What Do Pastors Read?

The recent Barna report, forwarded to me by my colleague, Ginny Olson, publishes its findings about books pastors are reading and who their favorite authors are.

The question seems to be this: “What are the three books that had been most helpful to you as a ministry leader in the last 3 years?” This question, so it seems to me, shifts the question toward leadership books, but also in the survey are books about discipleship. So, maybe the question is a little more general.

Two observations before I report the obvious: the first is that in the last 25 years the shift from Seminary and Christian college professors writing for the lay person is almost complete or even absolute. When I was a kid and when I was in college, Christian life books were written by and large by academics who knew how to write for lay persons. In the late 70s and 80s those professors became more and more interested in their academic calling — and I’m one of them — and so began writing academic monographs and detailed historical and technical studies. Fine, but in the process they surrendered their right to speak to the lay person. And when they did the books were too academic, too hard to read for the average person, and so they turned to other writers. Which leads to my second point. The lull was picked up by pastors who began writing books (or ghost writing their books) for lay persons and their books have sold and sold. The names are well known: Rick Warren, Max Lucado, Bill Hybels, John Ortberg, John Eldredge, and also Joyce Meier and Beth Moore and the like.

And now with the Emergent folk rising to the top with voices that are being listened to, we are finding yet another set of writers who are both listening to the Church and speaking that voice and for that voice. I could add the appeal that more academics would begin to listen more intently to the Church so that what they have to say can be read and digested and can bring benefit to the Chrisitian life.

So who won the Barna study?

Rick Warren’s two books, The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life won hands down, with a other authors noted — Philip Yancey, Max Lucado, John Eldredge.

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  • Bob


  • I am alright with Yancey, but the others… boo! appreciate the former blogs!

  • Two initial reactions:1. This study suggests that the majority of pastors don’t read anything more challenging than their congregations. Too bad.2. What impact should we expect this to have on the quality of preaching, teaching and theologizing in the local church?I find it disheartening, but perhaps I’m expecting too much.

  • A tangent maybe, but I find the same thing among worship leaders within the church. Their ipods are stacked with worship records and contemporary christian artists, their view of drama comes from willow creek sketches and broadway musicals, their experience with visual art is pop art and commercial media.Nothing wrong with any of those things, but if that’s your steady diet of artistic intake, then something important is being stunted. I think the artistic vocabulary of the church reflects just that sort of stunted intake on the part of its leaders.We should be steeped in Beethoven, Bruckner, Bernstein, Thelonious Monk, the Beatles, Brian Eno, Jon Brion, Mark Rothko, Richard Meier, BUA, the LA Slam Poets, Ellen Stewart and La Mama NY, anyone and everyone who creates work of substantive artistic innovation.Spending time reading flabby thinkers makes your own thinking flabby. Spending time taking in mediocre art makes your own creative impulse mediocre.Sorry to walk my high horse all over your blog, scot.

  • It is disappointing to think that many pastor’s don’t read anything more than the already digested popular authors that their parishoners read. You may be correct that academics sold the farm by writing on obscure dissertation like subjects,and their readers went elsewhere. Thankfully there are a growing number of academics who have figured this out and write both to impress their colleagues at SBL/AAR meetings as well as to educate the church (NT Wright to name only one). But lets not lay all the blame on those who write the books. Some of it rests squarely on the shoulders of pastors who are too busy, too lazy, or both to read books that don’t immediately provide them with a good sermon illustration.

  • When I was a seminary professor at TEDS my vision of a pastor was a theological scholar, a keen communicator, a good family person, a spiritual, loving person, and all those things.Time persuaded me that, in the main, very few pastors have been theological scholars — the examples we hold up (Luther, Calvin, Beza, Edwards, and we can go on) are genuinely brilliant and clearly exceptions to the general rule.Time also persuaded me that most pastors have so many callings that being a theological scholar is within reach only of the brilliant — and not necessarily the best pastors.So, I’m quite happy to see pastors who are inwardly in touch with God, who love others and work for their community, who love their spouses and their children, all these things — and we’ll let the rare exception be the theological scholar.Having said that, however, I find it necessary to say that pastors today need to establish some intellectual boundaries, set out some plans to read the right sorts of books, keep themselves in touch with what is going on, and do this because the Church and their local church needs a pastor who “knows theology”.I’ll blog suggestions.

  • Scot (and company), I read this thread only after my last comment, so I entered the conversation a bit uninformed about where it had already gone. I see that you have already answered my previous question. Sorry. I’ll add some thoughts that I would welcome your (2nd person plural) response to. I think your statement that that the pastoral/scholar is the exception to the rule misses an important point. Scholars of such import are always the exception to the rule. The fact that so many were pastors is the significant thing. We should ask ourselves if it is a coincidence that so many (the majority?) of the church’s most important theologians were also churchman.In our own North American context in particular, the primary theologians of early evangelicalism were almost exclusively pastors (such as Edwards). In fact, as I understand it, the tutors in the colleges were often the young men who had not yet “arrived” theologically and were waiting for the “step up” that the pastorate afforded. Consequently they taught pastoral theology (i.e. the theology formulated by the pastoral community) to the future pastors. The theology was being birthed in the local churches and then sent to the academy to train the future local church workers. But now theology is birthed in the academy, divorced (perhaps too strong of a word) from the primary context in which it is to be applied. This seems backward to me. And having spent time as a pastor, I’m not at all convinced that pastors can’t consistently and regularly make significant contributions to theology. In my mind, the chief reason we do not see such a reality now is because we have sent all of our theologians to the academy. Obviously not all pastors are wired to be theologians, but certainly some theologians are wired to be pastors–and should be in my mind. So though I agree with some of the comments above regarding the lax theological climate in the pastoral ministry, I’m inclined to believe that a large measure of it lies at the feet of the theology we’re producing. Those who feel a sense of calling to the theological task (I count myself one) can’t simply pass the blame. If the people in the pews are finding our theology largely irrelevant to their existential experience, we need to be open to the possibility that perhaps much of it is. I’m sorry this is so long, and I hope I haven’t adopted an “anti academy” tone. My time at TEDS has been very helpful, as have many of my professors (some of who agree with me on this). There is a need for academic theologians, but I think there is a need for pastoral theologians as well. In my mind, history has shown this. Enjoy the conversation and welcome your thoughts.

  • Gerald,Good points to consider. Now that I look over my blog-back I see mine has gotten long, too. Sorry if it bores you.I agree that such scholars are the exception — and always. And I agree that they were pastors, and that most were in those days. One of the points I wish to make is that Edwards is such an exception that we should not hold him as the norm or even the model, but as a certain kind of ideal. Most pastors are more like Pastor John Ames of Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, Gilead. I accept this; the norm is the norm because that is where the norm live. I’ve traveled this country this year, Jesus Creed-ing, and I’ve seen all kinds of pastors, and good ones at that, but the vocation of a pastor transcends the theologian — and it transcends it in the right direction — the direction more theologians ought to be taking.Tutors were pastors because universities were Christian-oriented; Marsden traces the virtual elimination of sound theology from American universities (with golden exceptions of course).I’m personally inclined to like your comment that theology was birthed in local churches, but I’m skeptical that such a thing can be proven because “theology” is “birthed” when anyone articulates such. Where is not quite the issue.Now, if you are saying that more theologians should be pastors and that pastors so equipped ought to be theologians (which they do manage to do usually), I agree wholeheartedly. The divorce of seminaries from churches (if that is really fair to say — do you know when Protestant pastors were really trained to be pastors in churches? Were they not always trained in schools? Is that not why the universities of Europe and Great Britian and North America were started?) — this is too long of a sentence.The divorce of seminary training from churches is a very serious issue, but now that I’m not at a seminary my voice is more feeble than serious. But, if I had my way, no one would be in seminary training for an MDiv if they weren’t already active in a local church and in ministry itself. Can you name any place where a person “leaves” the job to be trained for the job, where the person undergoes formative changes and then expects to come out the other end more prepared to minister than before? But, I’m also not persuaded the primary task of the pastor — the norm that is — is just to prepare sermons and to read books so that his or her sermons are profounder and deeper and more alert to currents. I believe robustly in the sermon and preaching and expounding Scripture — good grief, I’ve devoted my entire life to this. But, let me say this, the typical life of the normal pastor in a normal parish does not permit him or her to devote that sort of time to theological study. The role of a pastor is to pastor people.Jesus, if you will grant some historical difference, didn’t spend his time alone studying. Neither did Paul, so far as the Bible teaches and reveals. They were “with people,” loving God and loving others, and working out the gospel by performing it day in and day out. That, at least with my late-night dim lights still flickering, is what I see the pastoral task being. It involves theology; it applies theology; it requires theology. But it is the performance of theology that matters.I’d love to see more pastors who are evangelists, who have friends in the neighborhood whom they know and love and with whom they play and talk and that sort of thing.The danger here is professionalism and the “danger of becoming a role” instead of a person. And that role is not just being a “theologian” or just a “preacher” but someone who loves God and loves others and carries out the vocation God has given them.

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  • Scot, Thanks for the response. I really should be studying for an OT comp exam but can’t resist adding a couple more thoughts. First- I couldn’t agree more that pastoral training shouldn’t be divorced from the local church. It’s like learning to fly; there needs to be some classroom time of course, but you don’t get your license until you’ve done a certain amount of time behind the throttle with a qualified instructor looking on. I hope you get your way. Secondly, I think that the press of parish ministry can serve as a useful governor to theological speculation. You are right that the role of a pastor is to pastor. Perhaps we get our selves off on tangents and non-essentials when we give ourselves too much free time for theological speculation. God never intended theology, as far as I’m concerned, to be separate from praxis. As a practicing theologian, one focuses on what needs to be focused on. For example Luther and Calvin, though deep, don’t read like Aquinas. Pastoral ministry keeps you centered—none of this dancing on the head of a pin stuff. Appreciate your thoughts brother. Look forward to being part of the Jesuscreed conversation.

  • Dear Dr. McKnight (sorry, old habit)-As a former TEDS student of yours, I was really interested to read your thoughts about the role of pastor as it relates to theology. Fascinating to see the development of your thinking. I agree- most pastors are too far removed from neighbors and even congregants (and most of them are pretty lazy, as well!). Which reminds me of one of my favorite stories about you. I was picking up some books at one of those discount bookstores in Zion, IL, and the owner pointed to your name. Said he knew you when you worked at UPS. He liked your books, but what he really remembered was what a great (and fast) job you did in organizing and loading the trucks. A great comment about the place of the Jesus-follower in the world, I think.P.S. Thanks for Synoptics– 10 years later, it is still working me over.

  • Mike,E-mail me and tell me about your ministry. Looks interesting.The reason I was fast at UPS is that there a bundle of TEDS students there and you had to be fast in and out of trucks to get back to the belt so you could get your packages AND talk to your friends about theology at the same time. I used to say I learned more theology there than at TEDS. But, I’d be only slightly wrong.

  • Anonymous

    I see so many pastors (trained in today’s “contaminated” seminary’s) preaching the word of Rick Warren(i.e. The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life)instead of preaching the Word of God. The true Gospel message or “truth” of Jesus Christ is being lost in today’s church. Most church’s have become “seeker oriented” (and I don’t mean seeking Jesus) or they feel compelled to deliver a topic driven series of messages (e.g. 40 days of Purpose), mainly because the competition down the road is doing it that way. Many of todays pastors are uninspiring and dull, primarily because they’re burnt out. They give all they can the first few years, become frustrated, and then settle into a dull routine just to keep their jobs. They become more interested in church politics, building projects and raising church profits (instead of prophets). They should stick to the great commission and simply preach the truth about Jesus Christ (the living Word of God, God in the flesh). If you study Rick Warrens writings carefully (and I suggest using just one good Bible translation), you will see why this “cancer” will become the death of the Body (Christ’s church) if Christians don’t wake up. I am not the only one who thinks this way and I am satisfied with prayer and the Holy Bible as my one true source for daily living and problem solving.