I have been thinking recently about books that most impacted my ministry as a pastor and theologian.
I am sharing these with you because the quotes and insights I provide may be useful to you in your Christian life and ministry. Before switching off, because you are not a pastor or a theologian, please bear in mind that all who are born again of the Holy Spirit have some form of ministry and all of us have a theology that informs us, even though we may not call it by that name. I also list some of my favourite books that I encountered before I became a Christian, and some I read as a young Christian… so there is something for everyone here.
I am not listing the bible here because it is a given for any disciple of the Lord Jesus that the scriptures are THE most life-impacting collection of writings. Just for your interest, though, I consider the New International Version (NIV) 1984 edition as both readable and as accurate as any translation can be. I am referring to the 1984 edition only because the translators of later editions seem to have lost their way in gender-neutral language and other issues that cast doubt on the accuracy of the translation. No version is perfect so I also like to consult The Holman Christian Standard Bible and the New Living Translation.
I was born again of the Spirit at the age of thirty, so the books that impacted me most in my teen and early adult years were not necessarily by Christian authors. Here are the three, from among several, that opened my mind to different ways of thinking and fed into my later worldview.
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
The main character of this book, Howard Roark, was inspired by the well-known American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. In my late teens, I aspired to be an architect and was forever drawing floorplans of houses and so I immediately related to this novel. The setting for the book was the profession of architecture because it was a field that combines art, technology, and business, and thus allowed Ayn Rand to illustrate her primary theme in several areas of life. Her main theme was individualism as a philosophy with profound life implications. A later publication was a collection of her essays, titled ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’ presenting her radical moral code of rational selfishness and its opposition to the morality of altruism. I was an enthusiastic unbeliever at that time and Ayn’s thinking inspired me and played some part in the driving ambition that characterized my life until the age of thirty. There could hardly be a philosophy and worldview more opposed to biblical Christianity! However, my esteem for this book set me up for the mind-challenging influence of the next book that impacted me.
Dear and Glorious Physician by Mary Taylor Caldwell
This book took years of research in the making as it encompasses the life and works of the medical doctor Luke, the author of The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. She presents him as an authentic man with a history, hopes, frailties, and virtues. When I read the book, I was already roughly familiar with the biblical Luke thanks to my believing parents and my years at Sunday School. In Mary’s depiction of this man, my eyes were open to the possibility that the Gospel might be real and relevant to my life. It also provided me with a profoundly different worldview to the one promoted by Ayn Rand. Instead of self-serving as the highest goal, here was a portrait of a self-giving person committed to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Looking Glass Universe by John Briggs and David Peat
This book added another dimension altogether to my developing worldview. In 1984 John, a PhD in Psychology and a professional writer, assisted David, a Holistic Physicist, in writing this fascinating book. The blurb on the back cover describes it as the ‘mind-boggling journeys of several prominent scientists, including David Bohm, Karl Pribram, Ilya Prigogine, and Rupert Sheldrake, whose startling new theories could revolutionize our understanding of the universe.’ A lot of what I had learned at school transformed and reconfigured into a vision of a universe of sub-atomic particles, quantum realms, relativity beyond relativity, Morphogenic zones, and much more. At first, I was indeed mind-boggled, but then I became fascinated, and finally delightedly informed.
At the age of thirty, I was born again of the Spirit of God and my reading choices changed radically.
Books I read as a spiritually young Christian
In the first decade of my life in Christ, my major need was to learn to know God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At that time, I formulated what I still believe to be a statement of the purpose of life – To know Jesus, to become like him, and to help others to do likewise. The three books that impacted me most during that period all fed into this need to know God rather than just to know about him.
Love, Acceptance, and Forgiveness by Jerry Cook.
One of the main themes of this book is summed up in the statement: ‘Love, acceptance, forgiveness – those three things are absolutely essential to any ministry that will consistently bring people to maturity and wholeness’. This idea weaves through the whole book.
Another theme, which prepared me wonderfully for the years of pastoral leadership that would soon follow, was the concept that the church should be positioned as a ‘force’ and not as a ‘field’. Essentially, the Field mentality is where a church sees its buildings, programs, preachers, and so on, as means of getting people to come to them (come play on their field). The Force mentality sees the church as members going out into their worlds as a force for Gospel truth and wholeness. I will use Jerry’s words, not mine, to explain the important differences between these two ideas.
‘In the field concept, the organized church is where the people come to do the work of God’. ‘Jesus said, “The field is the world… (Matthew 13:38) Instead of the world being the field, we have made the church the field.’ In the Church as a Force model ‘the church is people, equipped to serve, meeting needs everywhere in Jesus’ name’.
This book addresses the following questions:
- ‘What does the church-as-the-field emphasize?… (the need for) a great deal of visibility… the leaders of the church must take on a very significant PR role’ ‘The happenings that take place in this building must be of such a nature that people will be attracted. Programme and promotion become very important… So, the church’s emphasis becomes visibility, organization, programme, and promotion.’ ‘What does the church-as-a-force emphasize? ‘worship, training, and fellowship, because these are the things that produce Spirit-filled people who can meet others’ needs in Jesus’ name’.
- ‘What goals does the church-as-a-field have? ‘(They) are defined in terms of numbers in attendance, of budget and of facility.’ ‘Facility is vitally important to the concept of the church-as-a-field because the only way to increase the field is by enlarging the facility.’ What goals does a church-as-a-force set? ‘Each member to come to wholeness, be equipped, and be released into the world to minister.’
- ‘How does the church-as-a-field go about accomplishing its ministry?’ ‘This work, once the people are gathered, centres around a professional…And when there are more heads than his hands can take care of we add another professional.’ ‘Everything is designed to draw people.’ It is ‘the role of the pastor is to help Christians start living in the light of the truth.’ ‘Ministry becomes a positional identity within the organization… As a result, the individual member is easily misled about the meaning of Christian service and is often reduced to a spectator.’ Opposed to this, the church-as-a-force sees its primary ministry as equipping and encouraging members to do the work of the ministry.
- ‘What motivates the church-as-a-field? ‘Their primary motivation is to get people in and keep them in’. ‘This results in an enormous amount of programming’ because this kind of church ‘must also get people serving the church… leaders begin to exploit people’. They reach people ‘not because they are hurting, but because they can help the church’. What, on the other hand is the motivation of the church-as-a force? What does it try to accomplish? They try to ‘bring healing to the whole man, to every area of a person’s life…The church-as-a-force becomes a healing agency in the community, not a place of refuge from the community. Nor is the church a competitor with the world.’
Jerry Cook had much more to say that was valuable to me, but I think you can get the idea from the above quotes why I decided, very definitely, to be part of building a local church with a ‘force’ and not a ‘field’ mentality.
The Sense of His Presence’ by David Mains.
This book starts with the question ‘what would happen if Jesus came to your church this Sunday?’
This must have stayed in my memory for decades because a few years ago I wrote a series of articles titled ‘What Kind of Church would Jesus Attend?’ Have a peek HERE if you want to see my answers. David Mains summed up his response to the question with: ‘the answers revolve around a single standard: is there a strong, abiding sense of the presence of the Lord here?’ He then addressed the following eight specific areas in which the presence of God needs to be sensed:
- ‘Do the people perceive the presence of Christ to the degree that they come prepared truly to worship Him?’
- ‘Is Christian love expressed in such a remarkable way that all can see the living Christ is truly present among His People?
- ‘Is victory over sin a quality which consistently marks the people at all levels?’
- ‘Are the people in this church excited about the privilege they have as subjects of the King to serve Him?’
- Are they eager to learn more of the Scriptures and to hear about personal application of the Word?’
- ‘Do the people see value in spending quality time talking to Christ?’
- ‘Are church members sharing with others the news that their Lord is truly in the midst?’
- ‘Is there a general sense of well-being, a feeling that life in the church is as God intended it to be?’
With hindsight, I can see that it was not the answers to these eight questions that impacted me, but the underlying question that gave rise to them – Is there a sense of His presence?’. A glaring omission from David’s list is the question, ‘Is there evidence of the ministry of the power of the Holy Spirit?’
My list, later as a more mature Christian, was:
- Reverent and adoring worship
- Passionate prayer
- Serious attention to biblical preaching
- An attitude of faith
- Ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit
- Anointed leadership
- Expressions of love
- An impartation of life and wholeness
- A desire to share the presence of God with others
Return From Tomorrow by George Ritchie
This book had a great impact on me in my early Christian years. I did not accept everything that he claimed to have experienced or his analysis of these events, but his core experience blew me away. As a twenty-year-old, George had a near-death experience during which he was caught up into Heaven to stand before Jesus. He had become a Jesus-follower as an early teen, but had then wandered away from the reality of his faith. Here are some of the things he experienced when he stood before the Lord and Saviour:
‘Far more even than power, what emanated from this Presence was unconditional love. An astonishing love. A love beyond my wildest imagining. This love knew every unlovable thing about me… Everything that had ever happened to me was simply there, in full view, contemporary and current, all seemingly taking place at that moment… Every detail of twenty years of living was there to be looked at. The good, the bad, the high points, the run-of-the-mill. And with this all-inclusive view came a question. It was implicit in every scene and, like the scenes themselves, seemed to proceed from the living Light beside me. What did you do with your life?… No condemnation came from the glory shining round me. He was not blaming or reproaching. He was simply loving me. Filling the world with Himself and yet somehow attending to me personally (and) waiting for my answer to the question that still hung in the dazzling air… The question, like everything else proceeding from Him, had to do with love. How much have you loved with your life? Have you loved others as I am loving you? Totally? Unconditionally? ‘
What I learned, no, more than learned, absorbed into myself, from this book was that:
- God is good and loving
- All will stand before him one day to give an account for a life lived. For those born of the Spirit, there will be a review of earthly thoughts, words, and deeds that allows us to see the reality of our life on Earth in all its glory, failure, sin, and absolution. The result of this review will determine our utility/rewards in Heaven. For those who do not already know Jesus, the result will be an honest acceptance of the righteousness and justice of their separated state.
- ‘How we spend our time on earth, the kind of relationships we build, is vastly, infinitely more important than we can know.’
These things are biblically true and endorsed, taught, and manifested by Jesus Christ during his years on Earth.
At the age of forty, I became a full-time pastor of a local church and, once again, my reading choices changed.
Books I read as a pastor and theologian
The first three books listed in this article challenged my view of moral values, spiritual reality, and the nature of the world in which we live, and the second group of three challenged my views on God’s nature and character. I read many other books on these subject areas, but once I became a pastor, the nature of the books impacting me shifted. In the first decade as a Christian and lay leader, I had developed fairly comprehensive opinions on the nature of the bible, the centrality of Jesus, the church, and ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit.
By the time I started leading a local church, I had crystalized the fundamentals of what I believed into three bylines – Bible-based, Jesus Centred, and Spirit Dependent.
I built the local church, and later a seminary, on these three foundations, and so it is not surprising that the books that had the greatest impact upon me fell into these three categories. They did add some new things to my thinking, but their greater purpose was to confirm and reinforce my theology and church praxis. Until I read them, I had felt a little like someone singing into the wind, but these books helped me to realise that I was actually part of a choir and that perhaps the wind was changing direction.
The Scripture Principle by Clark Pinnock
I have read a lot of Clark Pinnock’s work, enjoyed his biography, and even communicated with him by email. He is probably my theological role model because of the way he went about doing theology. Some called him an experimental theologian, but to me, he was a brave and brilliant man who was prepared to write about things he was still processing. In this way, he invited the reader into his thinking, research, and developing convictions.
As a mature Christian, and more particularly as, by the time I read this book, a qualified theologian, I had become disappointed by the rigid stance of most evangelical scholars concerning the nature of the bible. Clark had grown up in that world, but had been brave and honest enough to write about the bible as it really is.
The subtitle of the book is ‘Reclaiming the Full Authority of the Bible’ and his contention was that this can only be achieved by abandoning the non-biblical beliefs that the scriptures are entirely divine, inerrant, and the primary source of truth. My view had long been that Jesus, and not the bible, is the source of truth, but that it was rather the divinely inspired revelation of Jesus and the trustworthy rule of faith for the church. Clark wrote: ‘The Bible is a witness, although the primary one, to the revelation of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Christology, not Bibliology, occupies centre stage in Christianity… God gave the Bible to the church to bear an authoritative witness to Jesus Christ and the gospel.’
Concerning Biblical Inerrancy, Clark wrote: ‘God could have produced an errorless Bible, but we have to look and see if this is what he willed to do… Does the New Testament, and did Jesus, teach the perfect errorlessness of the Scriptures? No…’
With regard to the nature and composition of the bible, Clark wrote: ‘The Bible is God’s Word in human language. These God-human aspects should not be disassociated. God has willed the human characteristics of the text… God did not negate the gift of freedom when he inspired the Bible, but worked alongside human beings in order to achieve by wisdom and patience the goal of a Bible that expresses his will for our salvation.’
Of course, there is a lot more value in this book than these selective quotes, so much so that I have read through it three times to date.
Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola
A central theme of this book is summed up by what Len and Frank wrote, which is: ‘The center and the circumference of the Christian life is none other than the person of Christ… We can rightly say that God spoke Himself into human life in the person of the Lord Jesus. For this reason, John called Christ the logos, the living Word of God. God’s Word is a person. The one true God has revealed Himself completely and finally in Jesus… The Holy Spirit has come to reveal, to glorify, to magnify, to unveil, to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ. He takes what is true of Christ and makes it real and alive in the lives of human beings… Jesus Christ makes Scripture intelligible. He is the key that unlocks the entire biblical canon… According to Scripture, Jesus Christ (and not a doctrine about Him) is the truth. In addition, Jesus Christ (and not an ethic derived from His teaching) is the way. In other words, both God’s truth and God’s way are embodied in a living, breathing person—Christ. “I am the way, the truth, and the life’
While Clark Pinnock stressed the need for Christians to be bible-based, Frank and Len stressed the need for us to be Jesus-centred. In this book, they stress the supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus whilst placing this into the context of the bible and the Holy Spirit. They write: ‘Three features are present in every awakening in the history of the Christian church: (1) a rediscovery of the “living Word,” or the Scriptures and its authority; (2) a rediscovery of the living Christ and His supremacy; and (3) a rediscovery of the living Spirit and the Spirit’s gifts and power to manifest Christ in the context of that culture. God has a history of taking seriously people who take the eternal Word seriously. Jesus Himself said that when He is lifted up, He will draw all people to Himself. But because we don’t trust Jesus to do what He says He will do, or believe that He is who He says He is, or have not caught a glimpse of His infinite glory, we sit at drawing boards and draw up programmes and methods and draft strategies that we hope might bring people to Christ. But Jesus could not have been clearer: the only begotten Son of God is the draw. Our mission is simply to lift Him up in a context that our culture can understand and appreciate. Whenever this happens, the rest will take care of itself.’
This Manifesto also has much to say about how the Christian life is to be lived. They write: ’The Christian life properly conceived and experienced is simply a reproduction and a reliving of the life of Jesus. Your Christian life begins with Christ, continues with Christ, and ends with Christ… If Christ is in you, then the Christian life is not about striving to be something you are not. It is about becoming what you already are… There is a vast ocean of difference between trying to compel Christians to imitate Jesus and learning how to impart an implanted Christ…,“What would Jesus do?” is not Christianity. Christianity asks, “What is Christ doing through me . . . through us? And how is He doing it?”
Once again, there is a lot more of great value in this book than I have set out in this article.
Revival! A people saturated with God by Brian Edwards
The first of this set of three books confirmed my passionate belief in the bible-based principle, the second in the Jesus-centred principle, and this final book in the Spirit-dependent principle.
This book is about Revival, but the key to its underlying Spirit-dependent theme is ‘A people saturated with God’. Brian writes that ‘Revival reveals in an exaggerated way those ingredients that God expects always to be present in his church.’ In the section titled ‘During Revival’, Brian deals mainly with a revival of urgency, a revival of Christ-centred preaching, a conviction of sin and a revival of holiness, a revival of prayer, a revival of worship, and a revival of evangelism, and so on. All of these are manifestations of the Holy Spirit and all of them occur when Christians are dependent on him.
This book is a sort of manual on Revival and of great use to the church in these days, but it is also a testimony to the need to be dependent on the Holy Spirit.
I have enjoyed writing this article because it has caused me to re-read parts of books that were so meaningful to me.
By doing this, I have become conscious, once again, of how God has formed or confirmed so many of my key principles through the work of others. I do not embrace everything these authors teach but have internalised what conforms to the biblical witness of the Lord Jesus Christ. They are all worth reading more than once.
In revisiting these nine books, I hope that I have provided you with some valuable information and even inspiration – perhaps you will get hold of some of them and be as blessed by them as I have been.