by Eddie Lowen
Every church leader, especially the primary communicator, the preacher, should fear staleness. Those who listen to us instinctively know whether or not we are digging the well deeper or skimming the surface. When people begin to lip-sync your pet phrases as you speak them . . . when you have to feign enthusiasm for things that should genuinely excite you . . . when you preach old sermons because you can’t imagine improving upon what you wrote several years ago—you are going stale.
The easiest ways to stay fresh are through reading and discussion. Not every book will expand your intellect, nourish your soul, or give you the next great vision for your church. But unless your reading is published exclusively by Harlequin or Marvel, you can’t read regularly without gaining something valuable.
When the editors asked me to explain how several books have impacted our church by improving my leadership, three immediately came to mind. I think you’ll enjoy this article more if I introduce the books according to what they helped me do.
A Book that Helped Me Want to Tackle a Tough Assignment:
Wesley K. Willmer, ed., Revolution in Generosity: Transforming Stewards to Be Rich Toward God (Chicago: Moody, 2008).
Despite some enviable giving statistics in the church I serve, some people there have yet to fully embrace biblical stewardship. That means I have to preach on the topic, a not-so-enviable task in the eyes of many.
The temptation for preachers is to think of church finances in terms of budgets, giving units, and per capita contributions. But there is so much more in play when money is being considered. Our goal must be transformation among those who follow Christ. The reality is that omitting the giving challenge amounts to neglect, regardless of how much our churches’ giving exceeds our budgets or beats the averages.
A popular marketing piece used by church planters promises that, if the recipient attends the new church, he will not be hounded for money. The mailing actually mocks churches that openly challenge people to give. But the “we really don’t care about your money” approach rarely stands the test of time.
Fast-forward three years: the same church leaders are huddled at Starbucks, devising a plan to recast the church’s message in order to multiply ministry resources. As they shift toward teaching biblical stewardship, they learn that people grow more as they give more.
Revolution in Generosity reminded me of how desirable and important it is for people to receive the stewardship challenge from our church and me. John Ortberg wrote, “The object of life, according to Jesus, is breathtakingly simple: Be rich toward God.” If Ortberg is on target, I can help people discover greater meaning by teaching them how and why to give.
I’ve been learning while working at this church leadership thing for a couple decades now. When I started, I was asking “what?” What works? But at midlife and midministry, asking “what?” is no longer adequate for me. I am also asking “why?”
If sermons on the amount attempt only to supply institutional resources, I’m not sure how many more I can muster. However, if those sermons are ultimately helping people draw close to God, I not only want to go through the motions, I want to jump at the opportunity.
Here’s the principle: Read books that help you gladly embrace challenging tasks, especially when people’s spiritual growth is on the line. Read books that help put an inspiring “why” back into your routine “what.” That is not only important for those who hear you; it is important to your soul.
By the way, when the “why” (motivation) of giving becomes clear to you and your church, the “what” (result) gets better and better. I serve a church that regularly associates generous financial support of kingdom causes with personal spiritual growth. Doing so allowed us to complete payments on a relocation loan several years ahead of schedule, while simultaneously planting multiple churches in major U.S. cities, while simultaneously adopting a poor community in Nairobi, while simultaneously investing hundreds of thousands in design fees for future facilities, while simultaneously upgrading our worship technology—all of which will help us reach people in greater numbers so they can be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ.
There is a symbiotic relationship between teaching people to give generously and seeing your church thrive.
A Book that Affirmed My Personal Leadership Style:
Thom S. Rainer, Breakout Churches: Discover How to Make the Leap (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).
Many Christians are weary of Christian leadership literature. Some are cynical because they have encountered some shameless marketing of Christian leadership products (my view: telling people what you have to offer is appropriate; but, yes, some seem to do it with more class). Others have soured on Christian leadership material because they believe there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to leadership (my view: enduring wisdom should be offered in fresh language for every generation).
Although I could name some Christian leadership gurus who seem both superficial and less than original, I continue to read leadership books because wise leadership will never be obsolete. As the leadership pendulum swings one way and then the other, reading about leadership trends continues to prove valuable to me. Even when I don’t agree with a leadership idea I’m reading, the reasons for my opposing views clarify as I read. I don’t follow (pursue) all the trends, but I do follow (track) the trends.
Rainer is the Jim Collins of the evangelical church. Just as Collins studies corporations and writes insightfully about his discoveries (Good to Great, How the Mighty Fall), Rainer knows how to convert research into leadership lessons for churches. Unlike George Barna, who seems too often to weave his own biases into his research commentary, Rainer seems more content to allow the data to shape his views.
That said, I had an unexpected valuable experience when reading Rainer’s Breakout Churches. I saw myself. For years, I had read leadership books that seemed to describe others. I read books that described the leader I hoped to become. But Rainer’s profile of a breakout church leader reminded me very much . . . of me.
I’m not suggesting I fully qualify as a breakout leader, but I do have the inclinations of a breakout leader. (Note: my colleague David Clark and his terrific church in Beloit, Wisconsin, actually did make Rainer’s list.) I found an in-depth analysis of my own type of leadership to be interesting, challenging, and heartening. Finding myself in the pages of a credible leadership book offered equal amounts of affirmation and challenge.
Here’s the principle: Read enough leadership material that you can identify your personal style of leadership. Understand it and maximize it.
A Book that Helped Me Equip Others:
Tony Jeary, Purpose-Filled Presentations: How any Christian can Communicate More Effectively to Anybody, Anytime, Anywhere (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 2009).
OK, full disclosure here: I serve on the Publishing Committee for Standard Publishing. Talk about shameless marketing! Even more, I didn’t have to buy this book! The president of Standard Publishing gave it to me! But none of that changes the fact that I found Purpose-Filled Presentations valuable. As I read Jeary’s advice, I realized it would be helpful to people in my church who serve in presenting roles. I liked the book enough that I found and downloaded the accompanying iPhone application.
The truth is that a lot of sincere people communicate important things in our churches, yet do it poorly. They need the help Jeary offers. Those who have to listen to them need you to give them this book!
However, if you don’t read it, you won’t realize who can benefit from it. The author’s scenarios make it easy to identify people in the church who will make your ministry better by providing better presentations.
Here’s the principle: Even when you don’t desperately need the material found in a book, reading it will advance your church’s ministry if you place the book in the hands of people who can use it. That is equipping the saints, which I read about in a very good book.
Eddie Lowen, a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee, is senior minister with West Side Christian Church, Springfield, Illinois.