Summer is half over, but there’s still plenty of time for vacations and opportunities for preachers to get away and have some uninterrupted time for reading. As you head to the beach or off to the mountains for some R&R, here are a couple books you might want to consider taking along as a way of providing “grist for the mill” for your preaching this fall:
You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom was a fascinating look at the power of liturgy and how it shapes people, whether it’s the secular liturgies of the stadium or the mall or the liturgy of Christian worship. You Are What You Love is designed to bring the message of Desiring the Kingdom to a wider audience. The question for preachers posed by the book concerns whether our sermons are actually shaping new habits of holiness in people or simply providing people with more information in a culture where people are already being bombarded with it. You Are What You Love will help you think about the ways in which preaching, as part of the habitus of worship, can actually move people toward the image of Christ.
The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire by Alan Kreider. When we think about the rise of the early church in the Roman world, we might expect that it was the result of a great evangelism strategy, alternative worship to the Roman religion, and dynamic preaching. After all, Peter’s sermon on Pentecost with its 3,000 converts is still the gold standard for effective Christian preaching! In a 21st century secular culture that increasingly treats Christianity much more like the Roman world, we continue to believe that if we could just do better at evangelism, worship, and preaching that people will come to our churches. Kreider challenges the traditional formula for church growth by asserting that the early church was actually not very focused on any of those things, at least not according to the earliest documents. What really attracted people to Christianity had little to nothing to do with the church’s public presence, but the way Christians carried themselves. The early church was more focused on developing people who reflected the way of Jesus than attracting crowds. While impatience drives a lot of our church growth strategies today (more, bigger, faster), Kreider says that the early church was known for growing deep disciples whose catechesis was based on living according to the pattern of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount. It was their “patient ferment,” in other words, that caused outsiders to want to be part of their community.
This book, much like You Are What You Love, will challenge preachers to rethink how preaching fits within the larger strategy of the church. Are we preaching simply to attract a crowd or are we preaching as a way of building disciples over time? It’s not that those are mutually exclusive concepts, but in a culture where fewer people attend church, the church growth model in which most of were trained needs an overhaul. Kreider offers a way for us to consider going “back to the future” and develop pastoral patience for forming people in the way of Christ.
Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture by Tim Suttle. If Smith and Kreider provide the background for reconsidering worship and preaching in the 21st century, Tim Suttle provides the preacher with the practical application in Shrink. He critiques the attractional model of the megachurch and the “good to great” culture of church growth gurus in favor of real faithfulness. “I have become convinced,” says Suttle, “that the Christian leader’s first job is to become a good and virtuous human being and a good and virtuous leader, and then to leave questions of growth and perceived success in the hands of God. Sometimes all God requires of the leader is to do the small things faithfully for the rest of his or her life. How many of us have the tools to imagine that, much less carry that off?”
In other words, cultivating authentic Christian character in a congregation begins with the life of the pastor. How does your preaching reflect your own Christian character? What kind of church are you trying to build? As Suttle points out, the Bible is way more concerned about people being good than your organization being great. This book, along with the others mentioned, will challenge your thinking on what it means to be a preacher and church leader in a changing world.