All the Potential in an Open Book

By Mark A. Taylor

Several years ago I was helping host a retreat for emerging leaders among the Christian churches and churches of Christ. One session began with the question, “What are you reading?” and every one in the circle of 25 had something different to report.

These men and women were reading widely—not only books about the Bible and church leadership, but also an assortment of biography, classic literature, and fiction. It was one of several times I’ve realized the future of our movement is strong because so many young leaders in our movement are strong.

This happened around the time the Barna Group was reporting that “92 percent of all pastors in the U.S. say they buy at least one book every month, and they average 3.8 books per month. . . . Compare that to the total population, where only 29.3 percent of American adults buy more than 10 books in the course of a year.”

Effective ministers realize that reading widely builds a foundation for all their ministry. Hopefully those ministers Barna interviewed were reading more than books on how to lead. By delving into history, biography, and the works of contemporary non-Christian thinkers, they will polish their own perspectives, discover points-of-view held by many hearing their sermons, and refine their outlook on all of life. They’ll find a bunch of good sermon illustrations, too!

Unfortunate is the Christian college student who sees no need to study literature or read fiction. Those who hold on to such narrow bias stunt their own growth and limit the depth and impact of their own teaching and preaching. (We pew sitters need to hear more than your personal experiences.)

Fiction, especially, is ignored or repudiated by many men and too many ministers. But Kevin Vanhoozer, writing at The Gospel Coalition, offered “4 Reasons Pastor-Theologians Should Read Fiction.” I summarize his points below:

1.  To become literate in humanity. “To love others we’ve got to be able to put ourselves in their place,” he wrote. “Reading fiction . . . helps us to understand those who are not like us.”

2.  To experience life outside your own. “It’s one thing to know intellectually that some are not saved; it’s quite another to know vicariously with one’s whole being what that feels like.”

3.  To understand your own call. He offered the example of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. “As much—if not more—could be learned about the life of a pastor from reading Gilead than from many books on pastoral theology.”

4.  To grow in missionary competency. “Works of fiction open up not merely the lives of individuals but entire cultures.”

Throughout the decades CHRISTIAN STANDARD has spotlighted books. Not only have we published book reviews, but we’ve offered lists of books to help the reader with problems, issues, or questions our articles were considering. And LeRoy Lawson’s eclectic assortment of possibilities in his monthly “From My Bookshelf” column has offered a rich trove of possibilities for widening one’s exposure to the world around us.

Two weeks ago in this space I shared a report that book reading can add years to one’s life. But Christian leaders have a reason for reading even more important than that.

Our mission is to reach and redeem and reconcile the world to God. I’m glad for preachers and other leaders who know reading prepares us to fulfill that mission in ways unlike any other.


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