Thursday, July 07, 2011

Summer Reading for Pastors and Church Leaders

"What are you reading?" I've been hearing that question since I started out in ministry more than 19 years ago. In the beginning, it came from older, wiser and seasoned pastors who used the question as a way to start a conversation that would guide me in my own development. Years later, the question continues to be asked by ministry colleagues as an avenue of inquiry and accountability.

But in recent years, I'm beginning to notice that when I answer this question, people actually take my answers seriously. Whether I'm old enough or wise enough for this reaction to be justified I can't tell, but regardless, I'm always recommending what I believe to be good (and also not-so-good, but neccesary) reading to those who lead our churches.

As the summer continues, I wanted to provide a recommended reading list for 2011, as I have done in past years. The list below is diverse. Some books are strictly theological in nature, others deal with cultural engagement and mission, and still others amount to heresy. But if you were to ask me to list for you the seven books that any pastor or church leader MUST put on their read list for the summer, I'd respond with the following (in no particular order):

1. Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson. "On the Verge: A Journey into the Apostolic Future of the Church." (Zondervan, 2011)
*The western church is currently swimming (or drowning!) in a sea of data that says its days as a relevant entity to civilization are numbered. In this bold work, Hirsch and Ferguson contend just the opposite: that the western church is at the point of "turning a corner" and becoming more powerful and effective than it has been in hundreds of years. But this new future won't look very much like the past. As Hirsch repeatedly states throughout the book, "what got us HERE, won't neccesarily get us THERE." Through four main sections of the book entitled "Imagine," "Shift," "Innovate," and "Move," the authors challenge the reader to conceptualize new expressions of church that don't contradict or compete with church in its current expression, but instead compliment it. As is usually the case with Hirsch, the book is almost conceptual to a fault, leavng the reader with the work of translating the concepts practially into his own ministry field. But I finished this volume highly encouraged about the future of the bride of Christ in the United States and Europe.

2. Timothy Webster. "Christ-Centered Pastors: Four Essentials Pastors Must Do To Focus on Christ, Not Man." (Cross Books, 2010)
Tim Webster is a Bible church pastor in my local area here in Maryland, and a friend to pastors everywhere. This concise volume (less than 300 pages, which is quite short when one considers the total content covered) deals with basics like pastoral character and qualifications, as well as church polity, church discipline, and the spiritual development of disciples. And unlike so many books written on these subjects, Webster's book actually lays out practical ways that a pastor can lead his congregation toward these ideals. He does take what I consider to be a few unfair swipes at guys like Jim Collins, and paints a picture of the business literature many pastors read today as more mutually exclusive from Biblical leadership than I personally believe it is. He is also an adamant supporter of a plurality of elders style of leadership, so some in my Baptist tribe might be a bit uneasy with his conclusions. But I believe he is fair in his representation of congregational govenance, and in fact believes the two can coexist (I agree!). In the end, this is a great "refresher read" for pastors, and a healthy challenge to ensure that one's focus is truly on Jesus and His mission.

3. Millard J. Erickson. "Who's Tampering with the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate." (Kregel Academic and Professional, 2009)
For those who may be unaware, there is a debate currently raging in evangelical academic circles over certain elements of the doctrine of the trinity. In academic vernacular, this debate is between those holding the "gradational-authority view" and the "equivalent authority view" of the relationship of the persons within the Godhead. Erickson, the consummate theologian in his classic fashion, makes this debate understandable, and applicable in the life of the local church.
If you are wondering why on earth I would recommend a book like this, or why on earth the average pastor should care, I will propose that one's understanding of these issues will eventually affect one's views of church leadership, the role of women in the church, and even one's understanding of prayer. In short, this debate is eventually going to find its way into the local church, although admittedly it will do so using more common language. Understanding the theological issues in play that will lie behind these discussions will help the local church pastor to be ready, and to effectively lead his people through these discussions.

4. Rob Bell. "Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived." (HarperOne, 2011)
Be honest, you knew this one was coming, didn't you? Too many pastors simply dismiss best-selling books from the pulpit rather than deal with the actual content--usually because they don't agree with the book's conclusions. The result is that your people will read these books anyway, and have no guidance on how to assess or process its contents. So yes, I'm recommending you buy the book, which admittedly will add to Bell's royalties. I'm also recommending that you read it thoroughly, and be prepared to agree with Bell on several issues. There is much valid content in this book, although it can only be found squeezed in between shoddy historical research, "cherry-picked" Bible verses and irresponsible hermaneutics. As a pastor, you should be familiar with books like this one. And you should admit to your people that there is in fact, some good to be found in them. You should also remind them that they can find clean water in the bottom of the toilet too, and that doesn't mean they should drink it.

5. David Hesselgrave and Ed Stetzer. "MissionSHIFT: Global Mission Issues in the Third Millenium." (B&H, 2010)
I recommend this book assuming that you are a church leader who understands God's command for every local assembly to have a vision for evangelism as large as history and as all-encompassing as the globe. At the same time, this volume will help the local church leader to understand all the conversation currently surrounding western, domestic missions as well. Words like "relavancy" and "contextualization" are a bit spooky to some, and the concepts, as well as examples of good and not-so-good application of them, are outlined and debated well by more than a dozen seasoned pastors and missiologists. Like any aquisition work, not all articles are of the same caliber, and some even miss the point completely (I'm looking at you, Norman Geisler.) But I am aware of no better resource that helps bring understanding to the future of God's global mission.

6. Darrin Patrick and Matt Carter. "For the City: Proclaiming and Living Out the Gospel" (Zondervan, 2011)
Don't look for a ton of practical instruction on how urban ministry and church planting should be done here. (Instead, read virtually anything Harvie Conn has published). But do look forward to being encouraged, challenged, and having your own heart enlarged for the urban centers of the world. These two Acts29 network pastors share their own ministry biographies, and in so doing are communicating how God is at work in two of American's great cities through the impact of local churches with a passion for the city.

7. James Davison Hunter. "To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World." (Oxford, 2010)
I've already written a comprehensive review of this book, which can be found here, and also in the forthcoming edition of the Great Commission Research Journal. In short, this book provides a helpful beginning to a conversation about how best to engage and change culture with the Gospel. Hunter's conclusions are a bit fuzzy, but he asks ALL the right questions . . . questions that every pastor and church leader should also be asking.