John Wesley on Why Pastors Must Read

On August 17, 1760, John Wesley wrote a letter to a preacher named John Premboth. His words are critical for pastors to hear today.:

What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear to this day, is want of reading.

I scarce ever knew a preacher read so little. And perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago. It is lively, but not deep; there is little variety, there is no compass of thought. Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this. You can never be a deep preacher without it, any more than a thorough Christian.

O begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not: what is tedious at first, will afterwards be pleasant.

Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a petty, superficial preacher. Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer. Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether. Then will all children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you in particular.

What a quote! How difficult it must have been for John Premboth to get this kind of letter from John Wesley. How would you feel about hearing your preaching being described as “not deep” or lacking variety? How would you receive this truth if it was implied that you were a “pretty, superficial preacher”?

But I think Wesley has a lot to say here to preachers today. I know a lot of preachers that don’t read. I know even more who buy lots of books but they don’t read them. I have news for you: buying a book does not give you credit for reading it.

I understand it is not always easy. We get busy with our work. We might read for our sermon or something for a group we are in, but we don’t read widely. Perhaps we have gone through a busy period of our lives, and now reading seems more tedious and less pleasant.

John Wesley point out that a lack of reading damages our preaching and our ministry. Without reading, our peaching will shallow instead of deep. Because of this, it will lack variety. If you are not pushing your thinking through reading, all your sermons will begin to sound the same. And they will ramble because they will have no direction.

John Wesley is almost cruel when he implies what kind of ministry a lack of reading will lead to. You will “be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial preacher.” Harsh words, but as I look at the Spirit-less and anemic Christianity of the West today, I wonder if this has happened to us. We trifle with church, and we superficially deal with the things of God, but we lack depth, because that depth can only come from reading and prayer.

If you are not reading and praying, you are starving yourself and harming your church. You need to do “justice to your soul.” You must give it time and means to grow and strengthen. Then, says Wesley, the people will rejoice and not grieve over you.

Reading and daily prayer are the only cures for shallow preaching and superficial ministry. Whether you like it or not, you must read. It is part of the pastor’s cross to bear. There is no other way to become a deep preacher.

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