Brothers, Be Patient: A Few Thoughts on Pastors and the Writing of Books

I’m thirty-eight. I’m a pastor. I love to write. But in terms of full-length books, I’ve only written a dissertation (which remains unpublished), a little book entitled How to Pray for Your Pastor, and a recent book, Strong and Courageous: The Character and Calling of Mature Manhood. I’ve got some other projects in mind, and I hope to serve the church by someday writing more books, but right now it’s hard to find the time. I have a wife and two young (very active) boys, a new (super cute) baby girl, a ministry full of people I love to serve, and friends and family members to whom I want to give my time and attention, so it’s often difficult to secure time for book writing.

But I’m not discouraged.

I’ve found much help in Tim Keller’s counsel to young pastors on the subject of writing. He says that a pastor’s book-length writing should come later in his life after he has gathered years of study, teaching, and pastoral experience. Keller argues that giving ourselves to book writing at the early stages of pastoral ministry is counter-productive because it distracts us from what will make us useful writers in the future; namely, “preaching/teaching, and a lot of pastoral involvement.” (And could I add a lot of personal, not-intended-for-publication writing, like in a journal?)

I have also found much help in the Bible, particularly in the gospel of Luke. In my judgment, the introduction to Luke’s gospel provides a worthy model for how one should approach a writing ministry. Note the following characteristics of Luke’s approach to writing.

Luke Did Not Rush Into Writing Despite the Importance of the Subject Matter
When Luke gives his rationale for why he wrote a gospel, he tells us that it was after he “followed these things closely for some time” (1:3) that he put his reed to papyrus. In other words, Luke took his time to research, gather materials, and examine the work of others before he started writing.

Not much of an insight you might say. Sure, except that Luke was writing about the most important Person in the universe and the most important event of all time. Shouldn’t he have started writing immediately and sought to publicize his work as soon as possible? “The world needs this knowledge,” we could imagine him urging his contemporaries. Yet, Luke doesn’t panic. He doesn’t scramble for immediate productivity, fearful that he will lose an opportunity. He prepares, he studies, he writes. There is much wisdom here for those who aspire to write for the good of the church: despite the urgency of the message, Luke was patient and careful.

Luke Was Qualified to Write on His Subject
Just because you have an idea and a laptop doesn’t mean that you are qualified to write a book on a given topic. And just because Luke had access to writing materials and lived near Jerusalem at the time when other men were writing their gospels didn’t, by itself, qualify Luke to write. He had some important credentials.

He was a companion of the apostle Paul. Luke’s time with Paul by itself would have afforded him a wealth of reliable information about the life of Christ plus a growing theological grasp of the Old Testament’s fulfillment in Jesus’ redemptive work. From this we might argue that solid discipleship from an older, wiser Christian is a pre-requisite for book writing.

He had the ability to conduct competent research on his topic. Merely conducting research doesn’t necessarily qualify one to write. The ability to compile the right resources and ask the right questions is a skill that requires constant honing. You can amass a garage full of material yet not know how to sift through it in order to make a helpful contribution. Perhaps you need some more time to cultivate this important skill of discerning research.

He had a commitment to the truth of the gospel and of Scripture. Let me be clear: If you are wavering on whether or not the gospel is true or the Bible is reliable or Jesus is God in the flesh or the atonement was complete or justification is by grace through faith alone, please, do yourself and others a favor and stop writing. I’m not suggesting that Christians never wrestle with the truthfulness of Christianity, especially in a world that is diametrically opposed to what Scripture teaches, but I am saying that those who are currently struggling with such fundamental tenets of the faith are in no place to write a book or serve in pastoral ministry. Luke was convinced of Christ’s reality and the integrity of his teaching and was thus qualified to write about both.

Luke Wrote from Pastoral Concern
Luke wrote, not merely to scratch a literary itch, but to strengthen the faith of his brother Theophilus. “It seemed good to me,” Luke confesses, “to write an orderly account for you . . . that you may have certainty about the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4). We can safely assume that the desire to bolster the faith of a fellow Christian was at least one of the factors that led Luke to add historical detail and theological care to his gospel. Although Luke was not a pastor per se, we have in his writing an example of scholarly rigor guided and tempered by genuine pastoral concern.

Frankly, I don’t think Scripture gives us any warrant for Christian writing that is not produced from genuine pastoral concern. Even if you are a scholar working in technical theology your first impulse should be to serve the church with what you write. Whether that means that you are equipping other ministers, edifying and strengthening believers, or seeking to persuade unbelievers of the truth of the gospel, your motivation for writing must be pastoral.

I’m not saying that your work must appeal to every kind of Christian or every intellectual ability. But at the very least you should have the spiritual benefit of your readers residing at the center of your motives. If you are writing because you crave the idea of your name on a glossy paperback, you will not only prove useless to others, you will likely reap a harvest of spiritual barrenness and the deadly fruits of pride.

Luke’s Work Started as a Personal Letter
Especially noteworthy is the fact that like the other New Testament authors, Luke’s major contribution to the canon began as a personal letter. Luke was prompted to write (among other reasons, I’m sure) for the sake of someone he knew; there was a real person who clearly needed Luke’s ministry of writing. Here’s the implication for us: We should give ourselves to the work of the ministry, labor for the good of the people with whom God has entrusted us, and trust that fruit for writing will come from concentrated attention to our pastoral tasks.

When I sit before my computer and I am faced with the choice to start a book or write a long email to a member of our church who is struggling with sin or theological questions, I find it difficult to justify turning to the book project. I’m still daily writing and thinking and researching, but my writing is for the immediate ministry of my local church. And I keep these emails, along with my Bible study lessons, sermons, notes on counseling, and my personal journals all well-indexed because maybe—just maybe—they will serve as material for useful book writing in the future. Maybe. But right now I know what my work is: The ministry of the word and prayer among the people of Grace Bible Fellowship.

Luke Builds on the Work of Others and Makes a Legitimate Contribution
Occasionally I will come across a book that makes me wonder if the author consulted any of the recently published books on their topic. Instead of taking what was good from previous works and adding valuable insights to it or engaging and correcting errant views, some authors (it seems) just sit down with their own thoughts and crank out a book. Rather than adding to our knowledge, these authors have only diverted our attention by adding another book to the stack of potential reads. And with a number of books produced each year in the U.S. now over 1 million (including traditional and self-publishers), the mere addition of new titles is not necessarily helpful.

Luke tells us that it was because others had written about the life of Christ that he felt compelled (“It seemed good to me also”) to write his own account. It is likely that Luke utilized the material that others had produced while also correcting what may had been in error in some of those accounts so that Theophilus would have certainty about Jesus and the gospel. The final product was a thorough, theologically rich, historically rigorous life of Christ that has served to initiate and sustain the faith of Christians for two millennia.

The point, of course, is not that we should wait until we know our books will be inspired by God in order to begin writing (for then we would never write!). Rather, Luke’s example reminds us that Christian writers should be those who value quality over quantity and who desire to make genuine contributions to a given category of study rather than merely multiply words.

A Small Caveat and Closing Word
I will be the first to admit that there is value in new books of theology, Scripture commentary, and nitty-gritty practical works on Christian living. New voices stimulate the mind, stir up conversation on dormant topics, and reach people who would otherwise remain unreached. I’m not making any rules about which pastors should write and how much they should write, and I am grateful beyond words that men like John Piper and Kevin DeYoung (to name only two) who started their literary output relatively early in their pastoral careers.

But generally speaking, I think pastors would be wise to slow down and recognize that our substantive writing contributions will come later in life. Spiritual maturity, wisdom, regular preaching, much time spent with our people, and lots of playing with our kids (while we could be writing) will serve, I believe, to produce books that are far more beneficial for the body of Christ than what we otherwise might have written. Just ask Theophilus.

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