Well, its that time again! I'll be checking out for a month or so to finish up the final edits on my new book, and take some vacation time, which means its time for my annual summer reading recommendations.
"What are you reading?" I've been hearing that question since I started out in ministry more than 20 years ago. At first, it came from older, wiser and seasoned pastors who asked the question as a way of providing guidance to a young man just finding his way around a pulpit. Years later, I still get this question--now from ministry colleagues as an avenue of inquiry and accountability.
What scares me is that now, after a couple of decades, people tend to take my answers seriously! Whether I am old enough or wise enough to justify this sort of response I can't tell, but regardless, I'm always happy to recommend what I believe to be good (and also not-so-good, but necessary) reading to those who lead our churches.
The list below is quite diverse and as always, recommendation does not equal endorsement of everything contained therein, but if a pastor or church leader were to ask me for five books he/she should read over the summer, below are my recommendations for 2013:
1. Aubrey Malphurs, Look Before You Lead: How to Discern and Shape Your Church Culture I'm convinced that many pastors fail to lead well--and some simply fail outright--because they don't understand the organizational culture of their church. My only critique of this book is that for many leaders, it simply comes too late. Had Malphurs written this book decades ago he might have saved a number of pastors the heartache of termination caused ultimately by misunderstanding.
But this book is more than simply a manual on how NOT to get fired. Its a clear guide that helps pastoral leaders see beyond mere strategy, which ultimately is ineffective if not in sync with the culture of an organization, and churches are no different from any other organization in this regard (It was Peter Drucker who once said "Culture eats strategy for lunch!") Malphurs clearly defines organizational culture by breaking it down and defining its parts (behaviors, values, beliefs), and then applying this schematic to the church in a way that allows pastors and other church leaders to truly know their congregations, and thus, to know how best to lead them where they need to go. I will be recommending this book to all incoming pastors in my Association.
2. Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.. Evans has developed a reputation among Evangelicals as something of a gadfly, and her contrarian approach to issues is most clearly seen in this work. All who hold to a Complementarian view of gender roles will strongly disagree with many of her conclusions, and a few will unfortunately allow their disagreement to fuel a hatred for the author. I don't recommend this book because I agree with it. I recommend it because, whether or not she intends it, Rachel Held Evans has provided pastors with a simulation exercise in approaching issues like this in a pastoral way.
Evans gets some things very right in this book. Though she spends most of her time appealing to the worst expressions of "male headship," those expressions exist, and such chauvinism is still very present in many of our churches. Pastors should stand with her against the propensity of many men to strictly define headship and "Biblical womanhood" against the backdrop of 1950s American culture. Its just unfortunate that instead of turning to Scripture for an alternative, Evans appeals to her own strict definition as understood through the lens of 21st century feminism.
Yes, the book is at times careless, and the hermaneutical sloppiness it contains would never make it past week three of a freshman Bible college course. [There are plenty of genuine egalitarian scholars out there who approach these issues more substantively. If you are looking for precision and carefully defined terms, Evans isn't your gal.) But I recommend it to pastors for this reason: Evans represents well what so many young women in our churches are thinking. Additionally, the abusive expressions of manhood that so many women have experienced in our culture creates a visceral and understandable reaction when the subject of male headship is raised. I came away from this book with a much greater understanding of what is going on inside the heads of so many women, and why so many of them have a chip on their shoulder when it comes to the church. Rachel Held Evans has helped me become a better complementarian, and I'd like to think she has also helped me become a better pastor. I'm pretty sure that wasn't her goal, but I'm thankful for the insight, and I'm happy to commend it to others.
3. Eric Mason, Manhood Restored: How the Gospel Makes Men Whole. I searched for the link to this one on Amazon just after the last one, and it almost set my laptop on fire!
I've followed Eric Mason's ministry for several years now, and I'm so thankful for the influence he is having on the city of Philadelphia. Those who rightly eschew 1950s style "male headship" shouldn't turn to 21st century feminism for the answer. They should turn to Jesus, and Mason's book will help them do it. Mason's thesis is simple: In Jesus Christ we have the only living, breathing example of perfected manhood. If you want to know how a man should think, what a man should do, and/or how the essence of manhood is defined, don't look to Ward Cleaver or Tom Leykis. Look at Jesus. When you do, you discover that the essence of being a man is to take responsibility for yourself, and for those around you
Even in the church, men tend to vacillate between the wimp and the barbarian. Mason's book is a great antidote that pushes men back toward the Gospel, and encourages them toward faithful leadership of their homes and churches. Though at times the book is overly-verbose (well, he is a preacher after all!), I find that as a man I sometimes need said repetition in order to drill redeemed ways of thinking and living into my thick head, and I'm guessing most other men need this too because, well, we are guys!
4. James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. Anyone who reads this blog regularly already knows that Kuyper has heavily influenced my thinking relative to cultural engagement and world change by Christians. Now James Bratt--the preeminent Kuyper historian, has assembled a thorough and comprehensive biography of his life that I honestly didn't think was possible. Abraham Kuper lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a Dutch Reformed pastor, newspaper editor, member of Dutch Parliament, and also served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands. The influence of his thought on Dutch governance, education, and principled pluralism continues to impact that part of Europe to this day in profound ways.
Bratt also describes how Kuyper's teachings on "sphere sovereignty" affected nearly every area of Dutch life. Pastors who read this biography will read about a real-world and historically recent example of how theology should interact with and affect all societal domains, from education to health care to agriculture to transportation to science and technology to politics and governance. Most pastors in my area have people sitting under their preaching every week who work in all of these areas, and through Kuyper's example pastors can learn how to equip and unleash the whole church to change the world in the way Jesus intended.
5. Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend. Andy Stanley is proof of the fact that, even within Christendom, people tend to hate what they don't understand. From his innovative and (some would say) questionable methodology, to his outright refusal to enter into public debate with other Christians about his ministry, Stanley has certainly established himself as a sufficiently hated man. And from where I stand, that would seem to put him in good company.
To be sure, I wouldn't do some of the things Stanley does, but this book helped me understand why he does what he does. It also helped me understand that there are some things I should be doing that I'm not. I understand that some will be turned off by the silent premise of the book--namely, that the church gathered on Sunday should primarily be about being "attractional." I think its a valid point. At the same time, Stanley is capable of something few pastors seem to be able to pull off: hitting his target, and focusing relentlessly on that target.
If you are like me, and appreciate Andy Stanley's ministry, but have also had questions about why he does some of the things he does, this book will clear up much for you, and you will also learn quite a bit along the way. Not every church is supposed to be exactly like Northpoint. But if more would take Northpoint's lead by focusing more intentionally on non-Christians, we might actually be able to make the kind of cultural impact that Jesus expects of us.
Also available soon, my newest book, Speakiing from a Firm Foundation, will release in early fall. In the mean time, you can also pick up Planting Churches in the Real World, and/or Side-Stepping Landmines and add these to your list for the summer!