I read. In fact, I read a lot.
I read for pleasure, mostly, but I also read for my work, my ministry. After all these years my book shelves are sagging under the weight of books, and so I’ve had to cull the herd, a painful process.
It was in an introduction to preaching class at seminary that I first realized what I would have to do to be able to preach week in and week out over a lifetime in ministry. I would need an active spiritual and devotional life, of course, but I would also have to be a reader.
The preaching professor encouraged – no, sternly charged – my classmates and me to read. And he was very specific about what a preacher could be expected to read.
I dutifully wrote out what he said: one national daily newspaper (which in his mind could only mean the New York Times), one weekly newsmagazine (in those days Time and Newsweek were indispensable and could be counted on to provide valuable quotes), one major work of theology each year, one book on preaching each year (either a sermon collection or a book about the theology of preaching), novels, histories, books of poetry, and biographies. I might have missed something.
It was a daunting assignment. But for me it couldn’t have been more thrilling. It was an invitation to a full, rich life. I had always been a reader, and now, well, it would be an expected part of my life. I could lie on the sofa with a book in my hand and say to my wife, “Sorry, sweetheart, I’m working now.”
Mostly I’ve followed this regimen. And mostly I’ve loved it. But here’s the thing: I now realize the truth of what I was told – namely, that reading would make me a better preacher. I believe it has.
Reading has improved my vocabulary (this isn’t about sounding more learned, which has never been a goal for me in preaching, but it made my preaching livelier and more interesting to listen to); reading has taught me how to be a better story teller; and reading has shown me how to take a reader (or listener) from one point to another, what I like to think of as the narrative arc of the sermon.
I don’t know where I’d be as a preacher if I didn’t read. I’ve listened to some preachers over the years who couldn’t preach their way out of a wet paper bag, and I would find myself wondering if they had ever read a book or even a newspaper.
So, I was thrilled in the last few days to read my friend Neal Plantinga’s new book, Reading for Preaching, in which he essentially makes the same argument. And not only does he make a compelling case for the importance of reading, he demonstrates what he believes.
His writing is rich and compelling. He makes wooden theological concepts come alive through references to popular culture and literature and news. He writes in a way that draws in the reader. In other words, he doesn’t make the reader work to get his point.
I will probably keep reading long after I’ve given up preaching. Reading has become an old and reliable friend.
But for now I’m reading because my preaching depends on it.