Tip #8: Saturate Yourself in the Primary Sources

[for context, see the original post Ten Tips for Becoming a Better Pastor]

A primary source is “the person who first said it.” A secondary source is a book or resource that quotes that primary source. Most pastors are too familiar with secondary sources and not well-versed enough in primary sources.

Let’s start with some examples close to home for many in our tribe: how many pastors have used Martin Luther’s line, “Every sin is a breaking of the first commandment?” Did you do the work to discover where Luther said that? Or did you just take Tim Keller’s word for it? When you quote Calvin’s assertion that “the human heart is a factory of idols,” can you put your finger on that page of the Institutes? Or did you just hear it from someone else?

Pastors commonly object to primary-source research because it takes time and effort. “That’s what interns, research assistants, or summary briefs are for. I’m busy leading a church. Does it really matter if I’ve saturated myself in the originals?” Yes. For at least two reasons.

  1. Credibility in the culture. Always remember: you work in the field of ideas. A pastor is a worldview-shaper. He is a teacher. And he is teaching such things as metaphysics and ethics and world history. To do this with credibility – especially in educated, urban, skeptical contexts – he needs to traffic in the primary sources. He needs to have connection to the big thinkers in his own history (Augustine, Luther, Calvin) and to the big thinkers today. He needs to be conversant in some of the important cultural debates of the day. At least if he wants to lead a missional church. If all you want is transfer growth, you’ll do fine quoting Bill Hybels and George Barna.
  2. Cultivating wisdom in your own soul. We live in the age of newer! faster! smarter! where information is a commodity to be consumed. Why read one book deeply when you can read five book summaries? Why bother with the primary sources when someone else has already digested them and synthesized their insights? These objections betray our deeply rooted pragmatism. At the end of the day, we find reading good if it’s useful. We don’t have time to be learners because we’re too busy being doers. But reading primary sources builds wisdom and depth in your own soul. And at the end of the day, formation is more important than information.

So what primary sources should you dive into? In my opinion, if you’re starting from scratch, you should give the next 5 years to working through the most influential works in Christian history – Augustine’s Confessions, Calvin’s Institutes, Edwards’ sermons, and the like. Give yourself a long window – like five years – so that this feels leisurely and not hurried. But have a goal and a timeline and stick to it. After that, start doing primary-source reading in areas that interest you: poverty relief or city planning or architecture or ethics. To figure out what to read, pay attention to footnotes in more popular books. For instance, a couple of years ago I noticed that authors in ethics and philosophy kept quoting Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. That clued me in to the fact that MacIntyre must have made some important contributions in the field of ethics – so I bought his book and worked through it. It wasn’t easy reading, but it was massively rewarding.

If you want to become a better pastor, saturate yourself in the primary sources.

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