What?! Someone whose ministry is about disciplemaking doesn’t read books about disciplemaking? Isn’t that a heretical statement? Perhaps it is. Here’s why I say this.
I think my taste for disciplemaking books was spoiled by the first book I ever read on disciplemaking, The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman. I still have my worn yellow-cover, underlined 1973 edition. Coleman’s book set the bar for disciplemaking for my generation. Every book since is simply a refinement or expansion of his work on Jesus’ disciplemaking model. Even my own book (The Ways of the Alongsider) draws from Coleman’s book.
So, why don’t I read disciplemaking books? A story from the biography of Oswald Chambers (author of My Utmost for His Highest) sets the stage for my explanation.
When a pastor came to him seeking counsel to get out of his mental cul-de-sac, Chambers challenged him with this question, “What do you read?”
“Only the Bible and books directly associated with it,” was his reply.
“That’s the trouble,” Chambers replied. “You have allowed part of your brain to stagnate for want of use.”
Within a few minutes, Chambers scribbled out a list of more than fifty books— philosophical, psychological, and theological, dealing with every phase of current thought. In a follow-up letter to this leader, Oswald wrote: “My strong advice to you is to soak, soak, soak in philosophy and psychology, until you know more of these subjects than ever you need consciously to think. It is ignorance of these subjects on the part of ministers . . . that has brought our evangelistic theology to such a sorry plight. . . . When people refer to a man as a ‘man of one book,’ meaning the Bible he is generally found to be a man of multitudinous books, which simply isolates the one Book to its proper grandeur. The man who reads only the Bible does not, as rule, know it or human life.”
Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God by David McCasland, pp 158-159
I need a broad range of vistas that reading gives us so that I can live, think, and minister in fresh and insightful ways. “My own eyes are not enough for me. I will see through those of others,” wrote C.S. Lewis. As a Pastor, The Message translator Eugene Peterson made regular appointments with F.D., scribbling the initials in his weekly planner. F.D. was Fyodore Dostoevsky. The novels of this Russian author gave insight into the relationship of grace and sin, opening Peterson’s eyes to the hearts and struggles of his parishioners.
It’s easy to be caught in the tunnel of disciplemaking where my sight is confined to the walls of the familiar and the slightly refurbished. I want to blow out the tunnel’s walls of the familiar and predictable. What books do I read? This short eclectic list is a starter.
From the Farm to the Table. Who wouldn’t be challenged by the contrarian view of acclaimed writer and farmer, Wendell Berry. His insights into the agrarian lifestyle has been one of the most influential voices in my disciplemaking ministry.
Essentialism. I give this book to almost every pastor I coach and meet with. Greg McKeown’s simple premise that essentialism is the “disciplined pursuit of less” is a message every busy leader must know.
Farenheight 451 and Short Stories by Ray Bradbury. I love a good science fiction story. Bradbury weaves together social commentary and science in ways that leave me with new insights on the human condition.
God In Pursuit of Man. This book of Jewish theology by Abraham Joshua Heschel has enriched my life. Heschel, an acclaimed Jewish author and scholar, has rich insights on God and the Bible. It took a while to get used to a book that never mentions Jesus or refers to the New Testament but there is so much reverence for God in this work.
Never Let Me Go. This novel by Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the most intriguing books you will read. I was about one-fourth of the way through the book before I realized what was happening. This book will grab your attention on what it means to be human.
How Can I Keep From Singing? David King Dunaway’s biography of the folk singer and activist Pete Seeger is a wonderful picture of an idealist pursuing his vision. While many may not agree with his progressive politics you have to admire his vision and passion to use songs to change the human condition.
The Pursuit of Elegance. The science and math in Matthew May’s book was a challenge to read but the theme is so fascinating. May explores how there is an elegant structure and design behind the most random expressions of nature. What an apologetic for the providence of God.
The Cloistered Life and Dakota by Kathleen Norris. I love Norris’ writings. Both books are stories of this woman’s encounter with God. One takes place in a monastery and the other in the flat lands of Dakota.
How does this diversity shape my life and ministry? As I grow older, I choose to read for ideas and not for particulars. This means that I underline key thoughts as I read.
When I finish a book, I copy the underlined sections into a journal. I initially did this to create a book of motivational quotes but I discovered that writing out the underlined passages helped me review the book. My goal is not an analysis but a literal recording of sentences and phrases.
I now have eight books of quotes. Sometimes I lean back in my office chair and read through one of my quote journals. The insights of these authors inform my teaching, they shape my life, and they prompt meditation. As one author writes, “The end of reading is not more books but more life.”
The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was an avid reader and pressed this discipline on his ministers:
It cannot be that people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. . . . Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days.
Wesley was so convinced of reading’s importance that when a pastor was ordained he was given a book allowance.
I’m not the only gray hair who enjoys reading. A more wiser saint than I loved books. In his last letter, he asked a friend to “bring the cloak . . . and my scrolls, especially the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:12). Read my friend, and read books other than ones about disciplemaking. Your life and ministry will be richer.