Books for Today – March 2019

Book of the Month

Over the years I have read many books on church growth, but few have been so thought-provoking as Growing and Flourishing: the ecology of church growth (SCM, London 2019. 140pp: £19.99) by Stephen Spencer, Director for Theological Education in the Anglican Communion, based in London.  Furthermore, to my surprise the model the author has developed for church growth was inspired by some very significant church growth in the Anglican Church of Tanzania. Indeed, a major part of the book is a case study of churches in Tanzania, from which he develops six key principles which he believes are applicable to church life in the UK.  The penultimate chapter is then devoted to a study of how many of these principles have been at work in a ‘typical medium-sized local church in a provincial town facing the steep challenge of trying to grow in an increasingly post-Christian society’.  Of interest to me is that although the author does not seem to come from the evangelical end of the Church of England, nonetheless there is the clear recognition that evangelism – “the deliberate calling of others to faith” – had a leading role in any attempt to bring growth to the church, provided such a call to faith takes place within the context of a wider network of community relationships.  Unlike some books on church growth, Growing and Flourishing does not offer a blueprint for every church, but it provides much food for thought.  It should be essential reading for every church leader.

Books to make us think

Home by Another Route: Reimagining today’s church (BRF, Abingdon 2019. 123pp: £7.99) by Paul Bradbury, a ‘pioneer’ minister in the Church of England lives up to its cover ‘blurb’ – ‘Inspiring and challenging’.  The underlying presupposition cannot be denied: the church in the west, and in particular in the UK, is in crisis, for Christendom has come and gone. Although we have not experienced the geographical dislocation that was the experience of the Jews in exile in Babylon, churches are increasingly on the margins of a society which mocks and dismisses our “treasured symbols”.   Paul Bradbury believes that in this context we need to find a new way of doing church if we are to become effective missionary communities. These communities need to be small and participative, for only so can they respond to what the Spirit is doing in the world.  The main task of future leaders will not be strategy or organisation, but rather enabling churches to be attentive to the Spirit. We need ‘pioneers’ who through Kingdom-oriented social enterprises will venture into secular space to influence and transform it for Christ. Wow!

A Gospel of Hope (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2019. 151pp: £9.99) by Walter Brueggemann, is a collection of quotable and often provocative quotes from this distinguished American scholar and preacher on a wide variety of topics. For instance, “Blessed is the church that does not easily come to terms with the present, that keeps lose and open enough, restless enough to know that the present arrangements of reality are not good enough, and they are not the way of God.”  It’s a book to dip into, rather than to read.

Love in Action: Catholic Social Teaching for Every Church (SCM, London 2019. 188pp: £ ) by Simon Cuff, who teaches Theology at St Mellitus College, is a well-written and thought-provoking guide to issues which should be of concern to all Christians, not least the concept of ‘the preferential option for the poor’, which goes beyond compassion for the poor but involves justice for the poor too.  Until reading this book I was not aware of the ‘see-judge-action’ method developed by Cardinal Joseph Cardijn, but which has its basis in Jesus’ interaction with the blind man in John 9. I was challenged too by two statements.  First:  “The church is a place where poverty is overcome, where those in poverty are in the church, and the church is theirs”.  Second: “The opposite of love is not hate but indifference – and indifference is what takes over in a malign institution”.  This is a theological text-book with a punch!

First published in the USA in 1998 and in the UK in 1999, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2019. 426pp: £10.99) by Richard Foster is now available as a paperback. Its examination of six dimensions of Christian faith and practice (the contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, Evangelical and incarnational traditions) has become a ‘classic’. If you haven’t a copy, then buy it!

The Message of Discipleship (IVP, London 2019. 243pp: £9.99) by Baptist minister Peter Morden, has been published in the ‘Bible Themes’ section of the Bible Speaks Today series, and is a wonderful resource for preachers. There is also a thirteen-page study guide for use in small groups. The price makes it extraordinary value for money.

The Study of Ministry: A Comprehensive Survey of Theory and Best Practice (SPCK, London 2019.  706pp hardback: £50) edited by Martyn Percy with Ian Markham, Emma Percy and Francesca Pol, is a tour de force and almost became my ‘book of the month’. However, in the end I decided that it is probably more a work of reference for a library, rather than a book for the ordinary minister.  Furthermore, in spite of its claim to be ‘a comprehensive survey of theory and best practice’, it is almost entirely Anglican – and what is more not even fully representative of Anglicanism (by and large Evangelical Anglicans do not appear). I was also a little disappointed that of the many contributors, only two appeared to be working at the grassroots of local church life – this is mostly a book by academics. HOWEVER (note the capitalization) I found many of the articles extraordinarily stimulating, and would warmly commend this work of reference to ministers in local churches of all denominations.  The book consists of 43 essays divided into five main sections. Part 1: Understanding Ministry, with articles on differing subjects such as the ‘sociology’ and the ‘psychology of ministry’, as also ministry ‘in fiction’ and ministry ‘in television and film’. Part 2: Models, Methods and Resources, with articles on ‘psychotherapy and ministry’; ‘leadership studies and ministry; and ‘portraits, practices and potential’ in digital media for ministry.  Part 3: Ministry in Christian Tradition features articles on ‘Scripture and ministry’, ‘liturgy and ministry’, ‘missiology and ministry’ and ‘ethics and ministry.  Part 4: Styles of Christian Ministry has essays dealing with Roman Catholic pastoral theology; Pentecostal-style ministries; and the parish church. Part 5: Issues in Christian ministry looks at a wide range of issues including to preaching, gender, power, stress, and money, In addition there was a fascinating introduction by Martyn Percy on the history and development of ministry; and two concluding essays, one on inter-disciplinary method and the other on the future shapes (plural!) of ministry. This is a great volume with many good things. I believe, however, there could be room for a second volume, with contributions from a broader range of theological position and ministerial experience.

Love Makes No Sense: An invitation to Christian theology (SCM, London 2019. 136pp: £12.99) by Jennifer Strawbridge, Jarred Mercer and Peter Groves, three Oxford-based Anglican ministers associated with the St Mary Magdalen School of Theology, is a deceptively simple and amazingly fresh guide to Christian doctrine which insists that theology cannot be divorced from every-day Christian life.  As the introduction states: “If this is a book of catechesis, of instruction in Christian doctrine, it is catechesis that does not seek primarily to answer questions or satisfy the intellect alone, but to train its readers to live the love and mercy that the message of Christian theology. In this regard I found it significant that every chapter heading begins with the word love: e.g. ‘Love makes no sense – Jesus and the Lord of God’; ‘Love in excess – God the Holy Trinity’; Love overflowing – the doctrine of creation’; ‘love personified – the incarnation’; ‘love negated – sin and suffering’; ‘love entrusted – the sacraments’.

Perceptions of Christianity from people of different faiths: to see ourselves as others see us (AuthorHouse 2018. 332pp: £12. Available from £15.95 p & p) by Richard Tetlow, who for almost 20 years was a vicar in inner-city Birmingham, will be of interest to all engaged in inter-faith ministry, even if they do not share the author’s ‘progressive’ approach to the Christian faith. The heart of the book is just fifty pages in length, where a Hindu, a Jew, a Sikh, a Muslim, and a Buddhist give their perceptions of Christianity – this is quite fascinating. There are then a further thirty pages in which five Christians engaged in inter-faith ministry respond to the five perceptions. The bulk of the book is made up of the author’s own reflections. His ten ‘hopes’ for the future may be summarised as: (1) The potential source & symbol of the love that sustains us and gives us purpose & meaning will be recognized & loved under whatever name; (2) every possible cause of decline in both numbers of churchgoers and in the country’s moral & spiritual framework will be considered; (3) the economic, historical, theological, literary & social context of Christianity will be taken to heart & mind; (4) all people of different faiths will be accepted to be of equal worth in God; (5) generous recognition & acceptance of the four branches of Christianity (Traditional Orthodox, Liberal, Progressive & Evangelical/Pentecostal); (6) mutual partnerships between & among all faiths; (7) listening partnerships unlocking both healing of past religious hurts and respect for different theologies & alternative ways to God; (8) understanding in treating the causes of both anger & aggression and our own often fearful reactions; (9) transformation of relationships; (10) God will be seen to be central & present and never divisive.

The ideal of the writers of The Pillar New Testament Commentary “is a blend of rigorous exegesis and exposition, scholarship and pastor sensitivity, with an eye alert both to biblical theology and to contemporary relevance of the Bible”. In this regard I am delighted to say that one of the more recent contributions to this series, The Letters to Timothy and Titus (Apollos/IVP, London 2018. 604pp: £32.99 hardback) by Robert Yarborough, a NT professor at Covenant Theological Seminary in St Louis, USA, lives up to the ideal.  This is a superb commentary for any minister who wants to engage seriously with Scripture, with a view to then expounding God’s Word in the pulpit. It is also remarkable value for money.

Resource books

Prayer in the Making: Trying it, talking it, sustaining it (BRF, Abingdon 2019. 154pp: £8.99) by Lyndall Bywater, a free-lance speaker who specialises in talking about prayer, is a very basic guide to help Christians learn to pray. The twelve chapters deal with ‘encounter’, ‘worship’, ‘listening’, ‘stillness’, ‘action’, ‘intercession’, ‘strategy’, ‘restoration’, ‘voice and body’, ‘Scripture’, ‘warfare’, and resilience’. It is perhaps a book to lend to a young mums’ group?

The Contemplative Response: Leadership and ministry in a distracted culture (BRF, Abingdon 2019. 139pp: £8.99) by Ian Cowley, the author of the best-selling The Contemplative Minister, is an uncomfortable but helpful read, in the sense that it challenges our desire as ministers to achieve, acquire and indulge. The author argues that the best way to deal with our ‘false self’ is ‘contemplative practice’, which is not so much a particular method, but rather “an attitude of heart which is expressed in a way of life and in a daily discipline that holds us in attentiveness to the love of God”.

80 Reflective Prayer Ideas: A creative resource for church and group use (BRF, Abingdon 2019. 188pp: £8.99) by Claire Daniel is a superb resource – not least for work amongst children and young people, but also for any group who enjoy the challenge of making things which then form the basis for prayer and reflection. I confess that it is not quite my thing, but I can see it being of use to many.

Eavesdropping: Learning to pray from those who talked to Jesus (DLT, London 2019. 140pp: £12.99) by Henry Martin, an Anglican minister who served for seven years at Strangeways Prison, Manchester, has written a fascinating series of daily readings – ‘suitable for Lent or any time of the year’ – which may be described as imaginative, practical, simple, and thoughtful. Full of common sense and insight, it is a good guide to prayer.

First published in 2013, The Word’s Out: Principles and strategies for effective evangelism today (BRF, Abingdon revised 2019. 175pp: £9.99) by David Male, Director of Evangelism & Discipleship in the Church of England, and Paul Weston of Ridley College, Cambridge, should be essential reading for every minister. I particularly appreciated the chapter on ‘Finding your voice as a leader in evangelism’ – if that was taken seriously, then churches would be revolutionised.

One comment

  1. What a huge amount of reading you have done, Paul leading to some excellent and enticing reviews. What strikes me is the breadth of material you have encompassed.
    The Contemplative Response particularly appealed … too much talking in churches, I so often feel! Thanks Paul.

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