In his wonderful Lectures to My Students (1869), renown preacher Charles H. Spurgeon reveals many of the lessons he learned throughout his career. Tucked away among the tips on preaching and pastoral care, is one of my favourites: “To Workers with Slender Apparatus.” What he means is ministers who have “few books, and little or no means wherewith to purchase more.” Today we would say that there was little to no professional development budget, and the pastor’s salary was so low that he (or she) has little to spare for such purchases. Despair not! Spurgeon has a some great advice for how to continue your learning on a dime.
First, this ought not to happen. Churches should not only provide food for the minister’s body, but also mental nutrition for their soul. It is a good investment, paying back many-fold to the congregation in the form of better sermons. Those churches who cannot provide a generous stipend can create a library and add a few high-quality books each year.
If you can only purchase a few books, purchase the very best. If you can’t spend much, spend well. Get accurate, dense, reliable, standard books. Some of the most eminent preaches have found that they actually do better with few books than with many.
Next, master the books you do have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and re-read them, chew them, and digest them. Peruse a good book several times and makes notes and analyses of it. You will find that you are more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books which you’ve merely skimmed. Little learning and much pride come of hasty reading.
When you need more books, do a little judicious borrowing. You likely have some friends who have books and would be kind enough to lend them. Just be sure to return whatever is lent promptly and in good condition. [NOTE: I would add the suggestion to find a good theological library at a nearby seminary or Bible college, or even a decent university library. If you live far away from these resources, acquaint yourself with the inter-library loan system of your local community library. I would also suggest free resources that can be found online such as the Christian Classics Ethereal Library and Project Gutenberg.]
Remember that you always have your Bible. No one can say that they have no well to draw from while the Scriptures are within reach. In the Bible we have a perfect library, and any who study it thoroughly will be a better scholar than if they devoured the entire Alexandrian Library. The one who has a Bible at their fingers’ ends and in their heart’s core is a champion who cannot be defeated. You may dwell in some village where you find no one to converse with who is above your level and where you will find very few books worth reading. Then read and meditate on the law of the Lord both day and night and you shall be “as a tree planted by rivers of water” (Psalm 1).
If you have few books you can make up for it by much thought. Thinking is better than possessing a library. It is an exercise of the soul which both develops its powers and educates them. Without thinking, reading cannot benefit the mind, but it may delude you into the idea that you are growing wise. Books are a sort of idol to some people. Books are intended to make us think, but ironically are often a hindrance to thought.
Without books you may learn much by keeping your eyes open. Current history, incidents which transpire under your own nose, events recorded in the newspaper, matters of common talk – you may learn from them all. You can also study yourself – a mysterious volume, the major part of which you have not read. Your own experience should be the laboratory in which you test the medicines which you prescribe for others. Even your own faults and failures will instruct you if you bring them to the Lord.
Similarly, you can read other people; they are as instructive as books. It is a pity for a man to graduate into a world he has never seen before, to deal with people he has never observed, and handle facts with which he has never come into personal contact. Paul says that an overseer should not be “a novice” (1 Timothy 3:6), but it is possible to be a very accomplished scholar and yet be a novice. Experienced saints are grand instructors for ministers, and spiritual seekers can show you much with the perverse ingenuity of their unbelief. I would rather give a student an hour with inquirers and the mentally depressed than a week in the best of our classes, so far as practical training for the pastorate is concerned. Finally, often visit death-beds, for there you shall read the very poetry of our religion.