Here’s a rundown of the 11 books I read in May. I owe the high book count to a return to some sort of normalcy in my reading schedule, a number of thin books, and a number of great books. Happy reading!
Paul’s Joy in Christ: Studies in Philippians by AT Robertson
Robertson is a gem in the Baptist crown. As a long time scholar and statesman, Robertson served as professor of New Testament interpretation at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is well known for his monumental work, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. I read his volume The Minister and his Greek New Testament last year when I decide to focus on my Greek work. It was a tremendous encouragement and an ongoing blessing.
This volume is part of a collection published by Broadman Press known as the AT Robertson Library which includes multiple volumes with covering books of the Bible or particular themes. Through various book giveaway piles, I’ve picked a large number of the volumes. If you just look at the covers they seem like giveaway pile candidates. Yet, they are full of exegetical gold and cultural insight. Check out this paragraph covering Paul’s exhortation from Philippians 2:12 to work out salvation with fear and trembling: People today do not tremble much in the presence of God and most have little sense of fear. Jonathon Edwards’ great sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” finds little echo today. The Puritans went too far to one extreme, but we are going too much to the other. We all need a fresh sense of solemn responsibility to Almighty God.
As I preach through Philippians, I’ve grown fond of Robertson’s exegetical precision and ability to concisely mine the meaning of the text. His volumes working through particular books of the Bible are invaluable to the preacher. Pick them up as you find them.
Word Biblical Themes: Philippians by Gerald Hawthorne
This book is a part of a series of companion volumes to the much larger and academic Word Biblical Commentary. These thin companion volumes remove the technical complexity and provide a distillation of chief themes on a popular level. I would recommend these to any preacher/teacher working through particular books. You get the precision of a scholar but the readability of a synopsis.
Hawthorne served as a professor of Greek for forty-two years at Wheaton College as well as chairperson of the Institute for Biblical Research, which he founded. He breaks the book down into the major themes of the character of God, the providence of God and the problem of evil, the person of Christ, the Christ Hymn, the call of salvation, the Christian life, and note of joy.
You’ll never be moved by the prose but you’ll benefit from the study. For those preaching through Philippians I recommend this as a primer as you form the outline of the series. This helps the preacher see ways in which passages can be grouped and preaching themes can develop.
I Aim to be that Man: How God Used the Ordinary Life of Avery Willis Jr. by Sherrie Willis Brown
I was thrilled when I learned that this book existed. I never knew Avery Willis but he had a tremendous impact on my life … and my eternity. I came to faith through the study of Willis’ Masterlife material. I owe a debt to his faithfulness to discipleship through the writing ministry. I learned of the book through my church member Roy Edgemon, who worked with Avery Willis to produce Masterlife. When Roy told me the book had recently been published I immediately hit the “buy with one click” button on Amazon.
The book just might be the most inspirational biography I’ve ever read. And believe me … I’ve read enough biographies to fill a small, local library. The book is a full length biography but the core of the material are the daily journals of Avery Willis. As major life events and decisions are discussed, Willis’ daughter uses his journal entries to demonstrate Willis’ heart and thought process and then fill out the context in greater detail.
It was incredibly moving to read Willis’ journal entries as he cried out the the Lord in time of need and discernment. I was overwhelmed by his love for his family, the ministry, and passion to see the lost come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Unbelievable Gospel: How to Share a Gospel Worth Believing by Jonathan Dodson
At a mere 77 pages, this barely meets the requirement to be called a book. Yet, it’s bound, printed, and packs a punch. Dodson makes the argument that “Evangelicals are proficient at rehearsing the information of the gospel but we often lack the ability to situate the gospel in the lives of others. We need to get into their skin, understand how the gospel could transform the self-righteous do-gooder, the skeptical urbanite, the abused mother, the successful professional, and the strung out addict.”
The book explores two primary things. First, Dodson looks at why the gospel often preached is unbelievable. He argues that “the gospel is not believable because of the way we share it. There are many Christians who have actually stopped sharing their faith because they have been taught to share a gospel that is shot through with unbelievability.” The gospel shared is often a “canned, insecure or judgmental message.” Second, Dodson considers how to share a gospel worth believing. To this end he provides the reader with a brief look at gospel metaphors that connect real life situations with the various gospel images in Scripture. All done in under 100 pages!
I recommend that book to you. Unfortunately, I’ve dug around and see the book selling for far too much money online. Good luck finding a cheap copy. (Edit: It appears that the version selling on Amazon is an expanded version at 240 pages. Worth the money)
Unstoppable Gospel: Living Out the World-Changing Vision of Jesus’s First Followers by Gregg Matte
This book was a gift from the North American Mission Board. I love a free book! While not promoted as such, it is essentially a pastoral conversation on the book of Acts. Matte walks through key passages of Acts while providing color commentary with the help from stories from Houston’s First Baptist Church.
From the introduction: No matter how fierce the opposition, no matter how bloody the persecution, every obstacle and every martyr only serves to spread the unstoppable gospel even further. There’s something about its power and persistence that defies human logic. there’s something about the Good News of Jesus Christ that appeals to rich and poor, powerful and powerless, Jews and Gentiles.
I appreciate Matte’s love for the gospel but also his love for the church. I typically shy away from recommending books of this nature – books written by a big church pastor and written on a popular level. I often find them shallow on one end or hyper church critical on the other end. This is neither. This is Biblically sound and practically helpful.
Means of Ascent (The Years of Lyndon Johnson) by Robert Caro
The Means of Ascent could also be titled, “How LBJ Stole the Senatorial Selection of 1948.” Johnson beat Coke Stevenson for the senate seat by 87 votes. Yet, Caro shows, through extensive interviews, that LBJ and friends stole those 87 votes plus hundreds more. Through paying for votes, stuffing ballot boxes, intentionally miscounting, and turning 700 to 900 with a pen stroke, Johnson ascended to a senate seat.
With the skill of a master biographer, Caro weaves into the book an almost complete biography of Coke Stevenson. Yet, one is never bored. Stevenson, the beloved former governor of Texas, wears the white hat. He rides into the story as man of integrity, moral character, and a man of the people. Yet, his positive attributes keep him from opposing Johnson’s mud slinging and it ultimately leads to his political demise. After the election, Stevenson fights his battle in court but Johnson wins again.
For the preacher, this second volume in Caro’s LBJ series, provides fertile ground for the illustration that the right thing to do is often the hard thing to do. Beyond that, the right thing to do just might cost you in the eyes of the world. Stevenson lost an election but maintained his integrity.
On to volume three.
Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing by Robert Caro
Robert Caro has spent his career writing a biography of Robert Moses and a five-volume biography on LBJ (fifth volume in progress). Yet, Caro states that he has yet to write a biography on a person. Rather, his published works are biographies on power. After reading reading book two in the LBJ series – I get it.
This volume is a collection of essays on Caro’s life as a writer. Some essays are previously published works while others are fresh material. I loved every page. You get insight into Caro’s interviews with Moses, his experience digging through the massive volumes in the LBJ library, and the awkward interview with Lady Bird about LBJ’s mistresses. You even get discussion on Caro’s writing office. Yet, what sticks out is less the gossip and quirky nature of a career tome writer, and more the love and passion for the craft. Caro is a writer. Nothing more. Nothing less. Of course, he has literary awards (to include a pair of Pulitzers) to his credit. But he’s a writer. He loves the art of putting pencil to paper.
This is a great read but likely only of interest to those who’ve read the LBJ volumes or those who never plan to read them. The book is riddle with spoilers.
Relationship Keepers: Key Leadership Strategies for Building Healthy Relationships in the Church by Kent Pate
This book, written by a member of my church, who serves as the Executive Director of the Rehoboth Baptist Association in Northeast Texas. It is a great primer on relationships inside of church life. It begs for a fuller and more thorough treatment. That is not a criticism of the book but merely a statement of the need for such a discussion.
Pate provides plenty of material on the importance of relationships but the highlight of the book are the guidelines for relationship inside the church: 1) appeal, not attack, 2) communication, 3) loyalty, and 4) caring confrontation. The book even includes two chapters devoted to church discipline and restoration. The second chapter on the subject includes a script for a service that deals with the public confession service for the person repenting of sin and being restored to the church. This is ground not frequently trod.
Pate writes, “The American Church is unholy and undistinguishable from society today. It’s not just a problem of preaching the wrong message but also a failure to implement it into people’s lives. The reality is that we don’t appear to care how people behave, as long as they believe the right things. To preach the truth and not practice it in the church is hypocritical, just as it is in one’s personal life.” While this is a broad generalization and unfair to many, it is spot on for a great number of churches.
The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ by Andrew Purves
The following two books are rereads for me but they come at a great time as I get adjusted to a new ministry setting. Purves sets out to offer a perspective on ministry and illustrate a practice that liberates ministers for the grind of feeling that “It’s all up to me.” In the introduction he provide his two themes: 1) conceiving ministry as our ministry is the root problem of what ails us in ministry today and 2) ministry should be understood as sharing in the continuing ministry of Jesus Christ, for wherever Christ is, there is the church and her ministry.
My favorite paragraph: “Preach Christ, preach Christ, preach Christ. Get out of your offices and get into your studies. Quit playing office manager and program director, quit staffing committees, and even right now recommit yourselves to what you were ordained to do, namely the ministry of the Word and sacraments. Pick up good theology books again: hard books, classical texts, great theologians. Claim the energy and time to study for days and days at a time.”
I was deeply convicted by the following exhortation: Commit yourself again to ever more deeply becoming a careful preacher of Christ. Don’t preach to grow your congregation; preach to bear witness to what the Lord is doing, and let hime grow your church. This is both rebuke and encouragement.
The Resurrection of Ministry: Serving in the Hope of the Risen Lord by Andrew Purves
This second volume (first volume logged above) does not compare to its forerunner. While The Crucifixion of Ministry has a laser focus The Resurrection of Ministry is more like buck shot. The book seeks to move us from ministry in the mood of Holy Saturday to the ministry in the mood of Easter Sunday. This metaphor of mood runs throughout the book. Purves attempts to move us for Holy Saturday to Easter Morning through 19 steps. Yes, 19 steps! That’s a singular focus but the 19 steps are hidden among secret staircases and poorly lit hallways.
The book is filled with gems. Like this one: The heart of mature faith and faithful ministry is communion with a living Lord. This means sharing in his life and his life’s purpose. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and the sending of the Holy Spirit to join us to himself, are the necessary and material conditions for faith that is rightly centered and ministry that is rightly evangelical because everything is cast on to his faith and ministry. I could pick up random paragraphs, Tweet them out, and get much positive reaction – but Tweets don’t make great books.
Fusion: Turning First-Time guests into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church by Nelson Searcy
This book is not my style of ministry but there is a lot to learn from it. The three key takeaways from this volume are 1) visitor follow up 2) visitor follow up and 3) visitor follow up. I love this line from the introduction: Next Sunday the Spirit of God will prompt hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and millions around the world to visit a church for the first time. The Sunday after that, He will do it again. God is constantly blessing His Church with regular guests. Are we doing all we can to accept and honor His blessing? Such a framework and such a powerful question forces one to abandon jabs at the church growth movement and forces one to ponder the theology of the church visitor.
Searcy provides plenty of practical help. He provides example after example of how his church, The Journey Church in NYC, receives visitors and provides guest follow up. He provides his church’s visitor cards, visitor letter templates, visitor email templates, and more. After first glance this book appears to blur the line between church and a customer service experience. Yet, upon more reflection, I see this book as a gift to churches that often completely overlook guests. I think many church leaders have forgotten what it feels like to walk into a church for the very first time. This book gets you out of that rut.