If you are like me, you love a good bookstore. Over the years, I’ve been blessed to find some incredible Christian bookstores that have (a)put a dent in my budget and (b) blessed my ministry. I’m a sucker for a book. Currently I have over 10,000 books in my library and around 5,000 tapes of messages from various preachers. No, I haven’t read them all, but I know where they are if I need the
I have several favorite bookstores that I visit when I travel. I’ve enlightened a few friends in ministry along the way of places they can shop, especially when they are in the Southeastern United States. I will go out of my way to stop at my favorite bookstore in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The man who runs the book section has been a friend for years. He is also a student of the Word, so it helps when I’m looking for something in particular. He walks me through the land mines of cotton candy, fluff and padded pages commonly called Christian literature. He gets me to the real stuff – the stuff that will preach, stretch and cause me to think.
Unfortunately, the book business is like any other, it’s about making money. Cotton candy sells, green beans don’t. While we may like cotton candy, we can’t live off of it. Yet, our bookstores have shelves full of cotton candy, felt need, warm fuzzy books. There are thousands of great books by godly people that you can’t find. Great thought provoking books have been replaced by books entitled, “Peanut Butter, Prayer and Piety.”
One of the greatest statements I ever heard about books was from the late Manley Beasley. Manley was in my study one day and he said, “Buy old books and books by dead authors. They’ve stood the test of time and they haven’t done anything to embarrass the kingdom.” Not bad counsel in light of the times in which we live.
In my files, I have over 700 unpublished articles by the late Vance Havner. I’m now in the process of putting some of them on the Havner website that we maintain, www.vancehavner.com. The unfortunate truth is, I submitted the articles to one major publisher and the editor wrote me back and saying, ‘The material is too deep for today’s market.’ This is a sad commentary on today’s market and our shallow spirituality, not the material of a man who wrote 39 books.
I’ve also discovered great books by relatively unknown authors that have quickly gone out of print. I learned the hard way that when I’m in a store, if I find a new book that looks like something I might use, I buy it. If I don’t, the next time it may be out of stock and possibly out of print. These days the fluff sells well and the meat is decaying on the back shelf. You can’t find a good commentary these days for all the Second Coming fiction books.
Today when you walk in a bookstore, it looks more like a Jesus junk convention. I have to wade through the Tee shirts and Jesus jewelry to get to the commentaries. They display the pictures and posters in the front of the store. They put the commentaries in the back where only those with the gift of discernment can find them. It’s enough to make an ordained man cry.
We wonder why our people are so weak and lacking in knowledge. The answer is simple. They are filling their minds with Christian fiction and novels. They rarely invest in a good, sound, theological book. They will only read a book on prayer if it has five simple steps to getting what you want from God. They only read prophecy if it is fiction and there is nothing worse than trying to talk to a believer about prophecy who knows more about what the most popular fiction series says than the book of Daniel. In fact, they may not even know Daniel is in the Bible.
Our church owns a small bookstore. I help select the stock so to ensure we’ve filled the shelves with books that have some content to them. I know that can be subjective, but it’s my church. Anyway, I want our people to read good books. Books that edify. Books that encourage. Books that are based on sound exegesis.
In 2002, I’m starting a pastor’s “book of the month” club. Each month I will recommend a book for our people to read. I know most of them won’t do it, but if only 20% of them do, it will be worth it. My goal is to give them a variety of books to read; I’ll probably suggest a biography, commentaries (one of Warren’s BE Series) on a book I’m preaching through, a daily devotional book, a book on leadership, one on prayer and possibly a book on the church. If I want well rounded church members, I have to provide a well rounded diet.
Let’s think about books for a few minutes. Have you ever thought about the fact that every time you buy a book, you are voting for the ideas you want to think about. With today’s technology, the bookstore computers and cash registers keep track of our reading habits, values and interests. Big brother is watching, even in the Christian bookstore.
Many books are sold because they are hyped and promoted in USA TODAY, magazines, Oprah’s book club, or on television. Some folks buy a book by the cover – don’t do that. Other’s buy a book based on who recommended it. If Oprah features a book on her show, it will sell millions. It can be lightweight, but it doesn’t matter. We are influenced by others when it comes to buying books. I recently saw the author of a new biography on Teddy Roosevelt on the TODAY show. I liked what I heard him say so I went out and bought the book. I’m a victim of the system. Let’s be honest, in today’s culture, the electronic media has a powerful influence on what we buy and how we think.
Do you ever check the back cover or the flyleaf to see who recommends a book? Or do you automatically pick up a book if a ‘big name preacher’ recommends it? We all do. We trust them because we know their reputation. This is true in the secular and sacred market. If a major talk radio host promotes a book, it will make the New York Times Bestseller list. I once had a man tell me that if an author ever got on one of the national religious talk shows, the book would sell 50,000 copies just based on the appearance. The idea seems to be, if he’s on TV, he must know what he’s talking about.
People go to bookstores looking for help. That’s why ‘How To…’ books sell well. People want to know how to lose weight, pray, witness, parent, and a host of other topics. It seems the book buying public is into formulas. We want five easy steps to prayer. We are looking for six suggestions for a successful family. Unfortunately, many people buy a book not because the content is solid, but the title is catchy. I have several books on my shelf from a best selling author who says basically the same thing in every book, but the titles are so good, who can resist them?
Let me encourage you, be a leader who recommends books to your people. Be a reader yourself. Help your people read the right kind of books. I’ve found if I occasionally mention a book from the pulpit a number of our people start looking for it. Recommend books that make great gifts for birthdays and Christmas. One year, I gave our people a summer reading list. I made a few suggestions of possible books to take on vacation with them. The positive response was surprising.
Buy the right kind of books for your leaders. Every year, I will buy one or two books for our deacons. We read them and discuss them in deacons meetings. Honestly, it’s better than what most deacons do – discuss three bids on vacuum cleaners! I want my leaders to be spiritual men. If they don’t read books, they probably don’t read the Bible either.
People buy books because they cater to felt needs. They also buy books that offer helpful hints instead of Biblical principles. That explains when you look at the displays in your local bookstore, you often find them filled with fluff. When you see a display case, you will see how American Christians are voting in regard to their book preferences.
If our people are going to read the right books, we need to help them. We need to use the power of the pulpit and the lectern to recommend theologically sound material. We need to give them a map through the maze of Tee shirts, posters, statues, holy hardware and note cards. We need to help them find good books. We need to talk to our local bookstores about stocking good books.
It’s time to move the great books back to the front of the store. If we don’t, we’re going to one day find ourselves with a generation that is tossed about by every wind of doctrine. We’ll have pews full of folks who don’t have a clue about theology and church history. One day, we’ll find ourselves quoting Spurgeon and they won’t have a clue who we are talking about.
As a minister and a leader, I want to encourage you to read good books and recommend them to others. In the archives you will find several articles by Warren Wiersbe recommending good books, Bible Dictionaries and resources. Take the time to go back through that list.
One final word, If you don’t have a bookstore in your church, try to work with a local store to provide a consignment book table for your people. People want convenience. One survey revealed that almost 90% of American Christians have never walked into a Christian bookstore. If that is true, bring the store to them. When we have guest preachers in, I make it a point to encourage our people to buy every book on the table. If you think it’s important, your people will think it is important.
©2001 MCC This article is copyrighted by the author and is for your individual use.
Reproduction for any other purpose is goverened by copyright laws and is strictly prohibited.
Michael served as the President of the Large Church Roundtable, the Southern Baptist Convention as an IMB Trustee, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Preaching Conference, Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and President of the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. He has spoken at conferences, colleges, seminaries, rallies, camps, NBA and college chapel services, well as The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Michael is the recipient of The Martin Luther King Award, The MLK Unity Award, and a Georgia Senate Resolution in recognition of his work in the community and in racial reconciliation.
Michael and his wife, Terri, have two grown daughters, Erin and Hayley.