Yesterday's post reveals a sticky point in the nitty-gritty of our ministry model. I hate contradictions and try to avoid them whenever possible and whenever advisable.
In advising Small Group Leaders to focus on the Bible, rather than contemporary Christian books, I probably had a head nod or two from any of our leaders who are reading. We've gone over this time and time again.
But I wonder if the folk who meet with me one-to-one notice the contradiction. With many of them, we read non-Biblical books. Not anti-biblical books, just books that aren't the Bible. Can we do that? Should we do that?
There's a long, ancient tradition of extra-biblical reading in the Christian community. Early on, they designated books into three classes: holy, heretical and helpful. Most of our struggle with extra-biblical reading in the evangelical community comes from our unwillingness to label things as merely "helpful." We talk about John Piper and NT Wright and one of them is angelic and the other demonic and, in reality, they probably agree with each other in their writings quite a bit. We need the "helpful" category.
But that doesn't answer the question of discipling/mentoring content. Why read the "helpful" when you can read the "holy"?
One reason is purely practical. Then there are two strategic reasons. The fourth has to do with my own limitations.
The first strategic reason is that I expect the people I mentor to be involved in a Small Group. If they aren't, that's one of the main things we talk about. I believe that God is using Small Groups to change the world and to change us. Meeting with me (or with anyone else) is no substitute for being in a Small Group.
The second strategic reason is that reading a theme-oriented book allows us to focus in on one particular arena of spiritual formation or service. Most of the books I read with people are actually on prayer (Letters to Malcolm, Daring to Draw Near, etc...). The others are on evangelism, the discipleship of the mind, or on Scripture itself. All of these disciplines can be picked up through the reading of Scripture alone, but the "helpful" books aid the acquisition.
The practical reason is that studying the Bible with just one other person often leads to a teacher/pupil interaction, rather than a conversation. I learned this when I was in grad school. Oxford runs on the tutorial system. I remember meeting with Frances (my tutor, a brilliant researcher) and with Evan (probably the brightest person in our class). When I met with Frances alone our conversations were good. When Evan was there as well, they were great. If we do discipling in pairs, rather than triads or quads (which we do because of the difficulty we find in scheduling), then we miss out on that extra interaction. Reading a book is a substitute. Not a perfect one, mind you, but a good one.
The last reason, the one about my limitations, is fairly easy to see. If I could set the people I disciple up to be mentored by CS Lewis or Eugene Peterson or Lauren Winner, I'd do it in a heartbeat. If John White or John Piper or Don Miller were speaking on campus, we'd go to that together rather than continuing with our regular discipling meeting. I don't bring wisdom, I bring specificity. I may not have the wisest thing to say, but I can point you toward something wise someone else has said. And it will probably be in a book.
I do, of course, also read the Bible with the people I mentor. But it's in that context that I find contemporary (and ancient) Christian books helpful. Read away.