Any church leader worth his salt will always have a book on the go. We must never stop thinking. We must never stop learning. We must never stop seeking to grow in our understanding of God’s Word and how to apply it to our specific cultural contexts.
It’s cheesy but true—“great leaders are great readers”. The problem comes in discerning what books we ought to be reading and what books we ought to give a miss. Like most, I have my own way of sifting the wheat from the chaff.
Should we read books that we know we agree with before we have even opened the cover? I think so, yes. It certainly doesn’t do any harm to read something that we know will be an encouragement to us and a balm to our souls.
Does that mean we shouldn’t read books that we know we will have problems with theologically (i.e. Rob Bell)? No, not at all. On the contrary, reading books we disagree with helps broaden our perspective (in theory at least—for some it could just strengthen their own presuppositions). But I don't want to fill up what little time I have reading that which will not be beneficial to my soul. That leaves the big question. How do we know whether a book will be good or not and if it will intellectually challenge us or not?
1. I always look for the publisher straight away. I usually can tell immediately if a book is going to be theologically acceptable to me this way. It doesn’t always guarantee agreement, but it does provide a doctrinal safety net.
2. The author is a bit of a giveaway. Can he/she be trusted? What is his/her previous body of work? If he/she is an unknown, then who has been prepared to give a recommendation on the sleeve or the inside cover? All helpful indicators for me.
3. I like to look at the back cover and read the summary to give me an idea of whether or not the topic is of interest to me. Importantly, is it within an area that I can contextualise for my work in Niddrie?
4. Read the chapter headings to get an idea of the flow of the book.
5. Pick out any ‘controversial’ chapters (if there are any) and quickly skim them to pick up the main points of argument.
6. I like to read the first two pages of the opening chapter. If the book captures my attention within that period, then 99% of the time I am inclined to buy it and read it, whether I agree with it or not.
7. I hate diagrams. If a book has diagrams then I will definitely skip over these parts. I find them highly irritating and they do nothing to aid my learning experience.
8. Read then re-read. I commit the cardinal sin of marking my books with yellow highlighter. It enables me to capture the essence of a chapter as I read back over it once I have finished the book.
9. I will try to blog about most books I read unless they were absolute stinkers!
10. I will try to find out the opinion of trusted pastors, leaders and/or bloggers if I've never heard of a book before. I personally trust Challies implicitly, so if he gives it a good review I'm usually golden.
Here are a couple of other sites to help get your juices flowing with regards to this topic. “Becoming Saturated” has some useful hints. “Transformed” also has a useful article entitled, “How to Read a Book”.
What About Bad Readers or the Illiterate?
But, what about those who are ‘poor’ readers, even ‘illiterate’ in our scheme? If only avid readers can be leaders, then doesn’t that just about rule them out? I think we have to be clear that being a poor reader, or even illiterate, does not necessarily rule a person out from being effective for the kingdom of God.
The NT, after all, was written and read out to a great number of illiterates. Somebody can have great evangelistic and leadership gifts without necessarily being a bookworm! However, being a teacher and/or preacher of the Word in a leadership capacity is another matter. We must be ‘apt to teach’, which presupposes a degree of literacy. After all, we cannot teach the whole counsel of God if we are unable to read it and digest it for ourselves.
In Niddrie, we gauge very early the level of literacy in those we are speaking to and discipling. Very rarely have we come across people who are completely illiterate (although we have). Then, we adjust accordingly by offering either one-to-one help in the area and/or some personal literacy training as part of our evangelism and/or discipleship.
We should never confuse illiteracy with intelligence. Also, people tend to be very quick learners when they are properly motivated. I have observed (non-scientifically) that when poor readers, non-readers (those who can read but don’t) and illiterates begin to read, several things happen:
1. It improves concentration levels. There is (basically) a lie that does the rounds that people on schemes can’t concentrate for more than five minutes. That is true at one level, but it is equally as true that they are able to cope for far more time when given the opportunity to read a book (in extreme cases we get an audiobook whilst we begin the literacy process).
2. People have a remarkable capacity for remembering. Reading aids the brain in this regard.
3. It brings discipline to the mind (and sometimes to the life). I have seen this first hand as people who have led chaotic lives have been transformed in their personal discipline by training their brain to think logically.
4. It improves creativity and interaction. As knowledge grows so does confidence.
5. Their vocabulary begins to improve exponentially.
6. It broadens worldview and opens us up to new ideas and other cultural values.
It is a long, hard slog with many of our people here, but it is worth it. I don’t know a single person for whom reading has not proved beneficial, even for simple things like filling in forms. God is a God of words, and we have a responsibility to find out what he has to say.