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)
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
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.