I’m always on the lookout for ways to grow as a pastor. Thankfully, we live in a day when resources and opportunities for growth in the ministry are widely available. Sometimes though, we find help and inspiration in unexpected places. For the past two years, I’ve included fiction as a part of my yearly reading list. While I’ve always loved stories, I never imagined how reading fiction might also help me in the pastorate. Specifically, reading good fiction has improved my vocabulary and helped me better understand the people I pastor and how I can apply God’s Word to their lives.
Good Fiction Enriches Our Vocabulary
Words are the tool of the pastor. When you consider the responsibilities of ministry—preaching and teaching, discipling, leading meetings, and counseling—it’s easy to see why pastors need to be competent communicators. However, one aspect of communication that pastors might overlook is our vocabulary.
Nowhere is our vocabulary more important than in our preaching. When we proclaim the glorious truths of God’s Word, we want our hearers to be moved to worship and action. But not all words are created equally. Like a chef who painstakingly sharpens their knives every day, pastors must see their vocabulary and use of it as a skill to be sharpened. When we describe God to our people, we can’t afford to be sloppy and boring. We must be able to say more than God is “big” and “good.” The weightiness of preaching demands that we use vivid and precise language that connects with our people and captures their attention. This is where I believe good fiction aids us.
Good fiction relies on good vocabulary from the author. A writer doesn’t have the luxury of showing their audience a majestic waterfall like a movie producer; instead, they must paint the picture for their reader with words. In good fiction, the author can use their words so well that you can close your eyes and picture the main character as if they were standing right before your eyes. Similarly, a pastor can bring a biblical character to life using good vocabulary. When we use clear, powerful, and descriptive language for biblical topics like sin, eternal life, and salvation, it can leave a lasting impact on our hearers. Furthermore, a pastor can help their people cultivate a deeper understanding of God with the words they use.
Good Fiction Helps Us Know How to Apply God’s Word
Pastors are in the people business. Each week, the majority of our time is spent counseling, discipling, and preaching where we seek to apply God’s Word to our people’s lives. We want to see people’s lives transformed. But unless we know God’s Word and our people, we will struggle to apply God’s Word in any meaningful way.
Ask most pastors to explain what a passage means, and after some study, they can talk for hours. However, when it comes to applying their passage to specific people and situations, they stumble. I believe one reason for this struggle is that many of us have a shallow, overly simplistic understanding of what it means to be human. While the Bible paints a clear but complex picture of what it means to be human, some of us only think of humanity in general terms. For example, we know and believe all people are sinners, but we have given too little thought to what the Bible says about the effects, consequences, and depths of sin in our lives. Therefore, we make general applications of the text that connect with few people. I believe good fiction can help us.
Many of the memorable fiction works stand out for the way their authors plumb the depths of what it means to be human. Readers see themselves and their own struggles and victories in the characters of the story. I’m thinking of Tolkien’s depiction of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, Jean Valjean in Hugo’s Les Misérables, and the unnamed patient in Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. These authors explore the human condition with all of its complexity. They put a face on temptation, revenge, redemption, pride, failure, hope, and sacrifice. Whenever I read good fiction, I not only find ample illustrations, but I also find portraits of people trying to navigate life, just like the people in my congregation. In good fiction, authors spend pages, even chapters, developing their characters, revealing every virtue and vice.
These stories remind me how complicated and precious our lives are and how badly we all need the truths of God’s Word. These stories also remind me to apply God’s Word specifically to people and situations.
I started reading fiction because I love good stories. Now, I continue reading fiction because it helps me in various ways in ministry. Pastors are busy, and I hesitate to suggest you add something else to your schedule. But if you are not already reading fiction, maybe start with ten minutes a day alongside your daily Bible reading. Don’t know where to start? How about The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, or Flannery O’Conner’s short stories? Not only will your vocabulary improve, but your ability to understand people and apply God’s Word to their lives will too!
MDiv Preaching and Pastoral Ministry
The Preaching and Pastoral Ministry track prepares students for pastoral ministry in the local church with a special emphasis on expository preaching.