The Power of Books and How to Use Them: Thoughts on Reading to Each Other Out Loud

The Bible is a book. It has changed the world. Some uninspired books have also done tremendous good for the cause of God and truth. Some classic biographies, for example, have fueled the fire of missions for hundreds of years, like Jonathan Edward’s Life of David Brainerd.

Let me suggest something to do with books and friends that you may never have done before. Evidently it was the custom of the pastors of the Northamptonshire Baptist Association in England in the late 1700s to meet periodically for prayer, fasting, and reading to each other.

For example, John Ryland’s diary from January 21, 1788, says, “Brethren Fuller, Sutcliffe, Carey and I, kept this day as a private fast, in my study; read the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, Booth’s Charge to Hopkins, Blackerby’s Life in Gillies’ Historical Collections and Rogers of Dedham’s Sixty Memorials for a Godly Life, and each prayed twice. Carey with singular enlargement and pungency. Our chief design was to implore a revival in the power of godliness in our own souls, in the Churches, and in the Church at large.”

Their aim was not recreation, but spiritual warfare and strategy. Reading to each other was part of the tactics.

On one occasion, another member of this fellowship of mission-minded Baptists, Andrew Fuller, wrote in his diary, “Read to our friends this evening a part of Mr. Edwards’ Attempt to Promote Prayer for the Revival of Religion to excite them to the like practice. Felt my heart profited, and much solemnized by what I read.”

We have done this as a pastoral staff at our church. I photocopied a chapter from David Brainerd’s diary and a chapter from a biography of Ann Judson (Adoniram’s wife). We went on an overnight retreat and for two hours together that evening we read these to each other, one page each, around the circle until we were done.

It was a powerful experience. Brainerd’s chapter led us into one of the most intense times of prayer we have ever had together. We heartily recommend the practice to other groups.

It is crucial that you read rich, God-centered material, not just anything under the name Christian. Let me mention some examples. Matthew Henry, who died in 1714, wrote a commentary on the whole Bible in six large volumes. George Whitefield used to read from this commentary on his knees along with the Greek New Testament. It is a rich and perceptive devotional commentary, as good for your heart as for your head.

I’m tempted to start listing my favorite books, but that would be too lopsided and narrow. It is not my point to promote a particular group of books, but to commend public reading in groups. If you have a small group and you are trying to read a good book together and discuss it, but you are all having trouble finding the time to read the chapter for the week, why not plan to spend the first hour just reading to each other?

Really good writing is a benefit to hear as well as read. God gave us his Word in a book, the Bible, but he also appointed preaching and teaching. There is something about the living voice that quickens the truth and brings it home to us. You may find more power in your mouth than you dreamed, and your ears may open in ways that will change your life.

(Excerpted from A Godward Life by John Piper, Multnomah Publishers, 1997)