On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Dave Harvey—president of the Great Commission Collective and author of The Plurality Principle, I Still Do, Rescuing Ambition, and When Sinners Say I Do—about what’s on his bedside table, favorite fiction, favorite re-reads, and much more.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
I’m doubling down on gospel application and political power right now.
I just finished taking our leadership team in Indianapolis through Rankin Wilbourne and Brian Gregor’s The Cross Before Me: Reimagining the Way to the Good Life. We spent 30 to 40 minutes at the beginning of each day going through the book chapter by chapter, and I was struck again by how the gospel has implications for all of life. Wilbourne and Gregor’s book is about finding contentment and joy in a life that’s shaped by the cross—about how God uses our weaknesses and limitations to invite us into joy.
I’m also reading The Politics of Ministry by Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald Guthrie. I’m struck by the ways Christian leaders tend to spiritualize organizational realities in a fallen world. Power, interests, and politics just seem carnal or worldly—beneath the dignity of the church.
The result is that we’re less skilled at seeing the power dynamics that push and pull at a leadership team. We’re less skilled at navigating the realities of power in the Christian world. As the leader of an organization, it’s important that I work toward defining power dynamics and making them transparent. It’s important that I know how to navigate these waters, so I’m always looking to grow in this area.
When the presidential election was fast approaching, I finished Rage by Bob Woodward. Since the majority of the book is built around 17 interviews with the president, it seemed like a timely and less-filtered way to hear Donald Trump reflect on his policies and behavior.
What are your favorite fiction books?
The most well-written contemporary fiction I’ve read was A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. And for vacation or “beach reading” I enjoy books by David Baldacci. But these days I tend to gravitate toward the classics. Lately, I’ve read or listened to The Scarlet Letter, Animal Farm, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Pride and Prejudice.
Classic fiction has great appeal for me as a preacher and writer. In the classics, I can engage with diverse styles of writing—different sorts of stories and perspectives—that have achieved popular appeal and stood the test of time. These books broaden the landscape of my imagination and get my creative juices flowing, seasoning me with ideas, illustrations, examples, and metaphors.
Take The Death of Ivan Ilyich, for example. As I read Tolstoy’s novel, I was captivated by this man who lived a superfluous and unexamined life and then—spoiler alert—encountered grace in his final moments. Tolstoy’s story is a remarkable depiction of God’s grace toward an undeserving sinner, and I was so taken by it that it found its way into the final chapter of I Still Do.
What I love about the classics is that they tend to tackle transcendent themes and make them more glorious. Law and grace radiate with light in the hands of Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert, Jean Valjean, and Bishop Myriel. In Melville’s Moby Dick, the parable of Captain Ahab’s idolatry incubates within the mind, hatching reflection, application, and conviction.
I just finished Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. It portrays what happens to religion when untethered from grace. The soul’s posture becomes exacting and self-righteous. And yet, Hester Prynne’s displays a grace-sparked willingness to honorably endure the suffering imposed by a vapid and morally superior community.
What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?
I don’t think my Rescuing Ambition book would exist without David McCullough’s John Adams. It seems to me that the founding fathers had an understanding of ambition that wasn’t exclusively bound up in the love of distinction, but could be bridled for service and sacrifice. Adams was certainly fallen, but I saw in him an ambition that looked like something more than a power-hungry prima donna. Adams had an ambition for the greater good—which helped me to understand that we are all created with a factory-installed glory drive. The question at the heart of life is whether this drive will move us toward the glory of God or the glory that comes from people.
John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken taught me about waiting patiently on God’s timing. There was a six-year period in Newton’s life after he left the slave trade and sensed a call to ministry before he was accepted as a member of the Anglican clergy. All Newton experienced in that time was uncertainty and opposition. I’ve often thought about that season in Newton’s life when I’ve had to wait on God for a pathway that remained unclear.
I also really loved Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which tells the story of President Lincoln’s cabinet and close associates who worked together to win the Civil War and end slavery. What I found most captivating when reading the book was the epilogue. In that closing chapter, Goodwin chronicled what happened to each member of the team after Lincoln’s assassination. Some of the people in Lincoln’s circle lived peaceful and meaningful lives after their time serving the president. Others spiraled. But one truth stood out clearly to me as I read. It became evident that their greatest achievements came not as individuals but through the united talent of their team. Individually, they were impressive. But together, they accomplished far more than anyone dared to expect. I was thunderstruck by that and have reflected many times about the difference that servant leadership and team ministry can make on a church.
What are some books you regularly re-read?
I don’t typically re-read whole books. But after I’ve read one, I’ll drop back into particular sections—like consulting with an old friend.
One example is Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch. Crouch’s simple way of explaining the role of weakness and risk in the life of a leader is timeless. But honestly, I forget it easily. We also live in a day of faux transparency. But Crouch makes clear that true vulnerability accepts risk. Crouch’s four-quadrant diagram remains the hinge of his book and I’ve found it especially helpful for leadership training.
What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?
There are a lot of helpful leadership books that jump to mind, including The Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges, The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, Spiritual Leadership by J. Oswald Sanders, Suffering and the Sovereignty of God by John Piper and Justin Taylor (eds.), and even The Second Mountain by David Brooks.
But some books just drop into your life at critical moments. As a result, they become timely and timeless for you. The Imperfect Pastor by Zack Eswine was one of those books for me. If you want to be a leader, this book shows you how to tend to your soul to avoid the mistakes that befall many leaders. For me, it arrived at a time when ministry was discouraging and fruit was difficult to discern. At just the right time, Eswine reinforced categories of biblical success that helped me to see God’s grace more clearly and rest more contentedly in the gospel.
What’s one book you wish every pastor read?
The Cross and Christian Ministry by Don Carson. If you want to be effective in ministry, Carson shows you where to stand. He writes:
It is now commonplace to confess that evangelicalism is fragmenting. To the extent that this is true, it is utterly imperative that we self-consciously focus on what is central—on the gospel of Jesus Christ. That means we must resolve “to know nothing . . . except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2), in exactly the same way that Paul made that resolution. This will shape our vision of ministry as much as it will shape our grasp of the centrality of the gospel. (10, emphasis mine)
As Christians, we live worthy of the gospel. But as leaders, we must also lead through the gospel. If leaders don’t get this, they won’t understand the soul of leadership or the true power that makes their leadership effective. Eventually, every Christian leader must accept the reality that it’s a life and message shaped by the cross that ultimately determines our effectiveness in ministry.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
I mentioned that I’ve been reading about gospel application and power. These themes have re-established weakness as the place where I best encounter God’s grace. After 34 years in full-time ministry, I’ve come to see that leadership hasn’t displayed my strengths as much as exposed my weaknesses. Ministry reveals dozens of places where I trust in myself and my power rather than in God. Ultimately, weakness lays me low and uncovers my self-trust. But that weakness also drives me to Jesus where, in my desperation, I’m able to see this weakness as the context for God’s power (2 Cor. 12:9).
Gospel ministry, in fact, is so important to God that he’ll take the highest earthly experiences—the things that elate us (2 Cor. 12:7)—and use them to impose the kind of weakness that reveals our desperate need for him to show up and work through us in the ways only he can. I think I’ll be living in that lesson for the rest of my life.