Should Preachers Know How to Read?

English_literature Should preachers know how to read?

I think most would agree that literacy is a plus when it comes to preaching. That's not what I mean. What I mean here is, "Should preachers really, really know how to read?" How important is it? In his book, Why Johnny Can't Preach, T. David Gordon makes the case that the ability to read all texts carefully and write thoughtfully has fallen on hard times. He writes, "Today, we have become a culture of telephone babblers, unskilled at the most basic questions of composition; and it is simply too much to expect that a typical member of such a culture can be quickly trained to deliver well-composed, thoughtful sermons." 

While that may be a bit harsh, his overall point about the de-evolution of the reading and writing skills of the average preacher due to the cultural influences of media and technology is one worth considering. Gordon believes this so strongly he actually suggests those who would aspire to preach major in English or English Literature rather than biblical studies or theology. I don't think I would go that far. However, I might add a minor in English, or make sure one's biblical training happened in the context of a liberal arts education.

I don't see preaching today as grimly as Gordon does. However, I hear his warnings. The influences of media and techonology (for all their virtues) raising a generation of preachers who don't know how to read texts carefully or write thoughtfully got me thinking. If he's right, this leads to not only poor interpretation, but poor organization of thought and inability to lay out a sermon that flows.

Think of your preacher graciously right now. If you are a preacher, your preacher is you. Now, here are some questions that might help get our thinking going on this subject:

  • Can they (I) read a text carefully? If not, heresy may follow, and the nuances of texts (biblical or not) that are important for interpretation and flavor will be missed. I'm not talking here about the ability to translate the Bible from the ancient languages either. One can be careless with biblical languages just as easily as one can be careless with texts written in English. Gordon is talking more about taking time to savor text…to notice the turn of a phrase, the way a story is told, and the beauty of what is written. Speaking of a preacher who can't read texts carefully, Gordon writes, "They read John 3:16 the same way they read Romans 5:8; each is “about” the love of God, but they don’t notice much more than that, and their sermon on God’s love from John 3:16 is probably not different from their sermon on God’s love from Romans 5:8. Thus, they never really notice (and therefore do not and cannot preach) the distinctive thing affirmed about God’s love in John 3 or Romans 5."
  • Can they (I) read something outside the bible the same way? If they cannot, the odds of them reading the Bible carefully are more lean. Can the preacher read good literature or poetry carefully. Gordon believes this skill prepares one to read the biblical text more carefully. Eugene Peterson makes a similar point in Eat this Book. Personally, I have found that when I am in a season of reading literature (summer particularly), my preaching improves in thought flow, vocabulary usage, and imagination. When I'm grinding it out weekly through exegesis only, it dries up a bit. To help this, I try to read some fiction along the way. I stay away from the milk. I look for the meat or the chocolate of literature. Don't go pick up a cheesy romance novel though. Go read all the Pulitzer prize winners, or choose one auther and read all of their books. I had John Steinbeck summer a few years ago, and it was awesome. However you do it, choose thought or emotion provoking books of substance and beauty.

Near the end of the book, Gordon offers a summation of his perspective: "To preach the Word of God well, one must already have cultivated, at a minimum, three sensibilities: the sensibility of the close reading of texts, the sensibility of composed communication, and the sensibility of the significant."

What do you think? How much do a preacher's reading and writing abilities matter? Are there any disciplines you've put into your life to hone your reading and writing skills?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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