Brother Pastor, Take Up and Read
God communicated to us through a book, through the written word, and, therefore, he expects us to read.
Of the making many books there is no end . . . (Eccl. 12:12b)
I fell in love with books at a relatively young age.
For Christmas in 1980, a family member gifted me a boxed set that included all three volumes of The Lord of the Rings plus The Hobbit. I took up The Hobbit that same day and was hooked. Over the next few months, I inhaled the Tolkien trilogy, then began to branch out into non-fiction—mainly baseball biographies and history related to the Civil War, World War II and some of the better-known U.S. presidents.
Really, the seeds to my reading addiction were probably sown in the second grade when our English teacher had each of us subscribe to the Weekly Reader, an old-school children’s newspaper with age-appropriate articles on current events, profiles on famous people, and more. I first learned about events like the Hindenburg zeppelin disaster, the 1849 gold rush, and the D-Day landing through Weekly Reader.
WR offered a book club, and I’ve been a sucker for book clubs ever since. Small paperbacks arrived periodically to my mailbox that introduced me to a cast of characters—real and imagined—from Huckleberry Finn and Babe Ruth to Alexander Hamilton and Red Grange. I read Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows and wept at the end of both. My parents bought the full set of the World Book Encyclopedia—that generation’s Google—and I must’ve spent hundreds of hours in rapt attention to the myriad topics covered in those green and off-white hardbound volumes (they had a distinct smell similar to the stacks in a library). My desire for good books only grew throughout high school and college.
Take Up and Read
I’m well aware that relatively few people enjoy reading at all, much less as a hobby. By the very nature of their calling and work, pastors ought to be an exception to this sad trend. I think every pastor should be a reader on some level, and I think this for a theological reason that should be obvious: God communicated to us through a book, through the written word, and, therefore, he expects us to read.
Apart from reading the book he inspired through apostles, prophets and other holy men, how else are we to know why the world is the way it is? How else are we to know how we got here? How else can we know how to remedy the deepest problem facing our world? How else can we know the God who made us?
I read through the Bible every year, and every week I do a good bit of reading for sermon preparation as every pastor seeking to be faithful should, but I want to encourage pastors to read broadly and regularly for many reasons, including for pleasure.
To at least spur the conversation, here are seven guiding principles that loosely govern my own reading as a pastor.
1. Read Widely
I typically have three books going at the same time—one on the Bible and theology (currently it’s John Piper’s Providence), one that’s devotional in nature (presently Michael Reeves’ Rejoice and Tremble), and another in what I simply call the “other” category. For me, the last one is most often history or biography. Currently, I’m reading Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster and Team of Five: The President’s Club in the Age of Trump.
I believe it’s important for a pastor to read broadly—in addition to wonderful works of theology and Bible. We need to stay up on current events and cultural trends because most people in our congregations live daily somewhere along the trajectory of the culture and its trends.
2. Read Fiction
Admittedly, I don’t read fiction as much as I’d like, but excellent fiction can transform pastors into more skilled storytellers, and the Bible is most fundamentally one big theologically-annotated story filled with tragedy and triumph, tragedy in the fall of mankind into sin, triumph in God’s bold rescue mission in sending his son to snatch his bride from the clutches of death and the devil to live happily ever after in a glorious kingdom. The best fiction writers grip you with their stories; how much more should your telling of the greatest story ever told grip the people who hear you preach each week.
3. Read Daily
Pastors should read the Bible in its entirety yearly or at least regularly, but it’s also helpful to take at least a few minutes each day to read something else that’s edifying or informative.
I try to piggyback reading onto my private devotional time early in the morning and then read for as long as I can stay awake (sometimes 60 minutes, sometimes 60 seconds) at bedtime. I’ve been amazed at how much reading I’ve been able to accomplish in those two sittings.
4. Read for Preaching
As Cornelius Plantinga Jr. points out in his excellent book Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists, language furnishes the raw materials that a man of God uses in fashioning sermons. Broad reading will help you say things better, more clearly, more concisely, more compellingly. It will enlarge your vocabulary and help you to formulate thoughts and ideas in a more linear manner behind the sacred desk. Plus, as Plantinga asserts, general reading enlarges our sympathies for people and circumstances we otherwise might have avoided or at least been ignorant of. Wide reading has the chance of forming wise pastors.
Reading broadly has the added benefit of enabling the pastor to build a storehouse of sermon preaching. We all love stories and a well-told story gleaned from a trustworthy source can enable a hearer to remember an important sermon point or doctrine far longer than would the bald statement of that point or doctrine by itself. Since I spend much of my time reading history, many of my illustrations come from past events or figures.
5. Read for Heart and Head
Read books that will set your heart ablaze for God. J. I. Packer’s Knowing God, J. C. Ryle’s Holiness, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Paul Tripp’s New Morning Mercies, R. C. Sproul’s Holiness of God, Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening, even Calvin’s Institutes, sermons by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and selections from Bavinck and Turretin have helped stoke the fire in my bones for Christ through the years.
Read books that will deepen your knowledge of theology and Bible, history and philosophy, people and places.
One of the marks of humility is teachability. Resolve to be a perpetual learner and reflect on ways to relate every topic to the things of God. Spurgeon and Edwards were brilliant at relating their study of nature to Scripture and filled their sermons with unforgettable illustrations and word pictures drawn from God’s world.
6. Read for Pleasure
Read books and articles on topics you enjoy that are unrelated to the pastorate or your work in ministry. One of my great loves is well-written books on sports history, particularly baseball biographies. I recently read a biography of Chicago Cubs hall-of-famer Ernie Banks, and this summer I hope to get around to a biography of the great Roberto Clemente.
I enjoy biographies of icons who shaped popular music in the 20th century, especially in the Deep South. Last summer, I read a serious two-volume biography of Elvis Presley by music historian Peter Guralnick and found it impossible to put down. In recent years, I’ve read books about the Old West and accounts of the lives and music careers of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and George Jones. I’ve also set a personal goal of reading at least one biography of every U.S. president before I die.
7. Read Old Books
I’m going to assume that most reading pastors are already engaging new works, but let us not be guilty of what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”:
“It’s a good rule after reading a new book never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to three new ones. . . . Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. . . . None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. . . . The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds and this can only be done by reading old books.”
New editions of old theological works by the Reformers, Puritans, and other godly divines are readily available for pastors, so there’s really no excuse to live only in 2021. Christianity is an ancient faith, and God has dotted the church timeline with myriad godly men and woman across the ages whose insights into Scripture and theology are timeless, instructive, and deeply edifying.
Men like John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Watson, and John Newton were not distracted by iPhones, social media, television, and sports (all of which I enjoy, so I don’t intend for that statement to sound like a scolding). These and other Christians from the past suffered profoundly and reflected deeply on the human condition, the sinful heart of man, and the grace of God in Christ.
Take Up and Read
The local church is a kingdom of frenetic activity for pastors. There’s always more to do and the work is never done—indeed, you and I will never finish it unless Christ returns in our lifetime. Pastors tell me often there’s just no time for reading, but, pastor, I encourage you to take time for good books, even books on topics you’ll enjoy. Start small, maybe 15 minutes per day and see what happens. I’ll prognosticate that both you and your congregation will be glad you did.