The Formational Power of Reading: A Requirement for all Leaders

In this day of weariness, confusion, and frankly ugliness from many people, our job as Christian leaders is to provide pastoral comfort, guidance, and prophetic vision. This is not easy to do because we are struggling at the same time. Yet as I listened to two podcasts on diversity by Doug Hurley and Zakiya Mims, I was reminded of one of the most effective formational tools we have for times like this: reading.

Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can learn how to respond well and be formed in Christ at the same time by reading. Reading and resourcing ourselves (from podcasts, blogs, videos, for example) feeds our minds and hearts. Reading and resourcing informs us, guides us. Zakiya and Doug were discussing racism. Doug is white; Zakiya is black. One is a privileged male. One an accomplished woman. Doug began a journey to understand what was at stake and what needed to happen in him by reading.

I have found that those leaders who read deeply and broadly with the Holy Spirit are often on a journey in Christ. Those leaders who read from a small curated pool to guard and maintain their perspectives, or who don’t read at all, can easily leave Christ out. This is dangerous.

As Christian leaders we can slip from ‘in Christ’ to ‘in the world.’ In the world one has certainty and craves control. In Christ, one has a relationship and craves faithfulness. Therefore, in order to be like Christ, we must guard from the temptation to be above Christ. Reading helps.

Doug began reading and listening to podcasts about his white privilege and the black experience, and the hidden systems of racism. He said, “I started gobbling up books like Just Mercy, Divided by Faith, and White Awake, and listening to podcasts. I started diving in as deep as I could.” He began a two-year journey which continues today.

As the priests and leaders of Jesus Christ, his front-line people, we must read. We must continue throughout our lives to stretch and educate ourselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to see the world and engage the world as Jesus himself did. So, I want to recommend different ways to read. And, I want to recommend that the formational power of reading should be a regular spiritual discipline in your life. Reading goes from light to deep, from calming to disrupting. As the priests and leaders of Jesus Christ, his front-line people, we must read. We must continue throughout our lives to stretch and educate ourselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to see the world and engage the world. Click To Tweet

“Comfort Us” Reading

One way we read is for inspiration and comfort. Parts of the Bible, such as many of the Psalms, lift our hearts to God. Many devotional writers encourage us such as Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in their book Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals and Iyanla Vanzant in her book Acts of Faith. There are also many departed saints who guide us such as Eugene Peterson in Answering God: The Psalms as Tools of Prayer and Cloud Devotion: Through the Year with the Cloud of Unknowing created by David Robinson. We meditate on them. We savor them like a fine wine. Our hearts have an emotional ascent to God. We feel lifted in the Spirit.

“Grow Us” Reading

Another way we read is to learn and grow. We are developing, refining, or exploring ideas for life and faith. This reading brings our minds into our hearts and expands our imaginations. We see new possibilities. These books are like eating a wonderful meal of delicious dishes, the salad, the vegetables, rice, and meat. We go from taste to taste. We wonder. We ask questions of ourselves. These books take time to read. We underline and process these books.

The Old Testament, Gospels and Letters continually are a full banquet of food for growing. Other authors such as Rachel Held-Evans wrote this way, challenging us. I want to be like her—her writing displayed such incisive thinking but with humor and graciousness; she did not miss her mark. N.T. Wright, Ravi Zacharias, and Cain Hope Felder all continue to be professors of our thinking. Our minds and hearts expand. We are led by the Spirit to broader vistas.

“Disrupt Us” Reading

Then we read books that completely disrupt everything we thought we knew and understood. This is what happened to Doug. These books take our minds and hearts into unchartered places. They change us, so that we no longer can see the world as we once did. When I read books like these, I am broken and haunted, or I recognize that I have moved from one country to another. I often don’t understand completely. It’s too foreign.

These books are like going into a restaurant serving food from a place I’ve never visited. I don’t recognize the look and the smell of the dishes. I have to ask what they are and what’s in them. I taste gingerly. It is the same way with these books. I know I am reading one of these books when I must read it again and again. I have found myself outlining these books trying to understand them. I have strong emotions. I am startled. I can’t stop thinking about them. Some cause me to lament and repent. My identity of certainty and comfort is challenged. I change. My language changes. I see differently but more clearly the kingdom of God and Christ.

The Holy Spirit’s guidance and presence is strong and compelling. The Holy Spirit is with me telling me, “Don’t look away. Eat this food.” The Bible has passages and stories that disrupt us and require much thought, prayer, and study. Some of the disruptive books are intended primarily for Christian audiences such as Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise or Amos Yong’s The Bible, Disability, and the Church. Others are aimed at a broader audience, such as The Covering: A Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino.

Discernment is always a part of disruptive reading. Suffering is a part of this reading. Reading this way does not mean that you eat all the new dishes placed before you. Some you should not. Disruptive reading requires prayer and a community. Books like these I always bring into discussion with others. With the Spirit we become food critics. Yet, a shift has happened in me with this eating. I am becoming a new creation in Christ, more fit for God’s purposes in the world.

Comforted, Growing, Disrupted

These three ways of reading will be different for each of us. What might be comforting to you might be growing for me. What might be growing for you might be disruptive for me. I could never make a list for each category, because I do not know the Holy Spirit journey you are on to becoming more like Christ in service to the world. But you know. You know if you are being comforted, if you are growing, or if you are being disrupted by a book.

What I do know is that as leaders we must be reading in all three ways. We are finite and hemmed in on every side of ourselves with particular lifestyles and experiences. We cannot possibly know the mind of God on all of creation. Even the great missioner and theologian Paul wrote in Romans, after expounding in 11 chapters about the nature of grace and the law:

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are God’s judgments and how inscrutable God’s ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given a gift to him to receive a gift in return?
For from God and through God and to God are all things.
o him be the glory forever.

Romans 11:33-36

Bon appétit!

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