Men in the church don't read well.
I don’t have statistics or studies to prove this. My conclusion draws from my experience, and from educated intuition. I recently discussed this conclusion with Albert Mohler, and he agreed, "It's a very correct and perceptive intuition." So that's something.
Of course, not all Christian men struggle with reading. Many men in the pews are very competent readers, and the church is stronger for it.
But many Christian men do struggle with reading. Here are four reasons why:
- Men don’t read books because they don’t know where to begin. We live in a golden age of book publishing, which is great for the avid reader — but is overwhelming for many men.
- Men don’t read books because visual allurements are more appealing. Many men don’t read books for the simple fact that books cannot compete with visual and passive entertainment the world offers.
- Men don’t read books because they think it’s a waste of time. Many men don’t read books because they are unconvinced that the time spent in a book is going to “do anything” to enhance their lives.
- Men don’t read because they lack literary discipline. Reading may be a hobby, but it’s never less than a discipline. Reading well requires both focused attention and a time commitment.
These reasons overlap to some degree. So what can be done to combat these four hurdles in the lives of guys?
In any given local church, a wise pastor possesses the single most valuable commodity that will influence men who don't read books, and that commodity is reading experience. A wise pastor is a man who has learned by experience to discern valuable books from the less-helpful (reason #1, above). A wise pastor is a man who has learned to fix his attention on the written word for lengthy periods of undistracted time (reasons #2 and #4). And a wise pastor is a man who has been personally altered by his discoveries in the written word (reason #3).
Even without thinking about it, most faithful pastors are already pushing against each of these four cultural factors for why men don’t read books. In a visually-driven culture, the effective power of the written word shines in a pastor who has carefully meditated and read over his sermon text in Scripture.
But there’s more that can be done.
One of the best hands-on ways pastors can encourage men to read is by organizing a reading group. But not a typical reading group. The typical reading group, at least the ones that come to my mind most immediately, are relatively subjective. These are groups that ask questions like: Did you like the book? Was it meaningful to you? What part of the book was most profound for you?
Subjective reading groups like this are rarely effective at encouraging men to initially take up and read great books.
Why’s that? Well, quite simply, it’s a guy thing. Effective reading groups for men need at the center of their gathering a purpose for reading. There needs to be a problem to solve.
Any wise pastor will already be aware of theological weaknesses in himself, in his preaching, or in his church. He is also aware of pressing practical problems that need to be considered. A pastor can go and find a book that addresses these needs in his church, and then gather and meet and talk with men in the church about possible solutions. It’s a creative way to get men reading, and it was an idea suggested by Dr. Mohler in my recent interview with him.
“Men first read books seriously to solve a problem, to find the answer to a need,” he said. “Something has to be a catalyst. What I seek to do is take young guys and say, ‘Read this because we are going to talk about it.’ Saying, ‘Read this book and see if you like it,’ is not enough.”
Then he offered an example. In one church, a pastor picked 12 guys (who did not typically read books) to read through Wayne Grudem’s systematic theology (one chapter per week). It’s a long book, but it was doable because he suggested concrete areas in the church that needed clarity on a variety of topics. And it worked. Not only did it work, the influence of the reading group cascaded. The next year those 12 guys started their own reading groups, and tackled new problems and questions. The same happened the next year. Now after three years, 600 men have read through Grudem’s large theology work because one wise pastor invested in 12 men for a year.
That is the powerful influence pastors have in the lives of men.
There are several other ways a pastor can encourage men to read books. If you are a pastor I would love to hear examples of how you’ve done this (email me at blog AT desiringgod DOT org). Together we will consider several other practical suggestions for encouraging literacy in the local church in my seminar at the 2013 conference for pastors in Minneapolis — “The Pastor and His Reading: Why You Are the Key to Building a Church That Loves Books.”
See you there.