Five ‘Must-Read’ Books for Ministry

By LeRoy Lawson

Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth
Richard J. Foster
New York: HarperOne, originally published in 1978

In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership
Henri J. M. Nouwen
New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989

Communicating for a Change
Andy Stanley and Lane Jones
Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2006

Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend
Andy Stanley
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012

Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples
Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger
Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2006


Recently Milligan College and Christian Standard asked veteran ministers on behalf of those beginning their ministerial journey, “What are the top five books that must be read to give encouragement, advice, and counsel?” An amazing array of nearly 300 titles were submitted. Only 68 books were mentioned more than once. The top five received from 11 to 13 votes. I agree that all of these are worth studying. Here are my thoughts, beginning with Book No. 1.


Submission and Celebration

I was surprised to see Richard Foster’s The Celebration of Discipline at the top of the list. I read it when it first appeared in 1978. It helped me then. Its relevance hasn’t diminished.

09_lawson_books2_JNThree of the five books promote pragmatic, energetic, businesslike churchmanship. In contrast, Foster’s immersion in the classic Christian disciplines reminds us that often in a determined walk with Christ, less is more, weakness is power, submission is freedom, and discipline leads to a life of celebration.

My favorite chapter extols the discipline of service. I too often stumble in practicing the more inward ones like meditation, prayer, and fasting. Quietness does not keep easy company with my metabolism. In serving, though, I can do and in doing feel a closeness with the Lord.

My point is this: if someone like me, with a will to walk with God but without a natural affinity for doing so, can find encouragement to experiment with—yes, and experience the joys of—the less naturally compatible disciplines (inward, outward, and corporate ones), then it’s no wonder that Foster’s modern classic receives the top vote as a must-read for young pastors. There’s something here to help everyone.


Leading by Serving

The best part of Henri Nouwen’s little book In the Name of Jesus is the epilogue. Here his mentally disabled friend Bill Van Buren from Daybreak (the L’Arche community for mentally disabled communities to which Nouwen moved following his Harvard professorship) helps him deliver his speech for the Center for Human Development in Washington, D.C.

The professor undoubtedly impressed the audience with the cogency of his remarks; his simple friend Bill, though, stole the show. Nouwen counseled against the temptations that ensnare leaders (“the desire to be relevant, the desire for popularity, and the desire for power”); Bill unconsciously displayed the genuine power of irrelevance, weakness, and simple love.

Read Nouwen’s speech for its insights into servant leadership. Read of Bill’s partnership in the gospel to learn equally important lessons from one who is unschooled—but learned in what really matters.


One Thought, Messy Lives

Andy Stanley’s Communicating for a Change clears up a mystery for this older reviewer. For years the big name in Atlanta was Charles Stanley. His sermons were eagerly heard all over America—and beyond. Then his tragic divorce sent him into eclipse. But the Stanley name soon reemerged bigger than ever. Only this time it was attached to Charles’s son Andy.

Was the young man riding on his father’s coattails? Was it just another case of “like father, like son”? No, to both questions. If young Stanley had published only one book, this one would be enough to prove he has uncanny insight into what is required to speak to and be heard by his own generation. That answers the “coattails” question. Andy stands on his own merit.

The second question? No, he’s quite unlike his father, whom he calls the master of the pointed sermon (you know, like the infamous “three points and a poem”—a saying he doesn’t attribute to his dad). In place of the traditional deductive sermon, designed to teach the Bible, he proposes thinking of the sermon “outline” as the route of the journey you are leading others along.

The first half of the book is pure fiction, a story in which a truck driver/preacher undertakes the task of teaching a young pastor how to connect with people and not merely preach at them. In the second half Stanley spells out his five-point sermon outline:

• Me—the preacher starts here but then quickly moves to

• We—the common ground shared by preacher and congregation. Then comes

• God—what’s revealed in Scriptures, the truth to be applied to and by

• You—the hearers. Then the final note of inspiration in which

• We (all of us) imagine a future in which we actually live this message.

Since people carry only one idea away from any sermon, anyway, Stanley’s argument for the one-point sermon makes good sense.

Two books by Andy Stanley in the “best five” list! It would be easy for a writer like me to resent a success like Stanley. Except that instead of resenting, when I finished reading I felt like singing the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Of course, I couldn’t do that, because Handel is so yesterday! And not being yesterday if you wish to build a church to reach today’s unchurched population is what Deep and Wide is all about.

That means, among many things, inviting in and accepting people who are a mess—which is just about everybody, isn’t it? So you offer truth and grace, in equal measures. As Stanley says, “Either you were a mess, are a mess, or are one dumb decision away from becoming a mess.” It’s when we are at our messiest that Jesus takes us just as we are. So does his body, the church, when it’s being true to its calling.

Sometimes Stanley shakes me up, as when he reports that his church requires candidates to agree to be filmed before they can be baptized. No scriptural precedent for that one! But such powerful testimonies their videos make.

The point is that everything his church is and does is about the disaffected, unconnected person—the person Christ came to save. While the content of worship services, including the preaching, is true to the gospel and rooted in the Word, the experience is tailored to appeal to non-Christians. As the author says repeatedly, our purpose is not to babysit the model that once may have been attractive but has grown stale, even a turnoff, over time.

North Point Ministries (33,000 people meeting each weekend in seven Atlanta-area churches—plus 15,000 more in 25 churches outside metro Atlanta) warns churches not to be so in love with its model of doing things that it accidentally abandons its mission. Here’s the key to staying on target:

Marry your mission.

Date your model.

Fall in love with your vision.

Stay mildly infatuated with your approach,

For a lasting, fruitful, ever-renewing ministry, stay married—to your mission.

Good plan.


It’s Simple!

The last book of the five is an old friend, one I’ve used in teaching church leadership: Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger’s Simple Church. All organizations are threatened by a natural drift from the simple vision that energized their founder to the often paralyzing structures and multiplied programs that thwart their attempts to grow and respond to a changing environment. Simple Church calls churches back to that original simplicity.

“To have a simple church,” the authors advise, “leaders must ensure that everything their church does fits together to produce life change. They must design a simple process that pulls everything together, a simple process that moves people toward spiritual maturity.” It’s all so, well, simple.

To achieve it, though, “the leadership and the church are clear about the process (clarity) and are committed to executing it. The process flows logically (movement) and is implemented in each area of the church (alignment). The church abandons everything that is not in the process (focus).”

Abandonment. That’s where courage comes in, as anyone knows who has ever tampered with the status quo.

Andy Stanley makes his appearance in this book, also, his North Point Church held up as a model of simplicity. “The reason North Point is able to do things so well is because they have chosen ‘to only do a few things.’”

And do them well.

You’ll want to check out chapter 8, “Saying No to Almost Everything.” That means reducing special events, combining new events with existing programs, rethinking Christmas services and youth events, and choosing to use special events strategically.

It’s simple.


LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary. He also serves as a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.

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