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