Good Books & the Great Commission: What I Meant to Say, Part Two

I recently offered a presentation titled "Good Books & the Great Commission." My goal was to demonstrate the role of book publishing in the church's disciple-making mission. I was planning to talk about the decline of reading in contemporary culture and the need for intentionality in creating cultures of reading in contemporary churches. I was fielding questions about getting yourself published before I finished my intro.

I don't begrudge people their desire to see themselves publish. Honestly I don't. I still stand by my conviction, however, that reading can be missional, that the church can and should be a reading culture. So I'm reposting what I meant to say here, and you're just going to have to deal with it. :)


The work of discerning God’s purposes, and translating those purposes into the individual and corporate activity of God’s church, has transpired largely through the written word: often under duress, always with a sense of urgency and an eye to the needs of the world and the mission of God, God’s people have written their way to action.

  • In his letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. confronted the “appalling silence of the good people” in the face of a violently racist system in the American South.
  • In the Barmen Declaration a gathering of European Christian leaders rejected the idolatry being practiced by the state church of Germany under the influence of Adolf Hitler.
  • Martin Luther wrote down 95 laments of the conduct of the church and posted it on the door of the Castle Church Wittenberg.
  • John Wycliffe translated the Scriptures into the common language of the people against the will of the church hierarchy.
  • Bishop Augustine of Hippo strove to make sense of the destruction of Christian Rome at the hands of infidels.
  • And the apostle Paul wrote letters to fledgling churches from in and out of prison.
  • Jesus wrote in the sand; Yahweh wrote on stone tablets; the Spirit writes on our hearts. “What else can one do,” King wrote of his particular ripe time for action, in a line that as well as any reflects the ongoing vocation of God’s people: “other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”

    We forget about all that writing in the history of the church, and—more to the point—all that reading. The reading gets relegated to seminary training and sermon prep; the writing is elevated to the point of irrelevance, absolving laypeople of informing and educating themselves and segregating robust discipleship to a clerical core. It wasn’t always the case, however. We’ve seen examples of Christian writing with a general audience in mind—from the mountaintop down, so to speak. But there has in our history been a robustly theological grass roots as well. In AD 381 Gregory of Nyssa wrote the following:

    Every place in the city is full of theologians--the back alleys and public squares, the streets, the highways--clothes dealers, money changers, and grocers are all theologians . . .

    If you inquire about the value of your money, some philosopher explains wherein the Son differs from the Father. If you ask the price of bread, your answer is the Father is greater than the Son. If you should want to know whether the bath is ready, you get the pronouncement that the Son was created out of nothing!*
    This is what good writing produces, when that good writing is paired with a shared pursuit of truth and wisdom between the clergy and the laity, between the scholars and the nonscholars—when all followers of Jesus understand themselves as disciples of a common teacher, a common savior. Good writing, when read well, produces people in all corners of society who are passionate about the truths of God and the advancement of God’s kingdom, and who commit themselves to where the truth and the mission takes them.

    This kind of passion can be elicited in short forms, of course. Christian tweets outperform Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber on Twitter.** But the long form of book writing lends itself to the slow curative process evident in all the great documents of the church we’ve discussed so far. Letters, theses, books, translations and declarations were carefully crafted, prayed over, sweated over. They took a while to make, and then they were put in front of an audience to sweat over, pray over, carefully read and discuss. And the world and the people in it changed as a result.


    *Quoted in “Christ Conquers Caesar,” in A History of Christianity, by Charles Scott Kimball, The Xenophile Historian.

    **I heard this on NPR. I can’t locate the story on their website, but essentially postings to accounts for Christian authors like Ann Voscamp get retweeted more often and more regularly than posts from million-follower account holders like Gaga and Bieber.


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