5 Books Every 21st Century Pastor Should Read
When I set out to make lists like this, I do so with the full awareness that lists are inherently limited. This, then, is not a list of the the “only” five books a pastor should read, or even of the five “most important” books a pastor should read. I also know, that if I wrote this blog a month from now, it might be different. Heck, it might be different tomorrow! At any rate, here it goes: these are five books I think every pastor should stop what they are doing and add to their library immediately. (Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments below! I am sure others have some great suggestions to share as well.) Counting down from five:
5. The Politics of Jesus. Both of them. I cheated on this one; there are two. First, is John Howard Yoder’s seminal work. If you are going to lead a congregation in the modern world, replete with its empires, globalization, and politically charged climate, I do not know how you do it without some footing in Yoder’s work. It is not the easiest read, but worth it. Yoder gives us, what he considered to be, an overview of the often overlooked political nature of Jesus’ preaching. It reads like a commentary, albeit an ethical one, on the Gospel of Luke, and with little variance is solidly rooted in Scripture. Second, is Obery Hendrick’s book of the same title. Hendricks is an African-American scholar who sets out to prove his thesis that Jesus was a radical political figure who responded to the conditions of oppressed people groups in first century Israel by empowering them to upset the status quo. Hendrick’s book is fiery, and drifts at points, but he gives us biblical proof after proof that Jesus’ preaching was politically charged and subversive. Both of these books are standard, in my opinion, for all pastors to add a solid ethical base to their preaching and discipleship. Moreover, it helps tear down the false dichotomy created by some that there is an “actual gospel” and then a “social gospel.” Pastors need to be able to understand that these kinds of labels limit our ability to faithfully preach every dynamic of the gospel.
4. Surprised by Hope. N.T. Wright, as prolific as he is, continually puts out great material! In fact, he deserves his own category on this list. If you are preaching in the 21st century, and you’ve never read any of his work, you are selling yourself WAY short. In fact, if you are in a church setting that is tuned in to what is being said in the church world at large today, your parishioners may already be familiar with his work and would benefit from your engagement with it. In Surprised by Hope, Wright provides a solid biblical eschatology that doesn’t play into the hands of the dispensationalists or the amillennialists. Instead, he argues for an eschatology that isn’t just about getting people on earth into Heaven, but about getting Heaven to the people on Earth. After all, one of the last images we see in Revelation is that of the new Jerusalem coming down. Wright’s book will contribute the pastor’s overall vision of how her or his church is an active part of what Jesus set out to do and is still doing. It also helps us to have a greater understanding of discipleship that isn’t just about getting people to “live right” and be rewarded with Heaven. Instead, we are left looking for all the ways that Heaven has come to us, and how God’s eternal life is active in our lives long before we cash in for eternity via the grave.
3. The Divine Conspiracy. If you haven’t noticed how much I see discipleship as central to the Pastor’s role, this book will leave no doubt. The late Dallas Willard’s contribution to the conversation of discipleship cannot be understated. In this book, Willard uses Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” to paint a picture of what discipleship truly looks like. It’s a refreshing read for the pastor who tires of the modern church’s infatuation with leadership training. Pastors were never called to make leaders, but to make disciples. It is true that cultivating leadership is part of discipleship, but its not the point! As a bonus, this book is packed with good preaching material throughout!
2. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. This is one of the two books that I think are essential reading for today’s pastors! In fact, if you haven’t read it yet, read it before you preach your next sermon. It’s that important. Frederick Buechner, seasoned pastor and writer, writes this short little book that shows us the dynamic power and beauty of the Biblical stories; particularly, the Gospel. For the pastor who is frustrated with sermons that sound like their rehashing the same information over and over again, Buechner challenges us to look at the Gospel again. Every Sunday our pews are filled with individuals who are actually living life’s tragedies, comedies, and fairy tales and need to be met with a message dynamic enough to address them where they are. Buechner argues that we need to look no further than the gospels.
1. The Bible. I know, I know… how cliche. At first I started to preface this blog by saying these are five books other than the Bible that every contemporary pastor should read. Instead, I felt the Bible needed a little credit! Ironically, the Bible has gotten a bad rap in our day. With all its alleged endorsing of violence, sexism, and all sorts of bigotry, many modern pastors are afraid to dig into with their own hands and find out what God might be trying to say to their churches. Instead, we opt for hearing what everyone has to say. So, the Bible ranks as the second, and primary, book I think it every pastor should read! Some nuance is in order here. It is reckless to read the Scripture relying on your own base of understanding, which may be limited, as the sole lens for which you interpret and assimilate biblical truth to your parishioners. God has given us a choir of other voices that should inform our reading of the sacred texts. On the other hand, God called you to be a voice too! So don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and dive in to the text. I would also say, don’t be afraid of coming to your congregation with fresh readings of old texts, regardless of some of the negative feedback you will receive (Yes, you WILL receive it. People, in general, don’t like their stories messed with.) Get the tools you need, grab that massive KJV <insert sarcasm> off your shelf, and go to work. You might be surprised what you might find there when you start looking.