God calls Christians to love Him with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind. (Luke 10:27). Many Christians are pretty good at orienting their heart, soul, and strength toward their Creator, but few really know what it means to love God with their minds. This problem, as many of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, was addressed most forcefully by historian Mark Noll in his seminal 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and its 2011 sequel, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. I have written about this as well, both in Why Study History: A Historical Introduction and most recently in my May 2016 Religion News Service piece, “In Supporting Trump, Evangelicals Are Reaping What They’ve Sown.”
Noll diagnosed the problem of evangelical anti-intellectualism. We are now faced with how deal with it. What kind of practical steps can churches take to overcome this serious deficiency in the church? How can people interested in serious Christian thinking make a difference in their churches and communities and perhaps prompt others to take this Christian duty seriously.
One way of overcoming the scandal is to start a church library that not only caters to children and popular Christian materials, but also to books and resources that encourage Christian intellectual engagement. Why not start the kind of library that Ron Maness had built at Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas?
I have never met Ron, but when he started following me on Twitter (@johnfea1), identified himself as a church librarian, and began asking for book recommendations, I knew his library must be something unique and special. Ron is a very active librarian. He sends out a monthly list of new books (with short summaries) to the congregation (250 members), he contacts individual members of the congregation when a new book arrives that falls within their area of interest, encourages his pastor to mention new books from the pulpit, and produces a daily e-mail list of links related to new books, author interviews, and reviews. The Community Bible Chapel is used extensively by church members, community members, local clergy, and seminary students from nearby Dallas Theological Seminary. Ron’s diligent work has cultivated a spirit of reading, conversation and a Christian life of the mind in his church and in the wider community.
I asked Ron to answer a few questions about his church library. Here is my interview with him:
JF: Community Bible Chapel has a very large library for a church of 250 members. What role does the library play in the mission of the church.
RM: Here is the Statement of Purpose/Mission Statement for the library:
Maintain a broad-based library of books, videos, DVDs, audios and other media items for all ages and levels of Christian growth, with the goals of 1) promoting knowledge and application of scripture and doctrine, 2) promoting knowledge of church history, 3) facilitating and supporting other ministries of CBC, including Sunday School and other teaching ministries, ministry groups, youth workers, etc. and 4) enhancing individual and family spiritual growth and discipleship. This will include not only maintaining the existing library inventory, but also the acquisition of new media items on an on-going basis.
JF: What is your library budget?
RM: Our library budget is currently $7 thousand. It has been as high as $9 thousand, but due to the maturity level of the existing library, I have reduced it the last few years.
JF: How many books do you have in your church library?
RM: We currently have over 14 thousand books in the library, of which 11 thousand are adult and 3 thousand are juvenile/childrens books. In addition, we have approximately 500 other media items (DVD, CD, video).
JF: What is your philosophy of book-buying for the library?
RM: I have been managing the library, along with my wife, since 1981. Because I have “lived” books so long, I don’t have any problem with knowing what books I want to buy. In the past, I visited Dallas Seminary’s bookstore weekly, along with other Christian bookstores on a regular basis. I am familiar with publishers and their new offerings, as well as the key commentary series, and authors/theologians. I visit the Gospel Coalition website daily, and am now a frequent visitor to Twitter. I get emails from Westminster Seminary Bookstore. All of these sources provide book information that I use to make buying decisions. I make most of my purchases from Amazon, who is also good at letting me know of new books in my areas of interest. I frequently pre-order books in advance of their publication dates.
Also, since I am the only one purchasing adult non-fiction books for the library (my wife purchases adult fiction and children’s books), I know the library stock and what items might be needed. I try to ensure we have a broad-based stock for all levels of Christian maturity, from new believers to seminary students and pastors.
JF: Christians are called, among other important things, to love God with their minds. How is the library making an impact on the intellectual life of your church?
RM: Our library has been described by several outsiders as comparable to many Bible college libraries. We have a full range of current and classic Bible commentaries, systematic and biblical theologies, Puritan classics, books on all categories of Christian doctrine or ministry, Christian living, biographies, and an extensive history section (church and general). So we have provided the resources to enable the members of our body to grow in the knowledge of Scripture and the doctrines of the faith, in order to equip them to fulfill their individual and collective ministries and strive toward Christian maturity.
In addition to managing the library itself, some time ago I began a library email list. Only those who requested to be included are on it. Presently there are around 75 people on the list, including some who don’t attend CBC. Every morning, I visit the Gospel Coalition website, along with a few other selected sites, and review that day’s articles. I then choose 3 to 5 of the most interesting articles and forward them to the library email list. Part of the purpose is to encourage library usage by articles featuring book reviews, but an additional purpose is to increase awareness of issues being discussed in the wider evangelical world.
Let me provide a quote from a response I received last week from a library patron who is on the email list:
“Ron, thank you, once again, for your diligence to spawn discussion and broaden our thinking.”
That is the impact that I would hope the library would have on the intellectual life of our church.
I was particularly influenced by three books that I read a number of years ago:
The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark Noll.
No Place for Truth: Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? by David Wells.
Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in America, by Mark Noll.
I believe the library has contributed to our body gaining a fuller understanding of other traditions and perspectives. To take three examples of areas where there are often sharp differences of opinion, I have found a receptive audience for books featuring different views on end times theology, creation (young earth vs old earth, creation science vs intelligent design, etc.), and the on-going “Christian America” debate. And I am always quick to acquire new volumes in the several series giving four or five views on specific subjects, like Zondervan’s Counterpoint series for example. These enable the reader to, in one volume, see different perspectives all together.
In summary, I do think our library has had an impact on the intellectual life of the church. In the past, this was aided by our church leadership determining not to tie our church to hard positions on secondary matters, such a specific end times theology. And in the present, the library has been enabled by leadership’s continuing financial support for an aggressive library ministry.
JF: Thanks, Ron.
Are you interested in developing a church library or strengthening your existing library? Check out the library page at Community Bible Church for Ron’s helpful suggestions.