If I Could Only Have 25 Books in My Ministry Library …

A friend of mine was interested in my take on a recent post by Thom Rainer, What If I Could Only Have 25 books in My Minister’s Library? I compiled my list and short descriptions of reasons for each of my selections before I looked at his list, to see how they compared.

Like Mr. Rainer, my list encompasses a range of topics and issues, and reflects my personal preferences. However, his list was what I suspected it would be: 25 books for a scholarly theologian. I guess that is how he interprets being a “minister” – some who emphasizes academic studies, exegetical research, and preaching/teaching. Certainly, there’s a role for a resource list like his. However, there was very little on his list that was directly about praxeology – practical ministry frameworks and methods – just a few titles on evangelism and church. And while his theological studies may “minister” biblical answers to people, it doesn’t seem to me it does much for the apprehension of people’s personal and social questions first, if at all.

I consider myself a ministry practitioner. I’ve been involved primarily with recovery ministries, social enterprise and church start-ups, and advocacy for survivors of spiritual abuse. So, I’m more interested in making sure I listen carefully and “get it” about actual questions, and then search the Bible for concept frameworks and practical applications as answers. My experience is that answers not matched to questions tend not to connect for people, but can pressure them to conform for wrong reasons. Also, I’ve found in my research on toxic systems and spiritual abuse that if you have supposedly sound theology but have a deficient praxeology, you tend not to be a minister who empowers hope, but end up a malignancy waiting to happen. So, I start with questions to explore, not answers to impose. My list intuitively leaned toward cultural systems and their specific underlying worldview paradigms, where Mr. Rainer’s understandably leaned toward systematic theology and books on specialist disciplines.

That said, maybe my strategy for choosing these books is more important than the final selections. In my opinion, robust ministries call for us to be generalists, conversant in multiple domains and disciplines, so we have raw materials from which to synthesize trustworthy ministries. And by trustworthy ministries, I mean:

  • Create a safe environment for teamwork.
  • Suitable for the participants’ personal abilities and community resources.
  • Culturally sensitive to the setting.
  • The appropriate scale for both the project and the context.
  • Can survive unavoidable paradigm and cultural shifts.
  • Leave flexible legacies for next generations.

So, that’s my strategy for selections, along with making most of my choices accessible reading levels for everyday disciples (some even for children). If you find it surprising that the vast majority involve storying, application, and concrete ministry, you may want to check out my posts on “culturologists versus philosophists” here and here for more exploration of these very different approaches that seem to be represented in how I differ from Mr. Rainer in making choices. Speaking of which, here are my 25 books for ministers, in the order their categories came to mind.

Social Control Systems in Guilt-Based, Shame-Based, and Fear-Based Cultures

Systems of control can occur in any kind of society, but tend to take on a different flavor depending on the way the culture has developed. In general terms, guilt-based cultures deal with issues of right/wrong, good/evil; shame-based cultures with issues of social relationships and the common good; and fear-based cultures with issues of power and dominance.

1. Grey is the Color of Hope, by Irina Ratushinskaya. Autobiography that shows how to survive under traumatic stress (i.e., the Gulag) and maintain spiritual freedom despite the control by compliance, plus live with others well in a multicultural/multireligious environment.

2. The Cultural Revolution: Years of Chaos in China, by Andrew Langley. Middle-school resource book for studying social control by chaos. (Middle-school books along this line often provide a great source for getting the big picture of complex historical problems.)

3. The End of Apartheid in South Africa, by Lindsay Michie Eades. Resource book for reflecting on issues of racism, as well as society-wide efforts to prevent its re-rooting through truth and reconciliation process.

Personal Growth, Transformation by Grace, and Relationships

Many things are involved in discipleship. If we do not address the follow essential issues, I believe we will fall short in following Jesus and becoming more Christlike in our character and behaviors.

4. Finding Authentic Hope and Wholeness: 5 Questions That Will Change Your Life, by Kathy Koch. Five core issues that every individual faces in the process of growth: security (who can I trust?), identity (who am I?), belonging (who wants me?), purpose (what can I do to make a difference?), and competence (what can I do well?).

5. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, by Henri Nouwen. Relating with God through His system of grace – instead of through legalism and mere duty, which bring no one to Christlike maturity. Directly or indirectly, Nouwen addresses three core issues of personhood and cultural systems – guilt, shame, and fear.

6. When Sorry Isn’t Enough: Making Things Right with Those You Love, by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas. Because not everyone’s “love languages” or learning styles are the same, communicating across those differences can be difficult – especially when conflict and hurt have entered the picture. This is at the practical application end of the concept of repentance.

Learning Styles, Strengths, and Communication

Theological studies typically appeal to those with learning styles that lean toward approaches that are abstract, analytical, conceptual and promote the idea of theory-into-practice. First we arrive at the correct systematic theology, and then we apply it. God did not design everyone to process information that way. Just as many (maybe more?) are “wired” for an opposite approach of action-reflection where it makes more sense to them to jump into an experience and sort out lessons later. If academicians and practitioners can’t bridge these God-designed differences, the unique contributions of each will get lost. This set of books serves as a starter course on how to identify differences and integrate  them for a more effective communications, learning, and creative applications.

7. How Am I Smart? A Parent’s Guide to Multiple Intelligences, by Kathy Koch. (A revised edition is due out soon with the title, 8 Great Smarts.) Core concepts about learning styles that will help us understanding activating the vest in people through encouraging different modes of learning.

8. Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. A popular-level book sharing research on what makes for paradigm-shifting innovators in any field of endeavor. While this is not a book with lots of ideas about how to be creative, it gives the necessary framework and real-world examples for how creativity changes things and what it means to be a “creative person.”

Gender and Sexuality

Issues related to gender, identity, and sexuality have become some of the most fractious of our times. To minister well, we need a big picture of what issues face men and women, girls and boys, globally and not just regionally. This set of books offers analysis into those concerns.

9. Sons of the Father: Healing the Father-Wound in Men Today, both by Gordon Dalbey. A holistic, grace-based approach to masculinity and growth that takes into account personal, cultural, generational, and spiritual warfare factors. Dalbey was a pioneer in men’s ministry before it became overrun by “shame-based, performance-oriented” approaches.

10. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. This list would be out-of-balance if it did not include a book addressing critical issues regarding women and culture – such as misogyny, domestic violence, sexual abuse, human trafficking, etc.

11. Redeeming Sex: Naked Conversations About Sexuality and Spirituality, by Debra Hirsch. Debra Hirsch helps us find the dynamic tension between relating with LGBT individuals and holding steadfastly to strong beliefs about biblical sexuality and morality.

Culture and Ministry Contextualization

I’d suggest that the greatest deficiency in conventional academic programs for seminary students is in how to observe, analyze, and interpret cultures so that our teaching, relating, and ministering connects biblical insights with what is actually going on. Missiology students generally get training on culture and contextualization; M.Div. students don’t seem to. Most of these books offer critiques of culture and ministry, along with principles and practices for how to get a better handle on the big picture of the world around us.

12. Create a Culture: A Complete Framework for Students to Use in Creating an Original Culture, by Carol Nordgaarden. If we want to understand how to analyze a culture for appropriate ministry contextualization, one of the best ways to go about it is to learn how to build a culture from scratch. And using this book as a guide makes it something we can do alongside children.

13. Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time, by James Gurney. Illustrated children’s book that shows the significance of eco-systems for the planet and of an integrative multiculturalism for communities.

14. Perspectives on World Mission: A Reader, edited by Ralph Winter and Steven Hawthorne. A classic collection that covers a broad scope of global issues and approaches in mission, and is updated at least every decade or so.

15. Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid, by Peter Gill. The 1985 Live Aid concert for famine relief in Ethiopia turned the paradigm of international aid from professionalism and politics on its head, and opened it to populism and participation. While there is much to critique in the event, the accounts of the problems it addressed and the problems it faced are crucial to understanding similar sets of problems on the horizons of humanitarian aid today, 30 years later.

16. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. These authors with the Chalmers Center are producing a series of books that center on social situations that can be doorways to personal transformation – but where our ministries are often counterproductive because they do things for others rather than equip and empower others to do things for themselves and their communities.

17. The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church: and the Causes Which Hinder It, by Roland Allen. Starting 100 years ago, Roland Allen’s critiques of conventional theologies for doing missions and church pinpointed key issues that still linger today. This book in particular identifies problems of conformity and cultural domination that quench the Spirit and the spread of the gospel.

Paradigms and Transformation

Another typical deficiency in conventional academic seminary degrees is in how to understand paradigms and systems, plus the dynamics of transformation and its potential consequences. In my writings, I talk about how change is inevitable, but transformation is intentional. There are many changes going on around us that we have no control over, such as global paradigm shifts, which cultures are becoming more dominant, the changeover in generations of leadership. Effective ministry requires understanding the times, and knowing what we should do, i.e., foresight, and a philosophy of what “good” transformation is all about. These books are about those kinds of concepts and skills.

18. The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World, by Peter Schwartz. A primer on what “futuring” and “strategic foresight” are about – which are essential skills for understanding kinds of changes in global paradigms and cultures that are unavoidable, versus those we can seek to transform, and how.

19. Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, by James P. Carse. This intriguing book lays out the overly black-or-white, competitive thinking that drives us toward always have winners and losers – versus the kinds of thinking that lead to collaboration and win-win scenarios.

20. Unfreezing Moves: Following Jesus into the Mission Field, by Bill Easum. Important for its approach to using organic systems approaches to ministry instead of programmatic and institutional methods, and to see transformation as not trying to find organizational perfection.

21. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise, by Craig O’Hara. Helpful as a comprehensive case study on how specific kinds of thinking processes, values, and beliefs shape a culture or subculture. This was O’Hara’s master’s thesis, and it offers a great analysis for reflecting on cultural contextualization.

Recent History of Evangelical Christianity, Missional Streams, and Toxic Ministry

It’s been my observation that missional ministry, social entrepreneurship, and community development have become increasingly integrated in the past 20 years. This often represents a reintegrated paradigm that cannot be classified as liberal or conservative, because it keeps personal morality and social ethics in dynamic tension, along with the gospel for salvation in which transformed people live out a “Kingdom culture” of Christlikeness toward our neighbors. This set of books documents and critiques the old and new paradigms we are straddling, in terms of both generations and ministry methodologies, and identifying what tends to lead to malignant leadership styles and toxic ministry systems.

22. In Search of Authentic Faith: How Emerging Generations are Transforming the Church, by Steve Rabey. Important for laying out the root issues and different streams in the “emerging ministry” movement of the mid-1990s. These same issues will face the Church in transitioning its legacy to the Millennial generation. Many leaders from the younger (Xer) generations then are now in more prominent roles of missional leadership – or of blatant misuse of their roles for personal benefit and in spiritually abusing others.

23. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church, by Alan Hirsch. (Watch for a forthcoming revised edition.) Critique of many aspects of conventional evangelicalism and missions, with constructive responses for developing a missional mindset for ministering wherever the Spirit plants us.

24. UnLeader: ReImagining Leadership … and Why We Must, by Lance Ford. Critiques the conventional CEO-business-megachurch-programmatic models of ministry leadership and staffing, and provides organic, systems, grace-based alternatives.

25. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church, by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen. One of the earliest Christian books on spiritual abuse and toxic religion, and still in print. It is not enough to think we can create “safe” ministry environments simply by studying the positive side of theology. This classic book puts the negative realities on our radar.

Honorable Mention Add-Ons

In case I were awarded 10% more shelf space for my ministry library, these are what I would add.

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud. So much of communication has turned toward storying, and much storying uses visual languages – photos, comics, manga, movies. This book helps us understand that important language with significance influence in shaping our times.

Streetstyle: From Catwalk to Sidewalk, by Ted Polhemus. (Revised edition.) Describes every major Western subculture from 1940 onward into the 1990s, overviewing their clothing styles, and the substance behind them in terms of values and other key features of worldview paradigms that go with their cultural parameters. An incredible source for thinking through what draws people together into new tribes and movements that sets them apart from people of other paradigms.

Big Ideas: Linking Food, Culture, Health, and the Environment, by Center for Ecoliteracy. This fascinating book gives us a great example for systems curriculum development, showing how to get across “the big ideas” on all four key topics in age-appropriate materials and methods for grades K through 12.

P.S. If this exercise were about what mini-library I’d take with me if I were going to be stranded on a desert island, my choices would be: The Bible, and the complete works of the early church fathers, Hildegard von Binge, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis, Irina Ratushinskaya, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, and Charles M. Russell’s artwork. That’d keep me busy until my rescue ship comes in …

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4 thoughts on “If I Could Only Have 25 Books in My Ministry Library …

    • 🙂 Thanks, Jan. I do hope that wisdom comes from reading widely and reflecting deeply on how things fit together and apply in the world as it is.

      I’ve read all or parts of 80% of those titles and the others are on my reading lists for the training materials I’m writing … just been waiting til I get to that place in the program to read or finish them. A few titles I’ve read multiple times, and *Grey is the Color of Hope* I’ve read 10 times — the most of any non-fiction book I own.

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