Out of the dusty corners and onto the table.
The use of books, a potentially productive and educational aspect of church ministry, is often neglected.
As bookaholics will readily agree, books are a ready-made resource for instruction, information, and inspiration. They contain expertise far in excess of any local church, and they can be adapted to meet individual needs and interests that even the best schedule of classes in the church cannot. Books can put us in touch with the great Christian ideas and people; their possibilities are nearly endless.
Many people are still avid readers, despite laments over how television has reduced reading. With encouragement, many Christian readers would readily read good religious books, and less avid readers could be enticed to read material to make a difference in their living.
Beyond the usefulness of books and the fact that there is a large reading public, a further reason to consider a book ministry is the great flood of books now available. Though many Christian books are admittedly unworthy—and some even destructive—the number of fine books still exceeds what any person could read in a lifetime. A book ministry includes guiding people to the most helpful books.
But in spite of the great opportunities books afford ministry, “book pushers” are needed, for the potential is not automatically realized. Only a small percentage of Christians have significant contact with good religious books. Christians who are reading them at all are probably reading mediocre material at best.
The keys to an effective book ministry in the local church are simple: promote good books, and make them readily available.
The importance of encouraging the reading of quality books can hardly be overemphasized. To do less destroys the purpose of a book ministry. Potential readers must know that you consistently suggest only those books it is worth their while to read. Even excellent suggestions will be ignored if you cannot be trusted at this point.
Several steps can be taken to assure the selection of good books. First, as a book pusher, you should read, for firsthand knowledge coupled with sober judgment is indispensable. Second, learn about current books by regularly reading reviews in reliable sources. Note those books mentioned repeatedly as life-changing, spiritually insightful books. Established classics outweigh contemporary froth. Third, talk with other readers whom you know to be discerning. Though they damage my book budget, I value highly friends who say enthusiastically, “Let me tell you about the book I discovered. You really must read it!”
The successful book pusher knows readers as well as books. He recognizes the interests and tastes of individuals and what is appropriate to each at his individual stage of thought and growth.
But it is not enough to suggest good books for the right people: good book promoters make books readily available. They need to be where they can tempt people to take them along. There are several means to this end.
One aspect of the book ministry can be the church library. The library, however, need not be a dusty corner containing merely missionary stories, nineteenth-century Bible reference books, and Christian athletes’ autobiographies. Any church can have a useful library. From a book pusher’s point of view, most important are careful selection by means of a thoughtful acquisition policy, and regular promotion. The books in the library must shout for attention through the use of displays in high traffic areas, notices and reviews in the church newsletter, education about library use, and much more. Too many libraries languish when they should support an important ministry.
While the library can make good books available at no cost to the user, there are some books people should be encouraged to buy. Readers can study them carefully, mark them, reread them, lend them. Here book ministry can be achieved through an effective book table, whose object is to provide a service, not to make money. This can be done easily and tastefully.
The selection of books at a book table can guide people to the best books. It should include a variety of books often unavailable or virtually hidden in Christian bookstores. Always available should be a selection of the “devotional classics,” which can be offered very inexpensively. Books of denominational or congregational importance should be included.
A variety of other books relevant to the local church and its people may also be offered. In one church we maintained a “Good News Stand” from the American Bible Society to provide Bibles and Scripture portions at reasonable prices. The chief guide to selecting books is neither what bargains can be offered nor what are currently Christian bestsellers: it is quality.
The mechanics of a book table can usually be arranged easily, though not without errands and record keeping. Though publishers often hesitate to deal with anyone but established bookstores, the bookstores themselves will often cooperate in the church’s venture. You may want to purchase a small stock of a few important titles, particularly if you can get a favorable discount. Generally, however, it is wiser to avoid much permanent stock and arrange instead for book consignments through a local store. Under this arrangement you can have books for a few weeks, and then return unsold volumes. Bookstores may give a discount on the volumes sold, thus allowing a modest profit to aid in this ministry. (But the book table should not sell consignment books below the bookstore’s price to avoid competing with those who are cooperating with you.)
Working principally through consignment, a book table can be launched quite inexpensively. The first book table I helped to start began with less than $50 from the Christian education budget, including the purchase of some permanent stock.
You should also explore other creative ways of making good books accessible to Christians. For example, a book swap or lending corner helps members share the best of their reading with each other. But whatever means are chosen, a key to a good book ministry is to make books readily available.
“Book pushing” sounds aggressive, and, in a way, it is. But done with gentleness and humor along with seriousness, it will not offend. In my experience, we have heard little but thanks. In using good books wisely, we strengthen individual Christians and advance our lives together. This is too good a resource to ignore.
HOWARD R. MACYDr. Macy is chairman of the division of religion and philosophy at Friends University, Wichita, Kansas.
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