This post is part of a series looking at various elements of worship. In each post we’ll examine one element and look at biblical foundations for them.
If you’re new to the church or you grew up in a church that didn’t do corporate readings they may seem strange to you. For some they can seem like a weird, cult-like practice. For others they can seem like a boring activity that takes away from the emotional high of worship. Or perhaps just something that crushes individuality. So let’s address these issues and look at some biblical foundations for corporate readings and try to answer the question “Are corporate readings necessary?”
First, let’s define what a corporate reading is so we can make sure we’re talking about the same thing. A corporate reading is a reading that is done by the congregation (you might say a reading that is done corporately). It might be a passage from scripture, or a creed from historic christianity. Sometimes the readings are responsive, meaning that the service leader reads a portion, and the congregation replies – your hymnals probably have plenty of these. And sometimes these readings may be limited explicitly to the membership of the church – our church’s membership stands and reads our church covenant together before the Lord’s Supper.
With that in mind let’s look at a few of the ways this practice blesses the church. And how leaders can better guide the church in corporate readings.
Corporate readings reinforce orthodoxy
I can understand it when people say that corporate readings seem weird. Especially when one precedes communion. People stand up, recite words, and then eat and drink in unison. If you have no familiarity with what’s happening it can be uncomfortable, possibly even worrying.
However, corporate readings tie us to a history of faithful believers that have gone before us. Many creeds arose out of a desire to clarify what we believe and root it firmly in the Bible. So by reading passages from the Bible aloud or reading historic orthodox creeds we are corporately declaring truth and orthodoxy. And by doing so we distance ourselves from false-teaching and practice. In fact, Colossians 2:16-23 encourages us not to allow worldly concepts or judgements to influence our worship. So instead of giving in to attempts to make the church feel embarrassed about reading corporately, we should remember that when those negative similarities appear we are seeing a distortion of good things by unbelievers.
The Bible is a rich source of God-glorifying, edifying passages ready to be read corporately. From the many Psalms that were sung and read aloud by the Israelites before Christ’s arrival, to the hymns and creeds of the New Testament (Col. 1:15-20, Phil. 2:5-11, Luke 1:46-55 etc.) corporate readings have been a means of reminding ourselves of the truth and declaring it clearly.
Corporate readings enrich our worship
Public reading of scripture actually characterizes worship according to 1 Timothy 4:13. Which means our worship would be incomplete without it. We are not all poets. We are not all eloquent. Even though most of us have been speaking since around the age of 2, we still sometimes struggle to put words together coherently. When we sing together as a church we don’t just attempt to freestyle lyrics extemporaneously like we’re taking part in a rap battle. I’m thankful that brothers and sisters with a gift for poetry have written songs for us to sing corporately. They help us to express deep and profound truths in beautiful ways. I’m always moved when we sing the third verse of Philip Bliss’ It Is Well with My Soul.
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
How beautiful is that? I can feel the weight of my sin lifted every time I sing that. And the same thing is at work in corporate readings. The biggest difference between corporate readings and corporate singing is the lack of music. There are no constraints of time signature or melody. But the truth is still there. Creeds are distilled truth. Consider the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
That is truth distilled into concise and purposeful language. Every word is used to maximum effect to state the gospel clearly. And when the gospel is clear, our worship is enriched. So when you as a congregant are participating in a corporate reading, don’t just mumble the words. Take them in and think about them as you read them, the same way you are reading this now.
Corporate readings unite us
The church is a public display of the gospel at work in the world. God saves people out of every walk of life, every background, every economic bracket, every skin color, every age group. Every line the world tries to divide people over, does not divide people in the church. Rather, these differences work more like facets on a diamond and illuminate different aspects of the beauty and power of the gospel. When we read together it is a clear demonstration of our unity in Christ. And to the unsaved people in our midst it should be a very striking thing.
As christians it can be a humbling act of unity. When we confess sin together through readings, or praise God together, we are actively reminded of our own status and that of our brothers and sisters. Our sins are often, sadly, most offensive to us when we see them in others because we are often better at seeing sins in others than in ourselves. But when we corporately join with them in reading truth, we can’t help but be reminded that we are as weak, fallen, and desperately in need of a Savior as they are. This is the sort of corporate reading that goes on in Nehemiah 9 as the Israelites separate themselves from foreigners and “read from the Book of the Law of their God.”
Leading a corporate reading
So what about when you are the one leading? The way you lead can help bring out the things above and encourage people in reading. If someone stands up in front of the church and says “Let’s do the corporate reading,” they’re not really helping people understand the why of it. In fact that just paints it as a mundane task that must be completed before we finish the service.
It’s always important to keep the theme visible in the service. If you’re not the one preaching, make sure you’ve read the passage being preached ahead of time, and consider how the reading is related to it. Help the congregation to see that connection. If the main passage of the morning is dealing with confession, and your reading is a confession, point that out as you introduce it. You can say “Let’s confess our sins together through the words of …” Make the theme obvious and people will be prepared for it and be able to engage with it more easily.
And finally, read in a way that is appropriate to the mood of the text being read. Adopting a monotone droning will encourage people to disconnect their thoughts from their mouths and wait for next bit of the service that they find interesting. A leader has a duty to set the tone and lead people through the reading.
As you prepare to lead in corporate readings or to join in corporate readings, remember the rich history of Christian tradition you are joining with as the gospel unites the saints of old with the saints of today in praise and worship.