We live in a day and age when most Americans read, at most, one book a year. About 24% of the population never read even one book in a year. Why? I’m sure there are many reasons why, but my guess is that the increase in audiobooks, podcasts, and video content has contributed to the decline. Recently I posted on Facebook a list of books that I’ve read over the years and asked others to share their reading list, I’m always interested in what others are reading and which books they think are worth reading. I was surprised that most of those who responded named a few specific books or gave a number, but also said that they listened to them and didn’t actually read them.
Ok, listen carefully, I love audiobooks and podcasts. I regularly consume video content. I think these things are wonderful and have many blessings, but the reality is that listening to an audiobook is different than reading it. Do they overlap and share similarities? Yes, of course, but again listening is different from reading. Probably one of the biggest differences is that reading is far more active than listening. Listening to an audiobook is much more passive. In fact, because we don’t need to focus as much when listening to an audiobook, we often perform other tasks like driving, working out, or doing the dishes. That’s part of the benefit of listening to things, but if you have ever listened to a book, you have likely drifted, and your attention went wandering somewhere else. The narrator kept speaking and when you finally returned your attention to the audiobook you missed a bunch of stuff. I know this firsthand. Many times, I’ll be listening to a wonderful audiobook and all of a sudden ten or fifteen minutes have passed, and I realize I haven’t been paying attention to the audiobook but daydreaming about something else.
Now, let’s be clear, the same thing can and often does happen when we read a book, but it is far easier to go back to where we first slipped in our focus and began to wander than it is to stop the audiobook and rewind to the exact place you first started to wander. We can also be a bit passive in our reading habits as well, but, again, reading is far more active than listening is.
Preachers and ministers of God’s word would do well to assess their reading habits to see if they might benefit from upping the number of books they consume each year. It may very well be that you already read one or two physical books a week and don’t need to increase your reading. If that is in fact you, let this simply be a reminder and an encouragement to keep pressing on. If on the other hand, you find that you could really grow in this area, then let me encourage and maybe even spark you on to reading more books by providing you with some of the scientifically established benefits of reading.
When we read quality non-fiction, we are actively taking in knowledge, learning from scholars and those who are considered top in their fields. Think about sitting down with some of the greatest minds in the field of theology or history and being able to converse with them. In a real way, that’s what we are doing when we read good quality non-fiction books. In fact, we can sit down with people like Augustin, Plato, Dante, or even Calvin and learn from these people from the past who thought long and hard on various subjects. Now, we might not agree with them, maybe not even a little, but having a conversation with these kinds of thinkers will only sharpen our minds and help us to grow.
Reading contributes to our vocabulary. We will likely run across words that we have either never seen before or only have a vague idea as to their meaning. When this happens, we have a great opportunity to grow by examining what that word means in the context that we have just read and/or to pick up a dictionary (or google it) and discover its range of meaning. The reality is that as verbal communicators we need to be able to craft our words in such a way that brings more clarity and light to our preaching and teaching. Not only are we verbal communicators but more and more we minister and interact with members and the broader community through text, blogs, and bulletin articles. Having a broader vocabulary can be extremely helpful. Is there a danger here? Sure, one might become arrogant and utilize big fancy words to try and dazzle those listening and being taught, but arrogance is a danger even if one’s knowledge and vocabulary are limited.
Believe it or not, reading can reduce stress and counteract depression. Research was conducted that demonstrated that reading for 20 or 30 minutes was more effective at reducing stress than listening to music. How many of us in ministry could use some stress relief? Now, it may not be helpful if we are pressed to read a book for school or as part of a class we are teaching. That may very well produce more stress, but a good book of fiction could help relax us and may even provide some helpful illustrations for sermons or Bible studies. You just never know where an excellent illustration will come from!
What in the world does “empathy” mean? There’s a fancy word, or maybe not. This just means that one can understand and share the feelings of another. Reading has been shown to increase one’s ability to be empathetic. As ministers you know as well as I do that we are involved with people, their lives, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Being able to understand and even share in the feelings of those we minister to is extremely important. Connecting with and relating to people we meet is one of the most valuable traits a minister can possess. After all, it is unlikely that visitors will return if the preacher is unable to relate, at least in some small way with them.
This is also important for relating to and interacting with those who are already members. I don’t share my hurts with those who are stoic, unfeeling individuals. I want to connect with those and share with those who can, or at least attempt, to share in my sufferings and hurts, as well as my victories and triumphs. The old saying, “leaders are readers” applies equally as much to the minister. We are leaders who are striving to be more competent and effective in all areas of ministry and reading books can help us develop some important areas of our life and ministry.
All of that to say, minister, preacher, pastor, elder, church leader grab some good books from various genres and on different topics, and enjoy, knowing that you are doing something that will have an impact on you personally as well as your ministry.
Bibliography & Further Reading
Berns, G. S., Blaine, K., Prietula, M. J., & Pye, B. E. (2013). Short- and long-term effects of a novel on connectivity in the brain. Brain connectivity, 3(6), 590–600. https://doi.org/10.1089/brain.2013.0166
Cain, K. & Oakhill, J. (2011). Matthew effects in young readers: reading comprehension and reading experience aid vocabulary development. J Learn Disabil, 44(5), 431-43; doi: 10.1177/0022219411410042. Epub 2011 Jul 19. PMID: 21772058.
Duff, D., Tomblin, J. B., & Catts, H. (2015). The Influence of Reading on Vocabulary Growth: A Case for a Matthew Effect. Journal of speech, language, and hearing research: JSLHR, 58(3), 853–864. https://doi.org/10.1044/2015_JSLHR-L-13-0310
Kidd, D. C. & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342(6156), 377-80; DOI: 10.1126/science.1239918. Epub 2013 Oct 3. PMID: 24091705. Reading Well (n.d.). Mental Health. https://reading-well.org.uk/books/books-on-prescription/mental-health/self-help
Rizzolo, Denise & Zipp, Genevieve & Simpkins, Susan & Stiskal, Doreen. (2009). Stress Management Strategies For Students: The Immediate Effects Of Yoga, Humor, And Reading On Stress. Journal of College Teaching and Learning, 6. 79-88; 10.19030/tlc.v6i8.1117.
Wilson, R. S., Boyle, P. A., Yu, L., Barnes, L. L., Schneider, J. A., & Bennett, D. A. (2013). Life-span cognitive activity, neuropathologic burden, and cognitive aging. Neurology, 81 (4), 314-321; doi: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e31829c5e8a
Dr. James P. Chaisson is the pastor of Park Hills Church of Christ, Park Hills, MO
It’s been said that “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair."  John Macarthur shared the same sentiment regarding preaching: “People have asked me – young people through the years – ‘What’s the secret to great preaching?’ Simple answer, keep our rear end in the chair till you finish the work and come out when you have something to say."  One of the secrets to better sermons is having the discipline to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair.
Before you start to think that I’m advocating pastors spend all their time in their study to the neglect of other pastoral responsibilities—I’m not! Pastoring is more than preaching—much more—but it is definitely not less than preaching. I actually don’t think that “time” is necessarily the issue; more often than not I believe the breakdown is in the disciplined use of the time we already have set aside—particularly the discipline of staying in the chair long enough to do the hard work of exposition. I want to address what I see as 4 major obstacles keeping us from applying the seat of our pants to the seat of our chairs.
Sitting Down Too Late
Saturday night specials are not conducive to the hard-work required for faithful biblical exposition. Like it or not, opening up a passage of Scripture before the flock takes considerable time and effort. A few biblical ideas written down in haste on Saturday night (or early Sunday morning!) do not a sermon make. The tyranny of the urgent must never be allowed to crowd out the fundamental task of preparing sermons. As G. Campbell Morgan warned in his day, “The supreme work of the Christian minister is the work of preaching. This is a day in which one of our greatest perils is that of doing a thousand little things to the neglect of the one thing, which is preaching."  Sit down early.
Sitting Down Too Little
Though similar to the first in the sense of “time spent in the chair," this obstacle is not about running out of time but getting out of the chair too early. How many pastors sit down with a passage, get a couple “preachable” ideas, and then think they are ready to preach only to find that in the preaching moment they have more “airtime” than content! “Aside from the essential empowering of the Holy Spirit, if there is one single aspect of sermon preparation that I would want to emphasize, it is this. Freedom of delivery in the pulpit depends upon careful organization in the study. We may believe that we have a grasp of the text, only to stand up and discover that somewhere between our thinking and our speaking, things have gone badly awry. The missing link can usually be traced to the absence of putting our thoughts down clearly."  There is real discipline required to press through your “initial thoughts” regarding the text into 1) the real thrust of the passage and 2) a preaching outline that reflects that thrust and applies it to your particular flock.
Sitting Down Too Limited
This obstacle is about resources to help your understanding of your preaching text. Though there is no substitute for your own prayerful engagement with the text, many pastors simply don’t spend enough time in the chair because they have exhausted their resources so quickly. Imagine trying to get your 10 year old to sit at their desk for 2 hours without any resources to keep them occupied! After you have done your own work on the passage you should get out your tools. Good study Bibles, commentaries, original language resources—there are tons of helpful resources available to the expositor today! Pick a couple and consult them every week for insight, answering questions you have regarding the passage, and to deepen your personal reservoir.
Sitting Down Too Long
The last obstacle I would have you consider concerns preachers that have long ago identified these first three obstacles and have by in large found ways to navigate around them. You prioritize sermon preparation (perhaps having designated “prep” times in your week); it’s not uncommon for you to spend 8, 10, 12, even 15 hours “in the chair;” you consider yourself a “faithful expositor.” A main obstacle for preachers like us (I include myself in this group) is that we often sit too long in the study phase and therefore have meager time left for thinking through illustrations, applications, and better crafting the sermon. Anyone who has truly tried to study the Bible has realized that it will exhaust all the time you give to it. As Jerome already recognized 1500 years ago, “The Scriptures are shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for theologians to swim in without ever touching the bottom.” There will always be another word to look up, another commentary to read, another resource to consult. The task is not to understanding everything about a passage (which is impossible!) but to grasp the main idea and how it applies to your flock. Discover the main idea and primary application as early as possible and then spend adequate time crafting your sermon for maximum impact. Once this is done, get out of that chair!
As you prepare this week’s sermon, what obstacles do you need to identify and prepare for? Distractions abound from within and without. But brothers, keep your rear end in the chair ‘till you finish the work…and don’t come out until you have something to say.
Josh Boley is the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Chaffee, MO.
 Mary Heaton Vorse
 Sermon, “Twelve Marks of Excellent Pastoral Ministry;” Delivered May 14, 2006
 G. Campbell Morgan as cited by Michael Fabarez, Preaching That Changes Lives (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002), 84.
 Begg, Alistair, On Being a Pastor (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004), 135-136.
I have yet to meet a pastor in person who didn’t want to preach the Word. I’ve heard they exist, but I have yet to meet one. All of the pastors that I have met and spent time with want to faithfully obey Paul’s charge to Timothy: “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2). Yet, what if our approach to preaching is actually hindering us from accomplishing our goal of preaching the Word? What if our convictions about the Bible and preaching are not coming through in our Sunday sermons?
Could it be that our convictions are right, but our execution is lacking?
This was true for me. I began preaching in high school and later went to college to learn how to be a pastor. During my Freshmen year I took my first preaching class. It was in this class that I was introduced to the idea of expositional preaching - simply letting the main point of the chosen biblical text be the main point of the sermon. (1) I was convinced that this is how I wanted to preach. Since then, I have believed that this was the best way to fulfill Paul’s command to “preach the Word.”
But I had a problem. At the end of the semester, every student had to deliver a sermon to the class. I chose Matthew 5:1-12 as my text, the Beatitudes. I prepared and studied and preached the passage as best as I could. My classmates said I did a great job. My professor had given me a good grade. However, at the bottom of the paper he had written in red ink with all caps: “NOT EXPOSITIONAL.”
I was devastated. I thought I was preaching the Word. I thought that my convictions about the Bible were shining through, but they were not. I realized in that moment that if I was going to truly obey Paul’s command to preach the Word then I needed to change my approach. The method that I was using was not helping me accomplish the goal of preaching the Word, rather my method was hindering my aim.
Maybe that’s true for you as well.
So then, what can we do to avoid that mistake and make sure that we are actually preaching the Word?
Identify the Goal
In one sense, the goal of preaching is simply what Paul charged Timothy to do: preach the Word. Yet, what does this mean?
It may be helpful to ask this question: Will my listeners better understand what this text means and how it applies to their lives when I am done? The goal is “solid explanation...powerfully applied.” (2) Therefore, if my chosen passage is Matthew 5:1-12, then I must be studying and preparing to teach the meaning of that passage (exposition) so that followers of Jesus can live that out in their lives (application).
Worldly entertainment is not the goal. Being liked is not the goal. Merely filling up the time is not the goal. The goal is to preach in such a way that the listener better understands the text so that they can live their lives in joyful obedience to King Jesus. This is what it means to preach the Word, and it leads to another important question - Is my approach to preaching (my study and my delivery) best suited to accomplish that goal?
That question leads us to a second suggestion.
Tweak the Process
In order for me to become an expositional preacher I had to completely change my approach to preaching. Previously, I had always started with an idea and then looked for a passage that I thought would fit. But, in order to truly preach the Word I needed to change my starting place. I needed to start with the text (not my ideas) and let the text (not my ideas) drive the sermon.
It wasn’t that I was previously preaching heresy (at least I don’t think I was), but I was not letting the text determine the message either. I needed to change my approach.
Such a change can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it could be simpler than you think. It starts with choosing a biblical text. I strongly recommend preaching straight through a book of the Bible, but even if you choose a text for a different reason, the goal must remain: preach the Word. Preach that text. That simple approach can get you moving in the right direction.
If you are tempted to start with an idea, even a brilliant idea, or an event that happened that week in the news, then I encourage you to tweak your approach. Start with God’s Word, not man’s ideas. Start with the biblical passage and study that passage to understand its main point. When you have a good idea what the main point is, structure your sermon around specifically teaching that main point.
These main points may sound something like this: “Mark 2:1-12 teaches that Jesus doesn’t merely have the power to heal your body, but Jesus has the power to save your soul.”
John Stott comments on this process: “So then, in our sermon preparation, we must not try to by-pass the discipline of waiting patiently for the dominant thought to disclose itself. We have to be ready to pray and think ourselves deep into the text, even under it, until we give up all pretensions of being its master or manipulator, and become instead its humble and obedient servant.” (3)
Once you find your main point, continue to study the text and develop an outline. Then, you can move on to reading commentaries and look for various ways to illustrate and apply the message of the passage. Now, if there’s a major event from the week – something on everyone’s mind and heart – that will seamlessly fit as an illustration at this point, then use it. But, don’t force it into the sermon.
Remember, your goal is not to provide analysis for current events, but the goal is to preach the Word. Make sure your method is working to achieve that goal. A few minor tweaks can go a long way toward moving you in that direction.
Seek Good Feedback
After we have delivered a sermon, how can we know if we have actually “preached the Word?” Some preachers may simply just trust themselves. They may assume they accomplished the goal. But, that can be dangerous.
What if your convictions are not actually being revealed in the sermon? Your intentions may be right, but your execution may still be lacking. What do you do? Many pastors turn to their congregation at this point. Such a move is not bad and it’s better than just listening to yourself. Though, most church members are not equipped to give correct feedback. Many well-intentioned church members would never want to offend their pastor by critiquing a “man of God.” Perhaps some may think any sermon under 35 minutes is wonderful. Still, some church members may just like good stories and illustrations. You could very well be a “good preacher” in their eyes and still not be preaching the Word. That was true for me.
A better option is to look for brothers who agree with your convictions about preaching and will give you faithful, constructive feedback. They need to love you. They need to be able to identify true, biblical exposition. They need to be willing to help you see where you can grow and improve. This kind of feedback is invaluable for those wanting to faithfully preach the Word. Seek good feedback.
You can have the right convictions about preaching and still not be preaching the Word. At times, even the best of preachers struggle with execution. The good news is that we can all improve. We can all work hard with the help of the Holy Spirit to be better expositors. Through God’s grace we can faithfully obey the command to preach the Word.
(1) Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000), p. 26.
(2) Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), p. 94.
(3) John Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2017), p. 227.
William Marshall is a pastor at Grace Bible Fellowship in Sikeston, MO. Follow him @bro_wmarshall