Pastors traffic in books. They love to read them, share them, recommend them, talk about them.
As 2019 comes to a close, we asked several friends of TGC—many of whom are pastors and church leaders—to look back over the past 10 years and point to the most helpful book for pastors that they’d widely commend. While this isn’t an exhaustive or objective list in any kind of scientific way, I trust there are several books here that would serve you—and the people entrusted into your care—at the start of new decade.
Many things will change in the coming years, but the important things will not: God, Christ, the gospel, preaching, and the aim of every under-shepherd to “present everyone mature Christ” (Col. 1:28). May these books continue to prod our thinking and spur us toward greater faithfulness.
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012). You couldn’t go wrong with any of Tim Keller’s books from the last decade, especially Center Church. But I’ll stray a bit off the beaten path and say The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. Probably no single book published in the last decade has so powerfully and quickly changed my thinking. If you want to know why liberals and conservatives can’t even talk to each other any longer, read this book. Then you’ll see how and why people really change their minds. This book corrects many of our assumptions about the role of abstract thinking in the positions we adopt and decisions we make.
— Collin Hansen
Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (IVP Academic, 2012). My dilemma was whether to choose Mike Reeves’s The Good God or Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion. They are very different in style, scope, size, and subject, but both illuminate a central Christian belief—the Trinity and the cross, respectively—in thoroughly beautiful and rich ways. In the end I went for Reeves: partly because the Trinity is even more important than the cross, and partly because it models for us how to teach serious doctrine in a bright, accessible way for ordinary people. They’re both stunning books that I have recommended widely, but if forced to choose one outstanding book from the decade, I would pick Delighting in the Trinity.
— Andrew Wilson
I believe the most important book for pastors over the past decade is Michael Reeves’s Delighting in the Trinity. This book not only provides a precise and insightful treatment on the doctrine of God, it also—perhaps more importantly—invites readers into fellowship with the triune God. Reeves beautifully demonstrates how the doctrine of the Trinity stands at the center of the Christian life—and therefore at the center of the church and pastoral ministry. We use this book in The Village Church Institute, and it’s consistently reviewed as a book that not only teaches, but transforms.
— J. T. English
Thomas Weinandy, Jesus Becoming Jesus: A Theological Interpretation of the Synoptic Gospels (The Catholic University of America Press, 2018). My book of the decade is Thomas Weinandy’s Jesus Becoming Jesus: A Theological Interpretation of the Synoptic Gospels. While it is most gratifying to be living at a time when the orthodox doctrine of God is being rediscovered by Protestants, many of us probably struggle with how to preach from the Gospels in a way that captures the dynamic nature of Christ’s ministry while honoring basic biblical truths about God’s being, such as his immutability and impassibility. Roman Catholic theologian Tom Weinandy has already done sterling service over many decades with his robust articulation of classical theism as having both theological and pastoral integrity. In this book, he brings his learning to bear on the narratives of the synoptic gospels. Nobody who reads this book and reflects on its contents will preach from the Gospels in quite the same way again. Theological exegesis at its best.
— Carl Trueman
Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance―Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Crossway, 2016). I can’t think of a single book in the last decade that has more revolutionized my understanding of Christ’s work, made me aware of the perennial temptations toward legalism and antinomianism (and how the root of both are the same), and influenced how I disciple and teach. That a book about an 18th-century Scottish theological debate over law and grace (the Marrow Controversy), based on Sinclair Ferguson’s lectures from the 1980s, would be so fresh and full of insight, shouldn’t be surprising; sometimes what we need, as C. S. Lewis described, is to “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.” Ferguson reminds us that we should beware preaching the benefits of Christ and not holding forth the person of Christ himself. “The benefits of the gospel [justification, reconciliation, redemption, adoption] are in Christ,” Ferguson writes. “They do not exist apart from him. They are ours only in him” (44). So we preach Christ—the fullness of who he is. As we’re united to him by faith, we receive all things in him. There is more to ministry than this, but not less—and few things so vital for a thriving Christian walk.
— Ivan Mesa
Zack Eswine, The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus (Crossway, 2015). This book challenges pastors to see their weakness as an opportunity for God’s strength to be put on display. Pastors often feel the desire to do great things for God. While this can be a godly ambition, far too often we are tempted to define greatness in ways Jesus does not. We can become bored with what God considers greatness because we easily forget that we’re merely humans with limited capacity. We can’t be everywhere for everyone or be able to fix everything for everyone or have all the answers for everyone—only God can be those things. We can feel the need to be the hero, but Jesus is the only hero. Pastors are tempted to mask their weaknesses and appear competent. This book helps you take off the mask and embrace your weakness so that God can care for you as you care for others.
— Garrett Kell
Marcus Peter Johnson, One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (Crossway, 2013). John Calvin wrote, “We must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. . . . All that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him” (Institutes 3.1.1). This book, more clearly than any other I’ve read, sets forth the significance of this union with Christ for every aspect of our salvation, challenging the way the gospel is often understood in our evangelical circles. It’s Christ himself we must believe and receive, not just a doctrine of the atonement. This book changed the way I preach!
— Bill Kynes
Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Vine Project: Shaping Your Ministry Around Disciple-Making (Matthias Media, 2016). It’s the sequel to The Trellis and the Vine (2009). Though it includes a fresh restatement of the earlier book, it stands on its own. The central premise, accurate and convicting, is that churches tend to slide imperceptibly into trellis maintenance (systems, structures, programs, and so on) to the neglect of vine-cultivation (spiritual vitality through speaking the Word to each other). The Vine Project supplies the “how” to the earlier book’s “what.” I’m immediately suspicious of books that claim to chart a way toward spiritual health through programmed steps. But this book succeeds and can’t be written off as frothily naïve in its articulation of four stages to nurture a disciple-making culture in our churches. Encouraging, realistic, accessible, non-formulaic, theologically conscientious, pervasively biblical.
— Dane Ortlund
Michael Goheen, A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story (Baker Academic, 2011). Here’s a rich and multi-layered ecclesiology text that is also lucid and accessible. This book was so good I outlined it and memorized the outline. In it, Goheen argues that the church’s identity can’t be understood unless we trace the role of God’s people throughout the Bible’s overarching narrative. Further, the role of God’s people has always involved being a light to the nations. The pastor who reads this book and absorbs its argument will be a better pastor, preacher, and visionary.
— Bruce Ashford
Craig Hamilton, Wisdom in Leadership (Matthias Media, 2015). First, some context. My path to pastoral ministry has been through excellent practical-ministry training via the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students, followed by a wonderful grounding in theology and biblical studies at Moore College, Sydney. By this route I was gifted a strong, Bible-driven ministry philosophy and a deep basis in Reformed theology—and yet almost no training on how to run a team, lead an organization, handle a conflict, set a vision, or manage a staff. It turns out, being a pastor requires you to be at least competent in all of those areas. Who knew? Enter Craig Hamilton’s Wisdom in Leadership. Hamilton distills a vast range of wisdom from secular and Christian leadership literature, and places it in a context where it’s intended to serve, rather than undermine, a Bible-driven and Christ-centered ministry approach. If you’ve been neck deep in leadership literature to the neglect of Scripture, this isn’t for you. But if you, like many of us pastors, came into pastoral ministry to share Jesus—and then discovered you also need to actually run things—this is a lifeline of practical goodness.
— Rory Shiner
Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop, The Compelling Community: Where God’s Power Makes a Church Attractive (Crossway, 2015). Everyone wants meaningful community. Dever and Dunlop’s book articulates why that desire is a godly one. “Gospel-revealing” community fulfills what Jesus instructed us in John 13—“they will know you are my disciples by your love for one another.” But the dynamite in this book is the argument that churches are able to build community in ways that do not depend on the Spirit’s power—and therefore our community may not be accomplishing what we hope it to (35–36). Dever and Dunlop explore the theological implications of practical church-life decisions, and equip the reader to evaluate not only our goals for the life of the church, but also the means by which we seek to accomplish them. Every Christian wants their church’s community to commend Christ. I’ve not read another book this decade that has touched on so many practical aspects of church life, yet at the same time been so theologically careful and spiritually edifying. In our day, ecclesiology often appears to be the domain of those who love to correct other people. But this book sets out a vision for how theological consideration of the practical life of your church will tend toward its spiritual good.
— Caleb Greggsen
Richard Gaffin, By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, 2nd ed. (P&R, 2013). If preaching the gospel is central for pastors, then getting the gospel right is crucial for pastors. Richard Gaffin’s By Faith, Not by Sight equips the reader to understand the gospel and salvation in a way that few other books do. Following the historical precedent Mark Jones ably traces in the book’s foreword, Gaffin will convince you why union with Christ and eschatology serve as fundamental categories for gospel talk. He tells a robust, biblical, historically Reformed story of how key concepts like justification, sanctification, and faith fit together, putting Christ at the center of it all. At the risk of being too bold, the majority of preaching and teaching today in the church tends to get this not quite right—and would benefit from being “Gaffinized” through this work. It will richly reward your pulpit and, in turn, your pews.
— Jared Oliphint
Kyle Strobel and Jamin Goggin, The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church that Has Abandoned It (Thomas Nelson, 2017). This book is a sobering but essential look at power as conceived by the world and reconceived by Christ. Sadly relevant in these days of high-profile pastoral falls, “platform building,” and in the era of #ChurchToo, Strobel and Goggin’s book should be on every pastor’s shelf. It’s a deeply countercultural challenge to lead by living a “last is first,” cross-shaped, happily unseen, downwardly mobile life.
— Brett McCracken
Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Crossway, 2010). Few theological concepts are more important for pastors to get right than the Trinity. And few books explain the crucial doctrine as compellingly and concisely as Sanders’s The Deep Things of God. Thoroughly practical, often mind-blowing, even hilarious at times, this book presents the Trinity in vivid relief—showing how it provides the foundation for the gospel, the church, and the Christian life. A must-own for the pastor’s theological library.
— Brett McCracken
Kevin Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine (Westminster John Knox, 2014). No theologian of the last 10 years has helped pastors connect the drama of the gospel with the dogmas of the faith like Kevin Vanhoozer. In his Faith Speaking Understanding he sets out his basic theo-dramatic model of doctrine as the stage-direction that enables disciples to participate rightly in the drama of the gospel. Vanhoozer demonstrates on page after page that the drama of everyday life is the stuff of doctrine. So when I preach to my students on the mystery of the incarnation—that the eternal Son humbled himself to die for my sins—this isn’t dry, head knowledge, but the liberating good news that enables and directs them to die to self and love their neighbors in day-to-day life. And when we as a church are reminded in the Lord’s Supper that God has made space for us at his table, we’re fed and transformed to practice generosity and hospitality as well. Basically, it’s only because of the great doctrines of the faith—such as Trinity and atonement—that we can live our “real life.” If you want an invigorating vision for how doctrine and discipleship go hand in hand, pick up this book.
— Derek Rishmawy
Joshua Ryan Butler, The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, and the Hope of Holy War (Thomas Nelson, 2014). Most pastors regularly get asked hard questions about things like hell, wrath, and judgment. There are plenty of good resources out there to help pastors answer them, but I’ve not found any better than this book by Josh Butler, a pastor in Phoenix (by way of Portland). It’s a remarkably winsome, readable, even joyful book about some of the hardest questions in Christian apologetics. Any time a college student tells me they’re struggling with the doctrine of hell or God’s wrath, I point them to this book.
— Brett McCracken
Harold Senkbeil, The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart (Lexham, 2019). What does it mean to be a pastor? Confusion abounds around this question. Senkbeil argues many helpful things can be done as a pastor, but there is only one necessary and essential thing: shepherding souls. A pastor is “habituated—shaped and formed into a shepherd of souls—by being actively engaged in the work of shepherding.” The role of a pastor is to bring the gifts of Christ––Christ himself––to the people of God. Pastors are errand boys of their King; they have nothing to give except what Christ has given them. Senkbeil employs Scripture, history, and five decades of own experience to bring remarkable clarity to a task burdened with too many success stories and external advice. To read this book is to remember what God has called his shepherds to.
— Patrick Schreiner
Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Baker Academic, 2015). I chose this because it confirms my instincts. Sounds vain, I know, but Vanhoozer and Strachan bring together two roles that should never have been bifurcated, as the subtitle suggests. The call for pastors to chart the theological pathway for their congregations has never been more important, especially as the “theologies” of our secular times wreak havoc on our life and doctrine. Management techniques and abstract academic pondering risk enervating an already worn-out church. This offers a vision beyond both. The list of 55 summary theses at the end is worth the price of the book alone. In particular, number 5: “Pastors are theologians whose vocation is to seek, speak, and show understanding of what God is doing in Christ for the sake of the world, and to lead others to do the same.”
— Steve McAlphine
Andy Crouch, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk, and True Flourishing (IVP, 2016). Strong and Weak is one of the most lucid leadership books to be published over the past decade. Crouch wants leaders to flourish. But to do so, we must embrace both authority and vulnerability, both capacity and frailty, both life and death. To map out where paradoxes meet pavement, Crouch invites the reader on a journey through a 2×2 chart (four quadrants) to explore where gospel gravity pushes us towards or pulls us away from flourishing, exploiting, withdrawing, and suffering. Crouch gets power too. His simple chart arms us with a diagnostic where we learn that flourishing—the power-stewarding, people-enriching, fruit-abiding kind—comes from being both strong and weak. The result is clarity of soul, conviction of sin, and a renewed courage for one’s call.
— Dave Harvey