public library preaching

public library preaching

This past week, I preached – and I spent chunk of my Sunday sermon prep time in our local public library. One motive was mercenary: It’s summertime, the kids are home, and Teddy had been asking to go there.

Normally, I’d be doing that work in my university office, surrounded by commentaries and a trove of books I own and draw from regularly. I’m comfortable there, and the university library has even more commentaries just a few steps from my office.

But increasingly, I’ve wondered if that routine isn’t hurting my preaching.

One danger for speakers is that our illustrations start to come from all same places, over and over, for years on end, until we die or stop talking—which is basically the same thing. I’m guilty of that as much as anyone.

But last week, sitting there near the kids area during library story time, I sensed several benefits of what one might call “public library sermon prep.”

First, the folks seated around me came from a wider range of demographics than I would encounter in my usual prep spaces. And writing my sermon in their presence was a reminder to include them as my intended audience: the elderly couple reading the morning paper, the ESL group learning English, the kids and moms at story time, the homeless man by the magazines, a group of firemen and city employees meeting in the conference room, the grad student huddled over the DSM 5, and even the suspicious teenager googling “how to build a pipe bomb” on the library computer. If the bane of many sermons is that we speak to only one or two types of people, maybe crafting messages in such a diverse setting could help that. (On a related point, see here.)

Second, the library has a trove of magazines and periodicals that speak to our cultural moment—even if I wouldn’t want (and couldn’t afford) to subscribe to them myself. What’s more, these sources come from a variety of perspectives and biases—so you’re less prone to fall into the echo chamber of your choice. This is particularly important in a day and age in which it quickly becomes apparent which “silo” into which your preacher has algorithmically fallen.

Third, walking through the stacks filled with different genres and perspectives made me feel more creative—and it gave me ideas I wouldn’t have had before. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a steady diet of C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright (two of my favorites), but this week I also ended up with quotes or stories from Molly Shannon (yep, that Molly Shannon), Atul Gawande, and Paul Kalanthi.

All that to say, I’ve decided to take a big step in my vocation as a longtime academic / preacher: I’m getting a public library card. Teddy says I can’t use his anymore.


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