Rev. Steve DeNeff, a pastor and well-known preacher and speaker in The Wesleyan Church, said this one day in my undergraduate homiletics class. He is an excellent communicator and taught a fascinating preaching class. At the end of the second semester, he presented students with a print of a pastor in a pulpit, surrounded by shadowy figures – prophets and leaders from familiar biblical texts. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” it reads. It is an encouragement: you never step into the pulpit alone. Preachers are part of a fellowship of truth-speakers that stretches back across centuries.
“Read everything.” News stories, fiction and nonfiction books, magazines. It was practical advice – we had to assemble folders of cut-outs or printed pieces from the web or photocopied pages of books, a built archive of potential sermon illustrations that might work well as an introduction to a text or an illumination of a difficult principle.
“Read everything.” The advice was also given almost like a pronouncement, a warning, an exhortation: if you preach, you must know the culture in which you live and breathe. A lot of our cultural dynamics go unspoken – but if you read regularly, you will notice trends, changes, you will be aware of the atmosphere others breathe unconsciously.
Reading everything didn’t mean ignoring the scriptural text in a sermon: on the contrary, DeNeff made clear that a sermon that doesn’t reference the Bible after the initial reading isn’t a sermon. It’s a motivational speech. Rather, reading everything means voraciously pursuing every tool at your disposal to help communicate the Word of God.
So what happens when preachers read?
You gain perspective. If all you read is Tweets and football scores, your perspective will be limited. When you read the news (even skimming stories outside your usual areas of interest), you become aware of the big picture. If there’s any danger in church life, it’s becoming so wrapped up in your own denomination or geographical area that you forget to pop your head up and see what’s happening around you. Because most preachers also make hospital visits or review committee budgets or calm disputes or counsel troubled couples, it’s even easier to get so wrapped up in other areas that the habit of reading is seen as a luxury. If a preacher does read, it’s a book – often from their own denominational or traditional perspective – about leadership, ministry, or preaching.
Which is about the moment that we begin to get nearsighted. But when you read – whether hardback or Kindle or even audio book – you deliberately expose yourself to other times, to other places, to other voices. Reading Dickens will throw into sharp relief how much things have changed in just a short 150 years – and how much they’ve stayed the same. In a time when all news is “BREAKING!” headline, it’s valuable to get some perspective. How far have we come? Where was God faithful in the Middle Ages? What circumstances from 50 years ago might give us some wisdom as we face today?
You gain storytelling awareness. If you read or listen to classic fiction, you will inevitably become – at the least – a slightly better communicator. Writers read good writers. Reading a good writer makes you a better writer. Not all books are worth your time. Some of them are worth investing in, though. By reading “Moby Dick” or “Roots” or “The Violent Bear It Away” or even “Harry Potter,” you allow yourself to be a listener – a good discipline for speakers in itself – and to be swept up in the tide of the story itself.
Dr. Sandra Richter tells her Old Testament studies students to “tell the Story, and tell it well.” The more shy or inarticulate you are, the more I encourage you to read really good stories. They will help give you the words to express yourself.
You gain a disciplined mind by engaging new texts. Pastors have a lot of spinning plates, to use a familiar image. You’re busy. You’re subjected to the need for ruthless time management. But consider this benefit of reading fiction, nonfiction, news articles or poetry: you are subjecting yourself to the discipline of engaging new texts.
And that’s what you ask people to do every week.
Biblical literacy is at an astonishing low in North America: people who grew up in the pews are often unfamiliar with Bible stories and biblical themes. When you add people who did not grow up in the pews, even if you hand them a Gospel + Psalms, you are asking them to engage in reading that might, for them, be a challenge. Even listening to the Bible on your morning commute can be a challenge if you’ve never read it before.
Many pastors delegate Bible study to small group ministries. While whether actual Bible study actually happens in the fruit salad and coffee context of living room discussion is up for debate, it is the preacher’s job to proclaim the Word of God on Sunday mornings. And when you’re asking people to engage with the Word of God throughout the week, whether individually or in groups or through whatever book they’ve picked up at their local Christian book peddler’s, you should be willing to discipline yourself to read texts that are, for you, out of your comfort zone.
Reading one chapter of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” will probably remind you of how it can feel to encounter the Bible as a newcomer to the faith.
You gain sermons that grow beyond the surface. Truth pops up across history in many ways. There’s extraordinary wisdom about
human nature in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” You can dog-ear pages of “Watership Down” or even smile at “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” If I preach to a certain demographic of college students, I can communicate difficult Christological truths in a cultural shorthand with just one or two short quotes from “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”
Many people need to move from the familiar to the alien, from concrete to abstract. Jesus knew this in his own preaching. To prophetically proclaim is to take people on a journey. When pastors read, pastors deliberately invest in looking for effective ways to communicate the truth of scripture. Engaging in classics not only allows you to use stories and images that will engage your listeners as you bridge them to the biblical text, but also allows you to engage listeners whose intellects will appreciate the connections you draw – say, between Naaman’s vulnerability to his soldiers as he bathed in the river, and the struggle for dominant tribal position illustrated in a jungle animal fight early in Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.”
You gain health. Preachers, you are as hungry after mental work as you are after physical work. Only you haven’t expended near as many calories. Which means you’re ravenous after you write or preach your sermon, even if you haven’t been chopping firewood or playing basketball. In other words – you may be sedentary and very hungry, a potentially problematic combination. That’s on top of having a job that elevates blood pressure and steals hours of sleep.
But reading can boost your memory and reduce your stress; neuroscientists have discovered that reading a novel increases your brain connectivity; when you’re ready to clobber a difficult church member, reading can help increase empathy. (Just maybe read a paper version and not a screen that emits light right before bed.)
So when you have to fill out a report on your wellness practices, you can include “reading” on the list.
But if you’re in a preaching rut or having trouble sleeping, I recommend a good book.