Pastors are people of the Book and people of many books. It is unavoidable. But what of these books of ours? How should we approach our reading? As a person who loves books and spends great a great amount of time and money investing in books, here are a few rules by which I try to live.
I usually set a reading goal at the beginning of every year and in so doing think carefully through how many books I want to read each year. To read a lot of books, there isn’t a special secret—you have to spend lots of time reading. Be found often with a book in your hand. If you are like me and can get bored easily, read two or three books of different kinds at a time. When one book gets to be a little dry, turn to the other. It takes longer to read a book this way, but there is an odd joy to finishing several books in rapid succession.
I love reading books on preaching, on theology, and on the church. But, those can sometimes get very dry and my people tire of hearing my preaching illustrations about preaching. I rarely find a work of theology with a sentence like, “Clarke had an expanding brain that functioned like an accordion. He sucked in ideas, mixed them together and then expelled them as something altogether more melodious” (Giles Milton, Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, New York: Picador, 2016). Reading in other disciplines expands my mind, opens the door for new illustrations, and gives me insight into the way others within our culture may be thinking.
This is not contradictory. As important as it is to read widely, you should also identify a couple of areas that you want to master. For me, one of those areas is preaching so I read preaching books voraciously. During certain seasons of life, I narrow down to focus on particular areas. This is especially important in the years after your formal education have ended. During college and seminary, you were forced to read narrowly for particular classes. After your formal education has ended, don’t stop learning. Create systematic areas of study where you can focus your time and energy whether for a lifetime or for a season.
I heard John MacArthur talk about his reading habits a while back. He reads about 15 commentaries on a passage of scripture before he preaches it. He also claims to have books all over his house because he reads in several different places, but he cautions against reading anything that casts doubt on the authority of Scripture. John MacArthur, one of the great pastor/theologians of our day carefully avoids books that might cause doubt to creep into his mind regarding the authority of Scripture. Not everything that has been written needs to be read. Practice discretion with your reading.
I love getting alone with a good book, writing in the margins, wrestling with the text, and being confronted with the arguments. I often get even more from a book when I take that same book into a room with others and wrestle together with the claims the book makes. Books make for great training and equipping tools, they also create wonderful discussion guides to direct group learning.
I once heard a warning given to young pastors from a seasoned veteran of pastoral ministry. “Beware, you will one day be found alone with your books.” While I do not hope for a day when I am “alone,” I am glad that when that day comes, I will be surrounded by a great library of witnesses. Even in that day, I will not be all alone, for I will find a friend upon each shelf, a close companion who has taught me and comforted me. May it be so for you as well.
Featured image credit, edited.