What better way to bring in the new year than by breaking my blogging hiatus with a post on my favorite books in 2017? Be forewarned, I am a pastor and Doctor of Missiology student, so as such, my favorite books tend to be in that category of reading. Also, books are to pastors as wands are to wizards, so…
Almost every year on New Year’s Day, we talk about making New Year’s resolutions; and almost every year on New Year’s Eve, we look back on how we’ve miserably failed at keeping those resolutions. Such has been the story of New Year’s resolutions for the entirety of my life, so much so that I eventually gave up on them. Why even bother if you know you’re just going to fail? (I can’t wait to raise my daughter with that bit of advice…)
For whatever reason, on 1/1/17 I decided 2017 would be different; I made the resolution to read a book a week. I even invested some money into a library app to get myself more motivated. I didn’t think much of it (because frankly, my failure at resolutions is more due to me forgetting than trying hard and not succeeding) until I started tallying up the books I read in 2017 on my library app; and to my surprise, I’ve finally seen a New Year’s resolution through to the end, finishing 59 books in total this year. *(Technically I was forced to, as I started doctoral studies this year; but hey, at least I did it).
So, as I’ve done in the past, I thought I’d offer up a brief review of my favorite books from 2017. These are not books written in 2017, but rather books I’ve read over the course of this year. So, here are my Top 5 from 2017:
1. Jesus Continued, JD Greear (Zondervan, 2014)
This past year I began a study on the role of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. I was studying in preparation for my preaching series this year, but also for my own growth, as I’ve never really been taught who the Spirit is and what his role is in my life. I honestly can’t even remember a course in seminary that taught substantially on the Holy Spirit.
What I found was the academic books (Horton – Rediscovering the Holy Spirit; Cole – He Who Gives Life; Ferguson – The Holy Spirit; Packer – Keep in Step with the Spirit) tend to approach the Holy Spirit from a cognitive, and somewhat distant, perspective; the practical books, on the other hand (Chan – Forgotten God; Storms – Practicing the Power; Tozer – collected works), tend to only focus on their experience in their particular time and place, and don’t give a whole lot of meat to hang on to and transfer into the relevant context. Additionally, most writers on the Spirit come from either end of the spectrum – conservatives who are overly critical of the experience of the Spirit; or charismatics who are overly experiential of the Spirit. The former view the Spirit only for regenerative purposes in salvation; the latter make the Spirit into a charismatic caricature.
JD Greear’s Jesus Continued, however, seemed to strike a perfect balance. Greear’s book gives just enough theology to remind you that this is not just his experience, but Scripture that motivates his study of the Spirit. However, he writes as one intimately acquainted with the Spirit’s work in his own life and experience. He is neither dismissive of the miraculous work of the Spirit, nor overly fanatical about it. Anyone looking for an easy, crash course on the Holy Spirit would highly benefit from Jesus Continued. (I have to give Tozer’s Alive in the Spirit an honorable mention here, as his sermons from nearly 60 years ago are chillingly relevant to the church at large today)
2. Center Church, Tim Keller (Zondervan, 2012)
Every person in ministry is always looking for the best book on leadership, church practices, church planting, etc. Those not in vocational ministry are often looking for books to help them in their personal discipleship, evangelism, and Christian life in the workplace. In Center Church, we finally have a one stop resource for all of the above. While most books that seek to be the do all, end all, tend to come out either overly academic, or barely skirt the surface, Keller has accomplished in a book that I think will become an essential handbook on Church ministry.
Center Church gives an all encompassing look at gospel ministry, practical application, and mission to the city. In classic Keller fashion, he gives us the major viewpoints, then calls for a central stance that embraces the most biblical way forward (hence the name, Center Church). Be warned, though, this book is accessible, but the richness on every page will make it a slow read (I literally underlined about half the book).
What I appreciated most about this book is Keller’s final charge for the church to be on mission in a way that finds its center between movement and institution. Being a student of missiology, I’ve found that there tends to be a dichotomy between churches who are missional but highly anti-institution on the one hand (such as the emergent church), and those who are grounded in tradition but lacking in mission. Keller, being a Presbyterian in New York city, most intriguingly breaks this dichotomy, and gives us insight into how a church can be both rooted in biblical tradition, and highly missional – or in other words, a center church.
Ministry professional or not, anyone wanting to learn more about how to be a missional church/Christian should pick up this book. Keller has recently broken up this book into 3 smaller, even more accessible volumes, Shaped by the Gospel, Loving the City, Serving a Movement, making this invaluable resource even more valuable to the everyday reader.
3. Designed to Lead, Kevin Peck & Eric Geiger (B&H, 2016)
I have a love-hate relationship with leadership books. On the one hand, I enjoy learning about leading others and how to best steward my own leadership; on the other hand, most leadership books I’ve read fall incredibly short of actually inspiring me towards a biblical form of leadership. Though I have been influenced by some notable leadership books in the past, none have really felt like a definitive guide on the matter of biblical, Christian leadership. Enter Designed to Lead…
When I started reading this book, I came at it with the same skepticism I do with every leadership book I read. Knowing that most are just principles drawn from a famous leader’s life of success, telling me how to be more like (insert your favorite leader), I usually read these books for the main principle, them skim through the fluff, stories, and inevitable biblical proof-texting. Not so with Designed to Lead. I tried to read this like any other leadership book in the beginning, grabbing the principle then moving on; but I found myself constantly being stopped to reflect, consider the Scripture they were expounding, and underline like crazy.
I came out the other end of this book feeling like I had finally been freed from the prison of Law-driven leadership, and into the elusive realm of Gospel-centered leadership. This was the first leadership book I’ve read that finally made me feel empowered – not crushed – and excited to step into leadership once again. Geiger and Peck do Bible justice by starting with Scripture, then showing how leadership fits into the biblical narrative, rather than starting with their experience, and showing how the Bible backs them up.
Though they certainly have their experiential biases (they are both Baptists from mega-churches), I never once felt like they were forcing me to be like them. Just good, biblical theology for practical leadership. If you finally want a book that will help you in your leadership, rather than tell you what to do and how you’re getting everything wrong, open up Designed to Lead. Thank you Peck & Geiger, for doing what I thought was the impossible for Christian leadership books.
4. The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch (Brazos Press, 2nd ed., 2016)
Just this semester, I started venturing further into the house church and emergent church movements – partially out of curiosity, but mainly out of frustration with how abhorrently absent the mission of God is in most institutional churches. As a result, I found myself voraciously consuming a host of books from a side of church I never thought I would look at. Along my studies, I found that all roads led to Alan Hirsch, which led me to read his landmark book, The Forgotten Ways.
I had a lot of reasons to not like this book. It’s long, dense, and theologically loaded. There were plenty of times I thought he could have ended his chapters 15-20 pages sooner. Though he himself is an evangelical, he often straddles the line between orthodox and emergent church in his praxis. And he regularly takes cheap shots at the institutional church, making me think he’s a full blown anti-institution, anti-established church missiologist. But after reading this book cover to cover, I couldn’t hate it; in fact, it was outright paradigm shifting in how I think about mission in the local church.
For those tired of the established church always sacrificing biblical faithfulness and mission for culture and tradition, Hirsch is a breath of fresh air. For those wrestling with how we can actually engage missionally in the world, The Forgotten Ways is a must read. What I appreciated most was his challenge of “the way things have always been done” in church, and pointing us back to Scripture to consider the biblical grounds for church leadership, organization, and the “lay members”. Ultimately, Hirsch gives a compelling case for a more holistic, every-member-ministry/mission church, that any church leader needs to hear. The principles laid out in The Forgotten Ways will be ones that haunt me for the rest of my life in ministry.
5. The Insanity of God, Nik Ripken (B&H, 2013)
The Insanity of God is a book I was given (technically, by David Platt himself…) at a conference back in 2014. I had heard a lot of the buzz surrounding this book, and how heart wrenching his call was, to love and learn from the persecuted church; but none of that could have prepared me for what I read. Sharing his own story of social action in Somaliland, and his findings from visiting some of the most persecuted churches around the world, Nik Ripken left me shocked, appalled, and often in tears – shocked that his accounts were non-fiction; in tears for the persecuted church overseas; and appalled at the lackluster faith these stories revealed in me.
Ripken’s book reads more like an autobiography with a concluding chapter on his exhortations to the modern Western church. As a result, it’s a quick, engaging, and sometimes unbelievable read. At some points, I couldn’t stop reading because I was so engaged; at others, I couldn’t continue reading, because I was so moved by the stories he shared of fellow brothers and sisters across the world. The result is a book that will confront you with the reality of persecution the Church faces globally, and the unsettling comfort and self-protection we’ve fallen into in the “Christian” West. The Insanity of God is not a book that will entertain you; it will break your heart and lead you wanting more of Jesus and less of your comfort.
Now that 2018 is underway, it’s time to crack open some more books…
Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Peter Scazzero (Zondervan, 2nd ed., 2017)
Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller (Penguin Books, 2014)
A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (1962)
2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke (1968)
(I couldn’t write a “best books of 2017” list without including at least some fiction; also I’m a sucker for science fiction and fantasy novels. Interesting enough, both of these novels were adapted into films directed by Stanley Kubrick.)