Pastors and Congregational Reading

As a pastor, you are a shepherd. You want to feed your sheep good food, but it had better be food that they’re willing and able to eat.

Pastors need to keep this in mind when they recommend books for people in their congregations. The fact that a given book is not difficult for you does not mean that it won’t be difficult for them. There’s a reason that most of the books on sale in a Christian bookstore are theologically substandard. They are written by people who have a substandard theological training, but they are also written for people who don’t know much theology. These authors may have bad theology, but they know their audience and they write to their audience.

 

Most pastors realize in seminary that they have gotten themselves into a profession that requires reading. Whether they read much before seminary, the class requirements force them to read a great deal. This is especially true for Presbyterian and Reformed pastors, as these churches have always put a high value on an educated clergy. By the time they finish seminary, they have gotten used to reading demanding material—academic biblical studies, systematic theology, church history. It is easy, then, to forget that at one time they really struggled with that material.

I have been a voracious reader since I learned to read. But until I got to college, I didn’t read anything that made any demands on me as a reader. Then my first class in college was a philosophy class. I passed the class, but I’m pretty sure I understood no more than about ten percent of what I read for that class. After I was converted, I read the Bible a lot, but I didn’t read a great deal of Christian literature. I did read Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life and Sit, Walk, Stand (both perfectionist standards back in the day), but I remember almost nothing else of what Christian literature I read. I read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which seemed to me to be heavy reading. I also read another work by Lewis, either the Problem of Pain or Miracles, I’m not sure which. I think I finished the book but found it a very difficult slog. Then I read his Pilgrim’s Regress, which I didn’t understand at all.

After seminary, I have gone back and revisited some of those books and didn’t find them difficult. But by then, I had read enough difficult theology that I had the context and the foundational understanding to read Lewis with ease. I think something like this happens with most pastors. They have gotten used to reading difficult material, so they tend to think that everyone ought to be able to read it.

I may be entirely wrong about this, but I think most people who can read don’t read. And most people who read don’t read anything that makes demands on them as a reader. They read what is comfortable for them. Pastors need to keep this in mind when they recommend books for people in their congregations. The fact that a given book is not difficult for you does not mean that it won’t be difficult for them. There’s a reason that most of the books on sale in a Christian bookstore are theologically substandard. They are written by people who have a substandard theological training, but they are also written for people who don’t know much theology. These authors may have bad theology, but they know their audience and they write to their audience.

It’s something to keep in mind when recommending books for people in your congregation. Ask yourself if the person will not only willingly read the book but also understand it. If you have visited the person’s home, you should have a good idea of what they read (or whether they read). You should also keep a list of less demanding, more accessible, sound Christian books. Avoid recommending the fat books with small print, unless you know that is what the person reads. Avoid reprints of the Puritans. There’s nothing wrong with the Puritans—a lot of good stuff there. But most modern Americans would not be able to work through Puritan works without a lot of help. The Banner of Truth Puritan Paperbacks are about the most accessible Puritan works available. As a pastor, you are a shepherd. You want to feed your sheep good food, but it had better be food that they’re willing and able to eat.

Benjamin Shaw is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This article was originally published at GPTS Rabbi and is used with permission.

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