Good Books & the Great Commission: What I Meant to Say, Part Five
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. :) A quick note on this final post: My presentation was intended for pastors in a denomination that does not ordain women. Please forgive my gendered language in the post. ~~~ The author-reader covenant isn’t just a binary relationship, of course, just as covenants themselves don’t only involve the two parties who enter into them. The best books don’t just change individuals; they change the world. That’s why books have served such a significant mission in the history of the church; that’s why writing is so embedded in the culture of the church. But as I mentioned, we’re living in a largely post-literate age. People by and large don’t read anymore. And the church is in danger, as a result, of losing this key asset in its mission. The danger isn’t on the side of the authors. A significant percentage of the 300,000 books published in America this year are Christian; my employer gets a couple thousand book proposals every year, and we’re only one of dozens of publishing houses. The danger is on the reader side; we need to recover the discipline of reading, and we need to help people recognize that the missional potential of reading is worth the covenantal sacrifice that comes with it. So, how do we get people reading? There are a number of ways that pastors and other leaders can influence others back toward a culture of literacy. One way is what I experienced: ask people in your congregations to lead other people in your congregations, or other people in their lives, in a discussion of a book that you love, or that you think they would love if they gave it a chance. It’s a big ask, for both the leader and the rest of the group, but the right book with the right set of readers can have remarkable impact. Don’t just throw someone into it, of course. Give them a crash course in facilitating conversation—most importantly, the acknowledgment that they don’t have all the answers, and the acknowledgment that neither does the author. The best conversations about books allow for respectful dissent and critique, assuming the best of the author and acknowledging the limits of the people in the room. Another way of cultivating a culture of reading is by citing sources in your sermons. That involves less work than it probably sounds like. The main thing is to step back from your teaching and ask yourself who have been your primary teachers on the topic. In many cases what you’ve learned will have come through books. Throw a JPG of the cover on a PowerPoint slide or just name the author and title—even at the end of the sermon, a sort of “further learning list.” Deliver Us from Me-Ville: one church built a sermon series around the book; another church used the book to help them observe Lent together. Many (not all) churches have libraries, but many of those libraries are hopelessly out of date. Victims of a culture that has moved beyond reading, they occupy spaces of a church building where nobody ever goes, or nobody ever stays. You might find a member of the congregation who has that stink of bookishness to them, and ask them to serve both as the library’s champion and its reformer. Give her a budget for one book a month and you’ll have twelve new books in your library in a year. Give her space to put the best resources of the library in people’s way—a table in the social room, a monthly plug from the pulpit, a column in the church’s newsletter. Challenge her to recruit a team to help her select books to buy or feature, or to advocate for a more robust culture of reading among the congregation. If your church doesn’t have a library, you can take the risk of lending out (or giving away) copies of books from your own personal library. You are, for your congregation, what your favorite seminary or Bible college professor was for you: a guide into the daunting but important and ultimately edifying world of Christian thought and practice. Introduce your congregation to the books that helped you get through a tricky issue or deepen your discipleship, and I suspect they’ll gobble them up. My wife one year organized a Christmas party for her ministry and asked everyone who came to wrap a book to exchange at the dinner table. It was to be a book that was personally meaningful, and it proved to be a significant night for people getting to know one another better and benefiting from the insights of one another. Some people took the exercise more seriously than others, but everyone remembers it, and they remember not only which book they brought but which book they took home. ~~~ Books are not magic. Not even The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia are magic. Books are a serious effort, on the part of both writers and readers, to wrestle with the basic premises and challenges of life. Books are finite—none has the last word—and because they are written and read by fallen human beings, their assertions and insights can’t be taken as gospel. But that doesn’t mean magic doesn’t happen when a book is being written or read. By reading, by writing, we reach beyond the time and space we find ourselves in and connect ourselves not only to great cloud of witnesses, to the great heritage of Christian tradition, but to the ends of the earth. Books can be magical because mission is magical: finite, fallen, flesh and blood people acting in concert with the immortal, invisible, ineffable Creator of the universe to make the good news known among every tribe, tongue and nation, until, as the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus,
we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.