Wrestling with Reading

May 28, 2007

One fortunate fact about me is that I enjoy reading. I say fortunate, because as we all know, pastors have lots of it to do. But I do frequently wrestle with what to read. I often struggle with getting my ‘extra reading’ right (that is, reading beyond sermon prep) both in terms of quantity and quality.


So here are two main questions that I wrestle with:

i) How much time should I give to extra reading? I sometimes feel guilty and paralyzed by some suggestions that pastors should give two hours every day to extra reading! John Stott suggests an hour, which for me is still a hefty challenge.

I’ve appreciated John Piper’s advice to read in 20 minute slots. By this method I find that I can accumulate reading time gradually. So I try to read for 30 minutes every afternoon, 20 minutes on the bus and for another 20 or 30 minutes at bed time. In this way I get through a reasonable amount.

Holiday times are best since I have long stretched of uninterrupted time to read. Often I get through several books in a week’s break, and since I’ve been uninterrupted in my focus these books usually have the biggest impact. I’m logging the books I read this year to see (out of interest) how many I get through. Steve Weaver reaches for 52.


2) What books should I read? This is the perennially tough question. My own choice has been governed by a few commitments – which are not set in stone – but have helped me to narrow the wide range of choices.

i) To mainly read solid, biblical, evangelically orientated works. This is not because I don’t see the value in reading opinions which differ from my own. It is rather because my time is so limited, and that reading books with considerable truth packed into them makes me more adept at sniffing out error in any case. That said, I read the odd book that I almost totally disagree with, just to keep me sharp.

ii) To read a balance of books. My personal approach is to read a blend of books including straight theology, biography, biblical studies, and works on preaching. (I’m sorry, but I don’t do novels, except the occasional CS Lewis!). At the moment, for instance, I’m reading through Charles Hodge – Systematic Theology, Steve Lawson – The Expository Genius of John Calvin and Kirsten Burkitt – The Essence of the Reformation. I don’t always get the balance right, however.

iii) To read books relevant to things I’m thinking about. This seems obvious, but if I’m doing an extra lecture (as I was two months ago) on the issue of miraculous gifts in the church today, I will often select a book on that topic for my extra reading. For future reading, I’m sizing up a good book on humanity being made in God’s image, since I’m speaking on that later this year.

Yet even with these three criteria, I still wrestle. There is so much worthy of reading. I wonder what processes you go through in terms of book selection?



  1. […] Unashamed Workman helpfully wrestles with reading here. I also had a go a writing a little series on reading a while […]

  2. Those are three good criteria that I use also. I categorize the books which I read into theology, history, Biblical studies, pastoral helps, etc. This helps me stay balanced with different types of books. Obviously what I’m working on at the present time will effect what I’m reading, but I try to compensate when I have the opportunity.

  3. Colin

    Very interesting post. I agree with Steve that reading should be balanced. Could I add that the balance should not only be across disciplines, but also across authors and time of writing. eg A theology book from the twentieth century should be balanced by a future reading of a much earlier theology book.

    In terms of non-Christian reading, I believe there is great value in reading weighty biographies of major international figures, or historical volumes. They can be a source of innumerable illustrations and can place Christian biographies, church history and theological developments within a wider context.

    I would like to throw a question into the mix for pastoral staff to answer. What expectations do you have for your congregation/elders to read and should that reading compliment/be different to your reading?

  4. Colin,

    I wrestle with this same dilemma. I have also heard from some notable men that a pastor should shoot for 2 hours a day of extra reading beyond sermon preparation. To me this is just overwhelming. I have found, however, that Piper’s suggestion of splitting up one’s reading over the course of the day helps significantly. I can’t sit down for 2 straight uninterrupted hours for extra reading – but I can slice that up into 20 minute segments throughout the day. Put together a few (3-4) 20 minute sessions during the day, while taking advantage of spare minutes when they arise during the week (waiting in the car, at the barber, on the bus, etc.), seems to add up to some significant progress through books.

    I have also found that some hobbies need to be set aside in order to provide more time for reading. I have sought to order my activities in terms of priority and now have only a few hobbies. Exercise, reading and blogging are pretty much my only hobbies. Some men, I have found, fill up their lives with several hobbies and would actually have a lot more time to read if they simply set some of those other things aside. I even recall Phil Johnson mentioning that his blogging was actually getting in the way of his reading; this was one of the reasons he stepped away from running his own blog for a season.

    Speaking of which, I have to go read.

    Thanks for the great posts, brother –

  5. Getting rid of your television is an enormous aid to reading. 🙂

    Can I put in a plea for the occasional novel? Some people just don’t enjoy them! Well, that’s OK. But I have to think that any pastor would benefit from reading Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, or In the Beginning, or Fyodor Dostoevksy’s Brothers Karamazov, or Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, or….

  6. The comments about television and hobbies are well taken. In all seriousness, sacrifices do need to be made if we are going to be all we can be.

    Phil, there are a couple of lists I’ve come across which are suggestions for church elders (see today’s toolbox). In a sense, I would say it should be pretty much the same material to those pastors who give themselves more frequently to public teaching.

    David, Brothers Karamazov was probably the novel that killed me! Wonderfully profound in places, but long…..Perhaps I shall try again, starting with one of your other shorter titles.

    (There are points, by the way, to anyone who cites the significance of the two pictures above. We have quite a standard to live up to!)

  7. Colin wrote: “There are points, by the way, to anyone who cites the significance of the two pictures above.

    I want points. My entry is (1) Spurgeon’s library without Spurgeon; and (2) Calvin reading, but not much glimpse of the library.

  8. Piper recommends that 1 out of 3 books you read should be from a century other than this one, for a greater perspective,
    I wonder how many important topics have fallen by the wayside in the past 60 years…

  9. Thanks for the thoughts on reading. I love reading but struggle to get the balance right in what I read. But I always try to have a novel or biography on the go as well as Biblical theology, pastoral helps, and history.

    I think its vital that we are able to engage with the cultures worldview in which we live. For example ‘The five people you meet in Heaven’ gives great insight into how many people today would like the afterlife to be and provides a great starting point for a series on Revelation or an evangelistic talk on eternal life.

    If I want my preaching to engage with those present who are unbelievers then I must be aware of their hopes, dreams and misconceptions and address them with what the Bible says.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.


  10. I find that a classical novel is much more fulfilling than reading most systematic theologies. “Brothers Karamazov” may be the peak but there are many others including: “East of Eden” -Steinbeck, “The Death of Ivan Ilych” Tolstoy, “Till we have faces” Clive Staples, “The time Machine” H.G. Wells, etc Sometimes reading too much theology can hurt the freshness, originality and spirit of a person. I remember Lewis suggesting something like reading one old book then reading a new book. Lastly, a good hobbie for the theologian/preacher is working with one’s hands such as gardening or woodwork. While the hands work so does the mind and heart. I have felt many a might movement of the Spirit in laying a hammer to a nail. (no pun intended)

  11. I wanted to add that the reason I like a good-fat classical novel is that it puts theology into context.

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