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john tucker: leaping fountain or squeaking pump?

Confession time. Phillips Brooks once wrote: ‘The preacher’s life must be a life of large accumulation. … He must not always be trying to make sermons, but always seeking truth, and out of the truth which he has won the sermons will make themselves. … Then [his] sermons shall be like the leaping of a fountain, and not like the pumping of a pump.’ Too often my sermon preparation feels like the priming of a pump. I reckon I’ve spent far too much time making sermons and not enough time seeking truth. I haven’t, in Brooks’ words, been living ‘a life of large accumulation’. 

Darrell Johnson in The Glory of Preaching insists that, ‘The life of the preacher is lived in books’. My observation is that the best preachers do tend to live in books. In a recent Leadership interview Rob Bell made the comment, ‘There’s a huge world of insight and implication and ideas out there.’ It’s obvious that his sermons draw from that world. They draw from a wide range of unexpected sources, everything from art history to quantum physics. His wide reading enriches his preaching. Leonard Sweet argues that preparing a sermon is like building a fire. The biggest log, providing the heat and light for the fire, is certainly the Bible. But every fire needs kindling. It needs the presence of an igniting thought, a creative image or fresh application, the kind of material that is often picked up and stored away after roaming across a wide expanse of territory. So ‘roaming, roomy reading’, according to Sweet, is an imperative for preachers.

The life of the preacher is lived in books. That was Paul’s experience. From a prison cell, towards the end of his life, he wrote to Timothy: ‘When you come, bring the cloak … and my scrolls, especially the parchments’ (2 Tim. 4:13). Paul lived in books. I like how Charles Spurgeon, who was himself a voracious reader, comments on that fact: ‘Even an apostle must read. … He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! … He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books! The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher, “Give thyself unto reading.”’

Do you?

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John serves as the Director of Ministry Training at Carey Baptist College, where he is also involved in the teaching of preaching. He is currently finishing a PhD on Baptist engagement in social issues in New Zealand.


  1. Paul Windsor says:

    I concur with this, John.

    A lot of good things happen for the preacher when they fill their eyes with things to read (and I would add things to see) – but then do so with the critical and creative engagement of their minds. A lot of freshness can be generated for sermons when life is lived like this.

  2. steve says:

    well said John. I’d just want to push for one little nuance – that reading is not just books. Reading includes all of life – watching kids learn to walk, selected TV, a dog bound across the beach, a group reach an aha moment.

    too much “book” can isolate us from many folk who learn by doing, not by reading,


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