This year was unlike any other and Zamyatin’s observation from 100 years ago rings true—”Revolution is everywhere, in everything. It is infinite.”2 I decided to take social distancing and quarantine as opportunities to read more. If anything—with the rise of propaganda, cancel culture, fact checking, revisionist history, conspiracy theories, and just too much information too fast—this year proved our need to read more. “Truth withers long before the roots are pulled.”1 I enjoy sharing those books which have most profoundly challenged and shaped my thinking about life and ministry. You can view my complete reading list from this year on Goodreads here. But these are my favorite books read in 2020 (not necessarily published this year).
10. The American Puritans by Dustin Benge and Nate Pickowicz
“It is our conviction that the American Puritans have a great deal to offer the church today.”
This book is surprising treasure trove of vibrant Christian lives worthy of our contemplation and emulation. In the modern celebrity culture, our heroes tend to be rather trivial. But the lives of these nine men and women from the 17th century challenged me with their profound character, influence, and accomplishments. Benge and Pickowicz widened my knowledge of them as individuals and broadened my understanding of their stories. These unsung heroes embody a perfect blend of the indomitable American Spirit and the jubilant spirit of Evangelicalism. I believe that by reading this book, you too will be enraptured by the spirit of the American Puritans—a spirit that is consumed by the glory of God. I am confident that the trivial things that so often enthrall you will likewise fade away and your eyes will be fixated on the enduring beauty of our Sovereign Lord and his Word. (Unfortunately, even growing up in New England, I was largely unaware of these precious saints and their unwavering devotion to Christ among much tribulation.)
9. A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry by Michael McGarry
“Youth ministry is for adolescence. The Family is for life. The Church is for eternity . . . Youth ministry is poised as a bridge to connect the Church and the family in their efforts to co-evangelize and co-disciple the next generation.”
I was drawn to this book because of the title and it was refreshingly biblical. McGarry retrieves the Old Testament mandate for the community to to raise up the next generation, the New Testament’s commission to make disciples, and the early church’s commitment to catchesis. Based of of these, he effectively shows that youth ministry is a far cry from the modern invention it is often depicted to be since the rise of “the teenager.” Discipleship is about passing the faith on to the next generation and it is never presented in the Bible or in history as the exclusive work of the family and/or the pastor. It has historically been a shared endeavor—integrated in communal worship. This is the best philosophy of youth ministry I know of. It is robustly biblical, historical, Gospel-centered, family-focused, and church-based. As the Church continues to debate various philosophies of youth ministry, this book brings the gift of clarity.
8. Confronting Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin
“When questions of truth carry life-and-death consequences, we see persuasion as an act of love.”
In a Western culture that continually disparages and mischaracterizes Christianity, we need clear answers to difficult questions. McLaughlin insightfully answers twelve of the hardest ones posed in our day and age. She has spent years engaging with brilliant friends who dismiss Christianity and therefore refuses to give “smug, simplistic answers.” This book is the outworking of her life and experience as a Christian woman in the secular world. In a rapidly changing society, the fundamental traditions of Christianity are under attack. Evangelicals are accused of being violent, hateful, homophobic, misogynistic, racist, and self-righteous. She points out, “But, ironically, our habit of equating Christianity with the Western culture is itself an act of Western bias . . . While Christianity held a monopoly on Western culture, Western culture never held a monopoly on Christianity.” This insight is the strength of the entire book and is integrated in every answer she gives. These accusations are lobbed at Christians in a Western echo chamber that ignores the Church as a global, muti-ethnic organism whose teaching and values have significantly contributed to the dignity of people all over the globe. This is an excellent resource as we seek to persuade others of the vibrant, transforming truths of Christianity.
7. Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”
I honestly could not have picked a better year to read this book. How it made me long for the gathered, embodied church during the days of online church! Living among other Christians is one of the greatest joys and privileges of life on earth. Bonhoeffer challenges us to greatest depths of authenticity and vulnerability in our relationships which will magnify our need for Christ. In order to achieve this we must each privately pursue a deeper relationship with Christ. As we are members of the same body, “Every member serves the whole body, either to its health or to its detriment.” I was deeply impacted by his final chapter on Confession and Communion. As long as stubborn sin remains in the darkness, sinners tend to isolate from each other out of guilt, fear, shame, and the deceitfulness of sin. Confession to a brother in the community breaks the power of sin and leads to freedom. He argues that anyone who has faced the darkest and ugliest recesses of their own sinful heart will not be appalled by the most grievous sin of their brother. An essential book on Christian community.
6. How the Nations Rage by Jonathan Leeman
“Conversion makes us citizens of Christ’s kingdom, places us inside embassies of that kingdom, and puts us to work as ambassadors of heaven’s righteousness and justice. Churches are the cities on hills, said Jesus. Not America.”
Religion and politics are like Coke and Mentos. And this year brought an explosion within the Church like I’ve never seen in my lifetime. The unprecedented events struck a debate and brought division and strife between likeminded churches, well-known pastor/theologians, and professing Christians. Words were spoken (or written), mud was thrown, and lines were drawn. I was disappointed and discouraged by the lack of charity. I knew of Leeman’s book, but after reading his gracious article, A Time for Civil Disobedience?, I decided it was time to read it. What I appreciate most about his book is his explanation that no one separates religion and politics. Everyone—even an atheist—has “religious” presuppositions that lead to their political preferences. Because atheism is see as a non-religion, Separation of Church and State works unfairly against Christians in the public sphere. He calls for Christian to unite and bind their consciences to “straight-line issues” while exercising wisdom and charity on “jagged-line issues.” Ultimately, he calls Christians in the U.S. to look to Christ and live as faithful ambassadors who exude Gospel love and Gospel justice. Although he sees the benefit of government, he ultimately places our hope for change in Christ, the Gospel, and in the local church.
5. The Gathering Storm by Albert Mohler
“Much of what we have seen in our secular moment is a battle between revolution and revelation. The secular worldview eventually displaced a biblical worldview. Eventually, all claims of divine revelation become meaningless in a secular place.”
This book was certainly a chilling read. I’ll even admit I lost a little sleep during the week I was reading it. Sort of a follow-up to We Cannot Be Silent (2015), Mohler details the United States’ unbridled descent into secularism. He insightfully observes that we are witnessing a clash of worldviews—revolution v. revelation. Secular humanism is the new religion and its proliferation is rampant. This dechristianization of the culture is clashing with basic individual and religious liberties. It redefines everything it touches—life, sex, gender, marriage, family—and fundamentally undermines the basic truth regarding humans as morally responsible image-bearers. It never takes a step backwards. Its end-goal is total takeover. Today, everything is politicized, even the private lives of individuals and families. The book does end on a hopeful note showing that ultimately our hope was never in this world but in a world to come. But in the meantime we must faithfully protest the revolution with courage and conviction and clarity standing on God’s timeless truths for the sake of the next generation of Christ-followers.
4. Live not by Lies by Rod Dreher
“A progressive—and profoundly anti-Christian militancy—is steadily overtaking society . . . The old, hard totalitarianism had a vision for the world that required the eradication of Christianity. The new, soft totalitarianism does too, and we are not equipped to resist its sneakier attack.”
This manual for Christian dissidents is the perfect companion to The Gathering Storm. Both make the case that secular humanism is a totalitarian ideology that has no tolerance for the Christian worldview. Dreher chronicles the ever increasing power of the secular State from the testimony of Christians who lived under totalitarianism in Communist Russia and see parallels in the U.S. He shares their experiences and lays out a plan for Christians to establish counter-revolutionary communities where the truth is cherished and passed on to the next generation. He encourages Christians to “see, judge, and act.” We cannot passively follow the culture because we would be living a lie. Rather than the brute threat of pain, this new softer (therapeutic) totalitarianism promises pleasure and comfort if one submits to its values. Those who rebel live with the threat of cancellation. Huxley got it right after all. And as in the ending of A Brave New World, Dreher argues that Christians who dissent are, in a sense, fighting for their right to be unhappy. The world promises a “Christianity without tears,” but Christ’s followers know that is not possible in this life. Christ’s embrace of suffering on our behalf compels us to live according to his truth and subsequently (if necessary) embrace suffering as an act of worship. Interestingly, Mohler and Dreher sat down for a conversation last month. You can listen to it here.
3. The Big Gospel in Small Places by Stephen Witmer
“That small places are better than we thought demonstrates that they’re worth all the care, participation, and service we offer. That they’re worse than we thought demonstrates that there are more than enough needs to warrant a lifetime of ministry.”
This book is a perfect complement to Rod Dreher’s book The Little Way of Ruthie Lemming (2014). They both seek to recapture the value of smaller, rural communities in a culture that values metropolitan life. For three decades now, evangelicalism has championed the urban ideal—the church growth movement that strategically plants in cities believing they will have a greater impact from those major cultural hubs. Witmer admits that even he’s succumbed to the misguided belief that his own success is directly proportional to the distance from home and the size of his community. This ideals of bigger, faster, stronger are deeply engrained in our thinking and are often applied to ministry. Smaller, rural communities have suffered from the fallacy of the urban ideal. They have been overlooked, marginalized, and treated by pastors only as stepping stones to bigger, better ministries. Witmer encourages pastors to consider the kind of Gospel impact they can have by immersing themselves in a rural community, digging deep roots, and staying for the long haul. He shows the joys of unstrategic ministry that smaller, slower, and simpler.
2. Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund
“It is impossible for the affectionate heart of Christ to be overcelebrated, made too much of, exaggerated.”
This book surprised me. It rattled my legalistic heart and awakened me to the reality of Christ’s unrelenting affections for sinners and sufferers like myself. It was shocking and even uncomfortable at times as Ortlund’s descriptions of Christ seemed hyperbolic. But he rooted his descriptions in the rich soil of Scripture. He revealed how legalistic (or law-ish) I am when it comes to my relationship with my Creator. Whenever I sin, I fear rejection. This is built into the fabric of my mind and conscience since the Fall. But it is contrary to both the Gospel and the heart of my Savior. Reading as a modern Puritan work (and drawing from them), it has a deeply devotional tone that meditates on the Person and work of Christ. It stands out from other Christian books that are so man-centered and practical. It exhausts Christ’s love and devotion and affection for those he chose as his own. He encouraged me to “reject the devil’s whisper that God’s tender heart for [me] has grown a little colder, a little stiffer.” And rather than leading to licentiousness as one would expect, Christ’s tender heart leads to greater depths of intimacy and commitment.
1. Deep Discipleship by T. J. English
“If we give people better ministry programs but fail to give them a radically God-centered vision for their lives, then we have failed miserably.”
Discipleship is an essential part of the Church’s mission. In our consumeristic, seeker-friendly culture, discipleship looks different everywhere you look. It has become shallow and is often confused with programs and community. English offers this cogent critique of modern Evangelicalism then delineates the most straightforward philosophy of ministry I have ever read. He challenges the bare-minimum, status quo of discipleship and calls us to a counter-cultural, counter-intuitive way of forming whole disciples of Christ in the context of the local church. It’s all about making, maturing, multiplying, and mobilizing disciples in the church and community by raising the bar. This book is a clarion call back to an intensely personal, education-driven, rigorously theological and practical mentorship in the local church that leads to biblical literacy and lasting transformation. A well-trained and equipped congregation is necessary to multiply this mission in a lost world. The Church is blessed by a work so clear and practical.
BONUS: If you are a Christian and you have not read Engaging Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement by Neil Shevni and Pat Sawyer, you must. It explains the Marxist foundation and agenda of these secular ideologies and shows how they are not only antithetical to the Christian worldview but they offer a false gospel to the world.
Honorable Mentions: After They Are Yours by Brian Borgman, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, Prepared to Stand Alone by Iain Murray, Descriptions and Prescriptions by Micahel Emlet, Leading from the Second Chair by Mike Bonem, Mission Drift by Peter Greer, Small Church Essentials by Karl Vaters, William Carey by S. Pearce Carey, Deep Work by Cal Newport, and Your Future Self Will Thank You by Drew Dyck.
1. Norma Jean, “/with_errors,” All Hail (Solid State Records, 2019)
2. Yevgeny Zamyatin, On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters, 1923.