming the Post Office is still functioning in your neck of the woods). It has not yet been entered in the ATLASerials database for online viewing.





2 responses to “Performance of the Lectionary in Worship”

  1. Sean Avatar

    This was one of my favorite presentations at the Day of Exegetical reflection. I appreciate that he didn’t just use a drama or skit to present the text, but the text itself. It may be a lot to expect a lay reader to memorize the text, but it is worth thinking about how the text is presented, especially as it is to be the high point of the service.

  2. Kenton Rohrberg Avatar
    Kenton Rohrberg

    Been doing this since 1978–especially with the longer John text like ch 4, 9, 11, Matthew, Mark and Luke passion stories, John 1, Luke 2 for Christmas.

    I started after I heard a man recite Mark 1-4 which he learned after hearing the off-Broadway performance of the 1970’s of Mark’s gospel in its entirety.

    Sad to say that most others will never attempt because they have no discipline.

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