Every workman needs tools. It does not matter the nature of the work. He can be a carpenter that needs a hammer and nails. Or she can be a computer programmer that needs a laptop and software. The truth still applies whatever the task. No laborer can do his or her work without good tools. The same goes for preachers. If you are going to be a faithful expositor of the scriptures, you need to learn and practice the principles of Bible interpretation and sermon preparation. But you cannot practice the principles without the necessary tools. My father had a massive library. But it did not contain some core research tools I needed for Bible exposition. So I began to build a persona library. I did it by trial and error. And I wasted a lot of money. As a result, I now have some books that look pretty on the shelves but are no help to my study. And there are still holes in my library, where I need resources on particular Bible books or subjects. Building an expositors library is a lifelong process. As you grow, your library will grow. But where should you start? What mistakes should you avoid? How do you develop an expositor’s library? Here are several practice steps to take in developing your library of study tools for preaching and teaching.
Start with the basics.
There are certain basics that stock every preacher’s library. No two libraries are alike. But every library should have the basics that will help you rightly handle the word of truth. These are the standard equipment a preacher needs to get his work done. You need several Bible translations. Start with the major, committee translations. Then add other versions that you find helpful or enjoy reading. You should also have a Bible dictionary, atlas, and concordance. Get word study aids for the Hebrew and Greek. Make sure you have books that introduce you to Bible books. Select a good systematic theology and church history text. It is also good to have one full commentary set.
Ask for help.
If you do not know the tools you need for study and preaching, get counsel. As I began to build my library, called trusted friends for advice. I asked seasoned preachers and professors for recommendations. I consulted with local Christian bookstore managers (this was back in the day when bookstore workers actually knew books!). I visited seminary bookstores to see what class texts. Help in acquiring Bible study tools is there for the asking. In most instances, Bible students and scholars are eager to help those who want to know scripture better. Likewise, use good bibliographies. And don’t forget you can look up authors, books, and subjects on the Internet to help you avoid buying bad books.
Get the best works.
In building your library, do not try to reinvent the wheel. And don’t load your library with new, popular, or exotic works that may not of any use down the road. Find the best works on a book or subject and get them. For instance, ask what are the best commentaries on Philippians? And start with that short list. Secure the classic works. There is a reason why some old books are still being published. Check the footnotes of the new authors and see what older works they are citing. Build a good foundation for your library by getting solid commentaries, theologies, and reference tools. And then build on it later with other works.
Make friends with authors.
I have a close bond with many authors. Most of them I have never met. Some of them are no longer alive. Yet they have been my friends, mentors, and counselors. To make friends with books is to make friends with authors. As you read, your relationship with specific authors grows. There are now authors whose books I will buy and read no matter what. And there are commentators whose works I consult when I study particular passages of scripture. At this point, it is easier for me to list my favorite authors, and not my favorite books. It does not mean we always agree. But a level of trust, respect, and dialogue has formed. I do not force my friends on others. These are relationships that have developed over time. And every preacher must develop his own relationships with authors.
Date before you marry.
Don’t just buy at book hastily. Don’t buy a book, merely because someone else has it or recommends it. And don’t commit to a book too fast. Check it out for yourself. Read the front matter. Skim through it. Read a sample chapter online. Borrow a friends’ copy. Or maybe peruse a library copy. Date the book first. Marry it later, after you have spent time with it and decide that it will be of good use to you over the long haul.
Buy individual commentaries.
One of the worst mistakes I made as I began to build my library was to buy whole commentary sets. I still have those sets. It may be good to have one whole commentary set as a standard. But this is the wrong way to build a library. Most commentary sets are uneven. No one commentator is strong in every chapter of the Bible, no matter who he is. And even when a committee writes a commentary set, some pieces will be stronger than others. It is best to simply buy commentaries book by book. Make it your goal to have the best commentaries on each book of the Bible, rather than pieces from sets that will not be of much help.
Find used copies.
There is nothing like getting your hands on a brand new book. It has that new car smell to it. It’s wonderful to crack it open for the first time. It is untouched and unmarked. And you don’t have to worry about anyone else’s notes in it. But books are expensive. And new books cost more than you need to pay. Log onto one of the used book websites instead and find a previously owned copy of the resource you are looking for, especially if it is a classic, major commentary, or theological work. You will often find used books that are in good condition or even just like new that will cost you much less than a new book you would buy at your local bookstore.
Decide between hardcopy and electronic books.
I love books. I like to have books in my hands. I learn better by making notes in the margins of my books. But I am increasingly in the minority. More and more people now opt to use e-books. Most Christian works are now being sold with a hard and e-book version. And Bible software companies are providing access to many good and useful tools. Each preacher will have to make a choice. And this is not a moral decision. It is a personal choice. Either way, you still have to do your work. There is no software that will study for you! Make a personal and careful format choice and stick with it.
Did you find this advice helpful? What advice would you give in building a preacher’s library? Comments welcome.