Pastors, Reading, and John Welsey

I worry sometimes about the lack of intellectual and moral leadership from behind the pulpit. I’m not necessarily pining for days of former glory when sermons were published in the local newspaper; I worry for the present and our near future.

The people in our pews live in a high-speed hyper-information age where ideas come and go with the flick of a thumb, and people talk over each other in 6 minute clips on media. I think we sometimes think that one of the pastoral solutions to this problem is jumping right in with everyone else. I am often just as guilty as the next person with a smart phone. I spend quite a bit of time reading what the hundreds of random people who now populate my Twitter feed have to say about dozens of pressing topics on any given day. Very little of it has context, and very little of it has any lasting substance.

The more I aggravate myself with social media and modern news, the more I return to the wisdom of the ages on reading: read a lot, read a lot of good books, read slowly, read for self-edification, read for deep learning, read whether you feel like it, read for fun.

The more I aggravate myself with social media and modern news, the more I return to the wisdom of the ages on reading.

A young pastor who neglected his reading received this letter from John Wesley:

“What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear to this day, is want of reading.

I scarce ever knew a preacher read so little. And perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago. It is lively, but not deep; there is little variety, there is no compass of thought. Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this. You can never be a deep preacher without it, any more than a thorough Christian.

O begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not: what is tedious at first, will afterwards be pleasant.

Whether you like it or no, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a petty, superficial preacher. Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer. Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether. Then will all children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you in particular.”

– John Wesley to pastor John Premboth, on August 17, 1760.

There is so much good advice to pastors in this letter, and we have even more reason to heed it now that poor John Premboth did in 1760.

If we don’t read well, we will lose our taste for it. This can easily happen when we train our brains to take in information at the speed of a social media scroll. If we are too accustomed to that, how can we absorb a good systematic theology or Dostoyevsky? Pick up a good book and begin to retrain yourself. You will learn to like it.

Without reading your preaching will be like a magician’s flash paper, “lively, but not deep”. How many preachers does this describe? Charisma will get people to like our preaching but reading and the soul-formation that can come with it will help others know the greater things of Christ is a greater way. Aim to be deep, not lively.

Read and pray. Reading good books is a gift from God. His truth can be seen and known in a thousand different places (read some Gerard Manley Hopkins!) and reading can be a prayerful activity for the pastor.

Set time aside for it. I know the pressures to “do real work” are intense in a culture that values busyness over thoughtfulness, but you exist to be something different in this world. Sit down. Crack open a physical book with a pen and journal. Let others know you read. You are not acting elitist when you do – you are encouraging them to pick up a useful habit.

Wesley says we starve when we don’t read. So do our congregations.

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