My Top Books From 2018

Although we’re already a few weeks into 2019, it’s still not too late to share my top books from last year. As you’ll see, my selections center on theology, the church, and pastoral leadership. I tried to limit it to just 4 or 5, but this was a year of hearing from a number of formative voices that are shaping me, my leadership, and our church. So here they are, my top books from 2018.

1. Dangerous Calling by Paul Tripp

If you are a pastor, aspiring pastor, elder, staff member, or leader in the church, this needs to be required reading in order for you to continue in the ministry in 2019. As Tripp states in the introduction, “This is a diagnostic book. It is written to help you take an honest look at yourself … and to help you place yourself once again under the healing and transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (p.11). Tripp frequently cuts to the heart in order to bring about repentance and a greater dependency on Jesus for the sake of bearing fruit in us as pastors, elders and leaders, and the congregations we lead. Tripp speaks with a prophetic voice but also as a grace-filled counselor and pastor — a true “pastor of pastors”.

Excerpt: “If you aren’t daily admitting to yourself that you are a mess and in daily and rather desperate need for forgiving and transforming grace, and if the evidence around has not caused you to abandon your confidence in your own righteousness, then you are going to give yourself to the work of convincing yourself that you are okay” (p.33).

2. You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith

This philosophical and theological book seeks to answer the question, “What is the primary means by which people experience spiritual formation?” By examining the purpose of worship and its place in the historic Christian church, Smith presents the argument that true spiritual (including psychological and emotional) formation actually occurs through our habits, not our heads. Smith reveals our daily habits and encounters as “spiritual liturgies” (whether we have acknowledged them as such or not), and makes a compelling case that authentic and lasting transformation is not “mind over matter”, but “heart over matter”. This is a great book for pastors and church leaders who may be considering re-examining their current approaches to their corporate worship experiences and discipleship methodologies.

Excerpt: “We unconsciously learn to love rival kingdoms because we don’t realize we’re participating in rival liturgies. This partly stems from failing to appreciate the dynamics of the whole person, failing to recognize all the below-surface aspects that drive our action and behavior. If you think human beings are brains on-a-stick, you won’t even be looking for these subconscious dynamics. This is the shortcoming of thinking-thingist approaches to Christian discipleship” (p.37-38).

3. Conversion & Discipleship by Bill Hull

This was the only book I bought at last year’s Exponential Conference in Orlando, FL. I stumbled into a workshop on the topic of discipleship led by Bill Hill. He was a relatively unimpressive presenter (sorry, Bill), but I knew right away that I wanted a download of all that he knew on discipleship. What I discovered in his book was a theologically rich and practical book on recovering true discipleship as Jesus taught and exemplified for us in scripture. Bill addresses the systemic discipleship issues (or lack thereof) with mega and attractional church models, draws from the wells of the Reformation along with the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dallas Willard, and is rooted deep in the first century church seen in the pages of the New Testament. If you are a pastor or leader frustrated with the growing apathy in the church due to a lack of commitment, authentic faith, and discipleship, Hull challenges us to reconsider how and what we are converting people to.

Excerpt: “Jesus doesn’t just give us a job to do. He gives us the authority to do it. Don’t miss this, because it is key. With the call comes authority. And this call is the centerpiece of what God has authorized every one of us to do. While there are many good projects that we can do, they will be judged either valid or void depending upon their contribution to making disciples” (p.57).

4. Letters to the Church by Francis Chan

Chan takes us on his personal journey of disenchantment with the mega-church, Evangelical culture, fame in the Christian sub-culture, and wrestling with the simplicity of the gospel found in the New Testament. This is a very personal and grace-filled book with a very important and prophetic challenge to the Evangelical church in the west. This is a book for pastors, church leaders, and church members to get the conversation started. For those that have walked away from the church, I would encourage you to consider picking this one up. It offers a hopeful picture of what is to come.

Excerpt: “Imagine if the Church purged until all that was left was a group of people with a Bible, a cup, and some bread. For some that sounds boring; for others it sounds ideal. For many around the world, that is all they have ever known of Church and they love it. We might all benefit from a simpler experience of Church. It would lead to deeper relationships and a stronger dependence on God. We might find that the things we added to improve our churches are the very things that crowd God out.”

5. Pioneering Movements by Steve Addison

If you are a pastor or church leader who resonated deeply with Francis Chan’s Letters to the Church, than this is your follow-up resource. Addison, blending biblical precedence, personal experience, and stories from the field, takes his readers on a journey that is very foreign to the traditional western Evangelical church experience. He shares how Christianity has become a near unstoppable movement in areas across the world through unlikely leaders, discipleship, and church planting. Addison describes the kind of leadership that is required to make this fundamental and radical shift in multiplying the gospel. But don’t attempt to glean a few ideas and apply them to a our western Evangelical models, this is a whole new box to work out of.

Excerpt: “For better or for worse, movements create and remake the world we live in. If we want to change the world, we must understand movements. In simple terms, a movement is a group of people committed to changing the world. The spheres of politics, science, culture and faith are shaped and remade by movements. Jesus founded the greatest movement this world has ever seen. That movement has at its heart the multiplication of disciples and churches — everywhere” (p.15).

6. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer’s classic work is just as relevant today as it was when he was writing it during the rule of Nazi Germany. As a German pastor and professor who regularly spoke out against the atrocities of Hitler and called Christians to faithful obedience in God and his Word, Bonhoeffer gave his life to the very cause of Christ. As western society continues to show signs of further degradation, Bonhoeffer’s work offers a prophetic and important call to every follower of Christ of what true and faithful discipleship in the Kingdom of God looks like.

Excerpt: “Faith can no longer mean sitting still and waiting — [the disciples] must rise and follow him. The call frees them from all earthly ties, and binds them to Jesus Christ alone. They must burn their boats and plunge into absolute insecurity in order to learn the demand and the gift of Christ … and if men imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step [of obedience], they are deluding themselves like fanatics” (p.62-63).

7. The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch

I debated putting this one on my list. Much of Hirsch’s book is filled with a lot of complex theoretical ideas on the role of the church, missions, and church planting movements. The book did, however, help me in two important and influential ways by 1) realigning my thinking to the role and gifting of apostolic leadership that has been lacking (if not completely absent) from our modern evangelical church models and theology, and 2) providing a biblical and reasonable model for a leadership culture based on the gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher (APEST). I keep this book on my shelf above my desk for quick reference back to the various charts and concepts in it when working through strategic planning and leadership.

Excerpt: “We are, whether we like it or not, living in what is rightly called a post-Christendom, post-Christian, postmodern world. We cannot assume that the ideas formulated in completely different historical contexts and conditions are equal to the complexities of the increasingly unstable, globally embraced world in which we must render our particular witness to Jesus. We must simply accept that what got us here is not going to get us there … We must somehow recover the forgotten ways: the radical self-understanding as a Jesus movement, the spiritual dynamism of a disciple-making culture, and apostolic drive that seemed to infuse the original church” (p.72-73).

If you happen to pick up any of these books this year or have recently read one on my list, let me know about it! I would love to hear your thoughts, what you learned, and perhaps the challenges you were presented with. We’re on the journey together.

By the Cross and for the Kingdom,
Matt