As a follow-up to yesterday’s list of my favorite books on Jesus, here are my favorites on the church and ministry. Once again, I very much welcome your thoughts and especially your own favorites. These are the ones that have shaped me and that keep me on my toes.
1. Jesus and Community by Gerhard Lohfink. I talked about this book in the Jesus list, but I wanted to include it here as well, mainly because (as I mentioned) it confirmed my conviction that the church was not an afterthought to the coming of Jesus the Messiah. On the contrary, core to Jesus’ ministry was the gathering of a body of people to continue God’s mission in the world. This book provides an excellent exegetically based theology of the church as just this very thing. Given that the church is full of sinful people (including me!) and can therefore be pretty frustrating at times, it has proved invaluable for me to remember that you can’t have Jesus without it. Or as William Willimon puts it, “The church may be a whore but she’s also your mother.” (Joey says Lohfink’s Does God Need the Church? is rockin too, and it’ll probably supplant this one when I do read it.)
2. Theology for the Community of God by Stanley Grenz or Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God by Gordon Fee. The reason I can’t choose between the two is that I can’t remember which book first taught me what has been one of the most important things I’ve learned in the last ten years: that the church is a sign and foretaste of God’s coming kingdom. Our calling in the present is to live according to God’s future. Fee starts his book by saying that when asked what one idea he would want to communicate to the church, he answers every time that he wants to see the church recapture her fundamental identity as God’s eschatological people (meaning those who live now how all the world will live when Jesus returns and God heals all of creation). And it was Grenz’s much longer book that fleshed this idea out for me.
3. In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen and A Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards. I know I’m cheating by putting two, but these books fit together for me as necessary reading regarding the heart of ministry. Nouwen explores Jesus’ three temptations in relation to temptations all Christian leaders face: to be spectacular, relevant, and powerful. And in doing so he offers some of the most powerful wisdom I’ve ever heard about ministering from vulnerability and weakness. In the second book, through a creative retelling of the story of Israel’s three first kings — Saul, David, and Absalom — Edwards explores different reactions to getting burned by those before, with, or after whom we minister. We will inevitably go on hurting one another, and how we respond will in many ways define our ministry. See also Nouwen’s Wounded Healer.
4. Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon. I’m not sure if any other book has done more to shape my vision of and dreams for the church. It’s hard to pick what to talk about from this book, but in large part it is a warning about becoming so concerned with reaching our world that we lose a sense of who we are as the church, or as Hauerwas & Willimon put it, “people who follow a God that is odd.” I don’t really know how to do it justice, so I’ll just stop trying and say, “If you’re in Christian leadership, please read and heed this book!!!” Do let me say this: If you really want to escape the trap of “liberalism” (not just in the shallow way suggested by most of “conservatism” which merely mirrors its arch-enemy without refusing to let it define the rules), read this book. Another one that goes hand in hand with Resident Aliens, at least for me, is A Peculiar People by Rodney Clapp.
5. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin. This book is based in large part on some sociological work such as we see in The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger & Thomas Luckmann, the main idea being that all of us are dependent on communities to teach us how to see the world. That sentence sounds boring and obvious, but really getting what they’re saying can change everything. Anyway, in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Newbigin, who was a missionary to India for forty years and one of the first to suggest that we engage the western world as a “mission field,” teaches us to see the local church as absolutely necessary to communicating the gospel in a pluralist society (or any other society for that matter). You can’t separate the witnessed word from the witnessing community, so to speak, or it ceases to be a genuine witness. And mixed in with all this is an incisive assessment of contemporary Western culture. If you use the word “missional” but haven’t read Newbigin, shame on you. And if you think the word “missional” is dumb but haven’t read Newbigin, shame on you too. See also Newbigin’s Foolishness to the Greeks and The Open Secret.
6. The Connecting Church by Randy Frazee. In this book Frazee lays out a unique vision for doing church, and specifically small groups. In terms of actually shaping communities that embody a counter-cultural way of life, I have found nothing more practically helpful than this book. I read it in college and to my joy am currently working as a Life Groups Area Pastor in a system based solidly on Frazee’s vision. He suggests that instead of shaping small groups on demographic or affinity, we should create diverse communities of people whose sole connection point is that they follow Jesus and live near one another. Otherwise we’ll just drive across town for a once-a-week meeting and call it good, rather than actually seeing each other in the natural rhythms of life (and therefore developing real relationships). My wife and I just started a new life group yesterday mostly made up of people within walking distance from our home, and I can’t wait to see how we grow together. I could go on and on about the supremacy of doing small groups this way, but you can just read the book. Also see his Making Room For Life.
7. ChurchMorph by Eddie Gibbs. Of the books that attempt to survey the contemporary scene of the different ways church is “being done” today, Gibbs’ book has been by far the most helpful for me. When categorizing it is very difficult not to over-simplify or “straw man” at least someone, but I got the sense that the people and movements he writes about would say, “Yeah, that’s pretty spot on.” Not only is it helpful to learn from the various ways folks are attempting to be “missional,” etc, it is exciting to see the many ways God is apparently at work in the final stages and early aftermath of Christendom in America. Also uber-helpful is Gibbs’ chapter on “megatrends” or the ways our world is changing — postmodern to modern, Christendom to post-Christendom, mass production to mass consumption, etc, etc — and their effect on how we think about and practice discipleship and ministry. For other similar works, see Tom Sine’s The New Conspirators and Robert Webber’s Younger Evangelicals. I tried to map out some of the field here.
8. Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church by Frank Viola. These books almost ruined me (in a good way). In Pagan Christianity, Viola and George Barna attempt to show how virtually all current common church practices — meeting in buildings, paying pastors, having ministries to youth, etc, etc — are rooted not in Scripture but in pagan practices that the church has blindly adopted. Moreover and more importantly, he argues that there is a biblical pattern for organizing church life from which we are deviating and to which we need to return. I know Viola has said often that he’s not advocating a certain church structure but rather the centrality and supremacy of Christ, but for him restoring Christ as the center seems pretty tied to a certain way of doing church. Core to this new/old way is the practice of “house church,” but Viola doesn’t at all see doing church in homes as a cure all. On the contrary, he has a much more robust vision for what the church should look like, which he fleshes out in Reimagining Church. Ultimately, due mostly to the fact that the New Testament doesn’t seem to me to suggest one pattern (or even a core of Viola-ian practices) that should be followed in all contexts, I haven’t found him convincing enough to leave my job and join or start a (more) “organic” church community, but I have nonetheless benefited greatly from being challenged by these books. And I suppose the jury is always out on questions like this. For more on this, check out Viola’s blog and also the writings of Jon Zens. For a similar argument from a different angle, see John Howard Yoder’s The Fullness of Christ. And for another assessment on the church’s letting the world set its course, see David Fitch‘s The Great Giveaway.
9. The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch. As I read the first half of this book, I remember thinking, “This is the only book about the church and ministry that I could actually consider adopting completely.” Then I got bored around the middle, only to pick it back up a few months later and fall in love with it again. My early thoughts were a bit exaggerated, but considering how many dumb (or moderately helpful, at best) books are being written today about new ways of being and doing church (only to be outdone in lameness by the ones critiquing them), this one stands out as superior. I remember in particular celebrating a book about how to be the church that actually roots itself in our core gospel confession that “Jesus is Lord” and that we are called to be and make disciples. I also remember the concept of “missional DNA,” which is about how the Spirit has built into the church what the church needs to thrive, and the leadership’s job is to cultivate what is already there (not produce or manufacture something out of nothing). I also remember Hirsch stressing the “fivefold ministry” of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. He points out that local churches have tended to create space for the latter two (which are arguably one twofold gifting or position) but not the former three, and that we need to re-balance the ship if we want to unleash God to do what God wants to do. Highly recommended.
10. Introducing the Missional Church by Alan Roxburgh & Scott Boren. For me this is the more practical counterpart to The Forgotten Ways. Its strength lies in the last section that talks about how to actually lead a church from not being missional to being missional. And if you’re reading all this wondering what the heck “missional” means or even is, basically it’s about adopting a “missionary mentality” not only overseas but right here at home. It’s based on the recognition that our culture isn’t “Christian,” that we shouldn’t feel at home here, that the gospel is every bit as countercultural here as it might be among tribes in Africa (or pretty close anyway). It suggests that many of the tools we’d use in a missionary context need to be used here as well, especially paying close attention to cultural norms and social practices that may be antithetical to the gospel. And it emphasizes actually going to the places where people are rather than expecting people to come to us (often using the language of incarnational vs. attractional). For a simple and helpful video about all this, click here.