The most influential book

by Matthew V. Moss

One summer during college, I was driving around my hometown with the radio set to some Christian radio station. In what would later prove to be an advertisement, the speaker announced that they had surveyed a number of pastors with the simple, direct question, “What book has most influenced you in your ministry?” 

As a pre-seminary student at Concordia University—Ann Arbor, I remember thinking to myself, “Well, surely it has to be one of the pastoral epistles, or maybe the Gospel of John? You know, 1 Corinthians would be pretty relevant to pastors in our American culture.”

Imagine my chagrin when the announcer revealed that the pastors surveyed didn’t list a “book” of the Bible, but rather, a bestselling pop-Christian ministry guidebook.

I do not remember which author or book in particular was being advertised, because my momentary embarrassment quickly turned to bewildered indignation. The “most influential book” did not mean “book of the Bible.” It meant one of the hundreds of books available for purchase at any Christian bookstore. The Bible itself was not listed once as the “book that has most influenced you in your ministry”!  How absurd!

“Of making many books there is no end” (Eccl. 12:12b)

My reaction to this ad was not my regression to the “Sunday school” answers of my childhood — as if “the Bible” or “Jesus” had to be the answer to every question. Instead, it was driven by something uniquely, distinctly Lutheran that had been modeled for me by the faithful pastors of my childhood and reinforced by the professors whose calling it was to prepare me for seminary by teaching me … no surprise here … the Bible!

Truly, if you had asked me at any age what book was most influential in the ministry of my own pastor, Pastor Schmidt — what book had the greatest impact on his decisions, his preaching, his teaching, his conduct, his character — my answer would have been obvious and immediate: “The Bible!”  Pastor Schmidt actively and explicitly taught us the importance of the scriptures, in addition to modeling it. The same was true of the college and seminary professors who prepared me for the role in which I now serve.  

At the same time, I do understand why there is a market for books like the one I heard advertised that day. Pastors and laity alike feel a deep need for guidance and advice, and such authors are trying to meet those needs with their instructional guidebooks. Ultimately, trying to meet a need or solve a problem is not the issue. The issue is that these authors and their books so often move too fast and far beyond the basics of biblical wisdom and piety. Enamored with their own thoughts and experiences, they inundate their readers with concepts and programs and philosophies — and all this without the biblical foundation we Lutherans often take for granted.

Save your money: relearn the Table of Duties

At the end of the Small Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther you will find a section called “The Table of Duties.”  In this simple, brief, and truly biblical explanation, Luther provides an organized set of Bible verses that speak to us as we live out the baptized Christian life within our various vocations. If we have a felt need for advice or guidance, we should start with the basics of God’s Word and see what fruit it may bear.

Two examples might help explain what I mean:

  1. Despite the multitude of books on leadership and management available to me as a pastor, I have found that I can never graduate from the Table of Duties’ poignant reminder from 1 Timothy 3:2-4.  I could prepare for a stressful by reviewing a host of books by various authors, or I could choose to review, recite, pray, and meditate on the Word of God, preparing myself as a pastor to be “self-controlled, respectable…not violent, but gentle, not quarrelsome…” The latter has proven infinitely more effective and fruitful in my ministry.
  2. So, too, in marriage, there is plenty of advice available for husbands and wives.  Much of it has value; much of it, however, does not.  What I have found most influential and helpful in my own marriage, however, is the Table of Duties.  A hundred Christian marriage books could not diffuse my selfish temper as quickly as hearing the Word of God tell me, “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them (Col. 3:19).”  No marriage guru could be as effective at reorienting my selfish thoughts as the Lord, who speaks through 1 Peter 3:7, “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way.”

Quite often and quite simply, the problems I experience in my various vocations arise not because I lack sufficient knowledge of the kind found in most Christian guidebooks.  The problems are there because my heart strays so easily from the words I once learned, and once it has departed, it is slow to return. So the solution is not to go further abroad, mining the depths of available Christian literature. The solution is to repent and return with humility to the simple, wise words by which my Shepherd forgives my sin and guides me in the baptismal life to which He has called me.

The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. (Eccl. 12:11-13)

The Rev. Matthew V. Moss is Senior Pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church & School, Corcoran/Maple Grove, MN.

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