Extending ministries

Where Stands the Church Library

Biblical literacy is at an all time low. These church libraries want to change that.

The EFCA has a long history of being “people of the Book,” holding to the authority and inerrancy of the Scriptures and often citing it and pointing back to it to support theological positions. The EFCA Statement of Faith points to this value, highlighting how the EFCA values both the Word and the written word— which is likely why many EFCA churches started church libraries.  

Yet today, people in the United States aren’t reading like they once did. According to a poll conducted by Gallup, readers who read books regularly have waned, from 18.5 books in 1999 to 12.3 in 2021. These findings reflect what other studies have shown about the declining Bible reading habits of the average American. Child and adolescent reading habits have also decreased over the years, with fewer young people reading for fun in their own time.  

With biblical literacy and reading rates in decline, how have church libraries weathered the storm? And should they abandon their libraries to focus resources on other ministries or consider strengthening them as ministry opportunities to promote biblical literacy and provide resources to help multiply disciples and disciplemakers? 

To better understand the state of the church library, an EFCA pastor and two church librarians share their stories on what they’ve seen in readership trends and how they see the library as a ministry.  

A library that honors the past 

Pastor Bruce Droogsma of Watertown, Minnesota, never wanted to be a pastor, but he thought maybe one day he’d work in camp ministry. He was raised in EFCA churches and went to an EFCA camp. Eventually, God worked on his heart to pursue a youth ministry degree at a Christian and Missionary Alliance college in Saint Bonifacius, Minnesota, a town only a few miles from Watertown Evangelical Free Church, the church he serves at today.  

A library wall with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and two chairs.

After serving many years as a pastor at an EFCA church in Wayzata, Minnesota, he was called to become the lead pastor in Watertown, a rural town west of Minneapolis. As he transitioned into the new role, he discovered their small library and its many emblems of the past. 

The church’s library isn’t out in the open. It’s a room off the original lobby from the old sanctuary. Go through those old double doors and you’ll find it on the right; otherwise, if you’re new, you might miss it. It’s a relatively small room with two large built-in bookshelves. It has a love seat and a couple of chairs which helps when AWANA groups and Bible study groups meet there.  

Approximately 600 books line their shelves. Take a look and you’d find more Christian fiction than non-fiction: Adventures in Odyssey, Boxcar Children. Historical fiction set in the first century. Among the non-fiction you would find the Bible, books by former EFCA president A.T. Olsen, Evangelical Convictions, an autobiography of Billy Graham and a Survey of the New Testament, among many others. Still, it’s rare if anyone checks these books out. 

They have a part-time volunteer librarian who takes care of the books. They have a card catalog and a check-out policy that works on the honor system. Someone can walk in, take a book and bring it back when they’re done. Yet, few utilize the library for reading books or checking them out. Bruce imagines people use it to check out books around fifteen times a year with the exception of the children, who use it more.  

When asked if he’d consider rethinking the library altogether, perhaps repurposing it, he replied, “If space were an issue, I might. But we’re not going to follow trends.” His primary concern is how the church is reaching and serving the community.  

“If we were to disappear tomorrow, would the community notice?” Bruce asked. “As people come into our community, are they feeling welcomed?” 

When asked if the church should promote literacy in the community, he said, “I think it’s a question we should be asking.” 

“I want Watertown Evangelical Free Church to be a church that honors and remembers the past,” Bruce said. “A church that remembers those who came before. But it’s about striking a balance."

Their library also doubles as a small historical archive. The church traces its roots back to 1880, though the church building today was built much later. Inside the library, they dedicate a wall to church records.  

In 1921, they have a dated certificate that the church gave $30 (roughly $481 when adjusted for inflation) to the Red Cross in Europe. They have pictures of confirmation and Sunday school classes. A 1917 certificate from Sunday school and a plate commemorating Hans Von Qualen, the EFCA’s first missionary to China.  

“I want Watertown Evangelical Free Church to be a church that honors and remembers the past,” Bruce said. “A church that remembers those who came before. But it’s about striking a balance. We talk a lot about being all things to all people. That needs to be our guiding principle. What are we willing to set down because it's a hindrance to the Lord?” 

A library that opens children's eyes

About 30 years ago, Kathy Pauls moved to Manhattan, Kansas, and joined Faith Manhattan Church (EFCA), a small church meeting at a nearby Christian college. As someone who helped with a church library before, she asked their leadership if they had a library and they said, “No, but you can start one.” They gave her a budget of $500 a year to start the library. She got to work.  

The library started modestly. In the early days, since they didn’t have a building, the library was only a small cart full of books. Eventually, after three to four years, when they secured their own building for church services, they reserved a room outside the sanctuary for the library.  

The library is now the size of a small living room with large floor-to-ceiling windows giving passersby a clear inside view. With several shelves loaded with roughly 2,000 books, a few upholstered chairs with a coffee table, it’s unmistakably a library.  

A small bookshelf filled with children's books.

In the beginning, she purchased books for all ages. Today, while adults still check out books, her primary focus is on young readers, who gravitate to the library more often.  

“If you were going to start [a church library today], and you only had some money, I would definitely focus on the children, because that is far and away the biggest segment of people who check out books,” she said.  

As the library grew and families spent time there, Kathy received many requests for videos. So she included family video series, like VeggieTales and Adventures in Odyssey. But lately, those requests have faded.  

“With streaming and all these services,” Kathy said, “I’ve noticed the videos don’t get checked out as much.” 

Today, the two most popular types of books she sees are board books for babies and toddlers and graphic novel Bibles. Parents and grandparents take young children into the library and sit down to read the board books with them. The graphic novel Bibles attract the older kids, and those Bibles sometimes include characters from popular video games and toys, like Minecraft and Lego. 

Library impact 

Over the years, Kathy saw various ways the library has impacted families and individuals in the church. Often parents approach her and say their children don’t like to read and struggle with it. As a parent and grandparent, she empathizes with that problem. So, she’ll use that as a discipleship opportunity to guide the parents to books that can help them.  

As the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the public library closed their story time program, Kathy saw a need and took action. She partnered with another mother in the church, and they organized their own storytime program for kids. This will be their third year hosting it. Today, they’ve seen significant engagement from parents and grandparents, who now look forward to it and ask to volunteer and help with it. 

Moving forward, and with the success of the new storytime programming, she wants to pursue partnerships with church leaders to host reading and educational programs that touch on relevant topics for older students.  

Kathy also had an opportunity to use the church library to make an impact overseas. Through a ministry connection in Ghana, they organized a campaign for the youth to raise money for and donate Christian books, among other genres, to be sent to a community center in Ghana. Most of the books were mailed, but a youth group also traveled to Ghana and hand delivered several books to the ministry leader. She saw how it impacted the youth group. 

“Kids don’t necessarily like school. But when our youth group saw that people in Ghana would love to have a library and books, it opened their eyes,” Kathy said.  

A woman looks at a book in a large library filled with books.

A library that helps to share the gospel

Tara Larsen is the third librarian of First Evangelical Free Church in Maplewood, Minnesota’s 58-year-old library. The founding librarian was a schoolteacher and certified librarian when she started the church library in 1965. With the right knowledge and experience, she established it, implemented the Dewey decimal system and filled the bookshelves. 

Initially, Tara started as a library volunteer. During that time, her predecessor developed the computer database system for all their books and resources. Then, around 2007, she asked Tara to succeed her as the new librarian.  

“She wanted someone that was not only detail-oriented and observant, and probably a little bit of a perfectionist,” Tara said. “She also wanted what the librarian before her prayed for—someone discerning.” 

Ensuring books have sound theology 

Tara doesn’t work as a full-time librarian. She has other roles and responsibilities, which often take up more of her time. But when she can devote time to it, she’ll focus on the library. She sees her primary role as a gatekeeper, making sure the right stuff comes in and the wrong stuff stays out.  

“There was a time when if a Christian publisher said that a book was by a Christian author, or that it was a Christian book, it got to be put in here. Now, we would be more careful about that kind of thing. Our space is limited. I have to be careful about what we cull and what we allow for new titles. So it's ever-changing.” 

The library has 10,500 titles, mostly books, but with an extensive DVD collection and some audiobooks as well. The entire system is organized by Dewey decimal, but the fiction is categorized by author. In 2005, to keep track of their catalog, they switched to a barcode system. 

“We know a book has not been checked out in a very long time if it still has a checkout card in the back pocket with a signature because that means that it has never been checked out in the last 18 years. We get very excited when that happens. Very excited.” 


Six years ago, First Free renovated the lobby, including the library. They moved every title to make room for the renovation. During that time, Tara was tasked with rearranging the entire library and ensured they had enough space to fit all the books. To do this, she measured every book to make sure it could go where she wanted later.  

Today, when you walk through the front doors of the church, the first thing you see is a large sliding glass door leading to the church library. It’s impossible to miss. On Sunday mornings, when everyone is having coffee, people often meet in the library to chat. Guests for funerals and people outside the church visiting will come in and often be surprised that the church has a library.  

“I have been praying for years that young families would come in to use our library more often,” Tara said. “COVID-19 made that possible. We have a lot of new, young families that have been attending First Free over the last several years. They come in every week to use the library.”

Noticeable decline after smartphones 

Over her tenure, Tara saw a significant decrease in patronage and circulation after smartphones and ebooks turned mainstream. Before, students who were bored and needed something to do often visited the library and checked out a book, but now they play on their tablets and phones. The adult readers that adopted ebooks stopped coming to the library. The two groups that still visit the library are children and retirees. Though, things have been turning around.  

“I have been praying for years that young families would come in to use our library more often,” Tara said. “COVID-19 made that possible. We have a lot of new, young families that have been attending First Free over the last several years. They come in every week to use the library.” 

To help cultivate a love of reading in kids, she runs a summer reading program. Kids up to the fourth grade who turn in a reading log each week earn “Book Bucks” for their prize shop. They also form teams and the team that earns the most reading points gets an ice cream party. While Tara wants to encourage reading amongst the children in the church, she acknowledges there’s only so much she can do to get them to participate.  

“It’s really up to the parents on what they require,” Tara said. “I know who’s in the reading program because their parents told them it’s important, and it’s something they’re going to do this summer.” 

Fundraising for new books 

Despite seeing a change in readership, Tara still stocks the shelves with new books. She does this through an annual fundraiser. She researches the new books for the library and then displays them in the fall during their Sunday services. People can then come and choose to donate the book of their choice to the library. Once it’s completely processed, the person who donated gets to be the first to check out the book. Last year, they added roughly 120 new titles to the library through the fundraiser.  

For Tara, the purpose of the library is to support the church by assisting them in sharing the gospel. “So that applies to all the age groups represented here in our church and in the sections of our library. I want them to be edified and growing in the Lord. And so that's the purpose of our library ministry.” 

Impact on the congregation 

She often sees the impact of the library. Whether edifying kids to read through the summer reading program or helping people become discipled through Bible studies and good theology—people are growing in the Word with the assistance of the library's resources.   

Tara doesn’t foresee the library going away anytime soon. It’s been a pillar in the church for a long time and people in the church are grateful to use it.  

“I’m really thankful for that small job they gave me 15 years ago,” Tara said. “It’s a job I still love.” 


How does your church invest in the biblical literacy of your congregation? Send a response below and let us know.  

Send a Response

Share your thoughts with the author.