The following Reading Guide is part of my 2023 presentation at the WELS National Conference for Lutheran Leadership entitled, “Not Just True, but Good.” These are books I recommend reading if you want to dig into the writing that has shaped my thinking on the subject of goodness and truth in Christian ministry.
The books are presented in no particular order.
The Life We’re Looking For
by Andy Crouch
Andy Crouch has a well-earned reputation as a careful Christian thinker with an ability to articulate the goodness of deep Christian practices. His latest book, “The Life We’re Looking For,” is, by far, his best and most challenging work. In fact, his vision of the good life is so expansive and compelling that it begins to feel impossible to accomplish in our current culture. But Crouch points out that even massive changes are possible—even when they begin around a small table. His work is a gentle but profound call to avoid resigning ourselves to an unsatisfying fate and strive for something that is truly good.
The Gospel Comes with a House Key
by Rosaria Butterfield
Rosaria Butterfield’s book on hospitality has been consistently challenging, convicting, and convincing. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to read Butterfield as a manual on “how to deal with LGBTQ,” but her book is far more than that. She makes a compelling case for the practice of “radically ordinary hospitality,” especially in contrast to counterfeit forms of hospitality. It’s difficult to read some of the stories she tells and not come away feeling as if the kind of ministry she calls Christians to practice is distinctively and decisively good.
You Are Not Your Own
by Alan Noble
Alan Noble’s second book is a remarkably clear-eyed assessment of the many specific ways in which our world is broken paired with a refreshingly Christ-centered vision for how Christian teaching reorients people toward God, their Savior, and thus to a life that is marked more and more by goodness and fullness. Noble popularizes big ideas to neatly identify the core myth of the late modern West: You are your own and you belong to yourself. Such a view stands in utter contrast to the Christian message, which is the title of the book: You Are Not Your Own. In this book Noble shows how the fundamental claim of the gospel necessarily means a fundamental change in the way we live in the world. We cannot act as our culture prescribes for that would be an agreement that we belong to ourselves and not to Christ.
The Gospel Driven Church
by Jared Wilson
Jared Wilson has been deeply involved the Evangelical movement in America and has come to conclude, along with other prominent figures from his theological and ecclesiastical tradition, that what he calls the “attractional model” of church and ministry is not just ineffective and outdated but also at odds with the kind of witness the Scripture calls the church to embody. Lutherans tempted by the apparent appeal of evangelical ministry models are wise to listen to voices from inside that world that advise everyone to learn from their mistakes.
by Michael Horton
Michael Horton has a gift for clearly and concisely identifying and explaining theological and cultural trends that affect Christian churches and their work. In his work Christless Christianity, Horton chronicles the many ways in which Christian churches have sought to embody not so much the doctrines of Jesus Christ but the values and assumptions of the surrounding culture. He calls this kind of Christianity a Christless kind. While we Lutherans will demur from some of Horton’s Reformed doctrinal convictions, it’s difficult for any serious Christian to find much to quibble with when it comes to Horton’s overall analysis.
by Jay Kim
Jay Kim is a young pastor who calls Silicon Valley his home. His work in Analog Church is worth heeding as the careful reflection of a person who has lived in the commercial and technological logic long enough to find it deeply unsatisfying. He has formulated useful distinctions and definitions that will help any Christian to think more carefully and more clearly about the way in which a congregation can carry out ministry in a digitally mediated world. Kim’s call to return to deeper practices (that he characterizes as analog) challenge readers caught up in instrumental thinking to imagine the possibility that there are goods more important and more enduring than efficiency and scale.
by Alan Noble
Alan Noble’s first book, Disruptive Witness, effectively weaves together philosophical and theological concerns over goodness and transcendence with insightful observations of the many ways in which our mediated lives end up impoverished of such things. This work takes the big ideas of theologians and philosophers and popularizes them without oversimplifying them. Perhaps most helpful of all, Noble is able to make clear and specific application of such ideas in a way that is aimed at crafting a Christian witness that will resonate in culture instead of dissipating in it.
by Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith is a Lutheran layman with an impressive list of valuable publications. He specializes in analyzing cultural thinking, especially postmodern thinking, and applying the subsequent insights to the ways in which Lutherans go about their work in the world. Authentic Christianity does what many of Veith’s other books do so well: it positions Lutheranism as uniquely able to articulate and embody the good of the gospel in a culture like ours. Veith urges Lutherans to lean into the distinctiveness of their theology and practice instead of trying to mimic the broader culture and the Evangelicalism caught in its thrall. Lutherans will enjoy reading this book not because Veith is a partisan, but because he makes a compelling case.
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self
by Carl Trueman
Carl Trueman’s work is indispensable in providing a thorough, serious, and scholarly work of historical and philosophical analysis of how, precisely, our culture arrived at the kind of thinking that now dominates subjects of identity, personhood, and sexuality. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self introduces readers to a range of important concepts that not only help bewildered people make sense of the times but also reveals how we, too, are enmeshed in the same cultural currents. This is a dense work of professional commentary. Since its publication, Trueman has produced a popular version of the same argument for a more broad audience called Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution.
The Trellis and the Vine
by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne
Colin Marshall and Tony Payne have managed to write a practical ministry manual that does not make already-weary workers feel defeated and depressed. This is due in large part to the fact that the authors have aimed to articulate an approach to ministry that is distinct from the best-selling style of superstar pastors. The Trellis and the Vine is a careful call to avoid the trap of thinking of church work as exclusively institutional. In a world where churches increasingly believe they need to scale up indefinitely through media ministry, the distinctively personal approach to disciple-making in this book will come as a welcome and refreshing alternative. There is a great deal of practical wisdom worth reading and taking to heart in this book.
by Susanna Clarke
Unlike everything else on this list, this book is a work of fiction, so I will call it a bonus recommendation. Susanna Clarke’s novel is a literary exploration of the mystery and paradox of what it means to be connected with (or alienated from) the world around us. Piranesi explores themes of enchantment and disenchantment as a lens through which the reader can analyze his or her own relationship to life in the world around us. Because this is a novel, the text will not explicitly spell out everything for the reader, nevertheless, the careful reader will probably not only enjoy the story but also get a sense of the truths at which the author is gesturing.