John Wesley once challenged preachers, “Either read or get out of the ministry.” I wonder when a circuit riding preacher like Wesley found the time to read, but I guess when his daily sermonizing ended he requested a bed with a candle placed nicely by his bedside for reading.
Sven Birkerts declared in 1994 in his book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in the Electronic Age that reading in the under thirty crowd is in decline. “I see the wholesale wiring of America,” Birkerts proclaimed.1 Birkerts felt that reading’s demise will come because the world of e-mail and Internet surfing will steal time from people. Time stolen translates into few moments to enjoy a book.
Birkerts missed his prophetic warning, though. How could he have guessed that Stephen King would allow readers to download his tome, or that Zondervan would invite readers to download chapter one of Philip Yancey’s Reaching for the Invisible God?
Ask Barnes and Noble or the average church member standing at the door on Sunday morning, and you will find that reading is in, big time. It’s just that much of what people read is not what preachers read. Is this good or bad?
Preachers read books on preaching style, like Fred Craddock’s Preaching or Calvin Miller’s The Empowered Communicator or Eugene Lowry’s The Homiletical Plot. The goal of such reading is to improve preaching and find a creative angle in which to unfold the sermon.
Or preachers read in order to improve themselves. Preachers read George Barna for The Power of Vision, for demographic insights and trends. Preachers read Eugene Peterson for improving those angles of ministry while searching for that “tall-steeple church with a cheese cake congregation,”2 knowing all the while the church you pastor is Under the Unpredictable Plant. After all, preachers need a little help to spread The Message.
Preachers read Max Lucado for the great story, somehow hoping that if the congregation does not applaud, maybe somehow God will sound forth The Applause of Heaven. Preachers read Philip Yancey for the great quote from Luther or Augustine, wishing for that striking quote in the sermon What Is So Amazing about Grace?
For ministry preachers read Henri Nouwen while gleaning the secrets In the Name of Jesus. For leadership John Maxwell gets you into the groove. For the sermon family series James Dobson gives advice: Love Must Be Tough. For a smorgasbord of ideas Chuck Swindoll comes through. Soon you will Laugh Again. Surely your sermons will find Hope Again. And of course, preachers read C.S. Lewis for that creative children’s sermon about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Every preacher knows the path to Word Pictures for sermons from A. T. Robertson or the joy of wading through the detail of F. F. Bruce on John or James Dunn on Romans or Warren Wiersbe, who can help your sermons just Be.
Preachers serve as the great book buyers of the age. Ask any preacher if he or she has a book and presto, you’ll find a stack of unread books off in some corner of the study. Preachers buy books. They collect books. They read books.
The problem with preachers as readers is the scenario I just described. They read to preach. They preach to read. Preachers know the best Christian authors, the commentators, and the right book to pull from the library shelf in the crisis of sermon preparation. Few preachers, however, know how to read simply for the enjoyment of reading. Fred Craddock puts this thought clearly: “Nothing is reflected more obviously in the content, mood, and dimensions of a man’s sermons than the variety of his own reading. The most valuable literature for preaching is the great book read when the pressure of the next sermon was not there to turn the mind into a homiletical magnet, plucking usable lines from the page.”3
Reading to preach dulls the senses of preaching. Reading to enjoy makes the senses of preaching come alive. What becomes personal becomes universal. The things that alert your senses will generally interest your hearers.
Lay people, on the other hand, know how to read. Adults read life lessons on Tuesdays with Morris (Albom). Adults read about The Aspects of Roman History (Alston). They love stories with Chicken Soup. They read about change in the eternal quest for purpose in life. By the way, Who Moved My Cheese (Spencer Johnson)? Adults read to children after a breakfast of Green Eggs and Ham, all the while knowing You’re Only Old Once (Dr. Seuss). In essence, your church members know how to read because they read from a variety of sources and for numerous reasons: pleasure, relaxation, personal interests.
The question remains: how might reading improve your preaching? And how does reading impact your preaching? What does variety in reading do to your preaching?
Reading Connects Us with Life
Preachers face the danger of living in an insulated world. The world narrows into sermon preparation, evangelistic visits, returned phone calls, hospital calls, funeral plans, and wedding extravaganzas. The world becomes insulated so as to dismiss the reality of people’s lives: dogs that scatter the trash all over the yard, stock markets that head south, road rage, teenage rebellion, angry spouses and furious bosses, little league baseball games and school talent shows. If a preacher’s world narrows into preaching as business he or she misses the connection of preaching to the reality in which people live.
Eugene Peterson in Subversive Spirituality encourages preachers to read novels. He says, “Anyone serious about the distinctive conditions of the pastoral calling, story, person, place, will welcome these novelists as friends and spend time in their company.”4 Peterson believes that pastors “who neglect to read novels lack seriousness.”5 He further states, “World conditions, a steady and relentless drizzle of acid rain, strip us of story, identity and place. But it is the story of salvation to specific people in a particular place that compose the conditions of our work.”6 Reading opens up the preacher to the wide world in which people live.
The preacher prays, asks the Holy Spirit to guide, studies the scripture, and prepares the sermon. This sermon preparation misses the hearts of the people upon delivery if it does not understand the conditions in which people live. Reading shines light on these conditions.
Reading Improves Creativity
The delivery of a sermon hails as the most important thirty minutes in the preacher’s and listener’s life. Why? Because what is said as Gospel and shared as Good News about Christ has the power to change both the preacher and the listener. Dull preaching trivializes these precious thirty minutes. Uninspired preaching accounts for no more than a political speech urging voters to get out and vote for a candidate who will do nothing in the next four years.
Sharing Christ through preaching demands urgency and creativity. Reading improves creativity. The preacher’s narrow world involves interests: the William Carey story on missions; the quips of Charles Spurgeon; the commitment of Jim Elliot; the intellect of John Calvin; baptism stories of the reformation; the sacrifice and faith of George Mueller; the salvation experience of Billy Graham and how he learned to preach by talking to the trees.
The stories interest preachers, but seldom interest a hearer who struggles with getting the laundry done or the dishes washed or the bills paid on time or the kids off to college. Life’s little things, even simple things become the fodder for making preaching come alive.
Think of Jesus. He spoke of landowners and lamps out of oil and fig trees and destitute stragglers beside the road and bearing fruit and borrowing bread and lights illuminating cities on a hill.
Reading spotlights the world people live in. The characterization of novels reminds the preacher and hearer of someone they know. Fiction illustrates personality. Reading what your congregation reads steals boredom and delivers life. Heads turn. Eyes open. People sit up and take notice. All the while, you keep telling the Gospel story amid the stories of life.
Creativity may be the single defining factor of interesting preaching. Interest heightens listening. Uninteresting sermons fall flat. Strangely, though, the preacher who works at creativity rarely becomes creative. The preacher who reads leisurely and in a wide variety almost always comes up with creative ideas that both instruct and apply the sermon.
I subscribe to a different magazine each year. I subscribe in an effort to broaden my general knowledge of different topics. One year I subscribed to Consumer Reports. Another year I subscribed to Popular Mechanics. This year my choice is Prevention. I am finding out that sickness and the prevention of sickness is on people’s minds as well as being very big business. If for nothing else, reading these magazines lets me know what interests the congregants.
Every weekend I look at the New York Times best seller reading list. Granted, most of what’s there isn’t for me, but I’m amazed at the variety of authors, interests, and styles. I attempt, with discretion of course, to read a book from that list periodically.
I always travel through the children’s section at bookstores. A Dr. Seuss book or another children’s book assists my creativity. It helps me to know that I am not only preaching to adults but children as well. A good quote from a children’s book always involves the whole congregation because parents know what their children read.
The art of reading to improve your preaching calls for a creative imagination. Creativity involves painting pictures in the sermon. Warren Wiersbe quotes George Buttrick: “Many a promising sermon stultified because it was woven of concepts rather than of pictures ….”7
Reading produces pictures that can often be transferred both to the study of scripture and to the sermon. Creativity assists the preacher in painting pictures with words so people understand the good news of Jesus as opposed to airmailing concepts to your hearers which they do not understand.
Preaching Gives You a Story to Tell
When you read you will find that your preaching improves. Reading gives you a story to tell as you share the Gospel story. Not long ago in a sermon from Romans I spoke of the salvation which gives peace. I addressed the fact that the life we live because Christ has saved us brings peace, God’s peace. Tuesdays with Morrie was written by Mitch Albom. Morrie is the old professor near death. Mitch is the thirty-something writer on the way to making it in life. His life is restless. Mitch visits Morrie on thirteen Tuesdays before Morrie dies. Morrie is in his last days (Note how the story involves both young and old and a truth applied to life.).
Mitch visits on the thirteenth Tuesday, and Morrie shares his experience of the night before. Morrie shares how he feels he is ready to cross a bridge to whatever is next. He insightfully shares: “That’s what we’re all looking for. A certain peace with the idea of dying. If we know, in the end, that we can ultimately have that peace with dying, then we can really do the hard thing.” [Mitch responds] “Which is?” [Morrie] “Make peace with living.”8
The story concluded my sermon, with an invitation to make peace with living through the Peace that is Jesus Christ.
Reading improves your preaching. And you might just find that reading sets your preaching off in a new, fresh direction. Who knows where your preaching might lead and where it might take you? Or in the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
1Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994), 215.
2Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1992), 22.
3Fred B. Craddock. As One Without Authority (Enid, Oklahoma: Philips University Press, 1974), 81.
4Eugene Peterson, Subversive Spirituality (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1994), 186.
5Ibid., 185.
6Ibid., 186.
7Warren Wiersbe, “Preaching & Teaching with Imagination (Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1994), 14.
8Mitch Alhom, Tuesdays with Morrie (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 173.

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