My Top 10 Favorite Books of 2016

While not all of these books were published in 2016, I have either read or re-read them this year and have benefited from them immensely. Between sermon preparation and Ph.D. work, I do not have a lot of time for “leisure reading.” I hope to add a little more fiction to my reading diet in 2017, so if you have some suggestions, I would love to hear them.

If you are interested in taking a look at the books in my list, just click the image of the book  for more details. Now, in no particular order, here are my favorites from 2016:

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis – Many consider this to be Lewis’ best and most mature work of literature. It is a captivating story of conversion told in two parts from the perspective of an older sister, Orual, who struggles to understand the purpose of the actions of the gods in the life of her younger sister, Psyche.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance – I started this book upon the recommendation of several online reviews. Vance’s work is a first-person narrative of his own bringing in rural Kentucky. However, it is seasoned with sociological insights that make this book not only a memoir, but a engaging study of a forgotten culture.

 In Defense of Doctrine: Evangelicalism, Theology, and Scripture by Rhyne Putman – Putman serves as Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. This particular book represents a reworking of his dissertation on the relationship between doctrinal development and hermeneutical phenomenon. For me, Putman’s work was my first exposure to the theological interpretation methods of Kevin Vanhoozer and Anthony Thiselton.

The Pastor Theologian by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson – This tremendous book cast a vision for the reunification of rigorous academic scholarship and heartfelt pastoral ministry for the benefit of Christ’s church.

A Free People’s Suicide, Sustainable Freedom and the American Future by Os Guinness – I make it a point to read everything that Os Guinness writes. He is a public theologian of the first-rate. In this book, Guinness explores the relationship between freedom, virtue, and faith in the public square. As Guinness notes, “Freedom requires virtue, which in turn requires faith of some sort, which in turn requires freedom. Only so can a free people remain ‘free always.’”

 Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer by Scott Hendrix – While I have always harbored a deep appreciation for Martin Luther, Hendrix’s work humanized him in a very helpful way. Hendrix demonstrates the power of Luther’s pen over against his presence. He rarely travelled and often struggled with debilitating illness, yet, he turned the world upside down. He was a not a perfect man, but he was a great man

Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God by Timothy Ward – Ward’s short but helpful book on the theological nature of scripture is a welcomed voice in present-day conversation about scripture. Ward takes scripture’s self-referential testimony serious, allowing God’s Word to define how we should think and speak about the bible.

Churchill by Paul Johnson – Johnson achieves an incredible feat with this book. He highlights the larger-than-life character of Winston Churchill in a small, well-written book. While it is not the definitive work on the life and work of Churchill, it is certainly the most accessible. Like Luther, Churchill was a great, but flawed leader. To say that he was a little eccentric would be quite the understatement. There are many lessons to be learned from his life, and Johnson is helpful guide on the journey.

Moral Formation according to Paul by James W. Thompson – Thompson attempts to demonstrates what held the apostle Paul’s moral instruction together. For Thompson, the need to establish a corporate identity and encourage corporate holiness among new Christians provided ethical coherence to Paul’s instructions. In a western society plagued by individualism, Thompson’s emphasis on corporate holiness is refreshing and convicting.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson – Unlike Johnson’s Churchill, this book is a tome, but it is well paced. Even as a former consulting engineer in IT, I was largely unaware of the impact that Steve Jobs had on the world. He literally changed personal computing (Mac), the way we listen to music (iPod), the way movies are made (Pixar), and the way that we communicate (iPhone). To be sure, he was an odd and difficult human being, but there is no denying his significance. Isaacson tells the complex story well, for which we are grateful.

What are some of your favorite books from 2016? I would love to hear about them!

CBH

Plan Your Preaching for 2017

About twice a year, I set aside a few days in the week to plan my preaching calendar for the year. In addition to strategic planning, intentional long-term preaching planning provides many benefits for the church and the pastor.

First, it assures that a pastor is rightly dividing the Word of God with balance and providing God’s people with the whole counsel of His Word. Pastors have a natural tendency to preach on their favorite topics/passages and avoid more difficult and less interesting topics/passages, especially when they are pressed for preparation time. Long-term planning takes some of the anxiety of weekly preparation away. If a pastor knows he is going to be preaching on certain sections of the book of Genesis or on the topic of prayer at some point in the year, they can make strategic decisions regarding their study and preparation long before the week of the sermon. Pastors need to preach from all of Scripture. I know that there are some pastors (even popular ones) that only preach or primarily preach from the New Testament, and I think their people are malnourished. To neglect 2/3 of the God’s Word is pastoral malpractice. Planning helps us move past this issue and feed our people the riches of God’s Word.

Second, the pastor is biblically stretched. In other words, they are confronted with the need to preach from all the God-breathed scriptures and to keep up a reasonable pace of exposition. Pastor, receive this when I say it, you are not Martyn-Lloyd Jones or John Piper. There is no reason for you to take 7 years to preach through the book of Hebrews or 13 years to preach through the book of Romans. For all the talk about authorial intention, I am pretty sure that Paul did not intend for his audiences to take years to read his letters. To be sure, I know that each letter is contextually situated and needs to be studied and exposited in its original context. However, I fear that our people can lose not only the message of the passage when we take too long to explain it, but also a sense of the authority of the text itself in light of our “deep” historical reconstructions of the exact setting of the passage. Please do not hear me as saying that studying the background of the passage is not important. It is very important. But your people have not gathered together on a Sunday morning to hear about theories pertaining to northern Galatia or southern Galatia. They have gathered to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. By planning your preaching, I believe you can keep pace with the progression of the passage/topic and help your people get the big picture.

Third, by planning your preaching, you can be more strategic in your discipleship and outreach efforts. For example, in 2017, God willing, we will start the year in the book of Galatians and will finish right before Easter. My goal is to have big outreach emphasis for our Easter Sunday service. The Sunday immediately following our Easter service, we will begin a new four-week series on Life’s Big Questions in conjunction with sermon-based small group meetings in the evening. Our goal is to capitalize on the high attendance of Easter Sunday by plugging people into small groups that immediately address some of the greatest questions they are facing from a biblical worldview. By starting the years in the book of Galatians, our church will have the glory of the gospel of justification by faith alone in Christ alone fresh on their minds. We will be inviting people to church with confidence in the gospel. Our guests will show up at an immediate point of connection in our church life. Without establishing and maintaining preaching calendar, it is more difficult (if not, impossible) to coordinate the pastor’s preaching efforts with the overarching strategy of the church.

Finally, by planning your preaching, you can coordinate church goals with your preaching plan. So for instance, if one of your church goals (assuming that you make short-term and long-term goals for your church) is to engage in more disciplemaking efforts throughout the course of the year, you can plan to engage that goal in your preaching from different portions of scripture. Obviously, this requires your church goals to actually be biblical goals, lest you simply impose your goals on the text. Yet, there is a place for God-honoring ambition in the life of the church. If Paul was ambitious to go to Spain to preach the gospel and made plans accordingly, then surely we should have and express our ambitions in the form of goals, then plan accordingly. My point here is that one aspect of that planning should be our preaching.

While there are multiple other benefits to planning, my hope is that above mentioned reasons will be enough to encourage you to set aside some time now and plan your preaching in 2017.

If you are wondering how to plan your preaching or simply looking for some counsel on how to improve your preaching, be sure to click these book images and take a look at these specific works. I have read all three titles and encourage every pastor to read them.

               

 

 

 

 

 

In Christ Alone,
CBH

Can God Spread a Table in the Wilderness? Thoughts on Church Revitalization

Church revitalization is hard work. It is not for the faint of heart. It can be discouraging and isolating. Often times, those who are committed to church revitalization will find themselves afflicted by the “greener grass” syndrome, believing that everyone else’s experience is better than their own and that no one understands their struggles. Such feelings often lead to doubt and unbelief. At the core of those doubts is a question that no pastor ever wants to ask but sometimes wonders, “Can this church really be revitalized?”

In Psalm 78:19, Asaph records a similar question from the Israelite people, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” The supposed context of the question is the wilderness wandering. Doubt and unbelief are at the heart of the Israelite question. God had led them out of Egypt and into the wilderness in route to the Promised Land. They had beheld a multitude of miracles in the recent past, but now, faced with their wanderings, they began to doubt God’s ability. Those who walked through the parted waters of the Red Sea were fearful about the source of their next meal.

For the pastor committed to seeing a church revitalized, it is easy to feel like these wandering Israelites. At times, it can feel as though a few descendants from this wilderness generation have made their way into the church. They tend to talk about the glory of the past like the grumbling Israelites talked about the good ole days in Egypt. They tend to make doomsday-esque predictions about their community and their church. They have forgotten that while the church and community have changed, God has not changed.

The God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, the God who provided manna and quail in the wilderness, and the God who reigned during the “glory days” of your current church is still reigning and ruling today! Let us not question God’s ability to provide in the lean times of ministry. Christ’s promise is sure: He will build His church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. The harvest is still plentiful! Press on, brothers!

CBH

A Prayer for the Discouraged

If you find yourself discouraged today, I encourage you to read and pray through Psalm 86:

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.

Preserve my life, for I am godly;
save your servant, who trusts in you—you are my God.

Be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all the day.

Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.

For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.

Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
listen to my plea for grace.

In the day of my trouble I call upon you,
for you answer me.

There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
nor are there any works like yours.

All the nations you have made shall come
and worship before you, O Lord,
and shall glorify your name.

For you are great and do wondrous things;
you alone are God.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
unite my heart to fear your name.

I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
and I will glorify your name forever.

For great is your steadfast love toward me;
you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

O God, insolent men have risen up against me;
a band of ruthless men seeks my life,
and they do not set you before them.

But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

Turn to me and be gracious to me;
give your strength to your servant,
and save the son of your maidservant.

Show me a sign of your favor,
that those who hate me may see and be put to shame
because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.

CBH

Is the Church Failing Those Impacted by Divorce?

The Study

In a recent Washington Post article, entitled, “How Decades of Divorce Helped Erode Religion,” Julie Zauzmer discusses a new study from the Public Religion Research Institute, which addresses the growing exodus of Americans from organized religion. In the study, multiple causes for the religious exodus are considered, but Zauzmer picks up on the relationship between divorce and religious disaffiliation. Zauzmer writes, “People whose parents divorced when they were children are significantly more likely to grow up not to be religious as adults, the study found. Thirty-five percent of the children of divorced parents told pollsters they are now nonreligious, compared with 23 percent of people whose parents were married when they were children.”

The Problem

At this point, much could be said (and in another forum, should be said) about the impact of divorce, but I have another point I would like to highlight the point made by Andrew Root, a professor at Luther Seminary, who is quoted in Zauzmer’s article. Zauzmer writes,

Root said churches are not doing enough to speak directly to the concerns of children in those situations, so the kids lose faith in the ability of the church to help them. He said that when the divorce rate climbed in the 1980s, many members of the clergy, especially mainline Protestant pastors, stopped speaking out against divorce so as not to alienate struggling congregants. But by going silent on the subject, they didn’t offer any comfort to the kids.

I believe Zauzmer makes a good point, but it needs to be supplemented. Not only did churches, in general, do no favors to those impacted by divorce by going silent on the subject, they also diminished the glory of the gospel, which offers forgiveness and hope for reconciliation. As a senior pastor, I have encountered many people who have been impacted by divorce and have an interest in being a part of the church, but they feel too much shame to really plug into the church community. They do not feel like that will be able to be accepted, and I believe this is part of the reason, if not the main reason, for the statistics found in Zauzmer’s article.

I cannot help but wonder how many of these single parents would have continued to be affiliated with a church if they would have received pastoral care and congregational compassion instead of ostracization. I cannot help but dream of how these children might have turned out differently if a church would have stepped up, spoken clearly and lovingly, and supported them in the devastation that is divorce.

On occasion, I have asked my congregation, “Would a single mother feel welcome here? Would the fatherless child feel loved here?” When I read studies like the ones mentioned above, I am once again reminded of how high the stakes are in how the church ministers to those whose struggles may be more public than my own but no less in need of deep applications of God’s grace and mercy.

My Prayer

My prayer is that the church will acknowledge its failure in previous decades to minister to those impacted by divorce, repent, and change course, so that if a study like this one is done again in 20 years, the divorce rate will be down because churches ministered to families in their turmoil and held couples accountable to their vows while also helping those who do divorce pick up the pieces of brokenness and carry them to Jesus, the Great Mender of Hearts and Comforter in all our sorrows.

Casey Hough