My Top Books of 2021

I’ll be honest. I’m not particularly satisfied with the balance of my reading this year. Sure, I well and truly went over my goal of 26 books for the year, but the balance of authors and topics just wasn’t right. If I was to analyse it I would say that I didn’t have enough ‘old’ books, ones which might have helped my understanding of the present world from the perspective of a different time and place. Perhaps this might change as I begin to think about next year’s books.

Nevertheless, there were some great books I did read this year, many of which I would strongly recommend to others and, in fact, have purchased as Christmas presents to fellow pastoral staff members. The books below are all books I gave 5 out of 5. In my opinion they were excellent.

The Care of Souls by Harold L. Senkbeil
It was no surprise this book won a 2020 Christianity Today Book Award. While Senkbeil is not of my denominational persuasion, it is clear that he has a great grasp on what it is to minister to people in a congregation. The book walks through aspects of pastoral ministry, highlighting the need to pastor souls within the system of the whole. What I found most helpful was the reminder to focus on people over programs, and the encouragement to give thought to helpful ways in which to care for people in life and death.

Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund
This book has also won many plaudits and has been promoted heavily in certain circles. I loved the reminder of Jesus’ own description of himself as ‘gentle and lowly.’ I found the first half of the book the most compelling—so compelling that I used Ortlund’s angle in a sermon I preached on Matthew 11:28-30. In a time of busyness, change and added pressure, this book helped to remind me of how Jesus is the one in whom we can rest.

Spirit and Sacrament by Andrew Wilson
Our young-adults group did a four-week series on spiritual gifts earlier this year. I read plenty about the topic but found this book most helpful. While the Baptist in me had a few quibbles, the understanding of the Spirit’s work through the gifts today helped solidify my continuationist position. This is not a long book, but it is profound and gets straight to the core issues surrounding spiritual gifts and ordinances.

Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter L. Steinke
What other book does one need to read in the times we live when everyone seems anxious, weary, and stressed by the pressures of the day. Despite being written a little while ago, it is still helpful and helps the reader understand the ‘system’ of our churches. It can help us appreciate, not only understand, the levels of anxiety within our communities, and also how best to lead a congregation in these times. An excellent read for anyone in pastoral ministry

Visit the Sick: Shepherding the Afflicted and Dying in Your Congregation by Brian Croft
This is a short practical guide to help pastors and pastoral carers help those who are sick. Brian Croft uses his years of expertise in ministry to provide practical suggestions in how to care for those who are locked-in due to their health, or who need visiting in hospital or at home, or who need to be cared for because loved ones are dying. A perfect book to work through with a group of people and apply it to your local church community.

Read to Lead by Jeff Brown
I jumped on one of those pre-release deals to gain a whole lot of other resources alongside this book. I suspect that any of us who have written at TGCA or in these ‘Year in Books’ series would agree that our leadership has been helped by our reading. This book offers both anecdotal and research-based insight into the value of reading. It is a personal growth book with the sole purpose of encouraging leaders to read more and make time for it. I was inspired by the reminder of how the accumulation of reading helps widen and mould my leadership. The importance of reading can’t be underestimated.

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright
With the 20th year anniversary of 9/11 this year, there were plenty of books, podcasts, and documentaries reflecting on its impact. I found myself listening to this in-depth audiobook, covering everything from the beginnings of Al-Qaeda, the political climate of the 1970s through to 2001, and the formation of those participants involved in the event itself. It was a compelling 15-hour listen, and I’d recommend it.

Expositional Preaching by David R. Helm
Again, this book isn’t a long one but is a great reminder of the importance and place of expositional preaching in the life of the church. While there is a brief case made for the priority of this preaching in the church, I found the practical aspects formational. Topics such as the importance of systematic theology; the balance of contextualisation; the arrangement of material in the sermon; effectiveness through understanding your audience, make this book a great gift for your pastoral team or a book to work through together.

Leadership is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say – and What You Don’t by L. David Marquet
Leadership has evidently been a theme in my reading this year, and this was probably the best of the secular leadership books I read. Marquet is known for his TED talk and first book, Turn The Ship Around, which focusses on how, as the commander of a poor performing submarine, he made it the best performer by enabling others to make decisions. Leadership is Language focusses further by highlighting the need to not only ask others to collaborate but also to give people time to pause and reflect on what might help make the work more effective.

I found this book helpful in providing me with better questions to ask. Marquet provides great examples of when and how to put intentional leadership into practice through the language we use, rather than stifling collaboration through directive and authoritarian questions. This is certainly a worthwhile read for those of us leading teams of people.

This is now the eighth year in a row I’ve published a post that outlines my favourites books for the year. You can go back and have a read of previous years here: 201420152016201720182019, 2020.

This post was also published at The Gospel Coalition Australia as part of their ‘My Year In Books’ series.

If you’re that keen to know all the books I’ve read in 2021 then head to Goodreads to see a summary.

My Top Books for 2020

I’m getting in early this year by releasing my list of top reads a few weeks before we see the back of 2020. For the last six years I’ve posted about what I’ve read each year and I might as well continue the tradition into a seventh. 

I’m not sure whether it was because of what 2020 became but I have smashed any reading goals I had this year. Each year I aim to read, on average, one book per fortnight, that’s 26 books per year. By the end of May I had reached that goal. What this meant was that I had plenty of time to read more over the coming months, and as it stands today I’ve read 53 books for the year. This is really pleasing and definitely my best reading year ever. 

Throughout I’ve read a range of genres – sport biography, missions history, theology, politics, church leadership, fiction, biblical theology and commentaries, a couple of books my daughter is into, and more. There is a sense my reading this year was a bit more balanced than other years, which was also pleasing. 

So, without any further ado, I present below a list of books I thought were 5 out of 5 stars. And if you’re interested in reading my top reads from previous years you can do so here too: 20142015201620172018, 2019). 

Enjoy. 

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer

I started off the year wishing for more rest, space, and slowness in my life. This book articulated the importance of rhythms and rest and Sabbath, and many other spiritual practices that help ground us in life in God. I found this an excellent book, and it’s probably time to read it again. As I look at my bookshelves I do notice it missing so it evidently was kept by someone who borrowed it! Good books always disappear. In any case, this is a helpful book that gives rise to habits and systems in life that contribute to sustaining a life-long, well-paced, Christian life.

Along Came A Spider by James Patterson

The best fiction book I’ve read, this year at least and possibly ever; although who can top The Partner by John Grisham–I digress. This is a serial killer crime thriller, one of Patterson’s first ever novels published in 1983. The suspense and the build up is terrific, and there’s a great twist at the end which gets you. It’s violent and disturbing, but what do you expect from this kind of genre? Top shelf fiction. 

On Being A Pastor by Derek Prime and Alistair Begg

Improving in my vocation and my particular role as pastor is always high on the priority list each year. And this book was certainly a big help in doing so this year. I really appreciate everything Alistair Begg shares, his sermons, conference messages, and witings. Here he partners up with his former mentor-pastor Derek Prime and they take you through the theological and practical of operating as a pastor. I found this immensely helpful to think about in my role and in developing others in the ministry. It also provided many tips to help in areas of preaching, pastoral care, time management, and the like. This along with some broader chapters dealing with calling and vocation as a whole were useful. 

The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis

Once we got into lockdown for a second time I became obsessed about re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia. Since finishing the series again I have been listening to the theatrical audio series produced by the BBC and others. I’ve been listening to them as audiobooks while in the car and doing chores, and they were easily found on YouTube. They’re so good. Anyway, a particular shout out to The Horse and His Boy and also The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (my favourite of the series). If you’ve never read this series of seven short books that detail the story of Narnia then do yourself a favour. Lewis is such a good writer and his illusions to the Christian life are throughout. 

The Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren

I’ll admit, there was a theme in my reading regarding spiritual practices. This was another of at least 3-4 I read overall this year. Warren really writes in an engaging way, she’s so good. And here in The Liturgy of the Ordinary she writes in the intersection of ordinary life and the Christian faith. She takes big theological understandings and helps us see their relevance in the mundane everyday practices and rhythms of life. Whether it is waking up and making your bed, to preparing food and eating with others, or doing the dishes after a meal, each has relevance to the Christian life and at times it’s a mindblow. I highly recommend getting your hands on this, I even borrowed it from the local library! 

Owen on The Christian Life by Matthew Barrett and Michael Haykin

Each year I usually read a few biographies and this year I landed on John Owen. Owen is a Puritan from the 17th century, and extremely influential in the Reformed and Presbyterian church. This book details his life alongside the theological contributions he has made to the faith. Owen is well-known for his writings and sermons, particularly around the doctrines of the Trinity, communion with God, and sin and sanctification. For example, when writing about communion with God he says:

“When the believer has a taste of this communion with his Savior, sin is bitter on the tongue. Furthermore, says Owen, the believer is on guard against sin, lest it should interrupt and disrupt this sweet communion he enjoys so much with his Savior. Owen writes: When once the soul of a believer hath obtained sweet and real communion with Christ, it looks about him, watcheth all temptations, all ways whereby sin might approach, to disturb him in his enjoyment of his dear Lord and Saviour, his rest and desire. How doth it charge itself not to omit any thing, nor to do any thing that may interrupt the communion obtained!”

Great book. Have a read. 

The Sermon on the Mount by DA Carson

I hung out reading the Sermon on The Mount for most of the year. It goes hand in hand with the themes of spiritual disciplines and grounding faith in action, among other things. And so to help understand the various sections of the sermon I read Carson’s commentary on it alongside. Carson is always clear, concise, and compelling. He’s one of the best commentators in the world and is highly regarded. This was originally a series of lectures turned into a brief commentary. Whether devotionally like me, or for preaching and teaching, I’d recommend dipping into this one. 

Anyway, there’s my list for this year. Let me know what you read and enjoyed this year, I’ll add it to my list!

Published: Choosing Love by Heidi Johnston

After a long absence I had a book review published at TGCA recently. I wasn’t really the intended audience of Choosing Love by Heidi Johnston, however it was still worth the read. It would be particularly helpful for parents to talk through with their daughters, or a youth ministry leader with their youth group or small group.

You can find the review here.

“From the outset, Johnston puts these themes of love, relationships, marriage and sex into perspective by reminding us that we are all created in God’s image: made for relationship, and therefore are to express our love and desire for one-another in the way God intends. The foundation of the imago dei, and the defining of love as that which comes from God, and shown through his Son Jesus, is an important truth to be understood for teenagers and adults alike.”

Other writing can be found here

My Top Books of 2019

Well, it’s that time of year folks.

The unveiling of the top books I’ve read for 2019.

Exciting, isn’t it?!

Continuing my long-standing tradition of pretentiously blogging a list of books I read and rated highly, I submit my 2019 edition to you.

Oh, and here’s the previous years if you wish to read those lists too: 2014201520162017, 2018.

My Top Books of 2019

Excellent. This is an excellent book. Theology of sleep. Theology of rest. Theology of living by grace. Theology of sustaining ministry. Excellent. I don’t think I could’ve started the year off with a better book. In this age of hurry, burnout, and distraction this book is a good reminder we need to slow-down in this hurried life.

A different approach from Grisham in some ways. I found the storyline great, although I know plenty of people who didn’t. As usual it’s fast-paced, full of intrigue, and picking up themes of race and culture in the American South.

I haven’t read this since I read a children’s version when a child. It was good to listen to the audiobook and I found myself reminded of how good the story of ‘Christian’ is. Some terrific Christian themes and a good reminder of what it takes to remain faithful and persevere in the marathon that is the Christian life.

This was the best youth ministry book I read all year. It only came out mid-year and I was keen to get my hands on it. As I wrote in a review:

I have not read a youth ministry book which actually quotes Hebrew and Greek in its pages. But now I have. And it’s not just quoted for McGarry to look scholarly, it’s quoted to show the meaning behind a number of texts in the Old and New Testaments that build towards the book’s aim of,

…presenting a clear and simple but thoroughly biblical framework for thinking about youth ministry as the church’s expression of partnership with the family for co-evangelising and co-discipling the next generation. (p3)

Sam Allberry writes really well about biblical sexuality and same-sex attraction. A same-sex attracted minister himself, Allberry writes this brief book about the biblical understanding of homosexuality and what it means for those who are same-sex attracted. I found this a very helpful primer on these themes.

Continuing in a similar vein, DeYoung dives deep into the various passages in the Bible which speak of homosexuality. Furthermore, he writes to those who are critics of Biblical sexuality seeking to winsomely show the fault in their understandings. It is very good on the exegetical front and a good resource for teaching on such a topic.

For a personalised summary of all the books I read this year you can check out my Goodreads infographic for 2019.

Published: A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry by Michael McGarry

A friend of mine from the USA, Mike McGarry, recently published this great book, A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry. It’s an excellent read, and a much needed contribution on the theological foundations for youth ministry.

I reviewed the book and had the review published at TGCA. You can read the whole thing here.

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You can find my review of A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry here.

 

Published: The Power of Two by Danny Hunt

My friend and colleague, Danny Hunt, recently wrote a book about being a second-chair leader. That is, a leader that has a boss.

It’s a short book but packed with wisdom and reflection from his 30-plus years of experience in church leadership. It is aimed mainly at those who are involved in church life, but would be suitable for other industries as well.

I was fortunate to read the book recently and have a review of it published on TGC Australia.

You can find it here.

Published: Gay Girl, Good God by Jackie Hill Perry

I recently read the book Gay Girl, Good God by Jackie Hill Perry.

It’s a book I’d highly recommend. And it is a book I found time to write a reflection on to better process some of the content.

As it happens, I’ve had that reflection published as a book review at The Gospel Coalition Australia site. You can read it here.

“I couldn’t be more different from Jackie Hill Perry.

I’m a man, she’s a woman.

I’m white, she’s black.

I’m from the wealthier side of Melbourne, Australia. Jackie is from a rougher area in Chicago, USA.

I’m hetero, she’s a former lesbian.

There’s a few differences, yet at the same time we now find ourselves brother and sister in Christ. No matter the differences of the past, or the differences now, our stories intersect as part of God’s grander story in Christ. And what a privilege that is having now read Jackie’s memoir, Gay Girl, Good God.”

I found it to be a great memoir, exploring the intersection of God’s story upon Jackie’s story as she wrestles with her sexuality and upbringing. It’s well worth reading if you have the time.

The full review can be found here.

Other books I’ve read recently, and written short summaries on, can be found here.

Recently Read: April 2019

Here are some short summaries of books I’ve read recently. I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like in recent time, but here are some of the books I’ve dipped into.

Recently Read_ April 2019

1. The Reckoning by John Grisham

This is the best Grisham book I’ve read in a long time. It is his usual fiction, but this time structured differently as he delves into one of the character’s past in particular detail. This is a very sad story in many ways, but keeps you interested as there are plenty of turns and twists and secrets, only to come together in the final few pages. A great read.

2. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

I hadn’t read The Pilgrim’s Progress properly, well, not that I can remember. I certainly remember the child versions I had when I lived at home. But thanks to Christian Audio I listened to it via their app. It was a great reminder of the trials and joys it is as a believer. This is Bunyan’s classic work and is an allegory for the Christian life, following Christian and his wife and family as they seek the Celestial City.  Definitely worth the read (again) and encouraging for my walk with Jesus.

3. Gay Girl, Good God by Jackie Hill Perry

This is a memoir, which details Jackie’s life as she has wrestled with her sexuality and lesbianism. It tells of the horrific situations she has experienced in her childhood, everything from abuse, to being discarded by her father, to family breakdown, and more. But then she tells of how she has been be called by God to follow Him and in turn find her life transformed. This is a powerful story, and great story that points more to God than it does to Jackie herself. It’s certainly worth the read.

I’ve written a more in-depth review here.

4. Tactics for Teen Ministry by Scott Petty

Scott is a youth minister up in Sydney and has written a whole selection of books for young people. This one targets the youth pastor and volunteers.

I found this book really helpful, and will most likely use some of the content to help train my leaders. It gives a good theological and ministry philosophy foundation at the beginning. The book then moves into more practical and specifics aspects of youth ministry, everything from team meetings, youth group meetings, how to prepare a talk, how to communicate to kids, parents, leaders, and the church etc. It also comes with good resources very clearly laid out in the appendices. And, it’s short – 100 pages or so.

I’d recommend this to any average youth pastor like me.

5. The Autobiography of William Jay by William Jay

I’m still working through this second half of this book but it is excellent. Jay was a minister and preacher in England during the 19th century. He was pastor of Argyle Chapel in Bath for 63 years. His story is amazing; but his reflections on life, discipleship, evangelism, church, and preaching, and writing are even better. He writes these reflections in 19 letters to his children, about ten years prior to his death. There is a wealth of gold in these letters and reflections, some of which I’ll no doubt write about in due course. You can read a little something I wrote about his views of writing memoir and keeping a diary here.


You can also read more book summaries I’ve written at the following posts: 

William Jay On Writing Memoir And Keeping A Diary

For over a decade I’ve wanted to read the autobiography of William Jay, ever since I heard the sketch of his life delivered by Iain Murray. It’s been years in the making, which includes his memoir sitting on my bookshelf for about five of those years. By the looks of it, through my pencil markings in the margins, it seems I’ve tried to read it before but only made it so far. Nevertheless, this past little while has meant I’ve devoured it and come to appreciate much of the content. With slight warning, I think it is highly likely I’ll be using William Jay as a topic for writing and speaking in coming weeks and months!

The memoir portion of this work is set out as 19 letters, written from Jay to his children. They cover much of the main elements of his life and ministry. Astoundingly, he served as the preacher and minister of Argyle Chapel in Bath for 63 years. He has much wisdom and godliness to share. And I should probably mention he lived from 1769-1853.

In his first letter Jay outlines some of the reasons for his writing such a memoir. There seems to have been a slight hesitation about it, even though he was a reasonably prolific writer on spiritual things. One of these reasons is the amount of books, memoir, and autobiography written in his day. Imagine what he’d think of these days when every person in public seems to have a biography written of them, or they feel compelled to put together something themselves.

Jay writes this,

“The present rage for biography is excessive and notorious, such is the voracity of its appetite, that it frequently waits not for the licence which death is supposed to give. It falls upon its prey, and devours it alive; and many a man may be himself the reader of his own character and history, furnished by some anonymous or even know writer.”

Evidently Jay looks down upon those who forcefully push through and write of themselves for all to read.

On the question of what to add into such a memoir Jay reflects on how biographers are a good witness of a person, but that self is the best witness for such a task. He comments on how the public wish to know the salacious details of a persons life rather than being satisfied with the content of the life.

“By a competent writer, the public life of an individual is easily supplied; but people are seldom satisfied without some insight into his more private retreats and recesses. They would know, not what he did, but why he did it. They would know, not only the direction in which he moved, but whether he was led into it by design or accident, and what retarded or aided his progress.”

And Jay also highlights the difference in where the information about a life may come from by making a distinction between memoir and keeping a diary. Jay says,

“A diary regards chiefly a man’s intercourse with God; and the variations of his religious views and feelings there recorded are designed to promote self-acquaintance, and not to divulge himself to others. Such a work is devotional rather than narrator, and will abound with much that is not proper for public observation.”

It is this final quote, with its definition of what a diary is, that I find interesting.

Keeping a diary or a journal is a great way to note down the events and feelings of a particular day, circumstance, or season. Moreover, it is a terrific way to reflect and commune with God. In a diary we can write what we are feeling about what God is doing, through his Word or through others, in a private manner. It is through a diary we can find ourselves learning more of how we are to think of who God is. And we can come to find ourselves writing in a devotional frame of mind, pondering and thinking on the things of God.

In a day and age where the temptation to think and share our thinking publicly through our social media streams this is refreshing. There are private thoughts meant only for private consumption. The ability to reflect for ourselves, and keep it private, is best for all parties–ourselves and others. While we may be tempted to share the all and sundry of our life perhaps it’s best to begin with a diary and actually work out what we think, believe, and hope.

Recently Read: January 2019

Here are some books I’ve read or listened to over the summer. And for what it’s worth there are some brief comments about them too.

1. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield

This is the incredible story of Rosaria herself. At one point she was a tenured professor, thought of with high regard for her LGBT and feminist views. After conversion to the Christian faith she understood herself differently; giving up her lesbian lifestyle and in time marrying a Presbyterian minister. This is a great book and well worth the read. I listened to it with Rosaria narrating. An astounding and excellent memoir.

2. Why The Reformation Still Matters by Michael Reeves

Again, I listened to this via audio book. The final three chapters move the book up in any sort of rating. However, because the first nine chapters aren’t particularly practical, which I expected they would be, then I didn’t find this book appealing or interesting. Not really worth the read.

3. Wisdom in Leadership by Craig Hamilton

It may have taken me 2.5 years from opening to closing this book but it was still a good one. There is something like 78 chapters, each about five pages long. It provides great practical advice for Christian leaders. Anything from how to lead a team to how to lead a meeting to how to build trust to how to deal with conflict. There are good chapters for those who are main leaders or those who volunteer under other leadership. Again, worth the read but don’t expect to read it through in one hit. It’s also worth noting that the author is Australian.

4. Without Warning by David Rosenfelt

A novel based around a murderer and his son seeking to get revenge on the Chief of Police. It moves quickly, involves a good amount of mystery, and is a fun read/listen.

5. Martin Luther by Eric Metaxas

There are plenty of Martin Luther biographies to read. Some are dry and academic but Metaxas’ one certainly isn’t. Like all good Metaxas books it is reasonably fast-paced and with great little side stories about what is going on in wider culture. I tend to read quickly to the halfway point and then slow down when reading Metaxas and this happened here too. It could have been shorter but is still a valuable and fun read on the life of one of the more significant people in world history and church history. You’re in for a humorous treat on page 334 too.

6. Reset: Living a Grace-paced Life in a Burnout Culture by David Murray

Easily the best book on this list. It may have been because of the time of year I read this one, or because I was feeling tired after 2018. Whatever it was, this book gives great theology that moves into great practice for rest, sleep, work, identity, sin and temptation, eating, exercise, and numerous other factors that can cause us to deplete our energy and lead us to burnout. Again, focused on Christian leaders but really gives good wisdom for a grace-paced life for all believers. I listened by audio, I’ll make sure I pick up a hard copy in due course. I think it’ll be useful for a small group study or course too.

7. Act of Treason by Vince Flynn

A fast-paced novel (ironic given the last book mentioned) about the attempt to take down the President and the US government. A typical thriller involving the CIA, the Russians, terrorists, and sleazy politicians.

8. How To Be A Christian: Your Comprehensive Growth to Flawless Spiritual Living by The Babylon Bee

The Babylon Bee. Enough said.

The whole book is satire. It’s mostly amusing but perhaps they do their best work in short blog posts, rather than 150-page books.

9. The Hand of Justice by Susanna Gregory

This is volume 10 in the Matthew Bartholomew series. I’ve grown to love the main characters of this series and the setting of medieval Cambridge is fascinating. There are always far too many murders to be anything realistic but it’s great fun when you’re into it. It is a holiday read as the writing is slow, nothing happens quickly. But, I liked this volume more than some of the recent ones I’d read.

10. The Prophet by Gibran Kahlil

A famous spiritualistic work by the admired Lebanese poet and writer Kahlil Gibran. I’ve known of this book since I lived in Lebanon over 10 years ago, he’s very famous and well regarded. The Prophet is about a prophet (obviously) who gives wisdom on the human condition and what it means to be human in relation to love, marriage, work, death, beauty, and other such topics. I was happy to have read this for the first time.

I hope you’ve had a good time reading so far in 2019 too.