A preacher without books is like a carpenter without tools. The reason is simple: a preacher's books are his tools. Just as the carpenter uses a hammer, saw, and plane to build a beautiful cabinet, the preacher uses a commentary, Bible dictionary, and concordance to structure a symmetrical sermon. No one can preach well who lacks the necessary tools of his trade.
There is absolutely no shortcut to effective pulpit ministry. The way to productive preaching follows the route of rigorous and disciplined study, and the tools of our trade are books.
When to get them
Now is not soon enough to begin stocking your workshop shelves. When as a teen-ager I first felt called to the ministry, I began to buy and read Christian books. Since then, I have consistently added valuable volumes to my study shelves.
Having pastored now for only a few years, I occasionally wonder where I will put all my books when I have served twenty-five years in the ministry! If now is not soon enough to begin, never is too soon to stop adding precious books to your workshop.
Where to get them
Denominational publishing houses, religious bookstores, mail-order suppliers, local bookstores selling both new and used books, library sales, and private sales can all contribute needed works to your library.
While in seminary, a friend and I visited an estate sale in Baldwin, Kansas, where the Methodist school Baker University is located. The owners were selling the house and all its contents. Among the items for sale were a couple of boxes of old books. What do you suppose we found nestled in one box? A two-volume set of John Miley's Systematic Theology published in 1892 and long out of print. The price? Two dollars!
Just this year I was able to buy a set of the Interpreter's Bible for $25 from a woman whose deceased husband had been a pastor. Keep your eyes open, and you're sure to find similar treasures.
If you live near a good public library, or better yet, near a Christian college or theological seminary, you may often be able to borrow what you need instead of buying it.
How to afford them
The Christian preacher will never invest money in anything more valuable than good books. And they do cost money. Anyone who is serious about preaching will have to determine his priorities and then hold tenaciously to them. To buy books is to leave many other items on the shelf unbought.
Fortunate is that pastor whose board realizes that its pastor's books are a professional expense. If he did not serve as their pastor, he probably would have no need for his library. But since he does, and since the church sincerely wants to be fed the meat of the Word, he must regularly supply his sermonic grist mill in order to produce and break the bread of life. And to do that he must read, read, read. True, he will take his books with him when he leaves, but he will leave behind a lasting legacy of well-fed sheep.
Some ministers designate the money they receive from weddings and funerals as their book allowance. But if you have no other means of acquiring your tools, budget them out of your personal finances. If necessary, forego something else in order to equip your sermonic workshop properly. I have thanked the Lord many times for a wife who understands the value of books and their importance to her husband's lifework. Of course, one reason she does understand is because I have not purchased books at her expense. Her interests lie in other directions, and she is free to pursue those interests.
What to get
I hope I have not left the impression that if one book is good, two are better. Quality is far more important than quantity. One man measured the books in his library on a certain subject by feet and yards. But yards of books adorning our shelves do not necessarily result in an adequate library. Certain books are more valuable than others. Better to own fewer volumes if they are the best available.
Remember our analogy: Books are tools to aid the preacher in his craft of sermon construction, not crutches to prop up his faltering lack of sermonic skill. The Biblical preacher, therefore, ought to follow the advice of Donald Miller and concentrate on reference works. You get more for your money because you can use them over and over again.
If we limit ourselves only to works with our own denominational or theological bias, we will close the door to valuable insights from men of other persuasions. Separate the fish from the bones.
How to arrange them
When I finally got around to organizing and categorizing my library, I tried to use a complicated system that required labels on the outside of the books. One year during vacation I invested three days on this project, typing the labels and ironing them on the binding with a hot iron. Not only did I waste a great deal of time, but not all the labels stuck! Later I came across a simpler way to organize my books that was just as adequate as any so-called sophisticated system.
I have the volumes arranged on the shelves according to category: biography, Christian living (a miscellaneous grouping), church growth, church history, evangelism, homiletics, missions, New Testament, Old Testament, philosophy, sermons, and theology.
I don't label the shelves because, from use, I know where the groups are. Then within each subject category I place the books in order by the author's last name. One could arrange them in alphabetical order by title just as well. But however you do it, you need some kind of organization that will enable you to find the book you need when you need it.
How to care for them
When I first noticed the deterioration of some of my cloth-bound volumes, I attributed the decay to the humid climate. But only certain works were affected. Only later—after the covers were badly defaced—did I realize that insects were attracted either to the cloth or the glue, and were eating the bindings. Immediately I had the church fumigated, and haven't been bothered since.
Ideally, it would be best to enclose your books in cases with glass doors. They would be less affected by dust and temperature. If that is not possible, at least dust them periodically and check to be sure insects, temperature, or other agents are not harming them. It's important to keep the temperature and humidity as constant as possible to avoid mildew.
Be sure, also, to compile a list of every volume you own and keep it in a safe place away from your study. Some people have a fear of flying. I suffer from what might be called bibliopyrophobia: fear of my books burning! My fear my nightmare is that the flaming hand of fire might reach out one night and destroy my precious treasure, my books.
If fire or vandals should destroy part or all of your library, the insurance company will want an itemized list of the damaged or stolen volumes. Don't trust your memory to be able to recall all the titles; you'd probably miss half of them. Keep a running list in the study to record new books purchased. And every six months or so, transfer your accumulated volumes to the permanent list either at home or in a safety-deposit box at the bank.
Can you imagine a carpenter trying to build a house with nothing but a hammer and a chisel? Can you imagine a preacher trying to build a sermon with nothing but a church history and a book of illustrations?
The only way to consistently construct messages that will minister to the minds and hearts of your parishioners is to hammer them out on the anvil of study in a sermonic workshop well equipped with good books.