I’m probably the least-qualified to write this post, because I haven’t read MOST of these books. But I compiled a list for our church blog of ten noteworthy new (ish) books to check out in 2019. Since I love to read, and am really looking forward to a great year of growing-through-reading, I’m excited to embark on some of these books along with our church family. Check ’em out here!
I’m not a big Reformation nerd or anything; I don’t have a “Happy Reformation Day” t shirt, I’ve never dressed up as Martin Luther, and I haven’t read The Institutes. I’m like…the king of reading selections.
But I’ve read enough to be acquainted with these guys, and with what they did. For me, initially discovering and reading the Reformers came at a time when I really needed someone to speak to what they spoke to. So really, my love for the Reformers is largely an autobiographical thing, and I wanted to just pay a small tribute to how much they have helped and encouraged me. And whenever I recommend reading this stuff, it’s with a hope for this to happen to others.
I first started reading Luther and Calvin in about 2003, because I had started to wrestle with some deeper theological questions: the problem of evil, God’s sovereignty VS man’s will (and how “free” our will is), how does someone actually get saved from their sin…a lot of the typical toughies. And I was on a trajectory at the beginning of all this, toward a rejection of anything Reformed in nature, and to an embrace of an Arminian soteriology.
I had a good friend at the time, a newer believer, who had been wrestling with the same questions, and had been directed by someone else to read Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and some others (Van Til, Bahnsen…some of the newer guys too) right away. We worked together too at the time, and he started coming in, asking things like, “Have you read Luther?? He talks about this…” and he’d have a printout of the excerpt.*
So if it wasn’t for that friend, and if it wasn’t for the Reformers he brought in for us to read, I really don’t feel like I would’ve been able to answer those questions at that critical time. Luther, Calvin, and others came in at the clutch moment, with voices very much alive from five hundred years ago, to build on our faith. And they helped us see new depth in Scripture – that was the best thing. Truly, I think of Luther and Calvin and I think of what they point out in Scripture, not of what they themselves were all about.
And as I read these guys along with a freshly ignited study of Scripture in my college years, I loved the sense of theology happening in the midst of, and as a necessary part of real life and real struggles. You read Luther’s Commentary on Galations or Calvin’s Institutes, and you have deep theological study that really, really matters to the lives of the writers. They have real stakes in the game. It’s not just heady scholasticism for them; they’re writing pastorally and with urgency, because their study of God and Scripture matter for everything. It’s life or death for them. And that helps me love studying God and Scripture too, because this study is always life or death.
Lastly, on an even more personal note. Luther and Calvin let me to read Knox, whose writing is aflame with Gospel-urgency and joy as much as the others. And these all brought me later to Spurgeon, who is probably the pastor/writer from the past who is most dear to me. We named our son Haddon, after Charles Haddon Spurgeon, which I hope stands as a testimony to the line of God’s good providence running through our family’s story. God has used these reformed writers to drive my wife and me to Scripture, and whom, in spite of prominent imperfections, edify in their example of adoring and trusting Christ. We talk about “always reforming,” or “semper Reformanda,” which, if done in a truly helpful way, simply means calling each other to return over and over again to the pure Gospel. The Reformers, read rightly, really only care about this.
But anyway, enough for now. Listen to Luther bringing us to Christ in his Galations commentary:
“On the question of justification we must remain adamant, or else we shall lose the truth of the Gospel. It is a matter of life and death. It involves the death of the Son of God, who died for the sins of the world. If we surrender faith in Christ, as the only thing that can justify us, the death and resurrection of Jesus are without meaning; that Christ is the Savior of the world would be a myth. God would be a liar, because He would not have fulfilled His promises. Our stubbornness is right, because we want to preserve the liberty which we have in Christ. Only by preserving our liberty shall we be able to retain the truth of the Gospel inviolate.
“Some will object that the Law is divine and holy. Let it be divine and holy. The Law has no right to tell me that I must be justified by it. The Law has the right to tell me that I should love God and my neighbor, that I should live in chastity, temperance, patience, etc. The Law has no right to tell me how I may be delivered from sin, death, and hell. It is the Gospel’s business to tell me that. I must listen to the Gospel. It tells me, not what I must do, but what Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has done for me.”
*I have to credit Monergism.com here, without which in 2003 my buddy and I wouldn’t have had a place to find so many grand works from the Reformers all collected in one place. There will be a special reward in Heaven, I think, for whoever started that website.
On reading Augustine, Russell Moore says,
“Exchanging pagan gods for a Christian one will not a conversion make, if the goals are the same: to achieve temporal prosperity and security.
How many times have we seen Christianity used in recent years in precisely the same way the polytheists of ancient Rome used their cultic devotion? Who can forget the television evangelists telling us, as the embers of the fallen Twin Towers still smoldered, that the September 11 attacks were God’s judgments on America for specific sins? How often do we hear the promises of God to his people in the Old Testament applied to America, as though Christian “revival” is the key to economic flourishing and military victory for the United States? And how often do we hear of the vanquishing of “judgmental” and “puritanical” religion as the key to getting America on the right side of history?
“Augustine would have nothing of these cynical utopianisms, and neither should we.”
Russell Moore, in a longer post on The Gospel Coalition here.
Two weeks ago my fellow church staff guys and I got to attend the Shepherds’ Conference at Grace Community Church. There’s always so much I could say about this week each year, but right now I’ll limit it just to books. One of the benefits of going to conferences for pastors is the exposure to resources. At the Shepherds’ Conference they set up a huge circus-size tent, which becomes the conference bookstore. And one of the best things about these three days is having a bunch of chances between sessions to walk the book tent.
I got to thinking this week about my role as corporate worship director at my church, and how necessary it’s been for me to keep reading, even during the extra busy times of the year. For pastors (and I think for professionals in general), you’ve got to keep a regimen of regular reading, to immerse yourself in ideas and encouragements. It will fuel your spiritual health, and your practical creativity and productivity. You may only rarely, if ever, find the one book that totally changes your mindset about something, or gives you the practical tip to solve some ridiculous problem; but you’ll probably see fruit steadily over time, as your maturity and your creative chops refine.
It’s been a lotta work over the years to find the best books specifically written for worship leaders. So I thought I’d list a few of my top picks, for books that have been extra helpful and encouraging, and give you a few short reasons why.
DISCLAIMER: People who love books, and especially Christians who love books, talk all the time about “must-reads.” I often have to keep in mind that there are seriously important books out there that’ll absolutely benefit you as a Christian, and that you really should read. BUT, the only real “must-read” is the Bible, so don’t let anything take you away from time spent with God there.
So here goes with an uber-limited, non-inclusive list of some top picks:
- Worship Matters by Bob Kauflin. This book was the first really solid, biblical treatment of worship that I came across, and would still be the first one I’d recommend to a worship leader looking for books. It’s excellent, well-rounded, readable, clarifying, and includes both a general biblical theology of worship, and a great discussion of the role of a worship leader.
- Doxology and Theology by Matt Boswell (and other contributors). In my opinion, this one goes to the next layer of depth after Worship Matters. Boswell provides some helpful, practical stuff, in some areas that Worship Matters doesn’t get to. Each chapter hits a different topic, and is written by a different worship pastor; the whole book is worth it just for the first of these, by Boswell. He clarifies the job and role of worship and music leaders in the church perhaps better than I’ve read anywhere else.
- Engaging With God by David Peterson. This is the “deep end of the theological pool” book every worship leader should aspire to read at some point. And lots of church folks (leaders and otherwise) would benefit from it too. I was at a conference a few years ago where Bob Kauflin mentioned this book in one of his talks. He asked how many of us had read it, and challenged the over half of us who hadn’t, to read it by that time next year – that we really HAD to get to it. And after reading it, I knew why he loves it and has been helped by it so much. For what is, essentially, a shorter version of this book, check out True Worship by Vaughan Roberts. We sell it at our church book counter, and it’s a GREAT little primer on theology of worship in general, and in the gathered church.
- Rhythms of Grace by Mike Cosper. This book is really one of those rare game-changers, in my opinion. Another book that’s great for church leaders (not just the worship/music leaders), and also for any church member or attender. Cosper clarifies the purpose of the church worship gathering, and gives some invaluable practical advice for how it should be done according to Scripture’s principles.
- The Art of Worship by Greg Scheer. This is probably the best practical manual I’ve seen for worship leading, that’s also written from a great theological foundation. Here you’ll find commentary on worship trends, and practical tips for singing, arranging vocals and instruments, band dynamics, managing teams, running rehearsals, and lots of other good stuff. This will help you develop your skill set as a music and worship director, without getting gooey and weird, or unbiblical. Which is sometimes hard to find when you’re looking for practical tips.
So there you have it. I’ve left out a few, so maybe I’ll include a PART 2 post for some more in the near future. What did I leave off? Any “must-reads” you wish were mentioned above??
A good buddy asked me a couple weeks ago about what he should read next, now that he finished Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He asked if I knew of anything like that, with that kind of richness. I thought for a little bit, and I gave two or three suggestions of other books that might scratch some of the same itches. But I realized that I couldn’t recommend anything quite as good as The Lord of the Rings. And I definitely couldn’t recommend anything better.
The following here applies beyond Tolkien (or whoever your favorite author or book happens to be). Reading a great book that’s the best in its genre is like having scaled the peak of the tallest mountain in a range. In all of the breathtaking beauty and precipitous slow-going, you’ve known the mountain and you’ve seen the view from the top. Any other hill or mountain peak won’t be quite as imposing and full of serious joy as the experience of that tallest climb.
So what do we do? There’s definitely joy and fun and richness in the other books. But realistically, nothing’s going to give the same experience as that one great book. To risk taking the metaphor too far, heading up that tallest mountain again will definitely not produce the same experience, and that can be a really good thing. There will be familiar places that will ignite the same joy and numinous awe. But on a second attempt, the climb will yield plenty of things you missed the first time. When certain scenes are familiar, you’re freed up to experience other nuances of the place. Your experience on the way up won’t go exactly like it did before, and the view from the summit and the highest places won’t look exactly the same: there will always be more grandeur.
It’s disappointing, but also glorious, that there’s nothing else like the best few books you’ve read. It means you have to keep coming back to them – there’s no substitute. Other books will remind you of that greatest one that was the most full and rich, and gave you the grandest views. So don’t move on exclusively to lesser versions of the giant. There’s a store of joy in the greatest books that’s more inexhaustible. Go back again.
*The following is the main part of a post I wrote for our church blog, to help folks prepare for Sunday morning worship through December and the Christmas season.
“Each of us know that the Christmas season should be filled with gratitude and expectancy, yet what most of us feel is dread and anxiety. As our hearts race around trying to find the right gifts, we forget the True Gift that we have already been given.”
Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica L. Thompson
You might’ve noticed this coming Sunday is the first time we’ll gather as a church for worship in December. Which you hopefully know means Christmas worship. The Christmas, or Advent, season is one of the richest of the year for the church, and we want to make sure we don’t take it for granted or miss out on the opportunity to make the most of this season of celebration. So here are a few things to think through, and that we’ll talk through on Sunday mornings in the coming weeks, to help us all enjoy God and the Gospel more deeply during Christmastime.
Read the Gospels
God has given us his Word, and when we read it we hear him speaking to us. The Word of God is living and active (Heb. 4:12), and is always sufficient to encourage, train and teach, and correct us (2 Tim. 3:16). And the crazy thing we often miss is this – God is a storyteller, and he’s told us the story of his Son coming into the world to save his people. God has given us 4 accounts of Christ’s coming as a means of grace for us to know our Savior, and know God’s saving plan that was revealed in Christ. So if we don’t take the opportunity in the Christmas season to read and re-fresh our experience of Jesus in the Gospels, we’re missing out. Let’s know the story, and know our Savior.
Long for Christ’s Return
One of the great things about the historic church’s celebration of Advent, was a cultivation of longing for the Lord’s return. Extending the Christmas celebration to the 4 Sundays leading up to Christmas, with the lighting of candles, etc., helped form a deeper sense of our pilgrim status as God’s people, in this world the way it is now. The church would recognize that we live now between 2 advents, or comings, of the Lord. He has come to pay for sin, and has promised to come back for his people; and we wait now in a broken world, for our King to come back a 2nd time to put the world right.
Now I’m not advocating that we start up a high church liturgy for Advent that spans those 4 weeks, but I do really believe the more we can get into the Christmas story in the Gospels, and grapple with the great, glorious meaning of Christ’s incarnation, and extend that out beyond just a Christmas Eve service with our churches, the Christmas season will be very rich for us.
Let’s really feel the longing we should have for Christ’s return, and for the goodness of his kingdom that he’ll bring.
“[M]y main spiritual sustenance comes by the Holy Spirit from reading. Therefore reading is more important to me than eating. If I went blind, I would pay to have someone read to me. I would try to learn Braille. I would buy books on tape. I would rather go without food than go without books. Therefore, writing feels very life-giving to me, since I get so much of my own life from reading.”
John Piper, from A Godward Life (My first Piper book – still very thankful to Kevin Hall for giving it to me)
This is really a wonderful 7 minute discussion by John Piper, about how he was introduced to the writing of C.S. Lewis, and what he has gained from it. Piper really has something of a wealth of knowledge of Lewis’ works and worldview, and this short piece is very insightful and full of great stuff. This is stuff that will fuel your appreciation of reading Lewis. I recommend multiple listens.
The last several years, my wife and I have been trying to read books along with the church seasons. Granted, we don’t celebrate many of the traditional Church holidays; but for the couple significant holidays and seasons that our local church does observe, we’ve found it hugely significant to not just let those times go by, but treat them as sacred and really dig into framing our mindset into that particular Church season. One of the ways we’ve done this is to try to read purposefully through a book, as a supplement to studying Scripture, that corresponds to, and sheds light and fresh perspective on that particular Church season.
God created us with an orientation toward holidays and toward marking our calendars with days of celebration and observance of God’s great acts of grace toward His people, etc. We find this all over the Old Testament, beginning with the creation of the seven day week (and the institution of the Sabbath!). The two biggest seasons that most Christians will celebrate if nothing else, will be Christmas (or Advent) and Easter (or Holy Week). What a tragedy if we let every rhythm of culture direct our mindsets, our observances, and our habits, without ever following the rhythms of redemption found in the Gospel and in the Church. Or celebrating the rhythms of the Gospel in a token, half-hearted (or no-hearted) way. Doug Wilson is helpful on this point in his book on Advent: “[W]e now find ourselves marking time with dates like Labor Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, MLK Day, and so forth. But Christians must define the year in an explicitly Christian way, and face the objections, or they must acquiesce in the secularization of time” (80). If Christ’s lordship extends beyond our internal spiritual lives, to how we engage and live in the world, then we should consider wholeheartedly observing those Christian seasons that remember and reorient our lives around the grand events of God’s great story of redemption.
So for instance, during the week of Good Friday and Easter, it’s been super helpful to pick something extra, to read during that time. Even if we don’t finish it, it will help us really observe, and celebrate with deep joy, what took place during Holy Week in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. And this kind of extra reading and purposeful celebration fuels our worship when we gather with our church family to sing and celebrate together on these holidays.
Here are some things that have been very helpful the past few years, for my wife and I, and now with our kids, in defining our year “in an explicitly Christian way:”
2009-present: As my wife was searching like crazy for some rich theological stuff for Christmastime, she found out about Nancy Guthrie’s Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, which is a collection of readings for Advent from pillars of the Christian faith. There are readings from Calvin, to Spurgeon, to MacArthur. It’s a super rich collection, very well done. Guthrie has since put out a similar collection for Easter, called Jesus, Keep Me Near The Cross. We don’t have it, but it looks great.
2011: I read King’s Cross by Tim Keller, during Good Friday and Easter. This book is excellent. It’s basically a study through the Gospel of Mark, and it’s full of fresh, poignant perspective on Christ’s life, and his ultimate purpose of redeeming God’s people from their sin. Wonderful book, worth multiple reads.
2011-present: The Jesus Storybook Bible is perfect for our kids (and for us) as a creative re-telling of the whole story that Scripture tells, of God making a people for Himself and redeeming them through the blood of His Son. Our kids love this book – the writing and the artwork are so memorable. Really worth your time, whether you have kids or not.
2013: Currently reading The Man Jesus Christ by Bruce Ware. This is great so far, and the perfect read for me this year as I’m thinking about Good Friday and Easter, and planning out the final details for our church’s worship services for this Friday and Sunday. I’m not finished with the book yet, but I think I can heartily recommend it. It gets a little deep, so be forewarned, yet encouraged to take up and read! This one was also published just this year, so here’s a very recent review you might also find helpful.
So I don’t have much of a “reading plan” per se, in terms of specifically planning out what I’ll read over the course of a year. But I do have a few guidelines that have been helpful for me, and I thought I’d post a few of them. This isn’t everything I think about related to reading by any means. But the following points apply to how I generally think about a year of books I’ll try to get through, and they help me make sure a year’s worth of reading always has a few certain important elements in it. Then I can kind of fill in around this with pertinent cultural stuff that might come up, throw in some purely fun reads here and there, or include books that don’t fit into these most important categories.
1. Always have one book going in each of the following categories: theology, fiction, and history.
Sometimes the history category drops off the list because of time constraints, or history and fiction become interchangeable. When there’s a time crunch I’ll sometimes have either a fiction or historical book going, but not both at once.
Theology is kind of the non-negotiable for me. I’ve found that it’s really healthy and challenging, and fuels my worship of God, to always be plugging away through a theological book of at least some moderate depth. Christian living books don’t always fulfill the requirements of this category for me, and need to be in addition to good, deep theological reading and not in place of it.
2. Always read at least one Puritan Paperback a year (I’ve been doing this the past few years now).
Puritan Paperbacks is a series put out by Banner of Truth publishers. They’re classic works by the Puritans that are edited and reprinted in handy little pocket-sized volumes. I’ve just found these to be super rich in theological treasure, and it’s always good to get into the heads of writers from the past, and learn from them. The Puritans thought and wrote more deeply than many writers you’ll come across; and I try to read just one of these a year so I don’t rush through and miss anything good. Also, this series is pretty big, so I’ve got a lot of years ahead of me if I hold to the one-a-year rule. As a bonus, Puritan Paperbacks will usually run you between five and ten bucks apiece.
3. Always try to keep one book going, however slowly, that’s in a specific area of interest or expertise.
For example, I’m our church’s director of music and corporate worship. It’s my job, and really my hobby too, and has been for quite a while. I love reading about church music, and worship liturgies, and corporate worship history and practice. So it’s really a joy for me to always be plugging through a book on the subject. I’ve also read enough of these books now, that I can start going back through some of the best ones. For someone else, the interest could be 17th century British religious poets, badminton, or medieval bookbinding. It’s just fun to read about what interests you, and reading widely and deeply about an interest might make you an expert.
I know, that sounds like a lot of books to have going at once. We’re not all wired to read the same way, in the same pattern. But this is helpful for me (and even a helpful reminder to write it out, so I can make sure I’m trying to stay consistent in holding to my own guidelines). I really do benefit from what Tony Reinke calls “inundation” – reading widely in several books at any given time. I’m an imperfect reader, and none of this works out perfectly; nor do I get to nearly all the books I wish I could in a year. So I pick the best ones, set a few guidelines, plug faithfully away, and see where I’ll end up, and what God will or will not allow me to have time for.