Many people think the pastor is doing nothing unless they see him doing something. Nevertheless, “The things of a man for which we visit him were done in the dark and the cold.” To be upon all occasions a “minister of the divine word” requires solitude, prayer, and—studying. How can one do it all?
Set A Pattern
First: Keep the forenoon to yourself. You need not be a scholar, but you must acquire scholarly habits. In three or four seminary years you have undoubtedly left some gaps. You need those morning hours.
You must know your Bible and hymnal. The Psalms, Isaiah 40–66, Jeremiah will give you the hallowed language that inspires good pulpit prayers, as will the hymnal. Three chapters daily plus five on Saturday will carry you through the Bible annually.
You must know theology. You need not read the endless volumes that stream from today’s presses. “New” theories come and go continually, none loyal to the Scriptures. But you do need a working hold on systematic Bible teachings. Assimilate thoroughly the contents of a work such as H. Bavinck’s Our Reasonable Faith. It is surprisingly contemporary, and will provide background to all your pulpit work.
Should you read commentaries? Yes, to get the meaning of your text in its setting. It is not true that “you need not explain texts that people already understand.” In 50 years the writer has never preached on a text in which further study had not revealed something unseen before.
However, should you read commentaries only, you would probably become as the scribes of old, dry as dust. Avoid “homilies” and sermon outlines; you would only become another stereotyped pulpiteer, a copy of this man today, of that one tomorrow.
Read a few sermons by the masters of yesterday and today; not to repeat these, but to discover how they became great, namely, by letting Scripture speak. Broadus, recently reprinted, is good; but a modern and excellent work is Simon Blocker’s The Secret of Pulpit Power Through Thematic Christian Preaching (Eerdmans, 1951). It will teach you to vary approach and method in letting God’s Word speak, while always dismissing your people with one central biblical thought. Exegetical and expository preaching were never more needed than today, and that because of the widespread unprecedented ignorance of the Bible. Also, the flourishing churches and crowded sanctuaries are where God’s Book is honored, and preaching is the proclamation of divine truth through consecrated and Bible-nourished personality. Attentive reading will also convince you that the Bible is ever at once theoretical and practical.
During the first ten years write out your sermons: this will improve your vocabulary and your ability to express yourself lucidly and briefly. It is not too time-consuming, for you can develop your own shorthand or abbreviations.
Brevity though is not the same as shortness. It is the opposite of verbosity, longwindedness. Your sermons may well take 25 or 30 minutes in delivery: how could you express the Spirit’s deep things in a fifteen-minute “effort”? Just so you hold your hearers’ attention.
Remain in your first charge some four years, to lay a foundation for your entire future ministry. Upon leaving you will have a small “barrel of sermons.” In your second manse discard the duds that were made under inevitable stress and strain.
Use the others again. Have you outgrown them? Good! Your reading and human contacts have resulted in mental growth. Occasionally a passage of Scripture will leap at you as though it had been written for you today. Tackle it at once, and let the congregation share in your inspiration.
You must understand the times in which we live so far as this is possible today. Time, Newsweek magazine, or U. S. News and World Report plus the editorial page of a cosmopolitan daily are part of your diet. Change subscriptions occasionally to get a different slant.
You need also one or more strictly religious journals. Your own denominational paper comes first, for you must be at home in your ecclesiastical home, and know what is going on there.
However, this is not sufficient. You are extremely fortunate. During most of the writer’s ministry, neither Luther’s nor Calvin’s works were available in English, nor were Keil-Delitzsch’. I had to read Lange and Meyer in German. Several publishers who during the last decades have come out with tons of evangelical literature and reprints of standard works were not yet in the field. There were no paperbacks. For general interdenominational information I have long had to depend on The Christian Century, long on ethics, short and inadequate on theology, on Christendom and, later, also on Theology Today (still very helpful). Today’s young minister can keep posted by reading CHRISTIANITY TODAY and build an adequate library from its annual issues, “The Year in Books.”
Browse also occasionally through the journals in a public library. You may find a suggestive and helpful article. Keep your finger on the pulse of today’s thought; as the world thinks so will your people, and you are to remain their leader in thought.
Those Spare Minutes
One periodical studied and digested will do more for you than half a dozen unread on your desk. However, more has been recommended than can be taken care of in those precious morning hours. Yet, to teach our religiously ignorant and television-trained generation to think scripturally, you must yourself be so saturated with a Christian outlook on life that it oozes out of your very pores. What of those odd half hours and quarter hours most men are so careless with?
Perhaps you have more time than money. It is well, for time is man’s greatest asset, his chief talent. You have 24 hours in each God-given day. Let us say: eight hours for sleep, two for the daily meals, three for calling on your parishioners, four for the morning study, three for evening meetings. This leaves four hours unaccounted for. What becomes of these?
They need not go down the drain of bowling, golfing, or similar pleasant but unproductive occupations. You can get your exercise and sunshine by visiting the sick and delinquent “on the hoof.” But take your wife out for dinner periodically and in charming surroundings: it will do more for her than a new hat, and it will cement marriage bonds that are coming loose because both of you are “too busy” for each other’s good. Nothing is easier than being busy, nothing more difficult than hard work; and the hardest work is thinking. Therefore, let your life’s partner share in the best of your thought over the coffee cup. Thus you will make her your companion and raise her self-respect and prestige.
By all these means you should keep your mind so active and thirsting for information that it comes natural to pick up a book in odd moments. Is it true that the average pastor reads but 10 or 12 books a year? If so, what an indictment!
One man told this writer that he was “so busy” building a new church, preaching twice on Sunday, speaking daily over the air, running after “special music” for this program, that he could not find time to finish the thesis for his doctor’s degree. “It takes me two hours,” he complained, “to get to the point where I can concentrate.” Surely there is no profit in spreading oneself too thin. Learn, then, to say “No” occasionally.
What will be your reward for so doing with your might whatsoever your hand (mind) finds to do?
1. You will enrich your personality and usefulness. Booker T. Washington said that he could accomplish so much because he had learned to do himself only the things others could not do just as well for him.
2. All this discipline will result in a more and more sanctified personality. Others may leave behind more of the world’s goods, but you will be able to say with the Greek philosopher fleeing from his burning house: “All that is mine I carry with me.” “Their works follow with them” (Rev. 14:13). In departing you will leave behind your footprints in the sands of time.
3. You will rejoice in the consciousness of divine approval. Remember, He had you ordained to be a dispenser of the unsearchable riches of His grace.
4. You will increase in stature, impact, and appreciation. It may take time, but God will fulfill his promise, “They that honor me I will honor.”
5. Your memory will outlast that of the man who has scattered his powers trotting around in circles. O how this floundering humanity is grateful to those who nourish minds and set hearts at rest!
6. All along you will enjoy the richest delight.
My mind to me a kingdom is,
Such present joys therein I find.
That it excels all other bliss
That earth affords or grows by kind.
7. When you meet your Master, you will hear the welcome words: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” What could compare with the rapture of that hour?
So then: “Bring the books, especially the parchments.”
“Till I come, give heed to reading.”
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