24 Oct 2009

The Discipleship of Reading: An Opinion

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apologetics, Bobby's World, Books, Culture, Discipleship, Exegesis, Journey, Ministry, Preaching, Reading

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?

Survey Says

I grew up in a tradition that delivered mixed signals regarding ministry and reading. Oh! I recall 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 less than 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.

Reading to Deepen

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 – schedule it – 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 her long time preacher, I submit the preacher should know about Gilgamesh beyond 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 works.

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, Locke, and Galileo and Hawking 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.

Reading Makes us Students

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:

John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament

Walter Brueggemann, A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament

Christopher Wright, Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament

Christopher Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative

N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus

Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity

Oskar Skarsuane, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influence on Early Christianity

Alister McGrath, In the Beginning (history of the English Bible)

Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2 Vols

Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity

Richard Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith

Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God

David Fleer & David Bland, Preaching the Sermon on the Mount

Suzy Brown, Radical Recovery (divorce)

Daryl Tippens & Steve Weathers, Shadow & Light: Literature and the Life of Faith

28 Responses to “The Discipleship of Reading: An Opinion”

  1. Duffer Dan Says:

    Good stuff, Bobby.

    Here are four that I believe every student of the NT should read:

    Bruce Malina:
    The New Testament World: Insights into Cultural Anthropology

    Dennis E. Smith:
    From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World

    Bruce W. Winter:
    Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities

    Kenneth E. Bailey:
    Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels

  2. Soren Says:

    Amen Brother!

    I recently posted something along these lines. While my reading list is not as deep and broad as yours, I still love to read — and I simply don’t understand why some ministers do not read.

    As usual, I appreciate your perspective.

  3. Keith Price Says:

    Good post, Bobby.
    In preaching school years ago there was a similar sentiment about reading. Except in homiletics class the instructor recommended reading one book a year about preaching. A few years ago I found a three year reading plan for new christians. Leading them into books on everything from the home, discipleship, apologetics, and spiritual formation. I have given it out to teenagers suggesting they start at the month they find themselves in.

  4. Brian Says:

    as a reader who had an English degree before going into ministry and getting a Bible degree, I can relate and a say a hearty, AMEN!.

    but I have friends who just don’t like to read, but I admire some who have learned to read and respect its importance.

    Great thoughts

  5. kingdomseeking Says:

    Good post! I can remember a few student in the Harding School of Biblical Studies who felt the Bible was the only book we needed to read and so they were upset by the fact that our professors would assign additional books as part of the class requirements. Of course, the exceptions to the contempt for reading non-biblical books were made for books like Leroy Brownlow’s “Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ” and other books in that same vein.

    Any ways, as preachers, we are in the business of theological/faith formation by way of educating and challenging people in the scriptures and Christian faith. To do this and do it effectively, I believe it requires us read…and as you pointed out, not just the “shallow” or “hot book[s]” of the day. Dr. Pollard (for those who do not know him, he is a NT/Greek Professor at Harding) once told a class I was in that while ministers need not be an “academic” scholar they should strive be the resident expert in the congregation and to do that requires continuous learning.

    Grace and peace,

    K. Rex Butts

  6. nick gill Says:

    Just picked up The First Urban Christians — looking forward to reading it someday!

  7. pilgrimdan Says:

    seems like the letter of Jude took in some sources that we would consider outside the norm…

  8. preacherman Says:

    Great thoughts as always Bobby.

  9. rich constant Says:

    well bob, this reminds me of what my dad used to tell me,
    rich, he would say,
    there is more than one way to skin a cat,”you don’t always start at the tail and cut your way up to the head”. as most do my son. there just might be a better way so find it for yourself and make it truly yours.

  10. laymond Says:

    I don’t understand what you are saying when you said “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!”

    Are you saying all scripture was written during those years, or they were correctly interpreted, during those years.?
    I agree many today interpret the scriptures by what someone else said they mean rather than listen to self, but I still am not convinced that is the correct way.

  11. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Can’t answer for Bobby, Laymond, but if I may (how’s that for permission?) I’d say that Bobby’s point is that contemporary understandings of Scripture are not only inherited from the past, but are also impacted by both Christian history and by history in general.

    For example, today the typical reader of Scripture seeks to identify the literal sense of the text. But who said that should be the exclusive goal? Not someone from the ancient world. Certainly not, say, someone like the author of the Gospel of Matthew. That writer assumes that passages have all sorts of meanings that go beyond the literal or apparent meaning of a text.

    Moderns who seek to identify something like authorial intent only, or who are looking for nothing more than the literal sense of the text should know that their’s is a fairly-recent approach in the history of interpretation. In other words, even before we begin to study the Bible or approach the task of interpretation, what we think about what we’re doing (what the goal is) has been heavily influenced by what others have believed and said about such things.

    Frank B.

  12. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. Matthew Says:

    You do not have to convince me to read, I love it.

  14. Keith Says:

    A bumper sticker:
    “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.”

    lol. If only it were that simple. Wash anyone’s feet lately? How about that holy kiss? (Excuse me brother, but would you mind shaving before planting another Holy Kiss on me?!?)

    Thanks Bobby. Good post.

  15. kingdomseeking Says:


    I once knew a man who had that exact bumper sticker on his car and often repeated that very phrase during church Bible classes. This was the same guy who was very vocal about his solution to illegal immigration – suggesting that every border control agent should be given an M-16 rifle and a license to shoot at will. I guess the Bible says it and that settles it except for when it comes to loving our neighors and enemies…of course God expects us to use the head he put on our shoulders, so I’ve been told by some.

    It is my experience that the fundamentalists who claim to simply adhere strictly to the Bible just as it is written are the ones who may fail to do that more than any other person or group.

    Grace and peace,

    K. Rex Butts

  16. cwinwc Says:

    I’m not a minister but I believe that what you said which I believe to be true for ministers, to some degree should be true for those of us who are elders, deacons, ministry members, and just your good old “dog faced” 🙂 member.

    Reading I believe unplugs the vacumn that many of us live in with respect to our religious tribe.

  17. Keith Brenton Says:

    Uncontrolled reading is dangerous.

    It stimulates thinking, creativity, fresh ideas, new concepts and encourages re-evaluation of old ones.

    Reading is the enemy of the entrenched.

    If you don’t believe me, read Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451!”

  18. Dan Smith Says:

    I received my copy of Joseph Hellerman’s “When the Church was Family” a couple of days ago. I’m about half way thru and will never be the same. It is the most challenging book I’ve read. It should be in every Christian’s library.

  19. Dan Smith Says:

    I received my copy of Joseph Hellerman’s “When the Church was Family” a couple of days ago. I’m about half way thru and will never be the same. It is the most challenging book I’ve read. It should be in every Christian’s library.

  20. rich constant Says:

    well so much cookie cutter theology
    when you get the two commands and predicate all doctrine to them…
    may be the tail of cultural theology and bacon-ism wagging the dog of the truth…. that is god,s word GEN.to rev…
    we have all made a mess and we want our lord to clean us up…
    what about
    reciprocate the love given and facilitate the the word of redemption
    although when you don’t like what you are(sinner),
    not only have you missed the point of grace you don’t get faith.being the work of god

    thus we cannot reciprocate
    love gratefully and without respect to a persons position .

  21. Gardner Hall Says:

    Good thoughts. Know I can do better.

  22. Warren Baldwin Says:

    Good post.

  23. Anonymous Says:

    It was extremely interesting for me to read this blog. Thanx for it. I like such themes and anything connected to them. I would like to read a bit more soon.

  24. blueridgeguy Says:

    Good thoughts. I would suggest to the list, “The Fool of God”, “The Art of War”, and at least one military history per year. Restoration literature is enlightening, and the history of mankind in war is compressed human history, full of the realities of human drama.

    Paul encouraged Timothy to study…Paul himself showed familiarity with the poets of Greece and Rome. Can we do less?


  25. Wiley Clarkson Says:


    I am amazed that there are so few hours each week devoted to reading by so many ministers. I know many non-ministers who read far more hours than 4 hours a week covering an even wider range of church/ministry related topics. One thing I either did not see on your list of “required” reading (or maybe I am just a little dense tonight) is how you classify the contemporary books that seriously question traditional views? I would hope any minister who is seriously concerned for his congregation would keep up with the latest contemporary thought by scholars/theologians on traditional/non-traditional views. Alot of just plain church members read heavily in the latest theological thought on matters where traditional views are questionable. How can a minister discuss these views if he/she does not read and understand these views? These views do concern members, even when they are hesitant to bring them up for open discussion.

  26. Keith Brenton Says:

    Have I told you lately that I miss your words?

  27. John Says:

    Kenneth Bailey is good. No one has mentioned Faulkner.

  28. amerikiwi Says:

    While not original with me, it is worth repeating: Read extrabiblical materials like you eat fish — swallow the meat and spit out the bones! Some works have more ‘bones’ than others, but there is something to be learned from most of what we read. I don’t pretend to have a monopoly on meat-bone discernment, but I fear that too many bones are being indiscriminately swallowed by some.

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