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Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Why Preachers Should be Readers

"When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments." (2 Timothy 4:13)

Preachers do not have to be readers....
As far as I know, apart from the verse above, there is no command in Scriptures for preachers to be "readers." By "readers" I mean people who read many different kinds of books. 

All preachers must be readers of The Book, the Scriptures. There is no short-cut or excuse or cop-out on this one. Preachers must know the whole counsel of God in order to preach it. So we must be in the Word, systematically, Old Testament, New Testament, law, poetry, prophecy, Gospel, letter.... 

...but preachers are helped by being readers
But are there good reasons why preachers should also read widely - and now I mean reading outside of Scripture?

One could, I guess, amass a wide knowledge of the world by reading posts on the Internet, watching movies, listening to people, visiting places, listening to music, and so on..... Yes, this could be the "reading" a preacher commits to. But in addition to learning about the world through these means, learning from books does the following for the preacher... 


1. Reading books fills up the well
Preachers will soon run dry if they do not read widely. Preaching regularly is like drawing out of a well - and you can only draw out what you put in. 

2. Reading widens your understanding of life-circumstances
You are only, say, male, middle-class, white, western. But you will be preaching to people from a multitude of backgrounds - reading about their lives is immensely valuable and provides illustrations that a "farmer", "tinker" or "sailor" will immediately tune into.

3. Reading books widens your understanding of your place in history
Again, you live / have lived only in a tiny say 100-year span of world history.  Those times have shaped so much about you. But perhaps the age you were born into is a comfortable age? That will for sure affect your interpretation of Scripture - believe me or not. It is helpful to read the lives and commentaries of Christians who lived through difficult times and whose writings are almost always far more enduring. One of my biggest complaints about writers like Tom Wright is that they write from the comfort of a Western scholastic tradition - and boy does it show. My guess is that much of the work of these "armchair scholars" will be forgotten before they pass away.

4. Reading corrects you
I'm talking commentaries now. When you read 5 or 6 commentaries on a given passage of Scripture you are privileged to sit in the room of 5 or 6 teachers - which God has given to the Church (in most cases).  I have often sat at the feet of Calvin, Wiersbe, Spurgeon, Keil and Delitszh and other mighty men who though (some are) dead still speak. And you soon realise that your first-pass exegesis needs correcting. Suppose you preached that sermon without ever consulting other writers? (We won't use that horrible title "scholars").

5. Reading informs you about the age you live in
We in particular live in a fast-changing society.  Reading contemporary books helps us to understand the world we live in. 

6. Reading books forces you out of your comfort zone
If you read books you totally disagree with, or books the style of which you dislike, you learn to stretch yourself where you might not ordinarily be stretched. Perhaps you love fiction, well force yourself to read fact. Perhaps you love fact, read fiction (preacher heal thyself).

On my humble journey as an ordinary preacher, now for 30 years, here is what I have learnt about reading books...

1. Read widely
I mean by this, avoid the temptation to read what you always read. In the end we are all in "traditions". And if we are not careful instead of helping us, our reading could merely confirm our prejudices!

2. Read daily/weekly/regularly
It's generally easier to read a little every day than alot on one day - unless you are the bookworm type.

3. Read balanced-ly
Not a word, but you know what I mean. Read biography, read devotional, read history, read sciency, read new, read old - all in one big cycle. Not a good idea to read one year poetry followed  by one year history... Can you imagine your preaching when it comes to the year of science? Or, worse, in the year of poems? Perish the thought!

4. Read selectively
Best not to read the "must reads" pushed at all the conferences. Let time sort out the books. The best ones will be reprinted in a couple of years; the rest - yes and that's most of them folks - will be soon gone and forgotten.

5. Read wisely 
Why read a 700 page biography of Stalin, when there's a well-reviewed 100-page one available. Your time is precious. Believe me, I've learned the hard way.

6. Read outside your comfort zone
I've said it before. Read outside your comfort/tradition zone. Read Charles Finney, read the Anabaptists (without reformed prejudice), read the Charismatics - you can see where my comfort zone lines lie.

7. Read with a pencil
I mark all my books. Then I write up a short review. Then I write a summary of the 1-3 main points I have learned from the book: how have the thoughts of this writer contributed to my worldview? What illustrations do I take from the book?  Without a pencil, it doesn't stick with me. 

So what am I reading today, by way of example? I have lots and lots of books "on the go" including the following:

  1. The Great Leveller (written by an unbeliever about the history of economic differences between the rich and the poor - shocking observation, the reformation does not seem to have had any great impact on income inequality...)
  2. Man and His Symbols - Carl Jung. Trying to understand Jordan Peterson.
  3. I will pour out my Spirit - I'm preaching a series on the Holy Spirit (tons more books on the work of the Spirit) 
  4. Madness - Roy Porter
  5. A deeper Understanding (CD)  - by the band A War on Drugs 
  6. Institutes - John Calvin, new translation by BOT - worth every penny
  7. The Rise and fall of Modern Medicine - James Le Fanu - hunting for illustrations - how about this one about repentance (meta-noia, change of mind), "The history of modern medicine begins sometime in the 1830s when a few courageous physicians acknowledged that virtually everything they did... was useless." (page 11) 
Preachers who do not "read" could easily end up preaching the same sermons every week - from any passage they preach on. But Jesus says that there ought to be new treasures in the storeroom:

"Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old."(Matthew 13:52)