Here’s a rundown of the 11 books I read in July. While the book total is high, this was month filled with a few reading fails. I didn’t even touch that Caro volume in the LBJ series that I wanted to start and finish. I also checked out two books from the local library and did not finish them before reaching the due date. The high total this month was aided by a bunch of rereads.
Dangerous Calling by Paul David Tripp
This is perhaps the leading candidate for my book of the year. I read this book poolside on the 4th of July and I’ve been reeling ever since. Tripp articulates the spiritually unhealthy environment that pastors often find themselves. He points to the dangers of spiritual blindness, theological self-righteousness, dysfunctional personal relationship to the word, lack of personal gospel neediness, impatience with others, wrong perspectives on ministry, and a lack of communion with Christ.
The book is comprised of three parts: 1) examining pastoral culture 2) the danger of losing your awe (forgetting who God is) and 3) The danger of arrival (forgetting who you are). Written from personal experience and years of speaking to churches and pastors worldwide, the book does not smell of ivory tower debates but sweat from the trenches.
The book offers both diagnoses and cures. Yet, I must admit the diagnoses are much stronger than the proposed cures. When I read a few of the cures to my wife (be sure that your pastor and his family are regularly invited into the homes of families in your church, make sure there is someone who is regularly mentoring you pastor’s wife) she responded, “Easy to print in a book. But who is going to do that?!” I also think Tripp takes too many shots at seminaries. Yet, my criticism are washed away by Tripp’s conversation writing style and message to pastors.
I have read many books on the topic of pastoral self care and this volume easily rises to the top. I stood in a pastor’s study and he picked up this volume and said, “read it.” I listened to the wise advice. Pastors, I say the same to you.
THE PASTOR THEOLOGIAN: RESURRECTING AN ANCIENT VISION BY GERALD HIESTAND AND TODD WILSON
THE PASTOR AS PUBLIC THEOLOGIAN: RECLAIMING A LOST VISION BY KEVIN VANHOOZER AND OWEN STRACHAN
This is my third time through these volumes. In my new ministry setting, I’m developing new study habits and creating my pastoral identity among a new congregation. There is no title I’d rather bear than “pastor theologian.” While I would define it differently than these two volumes, I deeply appreciate the discussion starter and framework provided.
While both books share nearly identical titles, they differ in many ways. Hiestand and Wilson argue that their book is an “attempt to resurrect a once-thriving but now-deceased vision of the pastor, namely, the pastor theologian.” Vanhoozer and Strachan argue that their book “aims to reclaim the theological pedigree of the world’s boldest profession.” Yet, after laying a similar foundation, the two works begin to diverge down different paths. Vanhoozer and Strachan strive to show that throughout history pastors saw themselves as theologians while Hiestand and Wilson argue that throughout history theologians were in fact pastors. In addition to this subtle difference, the books work towards different definitions.
Hiestand and Wilson argue for an “ecclesial theologian” who above all else “is a theologian who constructs theology as a vocational pastor.” They coin an interesting phrase by stating “theology has become ecclesially anemic, and the church theologically anemic.” Hiestand and Wilson best articulate their vision for an ecclesial theologian with the following:
“Inevitably the grind and press of the pastoral vocation forces one to grapple in profound ways with one’s theological conclusions. A theologian’s theodicy is deepened (and confronted) when he has to conduct the funeral of a six-week-old baby who was accidently killed by his own mother when she shifted in her sleep. And one’s theology is pressed and shaped in profound ways when one has to provide counsel to a husband whose wife is on her third affair, or to a women whose husband has left (for the fourth time) because of a drug addiction.”
I could not agree more. They go on to expound that an ecclesial theologian inhabits the ecclesial social location, foregrounds ecclesial questions, aims for clarity over subtlety, theologizes with a preaching voice, is a student of the church, works across the guilds, works in partnership with the academic theologian, and traffics in introspection.
Vanhoozer and Strachan argue for the pastor as “public theologian.” Their understanding of this term includes: First, pastors are and always have been theologians. Second, every theologian is in some sense a public theologian, a peculiar intellectual, a particular generalist. Third, the purpose of the pastor-theologian being a public intellectual is to serve the people of God by building them up in the faith . This definition is best demonstrated in the section of the book describing the pastor as an artisan in the house of God and describing the practices of the pastor-theologian as disciple maker, evangelist, catechist, liturgist, and apologist.
Salvation Through Judgment and Mercy: The Gospel According to Jonah by Bryan Estelle
I read this volume in preparation for preaching through the book of Jonah. Over the years I’ve read stacks of reference material on the book about a prophet who was vomited from the belly of a large fish. This is easily the most useful work.
Estelle earned a Ph.D. in Semitic and Egyptian languages and literature and serves as associate professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary California but the book does not read as an academic treatise. Estelle handles the text in an exhaustive manner but is never overly technical or unnecessarily verbose. He routinely moves from exegetical insights to relevant practical topics. I also appreciate how he navigates difficult theological issues with ease and care. For instance, at the conclusion of Jonah 3 he provides a wonderful theological conversation about the various theological positions regarding God’s ability to change his course of action. He goes as far as to introduce the reader to “open theism,” and various other interpretations of the text, without every deviating too far and without getting lost in the academic weeds. Of course, a tremendous feature of the volume is using Jonah to point to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If a preacher was picking two resources to study Jonah, I suggest this thin volume and a large, technical commentary.
Jonah (The Old Testament library) by James Limburg
While reading an academic commentary cover to cover seems like a daunting task, this volume is merely 123 pages. Limburg is professor of Old Testament at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and provides a great primer on Jonah.
I really appreciated the concise nature of the commentary. The brief introductory section provides more than enough information while only taking up 17 pages. Each chapter of Jonah is adequately covered without expansive explanation. Limburg provides great exegetical, and fairly conservative, analysis. Commentaries on Jonah run a wide gamut of perspectives. Some see Jonah as a literal story, a parable, an illustration, or a legend. Limburg refers to Jonah as a “didactic story” – this phrase can be interpreted in many ways. Yet, his conclusions are frequently theological: God created, controls, and cares. My conservative reading of Jonah often found agreement. I also appreciated additional discussions of how painters, sculptors, and other artists have interpreted Jonah and display theology in artwork.
For preachers, this is a great commentary but perhaps not exhaustive enough to be used as your only heavy, duty commentary. Limburg does not engage other Jonah scholarship inside this volume. I would suggest pairing Limburg with Jack Saxon’s volume in the Anchor Bible Commentary.
GAINING BY LOSING: WHY THE FUTURE BELONGS TO CHURCHES THAT SEND BY JD GREEAR
This is my third time reading this volume. I’ve given away multiple copies. J.D. Greear gets it. He is the pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina and currently serves as the 62nd president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
While Greear pastors an extremely large and influential church, this volume does not advocate for the bigger, bigger, and bigger model that so many pastors seek and covet. Rather, Greear promotes a missional model that is centered on sending people out. Literally. Sending people out. To be even more clear: He advocates decreasing the size of your church through sending people out for gospel purposes.
This book paints the picture of the future of the church. No – I’m not simply stealing a line from the subtitle. The grow bigger, bigger, and bigger model is not sustainable nor is it ultimately effective (I know that’s a broad brush). The sending model is rooted in the Biblical call of discipleship and mission and is ultimately more effective in preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. I believe it will be more effective in the long run as culture moves more and more in the direction of a post-Christian era.
Pastors – read this book and then shoot me an email to discuss.
Tribal Church: Lead Small, Impact Big by Steve Stroope and Kurt Bruner
Yet, another reread for me. This reread was sparked by numerous recent leadership discussions. It was also brought to mind by the fact that Lake Pointe Church in Rockwalll, Texas is nearby my new ministry setting. I pass it every time I’m headed to Half Price Books!
I appreciate Stroope and Bruner’s approach. They tell the story of Lake Pointe and encourage readers to keep the focus small by focusing on tribes. These tribes include self-leadership, the leader’s family, life group tribes, leadership tribes, elder tribes, generation tribes, and more:
Whether our membership was in the hundreds or the thousands, we have always seen ourselves as a collection of small tribes seeking to make a big impact on the communities in which we gather … every church is a tribal church. The question is whether the leaders of the church know they lead a church of tribes and whether they are effectively leading these tribes.
I personally loved that Stroope and Bruner begin with the tribe of the leader’s own family. It must start there. The book is the story of Lake Pointe but it is never showy – just helpful.
Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom Rainer
Thom Rainer, once the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, discusses churches which failed to reverse the trends of decline and eventually died. Through autopsies of dead churches, he provides the path necessary to keep churches alive. A few of the consistent themes of dead churches that I found poignant and easy to see in many churches:
The Past is the Hero
The Church Refused to Look Like the Community
The Great Commission Becomes the Great Omission
The Preference-Driven Church
The book is not filled with deep theology or even much explanation. Rainer provides a theme, an anecdote or two, a few suggestions, and concludes with a prayer commitment. The book can easily be read in one sitting.
Becoming a Welcoming Church by Thom Rainer
Another short Rainer volume. In this book, Ranier provides insights from years of serving as a church consultant. While most churches perceive themselves to be friendly and hospitable, many guests find church to be hostile and inconsiderate to outsiders.
The book mostly focuses on greeters, welcome centers, safe facilities, clean facilities, and attitudes towards visitors. Like most of Rainer’s books, you get a chapter theme, an anecdote or two, and a few concluding thoughts. My biggest struggle with books on this topic: focus. When did the focus move from preaching the gospel to welcoming guests? Hospitality is a byproduct of gospel-centered lives. Shouldn’t the focus be preaching the gospel? I know there is a healthy space for the discussion on becoming a welcoming church, but I wish that discussion was accompanied by a robust gospel discussion.
The two Ranier books on this log come from my raid of the church supply closet. The best thing about this volume is that I unknowingly picked up a copy that appears to have been read by one of my staff members. Through the first half of the book I was blessed by the marginal notes that critique our current level of hospitality toward guest. These notes are more insightful than the actual content of the book!
Wizard of Ads: Turning Words into Magic and Dreamer into Milionaires by Roy H Willaims
This is a strange one. Yet, it is probably in my top 10 books of all-time. Please don’t buy it. You won’t like it. It merely scratches a few of my particular itches. I first encountered this book while I was a marketing major during my undergraduate education. My professor read from it at the start of class as if it was some sort of marketing devotional. It captivated me:
“If a man can make a better mousetrap than his neighbor the world will make a beaten path to his door. So said Ralph Waldo Emerson. Sorry, Ralph but you were wrong. Forty-six years after you died, the better mousetrap was invented, and path beating did not occur. In 1928, Chester M Woolworth offered the world a much-improved mousetrap. It sold for twelve cents. The price of the older, less effective mousetrap, however, was only five cents. The better mousetrap failed.
… If nothing else, Emerson’s maxim teaches us that words that conjure a pleasing image in the mind are words that will live forever. Suppose Emerson had said, ‘If you build a better mousetrap, there is a chance you will be able to sell it, but it will take a lot of hard work, and your mousetrap cannot cost more than the mousetrap it replaces.’ Would we have remembered this bit of wisdom for as long as we have?”
Forget about a better mousetrap. Concentrate on better words.”
The book is filled with 100 such “devotional” thoughts on marketing. I once read this volume as an aspiring marketing guru. I now read it as a preacher looking to share the greatest story ever told.
Bandersnatch: CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings by Dian Pavlac Glyer
I’ve said this countless times: I love reading about CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien much more than I enjoy reading their actual work. They were fascinating men and their friendship was even more intriguing than their works of fiction. Lewis and Tolkien, among others, gathered each week to read and discuss each other’s work-in-progress. Known as the Inklings, this creative group produced legendary pieces of theology and fiction.
In this volume, Diana Pavlac Glyer shows evidence of how Inklings members critiqued and encouraged each other. She poured over letters, diaries, and early drafts to find how the Inklings actually influenced each other. It was a thrill to read early draft of Tolkien’s work and see hobbit name changes and wordiness reduced as the suggestion of friends. It is not a biography of the Inklings members nor a study of the group. Rather, it is a master class in collaboration. Slyer provides insights into how conversation can shape writing and how creative collaboration can enhance individual talent.
To add to the depth of the book is the beauty of the illustrations. The book is spiced with illustrations by James Owen.