Monday, November 20, 2017

For Your Consideration, Sixteen Recommendations

Bring the Books 10

Note: With this post I bring to an end my series on a minister's reading. I may from time to time add book reviews as part of the mix going forward, but for the moment this series is done. As has become my custom, with the arrival of the holiday season I will now take a break from blogging. A new series will begin in January.

Last week we discussed the eight types of reading every minister ought to do. Today, I want to end this series with some recommendations for each of these eight types of reading. Of course, these are simply examples and are by no means meant to be a thorough discussion of all that you should read in a particular category. If you have been reading this blog over the last couple of months and you find yourself with an increasing conviction that you need to grow in this area, today's post, along with Joe Cassada's Puritan recommendations, is a great place to start. So without further ado let us commence.

1) Dennis Corle, "Spiritual Leadership", three volumes
While he could use a bit more organization and seems to think an editor is the first step on the road to liberalism, he also packs an incredible amount of content into this set. There are shorter books, more popular books to begin with in relation to leadership but these volumes really helped me. They drove home the idea that leadership is two things: influence and service. They proceeded to examine a veritable plethora of Scriptures on the subject from a wide variety of angles.
2) John Milton Gregory, "The Seven Laws of Teaching"
Gregory was a fine Christian, and the first president of the University of Illinois. This is an old book, but you all know I like dead guys. It is also rather small, and easily digestible. In this book Gregory lays out the basic essentials that every teacher needs. I am not referring to materials but to a philosophical understanding of how to approach teaching in order to ensure that your pupils are actually learning. It is a fantastic book.

1) R. A. Torrey, "The Fundamentals", four volumes
Of course, if you call yourself a fundamentalist you ought to read this, period. But beyond the intellectual honesty of reading the set that was so influential in our establishment, it is simply good stuff. Torrey pulled together a wide range of ministerial experience, literary talent, and intellectual heft. The result is a genuine classic. You owe it to yourself to think your way through these.
2) J. Dwight Pentecost, "Things to Come"
This classic discussion of eschatology, while a bit dated, has yet to be out done, and remains the best of the one volume books on the subject written from a dispensational perspective. Dallas Theological Seminary has produced some dead preachers, for sure, but it has also produced some excellent books. This is among them. Read it slowly, especially if you are new to the subject.

Areas in Which You Are Weak:
This one is obviously highly personal, but here are two that helped me.
1) Jim Berg, "Changed Into His Image"
Holiness, or sanctification, is an awful weak point for the IFB movement. We generally equate it with standards that are little more than a list of don'ts. Jim Berg, longtime professor at BJU, lays out an excellent case for a complete approach to personal holiness. I have at least 25 books on holiness in my office. I am currently writing one. This one is simply the best of them all. At least until mine comes out… <grin>
2) Jeremy Pierre, Deepak Reju, "The Pastor and Counseling"
Several years ago, after feeling an increasing sense of lack in my own understanding of and ability in counseling, I set out to educate myself. Shortly, I came across the biblical counseling movement. Several seminars and books later, I count myself an appreciater (is that a word?) while not quite a follower. Along the way I came across this little book. It is much more up to date and realistic than Jay Adam's pedantic tomes. It does a good job giving the essentials of a basic approach to counseling, and thus is a great place to start if this happens to be one of the weaknesses you want to improve.

1) Jim Binney, "The Ministry of Marriage"
I fell in love with this book. It is so unflinchingly scriptural. Binney, an independent Baptist pastor with a wide experience in counseling troubled marriages, hammers home the idea that marriage is about ministering to your mate rather than manipulating them for your own ends. It is one of those rare books that has the potential to be life-changing.
2) Denny Kenaston, "The Pursuit of Godly Seed"
Kenaston, who transitioned from an IFB preacher to something a little closer to Mennonite, clearly placed a pre-eminence on his family in both his ministry and his personal life. His approach can be frustrating at times in its advocacy for a rural lifestyle, but setting that aside it is pure gold. It is a warm, thorough treatise, both philosophical and practical. I cannot tell you how often I wept as I read it, as I thought of and prayed for my own children along the way.

1) Michael Kerrigan, "A Dark History: The Roman Emperors"
If you preach the Bible you really need to understand Rome. It colors everything that happens in the New Testament. Now you could, for example, listen to the massive History of Rome podcast or read the equally massive Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I have done both of those and more besides, but for a much quicker introduction to the green screen of the New Testament I offer you this. It is a concise, interesting presentation of the moral, legal, civil, economic, and political walking disaster that was the Roman emperor, for the most part.
2) James R. Beller, "America in Crimson Red"
Aside from the whole George Washington's sword proves he was a Baptist disaster, this book is a helpful introduction to Baptist history in America. Its wisdom is that it confines itself to America, thus avoiding the thorny discussion of origin. Beller did his homework and it shows. It also shows us the important historical influence the Baptists have had here, and to our shame our complete failure to live up to our forefather's church planting efforts.

What Interests You:
Again, as with weaknesses, this is personal, but I offer you two as an illustration.
1) Mickey Hart, "Drumming at the Edge of Magic"
Mickey Hart was for several decades the lead drummer for the Grateful Dead. More than a drummer, however, he spent so much time studying drumming he essentially became an ethno-musicologist. Of course, from his perspective this is all a healthy exercise in learning to let the drum speak. From my perspective it was an impeccably researched, absolutely undeniable, horrific proof of the demonic presence in beat heavy rhythmically oriented music. If you can read this book as a Christian and still see nothing wrong with rock music I doubt I can help you understand anything spiritual at all.
2) Andrew Jukes, "The Names of God"
Another under-rated dead guy, Kregel has given us a gift with this reprint. The Bible is the revelation of God. This is basic to understanding it. It shows me who God is. Thus, as I read and study it I read and study it to see what it shows me about Who God is. One of the most interesting ways God reveals Himself in Scripture is via His self-chosen names. They show us Who He thinks He is – which is who we ought to think He is, naturally. Jukes deals both expositionally and devotionally in so doing. I think three or four of my personal praise lists are directly related to the names of God, and this book was the genesis of that in my life.

What God Emphasizes:
1) Martyn Lloyd-Jones, "Studies in the Sermon on the Mount"
You are reading a guy who wrote a book on the Sermon on the Mount. I would rather you read his book than mine. Why we independent Baptists so horribly neglect what is Christ's longest, best, and greatest sermon is utterly mystifying to me. Remember what I said above about life-changing books? This is one of those.
2) Andrew Murray, "With Christ in the School of Prayer"
Another dead guy who really ought to be read more, Murray was a warm-hearted South African most associated now with the Keswick Convention. This is a simple book. In fact, I recently read this book over a series of weeks to our Wednesday morning prayer group. I do not agree with all of it, naturally, but he does an excellent job of moving prayer deeper and farther than the average layman has ever viewed it. Read it. Then pass it on to your people.
Did I mention Edersheim yet? Ha! At any rate, here are a couple more very much worth your consideration.
1) J. W. Shepard, "The Christ of the Gospels"
The second best book I have read on the life of Christ, it edges out Pentecost's "Words and Works of Jesus Christ" because of it is simply a stronger book. It is warmer, better written, and more historically based. In places, he is so good he pushes Edersheim. Shepard shows you Jesus, and does it well. And that is awesome.
2) James Stalker, "The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ"
This book does not pretend to be a discussion of the life of Christ. It is neither historical nor expositional. Rather, it is boldly and plainly devotional. Stalker aims to bring home to us the personal impact of the last hours of Jesus' life, and he does so very well. So often this genre can turn into 75 pages of minute discussion on the date and place of Jesus' birth – I kid you not, those books are in my library. Stalker aims Jesus' death square at your heart, and he hits his target.
As a wonderful throw in here at the end, for those of you that are looking for a more detailed list of recommended books, let me point toward Clarence Sexton's book list. It contains 524 specific recommendations divided into categories such as Bible Study and Methods, Bible Dictionaries and Encyclopedias, Commentaries, Geography, Concordances, Hermeneutics, Old Testament General, Greek Language Tools, Introduction to the New Testament, The Life of Christ, Miracles, Parables, Eschatology, Theology and Apologetics, Bible Doctrines, God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, Christology-Atonement, Christology-Life of Christ, Christology-Christ in the Old Testament, Baptists, Church Administration and Polity, Biographies, Missions, Prayer, The Christian Life, and each individual book of the Bible. As you can imagine, it is a massive compilation, and I think every serious independent Baptist minister ought to mine it. It is a tremendous resource. You can find it here

In closing, let me say how much I enjoyed writing this series, and the interaction I have had with you all along the way. I hope it has likewise been a blessing to you. See you all again in January.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Eight Types of Reading Every Minister Ought to Do

Bring the Books 9

"Eight? Seriously? You're killing me, here."

Quit whining. Toughen up. Endure hardness as a good soldier, bub.

There. Now that I have gotten off to a good, compassionate start and empathized with my reader let us proceed apace.

In my view, there are eight different categories or areas which you ought to be reading constantly. And I mean in addition to your normal, routine sermon prep. I am not always reading books in all eight of these categories at the same time, but I am constantly reading books in these eight areas. So without further ado, here they are.

Leadership. The scriptural definition for minister is servant, but the scriptural definition of pastor is shepherd. Simply put, a shepherd must lead or else he will be a lousy shepherd. 
In this category, I place books written primarily for me as a minister teaching me how to be a better minister. This would include books on leadership, various aspects of pastoring, staff development, time management, even books on preaching. I do not like the term self-improvement, but that's what this category largely holds – books that help me to develop my potential in fulfilling my responsibilities to the people around me to whom I minister.

Theology. I did not have a class on systematic theology in Bible college. I got my class in books instead. I do not mean to say that I am always sitting around reading treatises on systematic theology, but I do mean I am constantly reading books about some aspect of theology. I am a Baptist. That implies a certain ecclesiology. I am premillennial. That (usually) implies dispensationalism. I am not a Calvinist. That implies common sense. Sorry, I could not resist… Anyway, these are all theological subjects. They raise questions that need thought and study to answer well. So I constantly read books related to some aspect of theology.

Areas in which you are weak. Although this list is not given in order of importance I place this one here because there is often a crossover between the need to study theology and the need to study areas in which you are weak. All of us have things we claim to believe, things that if the truth were told we have done very little study to support. Baptists don't speak in tongues! Why? I do not mean you heard two sermons about it and read a pamphlet from Curtis Hutson. I mean have you ever dug into it, comparing Scripture with Scripture, reading up on its history and process. Do you know what you believe about the gifts of the Spirit, about continuing revelation, about the fullness of the Spirit, about the power of the Spirit, etc.? And that is just a few aspects of one subject.

Throughout my ministry some of my most profitable studies have been undertaken specifically to shore up areas in which I knew I was weak. Prophecy. Music. Alcohol. Holiness. The history and meaning of fundamentalism. I have a further list of another six or seven that I could give you off the top of my head, areas that I have not studied in depth but areas I know I need to. Some are theological, some are practical, some are historical, etc. I want to be a well-rounded preacher. I want to be able to give a good, detailed explanation of the truth as I teach the Word of God. The only way to do that is to constantly work on the gaps in the walls of your knowledge base.

Relationships. I believe life is largely a matter of relationships. If I am going to build a good life, if I am going to live it well, I need to be good at relationships. More importantly, if I am going to shepherd my people well I must be able to help them to build healthy, close, permanent relationships. So I have 50 books in my office about various aspects of marriage and parenting. I work through those routinely, and just as routinely add new ones to the stack.

In this sense – and this is a critical point – this area is different from the one that precedes it, areas in which you are weak. I knew I was weak on what I knew and believed about alcohol so I studied it out. But I have largely finished that study. I fixed what was a weak area, took good notes, preached through it, blogged through it, I am good in that area now. But although I already have a wide knowledge base about relationships, and even though I have preached and taught on it at some length, I am still going to constantly read up on it. It is too big and too important to my life and the life of my people for me just to study it once, set it on the shelf, and move on to something else. That section of my bookshelves sees frequent use and it always will.

Background. I think a man who preaches several hours a week for consecutive decades to the same group of people needs to develop a wide base of knowledge. It helps to keep his preaching and teaching new and fresh. So I am constantly reading books on background, books that do not specifically help me to prepare for anything in particular. This is history (religious and secular). This is biography (religious and secular). This is current events. This is economics. This is science. This is sports. This is politics. This is medicine. Etc. etc. And I do not mean that you read this from a newspaper. There is little accuracy and even less detail in a newspaper article. Read a book about it. A man who talks for a living should know something about everything. It not only allows him to enter into conversation intelligently with just about everyone, it seasons his public speaking, gives him a wealth of illustrations at his fingertips, and keeps his mind fresh. As previously mentioned, I do this on the secular side with Audible. I do it on the religious side with physical books.

What interests you. All study is tiring, but if your entire approach to reading and study is "I have to read this" it will be wearisome in the extreme. Break it up with something that you are reading just because you want to read it. For me, one of these areas is music. I have read dozens of books about music, but I am always on the lookout for another good biography, another good history. I find it simply fascinating. Other times, I put all my books aside, go to my shelves, and pull out something that just looks good. I still even read a little science fiction, now and again, just because I want to. And I would argue this kind of reading is good reading, too.

What God emphasizes. Years ago, I attended Clarence Sexton's week-long Pastor's College for two consecutive summers. It helped me, in fact it changed my life in at least two ways. One of those ways was this statement: "Place the emphasis where God places the emphasis."

Everything in the Bible is important or else it would not be there, but it is not all equally important. Jesus plainly said there were weightier matters of the law, that there was a greatest commandment, etc. Simply put, there are some things God emphasizes in Scripture more than others. My primary task is to preach the Word of God. I need to do it in such a way that I place the emphasis in my preaching where God places the emphasis in His Word.

For example, I have and do preach about how Christians ought to look, their appearance, and I do not apologize for it. In fact, I am doing a series about it on Wednesday nights right now. But if you stacked up my preaching you would find I have spent a whole lot more time preaching about the condition of our heart than I have the condition of our hair. Why? Because that is where God places the emphasis. I have studied the Word of God to find the things He discusses again and again and again, and I have sought to place my attention there. Faith. Love. Prayer. Holiness. Praise. Wisdom. The Word of God. Witnessing. Doctrine. The Second Coming. Who God is. Comfort. These are things that come up again and again in my preaching because these are things that come up again and again in the Word of God. If this is what God emphasizes it what I ought to emphasize. To ensure I do that I seek to keep thoughts related to this flowing across my mind all the time. So I am always reading something related to these great themes of Scripture.

Lastly, and most importantly, Jesus. He is the sum and substance of all that we believe and practice. He is the great what, the great how, and the great why. As the old song says, "Everything is Jesus, and Jesus is everything." Brethren, we ought to be constantly reading about Jesus. He is to be the great theme of our life, of our study, and of our preaching. He is to be lifted up. He is to be proclaimed. He is to be taught. He is to be praised. He is to be explained. He is to be applied. He is to be explored. He is to be modeled. He is to be obeyed. He is to be served. He is to be preached. He is to be taught. He is to be loved. Whatever else you read, read Jesus.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Four Helps to Better Reading

Bring the Books 8

Sir Francis Bacon
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
-Sir Francis Bacon

Assigned reading in college is practically useless. It is not useless because the books assigned are poor books. It is not useless because the idea – that a minister should learn to read as he learns to study – is a bad one. It is not useless because it is badly applied on the part of most Bible college students, though it is more often badly applied than not. It is useless because the typical independent Baptist Bible college student does not have time to read. He is most likely paying his own way through school, which necessitates a full-time job. He is pushed, prodded, harassed – I am sorry; I meant to say motivated there – to give his weekends away in ministry. At the same time, his heart and mind are constantly taken up with the fascination of one woman or another, until he settles on one in particular, at which point his attention is even more devoted to her. During all of this he is taking a full load of classes, juggling various assignments and tests. And into the midst of this maelstrom every professor drops a few of his favorite books, expecting the young man to carefully and thoughtfully plumb their depths. It cannot be done, nor will it be done.

Consequently, one of the first things I had to do in the ministry was to unlearn the process of reading that I had been forced to undertake in Bible college. I had to learn to read again how I had read a teenager, in a word, slowly. And that is the first counsel I would give you. In books of depth, worth reading, do so slowly.

I surrendered to the ministry at 14, and by 15 I had begun to raid my father's library. One of the most helpful books I found there was John R. Rice's Our God-Breathed Book - the Bible. In it Rice deals extensively with both the means and fact of inspiration, frequently citing numerous other authors in order either to support his own position or attack theirs. It was the first scholarly theological work I had ever read, and I was forced to read it slowly. It was either that or do not read it at all. I devolved upon a relatively simple plan. I would read slowly, and re-read any paragraph I did not understand until I did understand it.

It was this process – which I had abandoned in Bible college – I rediscovered after entering the ministry. Toward the end of my first decade of pastoring my preaching shifted rather remarkably, and it was due in part to this process. I came across Robertson McQuilkin's book on hermeneutics, Understanding and Applying the Bible, and I read it slowly, painfully so at times. I did not have a class on hermeneutics in Bible college. I had classes on preaching, which majored on presentation, but had learned little about how to grasp the words God had written. McQuilkin's book became my class, only one I taught myself, desperately thirsty to learn how to preach God's words rather than my own. Countless times in the years since I have opened a carefully selected work, and taught myself a class on Christ, on prophecy, on eschatology, on holiness, on music, on grace, on fundamentalism, etc.

The second simple piece of advice I offer is to take notes. I never, and I do mean never, read a book without a pen either in my hand or within inches of it. Some men preserve their books; I use them. They are tools, not museum pieces. When I am done with a book it is marked up from stem to stern, the margins are filled with barely legible scrawls, there are things circled, underlined, arrowed, and highlighted, and the pages are dog-eared. I do this not only because it helps me to mentally engage with the work, but more importantly, it helps me to remember what I learned when I come back to that book later. I can pick any book off my shelf that I have read in the last 15 years, and give you a detailed synopsis of its strengths and weaknesses, and especially of its unique, thought-provoking facts and concepts. Notes are how you remember something long after you have originally had a thought. Of all people, ministers who regularly outline sermons should understand this. I do not mean to imply that you need to use my casually evolved system, but one way or another you need to take notes as you read.

My third recommendation is that you add to your reading audio books. I do not read theology or church books, as I call them, on Audible. That is because I read them slowly, marking them up as I go along. But there are other types of books that are helpful for a minister that do not require such absolute concentration. Those are the types I purchase and read in audio format. For my purposes, these are almost exclusively history and biography.

I first began this program when I discovered the huge Chicago Public Library would ship any audio book they owned to my closest library, then later to an app on my phone. After reading most of the ones I desired I discovered that a small monthly fee would give me the right to purchase from a much wider range of materials on Audible, plus I would own the book when I was finished. In the past three years, in this manner, I have read biographies of Robert J. Oppenheimer, Napoleon, Churchill, Hitler, Tesla, Lawrence of Arabia, Steve Jobs, Custer, George H. W. Bush, and Ulysses Grant. I have read eight history books on WWII, one on Vietnam, one on the Crusades, two on the Revolutionary War, two on the Olympics, one on the Romanov dynasty, one on Al Qaeda, and two on the mafia. I have read the first three volumes of Will Durant's massive History of Civilization. I have read four works on various aspects of the Roman empire. I have read books detailing the history of various commodities such as oil, cod, and salt. I have also read several books that discuss the invention of the internet and of the growth of online platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon.

"Tom, unless you are sitting down and reading a half dozen hours a day that is implausible." Exactly. I read these when I am not sitting. If I am not working on something that requires my mental focus I am reading an audio book. I read when I am getting ready in the morning, when I am driving anywhere, when I am eating a meal alone, when I am at the gym, when I am working around the house or the church, and when I am sitting by my fire pit of a cool October evening. In this manner, I average several hours a day, hours in which my body is doing something else but my mind is relatively unoccupied.

My fourth recommendation is that you prioritize building a library. I do not mean the physical shelves. Those will come of necessity all on their own. I mean that you prioritize purchasing good books. If I go to a conference I block out several hours to spend prowling the tables full of materials. If I have a guest speaker coming in, and my work load is thus lighter that week, I will try to sneak away for an afternoon to one of several excellent used bookstores here in Chicago. If I am traveling I will almost always do the same, finding the used book stores in that area, and spending time in them. (The best one for religious books I have ever found is in Fort Wayne, Indiana, of all places.) When I come across a book referenced by someone else that looks intriguing, all other things being equal, I will add it to my Amazon wish list. That is a running tally of all the books you would like to buy if you ever got the money.

Speaking of money, how do you get it? In my case, and this is what I suggest to you as well, I went to my church and asked them for a sum of money I could spend every year on continuing education. I pastor many professional people, and they understand the importance of the constant learning that is necessary to stay on top in any particular field. They also expect the cost for this continuing education to be borne by their company rather than themselves. My situation is similar, and it was not difficult to get them to see this. Some years, I use that money to take classes on a subject which I feel needs strengthening. Other years I simply buy books with it. My church and I both benefit from this; it is a win-win.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not trying to set myself up as some kind of an expert. Many ministers read as much or more than I do, and they have excellent systems of their own to aid them in this. I am not saying that you must do each of these four things in order to be an effective minister. But if you do not have your own system, and you know your reading needs to improve, choose one of these to implement this year. Add another one the following year. Along the way, as you prioritize reading, you will develop in ways that naturally suit your own style of learning. And getting you to that point is the entire point of this blog series.

My college president used to often say, "Set your goal; plan your work; work your plan; and don't get sidetracked."

Good advice, that. Now go apply it to your reading.