In an early 2019 survey, Pew Research found nearly 27 percent of Americans had not read a book in the previous year. The reasons are not surprising. These folks are on the lower end of the economic scale, have lower overall educational achievements, or do not own smartphones to take advantage of e-books. The flip-side is that more than 70 percent of Americans had read a book in the previous year. Americans on average read around four books a year.
Inc.com reported in 2017 that most CEOs read a book a week, or 50 plus books a year, a number I suspect most church leaders find unattainable given the demands of ministry. Books recommended by CEOs are, as one might expect, from a wide variety of genres including leadership, history, and memoirs. Leaving aside for a moment the number of books church leaders could read in a year, what kind of books should we read? What kind of books make us more effective leaders?
Biographies help us learn from the successes and mistakes of others. Since many biographies depend on the journals of the subject, we gain insight to how people think or how they work through given situations. They are also sources of sermon illustrations. Biographies I’ve read recently include presidents Grant and Eisenhower, and Harriet Tubman. Upcoming are bios on Revolutionary War hero Lafayette and Malcolm X.
Reading history can help us understand the present. Historical works can also help us clear up misconceptions about the past we were either taught directly or absorbed from culture. History is broad enough to include numerous places, eras, and events. I recently spent a full year reading on the American Civil War. Some people choose a historical niche and read everything written on it, but I recommend spreading things out to get a fuller view of how we got here. My mind was blown recently by Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.
I went for many years without reading fiction, which was a terrible mistake. While some fiction should be avoided because of subject matter (sexual emphasis, for example), novels are a great way to learn storytelling and the craft of writing. In addition, there is a lot of truth to learn by reading fiction, whether classic or recent.
Some church leaders read a ton of business books to glean leadership principles. I have found great helps in leadership books, but don’t make them your only reading staple. For most people, one or two business books annually completes a healthy reading diet. I’ve recently enjoyed The First 90 Days and Building Your Storybrand.
This is an overlooked genre for many church leaders, although some read books in this category for the purpose of supporting the Genesis creation account. Those are helpful, but don’t typically go beyond their stated intent. We are better equipped to think about science when we read the ideas scientists and scientific thinkers are putting forward. I enjoy almost anything by Christian philosopher-mathematician John Lennox. My wife and I are currently reading together a book on autism.
This genre pretty much speaks for itself, though I avoid the-end-is-near type books that typically dominate this section of a bookstore. America isn’t going to collapse before I finish lunch as many writers seem to think. Michael Lewis, author of The Big Short and Moneyball, writes fascinating books in this field.
Missiology comprises a separate genre in this list because it has been too long overlooked (or misunderstood). More than ever, given the fluctuating demographics in many countries, all Christians should see themselves as missionaries sent by God to their specific context. Missiology helps us take theology into our context so we can better share the gospel with our neighbors. Works by the late Lesslie Newbigin fit this bill.
I read something from the New York Times bestseller list regularly, not because the NYT is the end of all things, but because it helps me know what others are reading. This tactic keeps me informed as to what is popular in culture and gives insight into what is potentially influencing the thinking of people in churches. Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Comprise is my most recent NYT bestseller purchase.
Most church leaders read theology; this is good. For some, theology comprises nearly all their reading intake; this is not as good, especially if all of your theological reading has the same slant. If you have not read outside "your tribe" recently, make it a point to do so. If you haven’t read theology from a "global theologian" (a theologian from another culture or country) make it a point to do so. The church of Jesus Christ is both global and historical — so are her theologians.
While this article isn’t about audiobooks per se, you can gain a lot of knowledge as you drive, exercise, or do yard work listening to books (or book-length podcasts like "Hardcore History").
If you only read one book from each of these genres each year you will boost your leadership level while reading twice as much as the average American. If this sounds overly daunting, break it down: if your nine books average 300 pages each, you can complete your entire list in a year by reading only 7.5 pages a day. You can do it.