Computer software can be a powerful tool for the ministry professional. But before you drop hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on a package of software, you may want to think carefully about whether you really need it. Sometimes, it’s actually better to opt for Bespoke Software Development rather than buying software that has already been developed. As you know, the Bible is unique and your own requirements are unique – so you may just need something bespoke.
People used to buy Bible software so that they could have multiple translations in an integrated, searchable interface. This is no longer a good reason to buy Bible software; the online resources we discussed last week will do that job well enough. The main advantages that today’s Bible software has over other study platforms are 1) access to texts in the original language, 2) access to tools and resources that aid in translating and interpreting original language texts, 3) access to non-biblical, primary resources which can be compared with the biblical sources, and 4) access (in some cases) to high-quality secondary literature (especially commentaries). If you never studied Greek, Hebrew, and/or Aramaic, have no interest in doing in-depth language studies, and struggle to use high-end academic literature, Bible software may not be a good investment for you.
For most teaching/lead pastors and many other ministry professionals, however, a good piece of Bible software can be invaluable. There are others who are more qualified to provide a thorough review of the options, so I will only mention a few brief observations here.
I use Bibleworks, mainly because it is relatively inexpensive and easy to use. Its main drawback is that it does not give the user access to as many high-quality secondary resources as do other collections. B. H. Carroll recommends Logos; its chief advantage is that it gives students access to a wide range of high-quality commentaries and other secondary resources. Accordance is now available for PC users. I have never used it, but all of my friends who have it love it. It is both powerful and easy to use. WORDsearch is a resource that I have only recently learned about, but it seems to have a relatively impressive collection of resources.
Let me close this section with a word of warning. As far as I am aware, all of these software packages contain both good material and material that you really should stay away from. Some of the secondary resources are old and/or ill-informed; as such, they will re-inforce wrong stereotypes and result in bad teaching if you do not handle them with care.
Last week, I said that everyone needs to have a good Bible dictionary. For the general reader, a one volume dictionary will suffice. But for ministry professionals, a good multi-volume dictionary is a must. And you should not shy away from works like the Anchor Bible Dictionary or the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible simply because they are not written from an evangelical perspective. Part of being a ministry professional is weighing the arguments proposed by various voices within the Christian family and bringing the best information possible to our people.
In particular, you should definitely own the series of New Testament dictionaries produced by InterVarsity Press (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, etc.). InterVarsity also produces a series of Old Testament dictionaries; I have not had an opportunity to review it yet, but if it matches the level of quality in the New Testament series, it would be a worthy investment.
Commentaries are an essential tool for the pastor/teacher. Nevertheless, it can be difficult to find the right ones for the work that you are doing. Here are a few observations that will help you figure out which commentaries to use.
Older is not necessarily better. J. B. Lightfoot’s commentaries may be more than a century old, but they hold up surprisingly well. Likewise, Adolf Schlatter’s commentary on Romans is still worth reading. And, of course, Luther and Calvin are always worth a look. Most older works, however, do not reach the lofty heights attained by such works. Remember, we know a lot about culture and language that we did not know even just fifty years ago. Don’t let theological nostalgia lead you astray.
Newer is not necessarily better. Especially in the United States, we tend to worship at the altar of the new. There is a lot of good information out there, and I get just as excited as anyone else when an author I like produces a new commentary. Just keep in mind that some works (like Gordon Fee’s 1 Corinthians commentary) became the standard of the industry for a reason. It is hard to duplicate genius.
Don’t fall into the series trap. There are a lot of good commentary series out there. For example, the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament is usually well-done, and it is structured in a way that it can help almost anyone at almost any spiritual or intellectual level. Nevertheless, even the best series have a dud every now and then. Moreover, some of the best commentaries out there are not in a series at all—like Craig Keener’s massive commentary on John.
Look for good authors. Certain authors have a reputation for doing good work—a reputation that they have earned by publishing a number of well-researched, well-written books. Look for these authors when you go to buy commentaries.
Step outside your theological “comfort zone.” It should go without saying that you need to own several commentaries for each book of the Bible. There is nothing wrong with having one that is your “go to” resource for each book, but you also need to have at least one that challenges your theological presuppositions and exposes you to ideas that you would not otherwise entertain.
Professional ministers face many pressures. One of the most important is the pressure to use one’s time wisely. It is hard for ministers to make time to read books, especially if those books do not bear directly on a specific ministry task.
Still, I encourage you to read big, hard books that don’t have anything to do with next week’s sermon or the latest model for building great teams. Reading books like John H. Walton’s The Lost World of Adam and Eve, I. Howard Marshall’s New Testament Theology, N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, or Larry W. Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ won’t change what you say about a particular text. It will change how you view your ministry. It will give you resources that you can use in every sermon you preach and for every initiative you plan.
And you shouldn’t just read books on biblical studies. Every book you read on constructive theology or philosophy of religion will help you understand why your work in the Bible matters. Every book you read on church history or historical theology will help you see how others have wrestled with Scripture. In other words, the classical disciplines of Christian theology support one another, and you will be a better minister if you can engage them and apply their lessons to your own ministry context.
Look, I get it. Nobody on your deacon board wants to hear you wax eloquently about Jürgen Möltmann’s Christology, and they might even be frightened by the new ideas about Genesis 1 that you picked up from John Walton. The kids in your youth group will go straight to sleep if you babble on incessantly about the archeology of Pompeii or determinism in the Venerable Bede. And you certainly do not want to live in your head all the time and forget about the practical needs of your congregation.
Still, it is important for you to be a life-long learner if you are going to provide the best possible service to your people. More to the point, part of your job as a professional minister is to bridge the gap between the theoretical concerns of the academy and the practical concerns of everyday life. There are a lot of things that you read that will never make it into a sermon, and that’s okay. Just keep reading! God will show you what is important and what is not.