One of the first things that I did when I became pastor of the church I now serve was to start a book table where good books at discounted prices were made available to our congregation. Through experience in the previous church I served I had learned that those who read, lead. Even with limited opportunity to distribute good books (I was the Assistant Pastor) it became evident that a book thoughtfully recommended could be instrumental in the spiritual development of Christians.
Within a few weeks of preaching my first sermon in my present church I purchased a handful of small books and started recommending them to our membership. Among that first batch was Words to Winners of Souls by Horatius Bonar and David M’Intyre’s The Hidden Life of Prayer. My goal was to start small and devotional—to provide books whose content was obviously relevant and easily digestible. I had benefitted so much from good books that I wanted to share the blessing with others.
A man in the church who understood the value of good books helped underwrite the cost of the next set and within a matter of months we had a table full of good titles for sale as a fixture in our foyer. Within a year or two, the “Book Table” became a line item in our budget and the church adopted a policy that if anyone who wanted one of the books but could not afford to pay, he or she could have it in exchange for a promise to read it.
I often recommend books both publicly and in private conversations. When someone takes my recommendation I try to follow up in a few weeks to ask what they think of the book, what they are learning or if the book has raised any questions for them. That has led to some very fruitful conversations and opportunities for ministry.
Fruitful does not always mean easy however. On occasion I have had members and prospective members get upset by a book. Once a deacon stormed into my study on a Sunday morning and threw on my desk a book I had encouraged him to read the week before. He declared loudly enough for several other people to hear, “If that book is true, then I am not a Christian!” What tome evoked such a response? Walt Chantry’s Today’s Gospel, Authentic or Synthetic. That deacon and I had many hard conversations after that. We discussed the nature of saving faith, true repentance and the new birth, among other things. That book helped establish a biblical framework for such talks.
Trusting God Even When Life Hurts by Jerry Bridges is the most popular book that has ever graced the shelves of our book room (the table became too small). Over the years we have distributed multiple thousands of copies of that book. Many people had become familiar with it from our church shortly before a major hurricane tore across southern Florida in 1992, leaving dozens of damaged church buildings and parsonages in its wake. Because it was fresh on the minds of so many, our people purchased copies for every pastor and church that we learned had been affected. We also gave money and additional books to help several pastors start rebuilding their personal libraries.
A culture of appreciation of good books took root in the church over those first few years and has continued to the present. With a little encouragement, members began buying books for family and friends, often including an appropriate title with a birthday or Christmas gift. Over the years it has become second-nature for many of our members to use books in evangelistic and discipleship relationships. I frequently lead small groups of members in reading through a carefully selected book. People who are not accustomed to reading or to reading theologically oriented books can be encouraged to make the attempt when they know that others will be conversation partners along the way.
By encouraging members to read good books I inadvertently helped develop a support system for my own “continued education program.” Readers love to discuss what they are reading and they are always looking for recommendations of what to read next. In the early years here I was usually on the recommending end of such conversations. As reading became more customary among our members and with the increased access to books in not only print but also digital and audio formats, it was not long before I found myself regularly receiving recommendations as well as making them.
Through the years I have seen good books supplement the ongoing preaching and teaching ministry of the church, encourage personal and spiritual growth, help with counseling, equip for ministry and help people develop a growing love for truth. As such, good books can be like personal assistants to a busy pastor. With apologies to a Puritan author whose name I have forgotten, a book can speak when a pastor cannot, should not, will not and is not.
So I would encourage every pastor to start a book table if one doesn’t already exist in the church he is serving. That is one thing that, by God’s grace, I did right early in my ministry.
Dr. Tom Ascol is pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida and Director of the FOUNDERS MINISTRIES in the Southern Baptist Convention.