Preaching courses are absolute essential courses in seminary but seem to be given lower priority today in place of leadership. Here are a few of my favorite books on practical ministry that I think are absolutely excellent.
Everyone has either person(s) or books that have greatly shaped who they are inside and how they think and carry out their personal live. I’ve read many books throughout my Christian life and studies but not everything have necessarily shaken me up to the core and changed the way I think and behave; however, these ones did for me. They have been the most influential in shaping my spirituality. These may not necessarily be the best books available—but just what I have read myself. Here’s several I’ve come up with so far in my inventory.
On Christian apologetics:
Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Crossway Books, 1981).
On the Christian life:
Watchman Nee, The Spiritual Man (New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, 1968).
Is your church too big? Maybe think about downsizing.
What?! Why would you want to get smaller when churches are thinking of ways of how to grow? Author Brandon J. O’Brien in his new book, The Strategically Small Church (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2010) thinks that small churches have advantages that large churches do not have. They are more intimate, nimble, more conducive to being authentic, and more effective.
O’Brien likes the idea of being lean and nimble and this is one natural trait of a small church. Small churches do not think like large churches, which is a natural advantage because when churches become large, people have a tendency to take on a consumer mentality and think of the church as a service provider. I totally agree because I have also felt this way when I was church-hopping larger churches as a younger person.
Being “authentic” is important for this post-modern youth generation who are trapped in a throw-away, temporary, and materialistic world. The author says: “Many young worshipers are turned off by over-produced worship music and a speaker who is too polished” (66). I agree; but why do many large successful churches have polished worship music and speakers? I guess that’s why may be large and filled with people, but some might also be lacking young people in their teens and 20s. There is a falling away of the young generation in many churches. There’s nothing wrong with large churches, as long as “its authenticity shines through its professionalism.” Along these same lines, O’Brien advises readers to not confuse relevance with trendiness. “True relevance is being sensitive to the culture or subculture” in which we do our incarnational ministry in our specific location.
I especially like this wisdom on recognizing the benefits of small congregations:
“When a pastor fails to recognize the benefits of the small congregation and insists on running it like a large ministry, he will ultimately undermine and obscure the church’s strengths. Rather than creating a mega ministry, a think-big strategy can destroy the church’s spirit” (73). He says to “Just be yourself.” Furthermore, being authentic is not a strategy because once it becomes a strategy, one becomes inauthentic.
The two congregations where I minister are small and so I have personally found this book very helpful and encouraging for me in my own context. I am sure other pastors of small congregations who might feel limited by small congregations will also be encouraged by his positive outlook on small churches. The author, Brandon J. O’Brien, is editor-at-large of Leadership Journal and is a contributor to the Out of Ur blog. I’m sure he has gained much insight from the challenges faced by the various pastors who have articles submitted for the Leadership Journal (e.g., Alan Hirsch, Dave Gibbons, Willow Creek). However, O’Brien is not just an editor, but many of his points are qualified because they are insights he has gained from his experience as a pastor. This is a good book for you if you minister in a small church, or also in a big church, but want to do ministry like a small church.
And thanks to the fine folks at Bethany House for sending me this book to review. Book available at: Amazon and CBD.
Alan J. Roxburgh, one of premier authorities on the missional church today spoke at Montreal Diocesan Theological College at a clergy conference, Sept. 26-28, 2010. There were seven lectures on the topic: Church When the Maps Have Changed (link).
Marc Cortez, who blogs at Scientia et Sapientia, is giving away a commentary on Romans by Douglas Moo. If you’re like me and you can’t afford to purchase too many commentaries, go there and enter the contest. Yes I do hope to win.
Tyndale Seminary Online Reading Room webpage has links to numerous biblical-theological resources that conveniently links to google books. You’ll find links to Karl Barth, Bonhoeffer, Lesslie Newbigin, Moltmann, plus more.
Christian Book Distributors (CBD) has come out with two new sets:
Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church Author: John H. Armstrong Publisher: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010 ISBN: 9780310321149
First, I wish to thank the good people at Zondervan for sending me this book to review. This book is likely the challenging book I’ve read this year. It is a book on the unity of the church. This book managed to touch on many issues that I have thought about over the years but needed to reflect more deeply about. Thanks John.
John Armstrong, was a church planter adjuncts at Wheaton College Graduate School, and is founder and president of ACT 3, a ministry for equipping leaders for Christ’s mission. In ch. 2, Armstrong explains his personal journey into catholicity, beginning with his three conversions, of which I can totally relate with. He also relates the unity of the church as being vital to God’s mission. For Armstrong, to best serve Christ’s mission, Christian believers must minister out of spiritual unity and be rooted in core orthodoxy. This is profound for many evangelicals but it is true. Much of our contemporary evangelical churches have rejected tradition and anything remotely related to tradition. We tend to view anything old and archaic as a hindrance to the growth of God’s mission in the church. However, there is a growing trend in new evangelicals of a wind of change. As in Armstrong,I also used to think of Christian tradition as something as old, archaic, and useless; but today, I have come to love tradition. I believe it has a valuable part to play in the modern-day church of today. Armstrong teaches us that we need to embrace tradition if we are to move forward as a church in Christ’s mission.
Why the title?: “Your Church is Too Small? Armstrong says that our contemporary churches have settled for a small view of the church—divided and fractured—and it has spread like a pandemic across the world. His thesis is that a “small” view of the church harms the mission of Christ because it spreads the seeds of sectarianism and forces us to choose our enemies and friends based on whether or not we are in complete doctrinal agreement. We need a larger view of the church. Armstrong says: “When core orthodoxy, as represented by the Apostles’ Creed, is not of primary importance, the result will always be a small view of the church” and will be driven by personalities.
Even though I agree with this, it causes me to ask the question if denominationalism is the enemy here. Can we have denominationalism without sectarianism? I think the author gives an affirmative answer. He does believe that diversity is a good thing. Relational unity is something that many post-modern evangelicals, including myself, can support. What is relational unity? It is a unity between persons that are rooted in their relationships with one another. This kind of unity is both spiritual and visible. A visible unity is not necessarily a structurally united church, but it is one that is united in spirit without an organic union. It is not unanimity, uniformity, nor union. I like Armstrong’s statement: “This Christ-centered unity is not found in man-made structures or efforts to achieve oneness. It is the fruit of our nearness to Christ and is modeled on the unity that Christ experienced with the Father. It is a relational unity, experienced and revealed through shared mission.” (p.64). The 20th century ecumenical movement failed because it tried to force an agenda based on theological unity, and was even politically fuelled by socialist and liberationist ideologies, says Armstrong. There was also an absence of evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Relational unity does not try to unite the church based on theology but on mission.
In coming from an evangelical Reformed background, Armstrong understands that evangelicals tend to be “satisfied with informal person-to-person expressions of oneness. Because they tend to view the church as a voluntary association, they see no need to seek unity with other churches.” I think he is right. Ch. 11 talks briefly about this new ecumenism. If the future ecumenical movement is to be based on ideology, it will fail again. The CCT-USA, which includes Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Evangelicals and Orthodox churches, is the start of a new movement that can give our ecumenical discussions a fresh start. The World Evangelical Alliance, which gives evangelicals an identity for over 420 million evangelical Christians, can strengthen the missional thrust of evangelicals. But evangelicals must continue to work with other denominations to further the work of the mission of Christ.
Armstrong does not seem very sympathetic to church splits but I’m a bit more sympathetic. Due to the hardness of our hearts to accept diversity, these movements and church splits were necessary and healthy; but this is my own view and not that of the author. Sometimes, the harder we try to hold onto our own doctrine, the weaker the unity becomes. Our unwillingness to diversify is why we had a Reformation in the 16th century, and the last three great awakenings, and the charismatic movement this century. Throughout history, the Western Church has blamed the Eastern Church; Roman Catholics have blamed the Reformation; the Church of the Reformation has blamed the Mennonites; Evangelicals have blamed Pentecostals and Charismatics. Due to the unwillingness to make room for differing views, I believe that some church splits were inevitable and were even necessary to the health of the church. Today, God can still redeem the church and unite us.
Due to church growth through church-planting, evangelical and pentecostal-charismatic churches remain very much distinct in their diverse denominations. However, I believe that their distinctiveness have been a natural outcome of growth in evangelical and charismatic churches. Armstrong sees the pluriform of denominations as a negative thing because he sees no biblical basis for this way of thinking. Well, it may not be biblical but it might have been what actually happened in the first century church. Church-planting via intentional church splits may have produced some of the largest churches in the world; but the real problem, he says, is that sectarianism creates an attitude of exclusivity. I would agree with him but I think that church-splits are not the real problem. When this happens, it may also be a symptom of a deeper problem—the problem of not allowing a plurality of theological beliefs, as I mentioned earlier.
I am glad to see the author’s support for catholic diversity. He states: “I do not believe we have to give up our theological distinctions to pursue unity. In fact, any pursuit of unity that denies our uniqueness and diversity is not positive…But I believe there is a better way—the pursuit of catholic diversity, a diversity that fosters vitality.” (p. 93). Catholic diversity: I like this term and he does try to flesh this out a little more in ch.10. He describes what it is not by describing what sectarianism is.
The ecumenical movement of the 70s and 80s had died, but with Armstrong’s passionate writing in this area, I have learned that perhaps a new ecumenism is arising. The idea of church unity within young evangelicals might kick-start this. If what Armstrong suggests is true and “the influence of the fiercest forms of separatism seems to have waned in the last two decades in America” and that younger Christians are tired of it (156), then there is possibly a place for this new ecumenism. The author sounds optimistic that this is the case and he would suggest that the answer to our ambivalence regarding this possible new direction is to recover classical Christianity in all of its paleo-orthodox forms and that this recovery of classical Christianity must proceed in the context of missional-ecumenism.
This book has been challenging and I am sure it will be so for all readers. You may get angry and put it down because it can be a bit much for the average evangelical; but if you’re into ecumenism, you will love it and say “amen” to much of what Armstrong has to say. I am sure that most readers will enjoy this book and gain a bigger view of the larger church. Our church has been too small for too long.
I’ve finished reading The Next Evangelicalism (InterVarsity Press, 2009), authored by Dr. Soong-Chan Rah. As an Asian Christian reading a book written by another Asian Christian, I can say that I’ve been having a very tough time digesting it. I was almost scared to keep reading because Rah goes direct and head-on, no holds-barred, with the issue that drives the thesis of his book. Yep, there’s no beating around the bush with him. By the time I got to chapter five, things got so warm I had to remove my sweater, unbutton my shirt, and turn on the fan.
As I read, I have wondered if Rah’s methodology might be considered racist by some, and if he is using the race card in order to compensate for injustices? Or is he making a legitimate argument about the injustices that the evangelical church needs to deal with? If his arguments are legitimate, it may be a difficult pill to swallow for many evangelicals because we tend to think that we hold the moral high ground. This is a book that brings out tough controversial issues concerning the greater evangelical church and it is extremely challenging. In chapter 5, Rah also addresses the emerging church, in stating:
“I personally find the use of the term “emerging church” to be offensive. I believe that the real emerging church is the church in Africa, Asia and Latin America that continues to grow by leaps and bounds. I believe that the real emerging church is the hip-hop church, the English-speaking Latino congregation, the second-generation Asian American church, the Haitian immigrant church, the Spanish-speaking store-front churches and so forth. For the small group of white Americans to usurp the term “emerging” reflects the significant arrogance. Is there recognition of the reality of the changing demographics of American Christianity? Is there a willingness to move beyond the Western, white captivity of the church to a more multiethnic leadership?” (p. 124)
Wait, but there’s more. Rah states:
“The Babylon that must fall is not merely modernity (as the “emerging” church might contend), but rather, the Babylon that must fall is white cultural captivity. The fall of Babylon, therefore, requires the tearing down of the white dominance of American evangelicalism.”
Ouch!! This may sound demeaning to white evangelicals but it’s actually not as harsh as it sounds…I hope. Upon reading this, one’s first inclination might be to label him as an angry liberal but the thing is that I don’t think he is a liberal, just fed up… that’s all. He hold conservative theology and knows the greater evangelical church very well. I believe he is a well-meaning evangelical who desires to see change within the church. I don’t think Rah’s arguments are based only on subjective feelings, but he does offer some examples of the state of the evangelical church’s spiritual condition. If what he says is correct, then what may be on the line is the unity of the evangelical church. Rah asks a potentially and very poignant question:
“Is the white dominant emergent community willing to lay down their power for the sake of unity that needs to emerge out of the diversity in the next evangelicalism?”
Here are some questions that we could address:
A loaded question here: Rah feels that the evangelical church in the west need to be set free from western cultural captivity? Does Rah’s question itself imply there is racism in the evangelical church?
Should the evangelical church be dealing with social justice issues, or is that just political activism? Are the two terms “social justice” and “evangelicals” misnomers, or can they go together?
Is the entire evangelical church united, or in disunity?
I have been reading the best-selling Christian novel,The Shack, authored by William P. Young (2007). I am just about done reading it and I’m finding it extremely engaging and stimulating. I heard much about the book before but never ventured to get into it until recently. I heard the author speak at a conference I attended this winter and was impressed by his approach to spirituality. I have been challenged to view God in a more dynamic and engaging way than before. We tend to have a static God—a God who never changes. But the God that this portrayed in The Shack is different from the way we traditional Christians have often viewed God. It actually does theology in an extremely readable way that anyone can digest; however, it’s like a slow digestion taken in small bites. Some might find his portrayal of the personhoods of God as very unconventional–even bordering on the heretical.