I’ve stopped reading books about church.
This is a potentially destructive statement for someone who is about to release a book about church in the next six months. I’m a little worried I’m shooting myself in the foot here, but I’m also sure one blog post won’t cause the theological and practical ministry book markets to shrivel up.
But the truth is, I’m on a hiatus from theological books, congregational growth books, spirituality books, church administration books, and the like.
It’s been a soft breakup. A year ago we moved to the town where I now pastor, and suddenly, I lived in easy walking distance to a fabulous local bookstore.
In fact, it’s roughly halfway between my house and the church, and I walk by it every day. It’s hard to resist the siren song of a good bookstore.
I have bought a lot of books in the last year. I’ve read more in the past year than I have since I was in grad school. And, in terms of voluntary reading, I’ve probably never read more.
Surprisingly, although I didn’t go looking for church in the page of these non-theological books, I’ve found it there almost without fail.
When I reread “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” I fell back in love with a book I had first read as a 17-year-old spiritual seeker, and I remembered what it was like to search for God. When I read Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory,” an assigned text from college that I never quite got around to, I wrestled with what sacrifice means in the life of faith. And as I followed Stephen Dedalus’ path in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” I once again asked myself what it means to choose to serve.
But it wasn’t just in novels with theological sub-texts that I found wisdom.
I am a better pastor for reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” even when he states he has no room for the church in his life. In fact, I may be a better pastor for hearing that.
And reading journalist Brigid Shulte’s book “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time” has made me seriously consider the ways we all worship false idols simply by giving them the abundance of our time.
I do not believe theological and church-related books no longer have a place. They certainly do. I wouldn’t be writing one if I didn’t think so. I’m thankful for just about every book on God and God’s people that I’ve read through the years.
But for me personally, during this season of my life, I had to step back and away and hear things in a different voice—more poetic than technical. At least for a little while.
It’s a sort of literary sabbath, and I have found only greater energy and passion for ministry, especially for those aspects of it that require creativity. I know, for instance, that I wouldn’t have been able to write a book on faith if I were not taking a break from constantly reading words written specifically about it.
Recently, I heard a story on NPR about a photojournalist who consistently took amazing pictures. He revealed his secret: He would never take a photo while touching another photographer.
In the gaggles of photographers who show up for press events, physical jostling for position and the best shot is par for the course. Instead, this photographer stands away from the crowd, finds a new angle, and takes a shot that casts everything in a different light.
Ministry is not a competitive endeavor. Nor is the Christian life. But it is one in which too often we stand too closely together in tight circles. If we are all reading the same things, having the same conversations, and looking at things from the same perspectives, there is so much we will miss.
And so, for now, I’m visiting my local bookstore a lot more often. I’m visiting new shelves. I’m opening new stories. And on every page, I’m finding just another piece of the ongoing story of human faith in something greater than ourselves.
Rev. Heath is a Christ-follower, displaced Southerner, binary-smasher, PhD dropout, former religious “none”, ambivert, fly-fishing enthusiast, progressive evangelical, fountain pen devotee, gender non-conformer, amateur genealogist, recovery believer, Sox fan, Trinitarian, bow tie aficionado, marriage equality advocate, LEGO lover, prepster not hipster, blogger, Reformed theologian, fantasy football fanatic, 13th generation New Hampshirite, church lover, and spouse of an amazing woman.