Monday, September 25, 2017

Who Are You Reading?

Bring the Books 3

I do not remember when I have last been more burdened about a particular blog post. This one, or at least the idea behind it, has lain heavy on my heart for months. It does not help that I fully expect it to be widely misunderstood at best. The previous sentence is not sad to me because of me; it is sad to me because misunderstanding or refusing to apply the truth I present here is bringing and will bring widespread damage to the cause of Christ. No, I am not exaggerating here either. So as much as lieth in me, I implore you to give me a hearing.

Let us assume, for the moment, that you are the kind of minister who understands the importance of reading and study. You would not be counted amongst those whose ministries are vapid, shallow, gasping things, dressed in the finery of activity while existing on a subsistence level spiritually. You have your limitations and you know them, yet you strive to be diligent about preparing your mind to serve the Lord and feed your people – and because of this you read. Hence arises the following question:

Who are you reading?

I did not say what. You do not read a what; you read a whom. You do not pore over a book; you partake of the mind and heart of an author. The words you peruse were carefully chosen by the writer to transfer his thoughts into your mind. Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am." Reading invites more than just knowledge into your mind; it brings in the thoughts of another "I am". So who are you reading? Who have you read? Who will read next?

Stop. Before you answer me with a name or a list of names I have a follow-up question, one that is more important than the first one. Why? Why have you chosen to read after those men?

Let me suggest there are some bad answers to this second question. For example, if I ask you why you read a certain author and you do not have an answer – well, that is a bad answer. It means you have not thought through the implications of the fact you are reading a whom rather than a what. It means you have exercised zero discernment about whom you allow to influence you. In this sense, it is no different than choosing a church completely at random. You have a critically high percentage change of ingesting some seriously bad philosophy, doctrine, or practice if you do not stop to answer the why question.

That is not the only bad answer, of course. Others would include reading a particular author because your local family/Christian/Bible bookstore carries a lot of books by him. After all, if he is popular his stuff must be good. You do realize, don't you, that the average doctrinal discernment in a "Christian" bookstore is near zero? You do realize, don't you, that they are for-profit business? That does not make them evil but it does mean they will stock books that appeal to the widest possible sector of the "Christian" public. By definition, to appeal to that wide sector you have to avoid alienating people like the plague. You have to be simplistic, emotional, and uncontroversial. You have to talk about all the things people like about God but none of the things they do not. All of which means the books you will find widely available in the average Christian bookstore are poor books at best.

Unfortunately, we are not done yet. Remember, this is a blog series primarily aimed at ministers, and ministers do not generally give the first two bad answers I listed to the why question. That does not necessarily mean they give a good answer though. Instead, often they simply give a different yet equally bad answer. The why behind the men they read is simple – they read the men everybody else is reading. They read the same books their friends in the ministry are reading, that their friends are discussing, that everyone in their peer group is reading.

In a sense, I get that. I will often see or hear a friend of mine recommend a particular book. That brings the book to my attention, which is the first step to getting it on my reading list. Not only do I get it, as an author I profit from it. I am an average guy pastoring an average size church. The only hope I have to sell books is word-of-mouth recommendation.

Why is that a problem, especially since it helps me as an author? It is a problem because you are not reading a book, rather you are being influenced by an author. I shudder to think, even in relation to my own books, how few men bother to research an author before they read him. Many do not, and that is a problem because it means they are opening up their mind to an influence without first establishing carefully whether it will be a good influence or not.

See, here's the thing – as a listener or a reader I cannot control what influence I receive. I do not know what that person is going to say or write next. I opened my mind when I opened the book. Simply put, it is going to influence me. No, I cannot control whether that influence will take place but I can control who is doing the influencing. I cannot control what they say but I can control who I listen to (podcasts, I am looking at you) and who I read after. And I should, because who I listen to and read after will influence me. I cannot help it. I will not remain unmoved. So I had better think through who I allow to push me before they start pushing me.

This brings me back to the grief that lies on my heart as I write this piece. In my estimation, there is present in the independent Baptist movement a wide tendency to read men who are pushing us in the wrong direction. This is a philosophical piece. I do not want to press it to strongly into specifics lest you lose the larger point. I do, however, want to be clear so let me give you a couple of contemporary examples of what I am talking about.

Let us take Francis Chan for a moment. Most known as the author of the best-selling Crazy Love (no, I have not read it), he founded a mega-church, and a Bible college. His life, as far as is known, is marked by integrity and a genuine devotion to his family. He gives away a substantial portion of his income, and has a genuine passion to share Christ with as many people as possible.

So why won't I read Francis Chan? After all, numerous friends of mine have informed me his books are well-written, thought-provoking, spiritual, and edifying. My answer is simple: I don't want Francis Chan influencing me. See, in addition to all the good of the previous paragraph, Chan does not use the KJV, embraces contemporary worship, is a Calvinist, is comfortable speaking for doctrinally disastrous organizations, co-writes books with the most egregious religious pragmatists of our day, and embraces a charismatic approach to spiritual gifts. Further, his whole approach to ministry is constantly shifting, moving, morphing, transitioning, going somewhere else other than where he is now.

For good measure, let us throw David Platt into the mix too. As with Chan, he is a hot commodity amongst American preachers today, including with many younger independent Baptist ministers. Most known as the author of Radical (no, I have not read it), he is highly educated and articulate. He routinely occupies the most influential pulpits in not just the Southern Baptist Convention, but more broadly throughout America. Like Chan, he has a reputation as a thinker and a doer both, and appears to be by all accounts deeply committed to his wife and children.

So why won't I read Platt? You already know the answer, don't you? Again, like Chan, he embraces a huge swath of doctrine and practice and ministry that I find not just highly questionable but repugnant. I am not interested in allowing him to pour his thoughts into my mind and heart. I do not want him influencing me, and since I cannot read his books without also partaking of his influence I choose not to read his books. I do not want to go where he is at, let alone where he will be going next so I simply refuse to read him, period.

I can hear them from here, the multitudes of my preacher brethren sighing in exasperation with me as they peruse this. "C'mon, Tom, be serious. You cannot only read people with whom you agree. You have to eat the meat and spit out the bones."

Shockingly, I actually agree in principle with that statement. What I

disagree with is the practice that increasingly flows from that principle, as if it justifies reading after anybody and everybody. It is one thing to read an author with whom you know you have one or two differences. It is an entirely different matter to embrace willy-nilly the popular authors of our day, a day in which American Christianity is not coincidentally doctrinally deficient, practically anemic, and disastrously worldly.

I like fish, not to fish, but to grill them and eat them. I can pin-bone my own salmon (a risky proposition) or I can purchase one that has been carefully prepped already. Eat the meat and spit out the bones? Sure, but the more bones there are the greater chance they have of getting through, and once they get through they can inflict serious damage. My children eat what I grill. I would be a fool not to carefully inspect the fish I am going to pass along to them.

See, it is not just about you. It is even more about those whom you, in turn, will influence. If you allow yourself to swallow the swill that currently passes for edification in much of American Christianity you will find it does not stop with you. When Peter said we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard (Acts 4.20) it was in the context of not being able to keep quiet about Christ. Why couldn't he keep it quiet? Because Christ had influenced him, to put it mildly, and what was in Peter as a result of that influence was going to come out of him as he, in turn, influenced others.

A professor at a leading American independent Baptist Bible college recently published his recommended reading list. On this list you will find evangelicals of all stripes, including Calvinists, Southern Baptists, covenant theologians, professors at compromising, even liberal Bible colleges, and charismatics in all but name, with the occasional marketing expert thrown in for good measure. What you will not find is a single book written by an independent Baptist.

"So? You think independent Baptists have the market cornered on God and on truth?"

No, but I do think we are right about a whole lot of things many people in today's Christian America are wrong about. If I did not I would not be one. And I dead sure do not want the professors teaching in our Bible colleges recommending books that will move impressionable young preachers away from who we are, and the truths we believe Christ would have us to stand for. I am not saying this particular brother in Christ is wicked. I am confident he is sincere, a good man, serving the Lord out of a pure heart, but his course here is a very dangerous one. Why? Because you cannot control what an influence does once is is let loose; you can only control who does the influencing. 

I beg of you, grasp the fact you are reading more than a book; you are reading an author. For the love of all that is good and right and holy, for the sake of yourself and those that follow you, choose that author carefully. He will take you somewhere. Make sure it is where you want to go before you read him.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Feed the Flock

Bring the Books 2

It is simply inarguable that God's ministers are to be men who place a priority on reading and study. In my view, there are at least three reasons why the Pastoral Epistles specifically emphasize the necessity of reading in a pastor's life. Brace yourselves; here they come.

First, if you are going to feed people in a long-term pastorate you simply must be constantly growing yourself.

by Anton Mauve (1838-1888)
The word 'pastor' literally means to shepherd, and a shepherd's purpose in life is to care for his sheep. In this context, God repeatedly instructs His men that their primary task is to feed the flock of God via the preaching of God's Word. (John 21.16-17, Acts 20.28, I Peter 5.2) Yes, the pastor is to visit, to administrate, to mentor, to pray, to lead, and to do a thousand other things but he must prioritize preaching.

Preaching, if it is to be done correctly, takes preparation, sometimes vast amounts of it. That is even more true in a religious system such as ours that demands of its pastors several new sermons each week. Of course, short cuts have always been available to busy pastors, and never more so than in our day. It takes little preparation to bring an angry rant in lieu of a sermon. All one needs to do is to get their emotional dander up, and that is suspiciously easy to do. Other men seek to ride on the coat tails of others, snagging sermons from religious publications, from their friends, or from the internet.

Good preaching – and do not confuse this with entertaining preaching – like good food is not produced with short cuts. Yes, you can put your ribs in the oven but the only way to get that true, deep, to-die-for barbecue flavor is to smoke them low and slow for hours. Some things simply take time.

Let us move past the individual sermon, however. A pastor who occupies the same pulpit for decades - stay in Crete, beloved (Titus 1.5) – will find his internal store of knowledge severely tested, if not exhausted, after a few years. At this point he has only three choices, and two of them are bad. He can leave quickly, paint some brief strokes at the new location, then repeat said process for his entire life. Alternatively, he can remain where he is, retitle his sermons, and preach what is essentially the same content over and over again for as long as they will put up with it. Or, he can study, working diligently to show himself approved, and mine the Scriptures for more of the immeasurable wealth which they contain. Guess which one of these three options actually builds solid Christians and solid churches? Right.

Secondly, if a pastor will focus on growing the depth of his ministry he will find that God will take care of growing the breadth of it. All too often, however, we worry about the latter, emphasize the latter, strive to obtain the latter, and then wonder why God will not give it to us. Perhaps He does not allow our ministries to grow because He knows we will do little in reality to edify the increased numbers of people to whom we wish to minister.

The desire for a wider ministry is not wrong, of course. It is also not rare. Most men in ministry, both young men and mature men, desire a greater sphere of influence for the cause of Christ. But when we place our primary attention on schemes to obtain that wider influence we fail to realize that we have not produced the inner strength to handle anything larger. Such growth, if realized, often has a greater chance of ruining us than it does of benefiting them, or the cause of Christ. Simply put, we cannot handle it and it will not last. The roots of the maple tree outside my window must grow if the crown is to grow in any lasting way. When you deepen your message God broadens your ministry, which is exactly as it should be.

My own modest ministry is living proof. For years, it seems, I prayed, asking God to give me a ministry beyond the walls of my church building. (Not that I am above my church; that is not how I intend this to be taken.) For years, it seems, He ignored that request. All the while – and God is my witness – I poured myself into learning and teaching the Word of God to whatever people showed up in front of me. I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours reading, studying, comparing Scripture with Scripture, Bibles and books strewn all over my office as if a tornado had blown through, all to teach five students in a tiny Bible institute class. No one seemed to notice or care. None of the extra work on my part resulted in any income, let alone any wider sphere of influence. But I just kept studying anyway.

Curiously enough, in God's own timing and in His own way, He has begun to grant me that wider influence. More people listen to my sermons and read what I write now than ever before. And I say this cautiously, I have not found it beyond my ability to handle. If I teach a college class about music, and a student asks me a question, I have twenty-five books worth of material, and hundreds of hours of research and preparation out of which to draw an answer.

Perhaps I am being too transparent here. I apologize if this smacks of self-praise. I have not arrived. Just today I happened to glance around my office and see three subjects in particular about which I desperately need to educate myself. Nor do I know all there is to know about the ones I have already studied. Nor am I the best example to illustrate this, I am sure. By the same token, though, I have seen God graciously allow me a broader ministry; it is not a coincidence that I spent years in obscurity first with my nose in the books. When you have something worth hearing, rest assured, you may count on the fact that God will make sure you get that hearing.

Thirdly, if you do not read you have chosen to limit your intake of knowledge only to those people who are currently alive – and that is close to a tragedy.

I do not mean to minimize those godly men (and women) who mentor, counsel, train, and educate you. After all, I desire to be one of those myself, in a sense. They are not idiots. They are spiritual, knowledgeable, compassionate, and helpful. They are beneficial to you in a myriad of ways, and you are wise to avail yourself of their experienced perspective. What they are, however, is limited. They are finite. You can only have, comparatively speaking, a few such men and women present in your life due to the constraints of space and time in which we all live.

Books? Now those are a whole 'nother matter. Books, especially the ones that have come through the generations down to our time, are the distilled wisdom of the ages. My pastor friend across town may serve me for a decent enough sounding board, but, with all due respect, he cannot compare to men of such spiritual stature and grace that have been read by God's men for centuries.

John R. Rice (1895-1980)
author of more than 30 books
One of the concepts that I intend to hammer home with this series is the importance of reading dead guys. I suspect you will tire of hearing me say it before we are done. And this is a primary reason why. Mathematically speaking, there may well be a dozen spiritual giants alive in our generation. Due to the magic of the internet you can hear all of them preach, yes. By force of perseverance and networking you may even manage to build a relationship with one or two of them. But that is all. On the other hand, you can step into my library, and find hundreds of such men sitting there patiently waiting for you. I am not asking you to turn away from the dozen great men of our generation, nor the good men who are special to you; I am pleading with you to include the hundreds behind you sitting unused, gathering dust on the shelves of your library.

We are called to feed the flock. There is nothing in your ministry more important, nothing more pressing, nothing more vital to be done well. It cannot be done well unless we give attendance to reading, it simply cannot.

So shove aside your fantasy football prep. Mute your smart phone. Clear your schedule. Bring the books. Spread them out on your desk, pile them up precariously on the corners, and then set a few more on the printer. Open your Bible. Open a good book. And grow into the minister God desires you to become.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Give Attendance to Reading

Bring the Books 1

The cloke that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments.
II Timothy 4.13

Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.
I Timothy 4.13

Paul, sitting in a dank, damp dungeon, was cold. He wanted Timothy to bring him a warm cloak that he had left on the shores of Turkey in the care of Carpus when he embarked for his voyage to Rome. As with all of us, his bodily comfort was important to him, and rightly so. But more than he wanted to be warmed against the chill of a Roman prison he wanted sustenance for his mind. He wanted books. He wanted parchments.

Paul was almost certainly either a member of the Sanhedrin or in training to be when he got saved. He was both highly educated and brilliant. As an apostle, his writings to the Church were directly inspired by God. Yet in spite of all of this, he still wants to read, he still wants to study, he still wants information flowing across his mind.

Likewise, it was important to him that his protégé, Timothy, incorporate this same desire into the DNA of his ministry. Give attendance carries an implication in the original language similar to the devotion one would give a religion, a devotion that was to be both deep and continual. In other words, in Paul's view and the Holy Spirit's, the minister of a New Testament church ought to be fervent and constant in his pursuit of the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding found in books.

In most religious systems this is a given. For some reason, however, in the independent Baptist movement, this idea is sometimes viewed with skepticism. That skepticism is sold by sincere, influential leaders to younger men under the guise of spirituality and wisdom. The only book you need, some men say, is the Bible. Commentaries are dangerous. Studying the original languages is dangerous. Study will turn you into a stuff-shirt deeper-lifer, and will kill the soul winning fervor that ought to be at the center of your ministry. Other leaders, just as sincere, would fractionally widen a man's book list to include books written by their favorite independent Baptist guru, but then criticize those who would step outside that narrow reading circle. Still other leaders carry a default suspicion of anything that smacks of intellectualism. Such leadership has turned whole sub-groups of pastors into men whose bookshelves are as empty as their minds, and whose churches consequently have little to no depth in their doctrine and practice.

In this series, I will pay my respects in detail to those whose reading circle is too wide, but the wisdom given in response of making it so narrow as to be practically non-existent is questionable at best. I take that back; such a statement is too nice. It is not questionable; it is flat out disobedient. No matter what reason is given by a pastor for his lack of reading and study it is nothing more than a bad excuse. We are not unable. We are not too busy. We are not too isolated. God explicitly commands His men to be in the books.

I realize some men are more prone to intellectual pursuits than others. But this is also true of soul-winners, however, and just as I refuse to accept that only the volubly gifted should be soul-winners so I refuse to accept that only the intellectually gifted should study. A cultivation of reading and a pursuit of study are to mark every pastor's ministry, regardless of his built-in tendencies, of his strengths and weaknesses.

There are a number of practical reasons why God instructed His men to put a primacy on reading. In today's post, I will give you a few of them that apply to everyone, and next week we will look at some that apply more specifically to pastors.

Reading improves your ability to empathize with others. It trains your mind to become instinctually emotionally attached. In other words, it teaches you to care.

According to the Journal of the American Academy of Neurology consistent reading strengthens your memory and your overall mental ability at every stage of life.
Reading is to the brain what cardio and weightlifting are to the body. They push us beyond our current capacity, and thus increase that capacity. In other words, reading makes you smarter; your brain literally becomes better at processing information of all kinds. In fact, reading is so beneficial in this area it actually helps to protect you from developing Alzheimer's disease. 

A peer-reviewed study published by the University of Toronto  found reading not only increases our vocabulary, as would be expected, but somewhat surprisingly it also makes us better public speakers. As our command of language increases, and the ease and comfort which we exhibit around words grows, our ability to communicate grows along with it, even in front of groups of people.

Reading reduces your stress level. By turning your mind into a completely different channel, reading rests a body tensed by concern or work. It slows down your heart rate and eases strain on your muscles. In a vocation such as the ministry which carries such tremendous levels of measurable stress the relaxation brought by reading can be invaluable.

Reading is so beneficial to us in so many ways that a 2016 study by the Yale School of Public Health, in which it surveyed 3,600 men and women over the age of 50 for twelve years, found that those who read as little as thirty minutes a day lived on average two years longer than those who did not. Indeed, we would be wise to give attendance to reading for these practical reasons alone.

Over the next several months in this blog series, I plan to explore not only the benefits that come to a pastor who lives in the books, but also some philosophical and practical wisdom about how to do so. We will look at what kinds of books to read and what kinds to avoid. We will examine which types of books are helpful in the ministry and why, as well as give you specific examples of these kinds of books. We will also see how to incorporate this into your life, and how to develop yourself as a reader, one who understands how to study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (II Timothy 2.15)

I invite you along for the ride. As always, your feedback is welcomed, even when your perspective disagrees with my own. I simply desire to be a blessing to you, and through you to others as you serve the Lord.