I recently started reading an excerpt from a letter Dr. J.W. Alexander wrote to young ministers in the early 1800’s. The letter was based solely on the topic, ‘Ministerial Study.’ In the letter Dr. Alexander pleas with ministers of the Gospel to “observe that the ministerial learning which I am recommending is solely the discipline and accomplishment whereby you shall be better fitted for your work.” He exhorts them to “regard your mental powers as given you to be kept in continual working order, and continual improvement, and this with reference to the work of preaching and teaching.”
His honest and firm encouragement and exhortation is founded upon a central thought that was swirling in his head that life is short. Or as he puts it, “The day is near when you whole ministerial life will seem to you very short in retrospect.” As the letter continues, he offers five tips for teachers of the Bible to consider when thinking about studying and learning.
1. Love the Bible.
He reminds his readers that all learning should be for one purpose: a deeper love and understanding of the Bible. “All your discipline and your acquisition are only so many means for learning God’s Word, and for teaching it.” Great teachers and preachers of the Bible keep their eyes in books and their hearts in the Bible. In other words, study and learn from many books, but set your heart on the Bible. Read the your Bible and read other books for the sake of knowing the Bible better. How do you do this practically? Alexander say, “devote the first and last part of every day to the persual of the Bible.” Begin and end everyday with the Bible.
2. Don’t Waste Time On Other Things.
“Be determined to be ignorant of many things in which men take pride.” Ask yourself the question, what is robbing me of time throughout my day? For Alexander, it was bad literature. For us, it might be social media, technology, or other things. Find what is robbing you of time and “disregard the perishing nothings of the hour.”
3. Don’t Take Shortcuts.
“Observe the evils which attend the lack of thorough preparation.” Don’t rely on your giftedness to preach or teach. Prepare. Do the hard work of study. Set a time everyday to read a book, even if for five minutes. Alexander exhorts, “If he (the teacher or preacher) has begun this slovenly way while still young, and before he has laid up stores of knowledge, he will, in nine cases out of ten, be a shallow, rambling sermonizer as long as he lives.” Study the Bible, read books. Learn.
4. Have a Place to Study.
Alexander argues that having a place to study and “labor” as he puts it, is a great benefit to the teacher or preacher. “A prevalent sense of this will do more than anything to procure and redeem time for research, and will cause you to learn more in an hour, than otherwise in a day.” For some, that means having an office space. For others, it means having a chair or favorite coffee shop to sit at. Either way, have a place to study and learn.
5. Plan to Study.
Alexander suggests, “Propose questions to yourself: what part of the week do I devote to study? What head of theology has lately been under investigation? What is my plan of study for the coming day?” In asking these questions, you are intentionally setting in your mind the intent and sim to study. Do you set aside time to read and learn every week? Is there a time that you can use or redeem to labor in study?
Alexander ends his letter by saying, “Tell me how you spend your time in your early ministry, and I shall be better able to predict how you preach (or teach).” In other words, if you are not investing your life in pursuing more knowledge of the Bible and the world around you, don’t expect to grow in your ability to preach and teach. Study hard and aim to learn everyday.