Friday, October 23, 2009
"When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments" - Paul
What is the relationship of reading and ministry? Or more specifically is there a correlation between reading and preaching and teaching? Should there be a relationship? Is reading an area of discipleship for the minister?
I grew up in a tradition that delivered mixed signals regarding ministry and reading. Oh! the rumblings of discontent at International Bible College (now Heritage Christian University) when General Jackson Wheeler made ministerial students read classics in a required English class. I recall more that one student declaring there was no relevance of this to preaching. "All I need to read is the Bible!" was the mantra. I recall in a class with Steve Williams on the history of Christian doctrine those same tremors. "Why should we be reading this, it is a waste of time. What is Athanasius, Augustine, Luther ... or even Campbell to me?" Since entering full time ministry in 1992 I have encountered the same ambiguity. I personally know ministers who are serious students of the Word and I have encountered others whom I feel sorry for the folks who listen to them.
A few years ago Jackson Carroll published a survey of 2,500 American clergy in Christian Century. In this survey the typical minister spent 4 hours reading each week (this includes "mainline" and "conservative" ministers). The ministers were asked what 3 authors they read most. Among the conservatives Max Lucado, Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes in that selection. The last three books to have been read included The Prayer of Jabez, Fresh Wind; Fresh Fire, and Purpose Driven Church ... the Left Behind Series was prominent too. Read Carroll's findings HERE.
Carroll's survey, though dated now, probably still reflects the basic orientation of reading habits of ministers. Some of the reading reflects the "hot" book of the day and some pragmatic issues like growing a church. Yet much of what is being digested is, frankly, shallow. I was gratified that C. S. Lewis is one that is read among clergy ... but in my own personal experience I know few ministers that have read much of Lewis.
But if reading IS connected to ministry, including pastoral care, how should we go about cultivating it? Paul in 2 Timothy 4.13 asks for his scrolls, which more than likely refers to his Septuagint ... but the parchments seems to have a broader meaning. If Paul felt it necessary to cultivate the discipleship of reading it probably would serve us well too.
Eugene Peterson suggests that ministers actually block out time (lets say one hour) everyday not only for prayer but also for reading. Reading that is not related to the current sermon topic. Reading is in the service of the spiritual life and personal growth. In what areas should we read?
First, I believe every minster should be a student of the Word in the fullest sense. An astronomer knows about astronomy. A minster should know about the Word. When a young person heads to college and reads about Gilgamesh and inquires of his long time preacher I submit the preacher should know about Gilgamesh without resorting to special pleading or caricature. In a day and time when lots of folks read about the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Judas the minister ought to have at least heard of those things. So in my view a minister will absorb (over time) an understanding of the unified Story of Scripture, and the individual settings of the individual books. Fall in love with the Book and know about the book. Know about the history of the Bible ... Astronomers know who Galileo was and what he did. Ministers should know who Jerome, Wycliff, Luther and Tyndale all have in common.
Second, I believe every minister should know the general contours of the story of Christianity AND their own situation in that story within their tradition. Contrary to popular mythology what happened between 100 AD and 2009 AD does matter because those years shape in profound ways not only what we think but what we actually hear and see. Believe it or not it even affects how we interpret the Scriptures themselves ... which themselves are a product of those intervening years from 100 to 2009!
Third, I believe every minister should cultivate the habit of reading some of the great minds of the world. These minds have wrestled in profound ways with issues that we continue to face. We learn, again contrary to popular mythology, that faith is complex and not for the weak of heart. We are actually reading and reflecting on Scripture itself as we read with Ignatius, Augustine, Luther, and Campbell. It is the "communion of saints" as we wrestle together. These minds will also include Plato, Maimonides, among others that will help us lift up our eyes.
Fourth, I believe every minister should read about practical ministry too. I have read at least one book on preaching every year for the last 10 years. Ministry with divorcees has been an obvious need in my own life for the past two years. Or working in the Singles world (I am one of those millions of singles in the church today). But even in this area pastoral care needs to be rooted in healthy theology. In this category I would put reading in a way that expands our ministerial "imagination" to work in and through our particular time and place.
There are those who will disagree with my views expressed in this post. Yet it seems to me that we are disciples. That is we are Students. If we are to address our ever complex world we must have a depth of understanding of the Word, our Situation, and World. Here is a short list of Good books that fall into the above categories:
Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, John Walton; A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann (etc), Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament, Christopher J.H. Wright; The Challenge of Jesus, N.T. Wright; Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Everett Ferguson; In the Beginning, Alister McGrath; The Story of Christianity, 2 Vols Justo Gonzalez; The Lost History of Christianity, Philip Jenkins; Reviving the Ancient Faith, Richard Hughes; Theology for the Community of God, Stanley Grenz; Preaching the Sermon on the Mount, Fleer & Bland; Radical Recovery, Suzy Brown ... a few gems.