One of my former students at Moody Bible Institute recently asked me how reading literature can improve preaching. More specifically, the student recognized the importance of reading, but was not sure where to begin. This was my brief response in case it is helpful to anyone else with a similar question.
Great question and thanks for asking.
In general, I would say a mixture of different kinds of literature would be good. Maybe pick up an anthology of poetry, an anthology of short stories, along with a classic novel. (For example, check out Best American Short Stories or something like Good Poems from Garrison Keillor.) In addition to being enjoyable in their own right (which is important to keep in mind), here are some ways that the different kinds of literature can help with preaching:
- Poetry can help develop your vocabulary, your use of imagery, and your sense of rhythm and sound.
- Short stories can show you how to concisely develop a narrative. (Sermon illustrations usually need to be shorter than short stories, but the principles are similar.)
- Novels can help you notice and develop major themes and motifs, as well as show how to develop characters within narrative preaching.
Mostly focus on the classics and/or contemporary authors recognized in literary journals. However, also keep in mind some more popular works (something that I don’t do as much as I should), but keep in mind that people in church are reading things like The Shack or Harry Potter, so it can be helpful to know what they are reading. Those are not always the best books ever written, but they can help you contextualize. They resonate with people for a reason, so it can be good to figure out why that is the case.
In regards to poetry, I would recommend people like Wendell Berry, Scott Cairns, and Billy Collins. Watch out for bad contemporary poetry. You might also check out Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Chrisitan Poetry. You may not agree the theology of every single poem, but it offers a lot to think about, and that can be worthwhile.