Sometimes you hear something so exciting that you just can’t sit on it long without just blurting out the good stuff that you just heard. We’re in the second week of our first residency with the first-ever cohort in our Doctor of Ministry to Emerging Generations track here at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s South Hamilton campus. We’ve got a great and diverse group of 14 students who have been with me, Duffy Robbins, and Adonis Vidu learning together about Postmodernity, Development, and ministry. We’ve had lots of great discussions with each other, and with folks like Jim Belcher and Tony Jones via Skype. This has been awesome!
Today, Dr. Don Opitz is leading our students into a deeper understanding of the young adults we hear labeled as extended adolescents and emerging adults. Before Don began to enlighten us on what’s happening with this group, he challenged our group to make the most of their educational opportunity and time together. He said, “The biggest and best takeaway is the disciplines. . . to become a certain kind of person who engages in certain practices.” And then, Don encouraged us to read. He did so by reading these thought-provoking and challenging words contained in an essay by Karen Spears Zacharias that can be accessed at burnsidewriters.com. . . .
I couldn’t tell if he was making a confession or if he was bragging.
The man looked up from the computer screen from where he was surfing the net and announced very matter-of-factly, “I manage this bookstore but I don’t read.”
Why would you tell that to an author?
I try my best to be gracious to people. I didn’t cuss out loud.
“Have you never been a reader?” I asked.
“Nope. Never,” he said.
“How is it you came to manage a bookstore if you don’t read?”
“I’m a pastor,” he said as if that explained everything.
I’d like to tell you he’s the first bookstore manager I’ve met this year who doesn’t read. In fact, he’s the third one. All were men. All had backgrounds in retail. And all three of them are running bookstores that cater to the Christian marketplace. I think there’s a message embedded in there somewhere, but I haven’t decoded it yet.
This gnawing in my gut is more than indigestion — it’s the disturbing recognition that far too many pastors have abandoned the spiritual discipline of reading. And I’m not just talking about Bible reading, although I’ve heard my share of sermons this year that I suspect were pre-packaged and downloaded online.
I’m talking about reading a book besides the Bible.
I can count on one hand the number of pastors I’ve sat under in my lifetime that I know were avid readers. I remember them because their preaching had a depth and a substance that all others lacked. One of my favorites, Dr. Herb Anderson, would quote poetry from the pulpit. That was always a magical moment. It helped that Dr. Anderson lived in a university town. He had a lot of professors in his audience. They expected their pastor to be well-read. But out here in rural America where hardy people live and vote, pastors are more likely to quote a bumper sticker than they are to recite a poem they’ve memorized.
A friend made the comment the other day that he thought the reason people liked the assistant pastor at his church better than the senior pastor is because they had no idea what the assistant pastor was saying but they liked his style of delivery. It’s more flashy than the old guy’s.
That makes me laugh and wince at the same time. The way I did when the bookstore manager who claims he is really a pastor said to me that he doesn’t read.
One of the best writers of our times, Stephen King, says: “People are just too damn lazy to read.”
I don’t know if King is right about that. Maybe people are just too busy to read. Used to be that we had time for stories in our lives. Now if the story takes longer than 140 characters, we don’t have time for it. Pastors, it seems, are particularly prone to the tyranny of the urgent. (That was an obscure reference to a pithy little booklet from another era).
John Wesley was an old preacher guy who lived a long time ago, back when “online” meant a person’s clothes were drying in the sun. Wesley thought reading was an important spiritual discipline: “It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people. ”
Can a pastor who doesn’t read really lead a people? Or is he more like a blind friend with a map? Pretty ineffective at giving clear direction.