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From his Column Pressing On

pressing-on-07-14-1On occasions, when Dr. William Greathouse was invited to be the guest preacher at a local church, he would make it a point to visit the pastor’s library. His eyes would run across the spines of books, noting titles and authors. Often, he would return home and report to his family, “I believe he’ll make it.” Dr. Greathouse knew something about the relationship between pastors and books. He believed the discipline of reading was integral to the vocation of pastoral ministry.

It is not just important that pastors read. It is essential that we read, to borrow language from John Wesley, “in conference.” The root word “confer” means “to bring together for the purpose of dialogue.” That is, our reading is not an isolated exercise; it is practiced “in conference” with at least four other areas of discipline.

First, we read many books in conference with the One Book. In the preface to his collected sermons, John Wesley passionately proclaimed, “Let me be homo unius libri” (man of one book).[1] Yet, it is also widely understood that Wesley was a man of manybooks. He scolded preachers who read only the Bible: “If you need no book but the Bible, you have risen above St. Paul.” When preachers lacked resources, he offered, “I will give each of you, as fast as you will read them, books to the value of five pounds.”[2] For Wesley, the many books were no substitute for the One Book, but they could complement it. Our reading is done in constant conversation with the witness of the Holy Scriptures.

Second, we read books in conference with other books. Richard Foster states, “Books often have meaning only when they are read in relation to other books.”[3] Books stimulate “live discussion” with one another. In our reading, we welcome the Church Fathers into conversations about the missional church movement. We hear the voices of great holiness theologians speaking to current conversations about discipleship and spiritual practices. Even books not found in the “religion” section of a bookstore have a seat at the table. When we allow our reading to confer with other books, we find they temper one another. At times they disagree, and at times they affirm with hearty “Amens.”

Third, we read in conference with others. Reading is a corporate spiritual practice. When groups read and discuss books together, the Holy Spirit illuminates texts and expands our thoughts in ways that would not happen if left to ourselves. Some of the most formative experiences in my life have been settings in which I’ve read and learned alongside others. Whether it was in classroom conversations throughout school, during informal dialogue in dorms or coffee shops, or with groups of pastors who regularly meet to discuss books, these collaborations have been some of the most fruitful and formational experiences in my growth as a pastor.

Finally, we read in conference with the practice of ministry. In our tradition, the lines between theology and practice are beautifully blurred. Learning and living are not separate endeavors. Each informs and shapes the other. When theology (learning) is attempted apart from practice (living) or vice versa, our ministry is diluted. When we allow for active engagement between what we read and how we practice ministry, we realize how they mutually serve and fortify one another.

Reading in conference takes seriously the role of the Holy Spirit. When we read with this awareness, we recognize the Spirit is present and active, bringing together books and ideas and people across the ages for the larger purpose of bearing witness to the coming Kingdom of God and making Christ-like disciples who live in faithfulness to the Kingdom. Phineas Bresee expressed this conviction when he addressed a district assembly: “The minister should be a man of books. His great book is the Word. Of this he should be a master. He should also be in touch with the great thought of the world. He should read the masterpieces of literature, the great histories, the great biographies, especially the biographies of the great religious leaders, and he should read the master works of fiction, as “Pilgrim Progress,” Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” “Ben Hur,” etc. Get books; get them at any sacrifice. Be a student. Be systematic. The Holy Ghost will take all this equipment and use it to teach and win souls for the kingdom of Christ.”[4]

Daron Brown lives and pastors in Waverly, Tennessee.

 

 


 

[1] Wesley, John, Sermons on Several Occasions, Vol. 1 (1746), Preface, §5, Works, 1:104–6.

[2] Wesley, John, The Works of John Wesley, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 3rd ed.

[3] Foster, Richard, Celebration of Discipline, San Francisco: Harper, p. 59).

[4] Smith, Harold Ivan, The Quotable Bresee, Kansas City: Beacon Hill, p. 148).

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