Ten books to recommend to a new Christian

Have you ever wished you had something to give a new Christian to read alongside the Bible, to encourage them in their faith and help them begin to live for Christ from a Christ-centred Biblical worldview? Over the years I have recommended countless good books 1:1 or from the pulpit, but I thought it was about time to be more intentional about this habit, for my own sake, and that of our church members. Maybe what follows will help you too.

The idea of a “top ten” list (yes, I realise that such a thing is usually shameless marketing) came from a visit to Tim Keller’s Redeemer Church in Manhattan two years ago during a sabbatical. The service was thoughtful and deeply Christ-honouring, but one of my main take-homes came afterwards, over coffee a couple of floors up from the worship auditorium. An unremarkable folding table was set out to one side of the room, with a selection of books for sale,  a couple of signs, and a friendly church member on hand.

What was the stroke of genius? A simple guideline as to which books to read, and in what order. The books were arranged into three groups, not by the usual categories, “Bible”, “Christian living”, “Prayer” etc, but as “Read first”, “Read next”, and “After those”  (maybe not the precise titles, but you get the idea). Keller had written a short explanation of the book-recommendation policy he had followed,

“instead of a bookstore for the whole community, we offer a book table carrying “next step” reading for worshippers at Redeemer…the order in which you read books has a big impact on the kind of believer you become…That is why many people will ask me – “Is this a good book to read?” and my answer is, ‘Yes – eventually, later, in the right place – but not now’.”

Keller had thought hard about the best books to start young believers with, and those to recommend later. I think that is incredibly good pastoral care, and am planning to introduce this wise approach when we move to pastor our new church in Norwich in the summer.

So here are my ten “Read First” books, copies of which I’d have always on hand to give away or to sell. The order doesn’t mean much. In future posts I will suggest my “Read next” and “After those” selections.

Read First (Top Ten):

Knowing God (J.I. Packer)

The Prodigal God (Tim Keller)

How to read the Bible for all its Worth (Gordon Fee/Douglas Stuart)

The Freedom of a Christian (Martin Luther)

Just do Something (Kevin DeYoung)

Discipling (Mark Dever)

How to Walk into Church (Tony Payne/Colin Marshall)

God’s Big Picture (Vaughan Roberts)

The Cross of Christ (John Stott)

Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis)

 

I hope this gets you asking what you would recommend to a new believer – and what you’d agree they should read, but only later. Let me know what you think.

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Three ways to build a culture of evangelism in your church

Last time  I explored Paul’s metaphor of our calling to be “ambassadors of Christ”, and raised a question about whether the use of this metaphor in the Anglican churches amongst which I serve currently in London needs to reflect more of Paul’s emphasis in 2 Corinthians 5 on the message of reconciliation, not just the manner of the representative.

So assuming that  this reluctance to see Christ’s ambassadors as having a message to share is simply a lack of confidence (not a deliberate assertion that no message needs sharing), how do we build the confidence of our church members to represent Christ in words as well as actions? There is a plentiful literature out there on both the “why?” and “how?” of personal evangelism* but here are three principles I’ve observed:

  1. Demystify evangelism. It’s really not a specialist activity separate from the rest of our lives, but using words to point people (as portrayed in Grunewald’s painting above of John the Baptist at the crucifixion)  to a unique Saviour  who means everything to us. We don’t need to switch into religious jargon, we simply need to be convinced that Jesus is the best news, and that everyone needs to hear about Him. To this end the simple book “Intentional” by Paul Williams (our church’s “book of the term” at the moment) is fantastic at reminding us that all we need to do is to have in mind what the good news is in a nutshell, and to seek in every conversation about life’s big questions to “get to Jesus”. Williams includes in the second half of the book some worked examples how you or I might “get to Jesus’ life or words” from a passage in the gospels. Included are questions like “How do you know God exists?” and “All good people go to heaven, don’t they?”, and just that section of the book is a great resource.
  2. Lead by example. The leaders must be sharing the gospel themselves, and church members need to hear about how it’s going. A culture of personal evangelism flourishes when it can spread from those who model it as well as telling others about it. In preaching I will often include stories of friends or family (names changed!) for whom I am praying that they will receive Christ. I mention conversations I have had with them about faith, whether brief or long, books I have given them about the gospel, or opportunities to study a gospel passage with them. I pray for family and friends who are not yet believers, for opportunities to point daily contacts to Christ, and at church we encourage everyone to be doing the same.
  3. Get your confidence. “Get your feet wet”.  Get members involved in low-key evangelistic activities alongside others who are more confident. Interview church members with real stories about their efforts to share Christ. Offer a simple course like “Six Steps to Talking about Jesus”. I recommend this one because it outlines simply not just “how” to go about building connections with and praying for those we know or meet who don’t yet believe in Christ, but also what our message about Christ is, and why it matters to share it. Tracts such as the “Four points” one are good to give away, too, along with always having a gospel to hand to turn to or give away.

We are ambassadors of the King of Kings! So let’s have our message clear, and deliver it with courage and compassion.

*Further reading:

John Chapman, Know and Tell the Gospel (5th Edition, Good Book Company, 2016)

Mark Dever, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism (Crossway, 2007)

Bill Hybels & Mark Mittelberg, Becoming a Contagious Christian (Zondervan, 1996)

Bill Hybels, Just Walk Across the Room (Zondervan, 2006)

J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Inter Varsity Press, 2011, originally published 1961) (less practical, but great on what evangelism is and is not)

Randy Newman, Questioning Evangelism (Kregel, 2006) (mainly on the “how to”)

J Mack Stiles, Evangelism (Crossway, 2014)

Paul Williams, Intentional (10publishing, 2016)

 

Are we really ‘ambassadors of Christ’?

I minister within the Church of England Diocese of London. If you check out their website, or know this network already, you’ll be aware that the current vision here has a focus on “equipping and commissioning 100,000 ambassadors representing Christ in daily life”. As someone who’s been in parish ministry in London for 19 years, it’s refreshing to have a Biblical metaphor (ambassadors) used so overtly in an Anglican mission action plan. And bold to have (for the C of E) a large target for the number of church members we are aiming to train and send.

There’s a lot to like in the “ambassadors” initiative here. A great collaboration with the LICC (London Institute for Contemporary Christianity) has enabled churches to benefit from resources like the “Right Where You Are” workbook, tailored to the C of E in London. The church where I am Vicar just hosted a Diocesan Ambassadors training evening for lay and ordained church leaders, encouraging them to take the vision for “whole-life, 24/7 discipleship” back to their parishes. The paradigm shift away from clergy/Sunday-focussed church to “everyone, everywhere” mission is wholesome and Biblical as a model of Christian discipleship.

The church of which I’m minister has been learning how important it is to orientate what we do on Sunday towards equipping members for the rest of the week. We’ve taken on board the call to make micro-shifts in that direction, such as “this time tomorrow” interviews, and including workplaces, homebuilders and community places in sermons applications and in intercessions. Gone, I hope, are the days of the only mission that is prayed-for being done by clergy, youthworkers and mission partners (though I think I have heard enough jibes at clergy who “never preach sermons on faith at work” to keep me going, thanks).

So here comes the “but”: I am not convinced that much of the use of the language of “ambassadors” here is fully true to the nature of this metaphor as Paul uses it in 2 Corinthians 5:20. Coincidentally I preached on this text recently as part of our church series on personal evangelism, “Six Steps to Talking about Jesus”. The focus of the Diocesan ambassadors material that I’ve heard presented so far has been on enabling church members to see themselves as living for Christ all week,  but not on sharing Christ in words. An emphasis on the “manner” of the representation but really on the “message” from the One we represent.

The word “representing”, arising from the ‘ambassadors’ metaphor, is straight from 2 Corinthians, but only if the primary way we do that is by speaking on behalf of Christ and about Christ. “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God” is Paul’s ambassadorial message. I recall being involved in early drafts of the Diocesan vision document and appealing, with others, that the language of “living and speaking for Christ” be retained, and it does appear in the banner heading of the Diocesan vision literature, but it does not seem to me to have been emphasised in the obvious place with Biblical foundations to do so, the language of “ambassadors”.

Of course that may be for two reasons.

Charitably, many church members are nervous about speaking about God’s mercy in reconciling us to Himself through Christ’s death – who isn’t? I understand that the Diocese does see equipping members with the message as part of sending ambassadors, and sees the “what is the message and how can we speak it more confidently?” piece as a next phase once members have gained confidence in their Christian calling. If so I’ve got a few ideas of how to do that in my next post. I’d still argue that the emphasis needs to shift from manner to message.

Let’s pray that the reticence to put front and centre the message that Paul spoke as an ambassador is not because some in the Church may not be wholly convinced that we have a message that needs to be communicated verbally for others to be saved. If that is the case, the initiative will only really be about 24/7 vocation, and we will end up a long way from the evangelism of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5. If that happened we should probably stop using the “ambassadors” image

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why it’s not always best to preach expository sermons

OK, I realise this depends upon how you define “expository”. If you mean that when you preach, every sermon should allow a text (or more than one) to set the agenda for what is said, then I’d have to agree that every sermon should be expository.

“Expository” defined as the opposite of “thought for the day” or “context-driven” has to be right because it reflects the Bible’s presentation of preaching as coming as words “from God” not just “from the preacher’s head”. Expository as “exposing the sense of a Bible text” is (for me) a non-negotiable. That is surely true whether preaching evangelistically or to edify believers. All sermons should (in my view) be not only Christ-centred and gospel-rich (good news) but Bible-driven and derived from the Bible text they are based upon.

My argument with expository sermons here is not that expository sermons can be boring, either, though they can. “Exposing” the text can become a dry lecture that fills the mind and doesn’t speak to the heart or will. But if I am boring, it is not the fault of the Bible or its logic – DM Lloyd-Jones called this kind of preaching “logic on fire”, and it should be! Others* have convincingly and rightly listed the benefits of “expository” preaching in the true sense of the word.

But if you define “expository” more narrowly than that – as “preaching from the same book of the Bible in sequential order” then I’d argue that is not always wise as the long-term diet of a church family. The main diet, yes, but not the only. To say this may alarm those not from traditions like the Anglican one, where our lectionaries and feast days encourage us to mix it up. What about Charles Simeon and D.M. Lloyd-Jones, you asked, who (it is said) just “preached the Bible in order” and let the Word do the work?

Here are three reasons I can see for not always preaching the Bible “in order”:

  1. Biblical: The Bible doesn’t always work that way. I’m not arguing the textual critic point – that texts are out of order compared to their original composition – here. But some books of the Bible just to not lend themselves to preaching every part of a text in order. Maybe the text is repetitive (Revelation from Chapter 4 onwards, for example) and mirroring that in a sermon series is not going to do justice to the meaning. Maybe the text was not designed to be read aloud in sequential order in the way it is printed in our Bibles today (the Psalms, for instance, seem to be a collection of liturgical and pastoral songs to be sung, and who would argue we have to preach 1-150 in order, with no omission or cherry-picking?) Maybe the text was designed to be read for impact in one sitting, but expository preachers so often pride ourselves upon taking an inordinately long time to preach through a book (Romans, or Hebrews, are two letters many take years over, but I would put in the category of “read fast for impact and overall message”). Maybe the text lends itself to being linked with other similar ones that are not found in immediate proximity in the Bible (a series on the Parables, for instance).
  2. Pastoral: The people of God need help constructing a doctrinal framework for life. A member of our staff team recently asked why we do so many sermon series that don’t just “go through a Bible book in order”. The answer I gave is that the people of God need the preacher of God to help them see what the whole Word of God says about the mind and works of God. We might do this by digressing on doctrinal points when a text invites it (the Puritan John Owen did this when preaching through Hebrews) but that simply makes my point that only preaching what a text says is not always enough. We might also do it by preaching every text of the Bible over (say) a ten-year period, but how many church members will hear every sermon, and make the connections between them all? But we can certainly do this by preaching sermon series that teach “systematically” the truths of the Bible about God and the world. Over my seventeen years in my church we have typically included one or two series each year on themes such as Creation, God’s Attributes, the Cross, the Holy Spirit, The Church, Prayer, Personal Evangelism, A Theology of the City, Church Planting, Service and Ministry, Stewardship/Giving, Spiritual Disciplines, Desiring God, Seven Deadly Sins, Biblical view of Humanity, Temptation/idolatry.
  3. Apologetic: Seekers in our congregations need help grappling with big questions. These are stumbling blocks to hearing the gospel unless we address them. Some preachers find this comes more naturally than others (Tim Keller is especially good at connecting with the seeker and sceptic in his sermon series) but we all, I would argue, need to try. The obvious way is to pick up the big questions in one series every couple of years: The Meaning of Life, The Existence and Knowability of God, the Issue of Science and Faith, the Challenges of Religious Exclusivism, Hypocrisy and Extremism, the Problem of Suffering. We’ve also tried to connect with the non-believing culture when a public moment demands or offers an opportunity: debunking the Da Vinci Code when it was published, responding to publications from new atheists like Dawkins, or events like 9/11 or natural disasters. Such moments are on open door for the gospel.

So there are three reasons why I don’t always preach sermon series through a section of the Bible in order. I could add that evangelistic sermons are better done from texts that clearly portray the heart of the gospel, and that even great preachers like Spurgeon did not preach from the same book of the Bible each week at all, though his sermons brilliantly expound the texts he chose.  

I am sure there are lots more reasons why preachers should stick to preaching through a text in sequence, and lots more why we should keep mixing it up. Let me know your thoughts.

 

  • eg Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching (IVP, 1996), Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centred Preaching (Baker, 1994), David Helm, Expositional Preaching (Crossway, 2014), William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (Banner of Truth, 1996), John Stott, I Believe in Preaching (Hodder and Stoughton, 1983)

Are you making the most of your Sunday service sheet?

man-prayer-churchWe print a 2-3 line prayer at the top of our service sheet each Sunday, below the date and service title, and above the “Welcome” and opening song/hymn. It’s chosen or written by the preacher ahead of each service. Since I’ve not seen this done in other churches I visit, and it’s a bit different from just printing the “verse for the day”, I recently thought I should put down the thinking behind doing this. I guess this could be as effective if you have visuals/song words/liturgy on a screen, as well as, or instead of, a printed service sheet:

  1. I picked up the idea from a sabbatical visit to Redeemer Manhattan (the church of which Tim Keller is senior pastor) in 2015. They appeared to have, as a usual feature, an extensive prayer, poem or words of a hymn at the head of the service sheet before the “Welcome”. (They also had the musical melody lines for the songs and hymns printed, which may be intimidating for some of our congregations but raises the bar (no pun intended) for more musically-literate ones.)
  2. The purpose is to give those who arrive on time a moment to pray and reflect on the theme of the service that follows: a gospel moment, instead of just sitting staring into space. They also get to take the prayer home to use later.
  3. The reflections should therefore ideally be in the form of a prayer, not a theological statement or declaration. It’s not really the idea just to quote a key verse from the text. Put an “Amen” at the end.
  4. It may be appropriate to use a prayer from the Bible (one in the Bible text for the service, or from the Psalms or elsewhere) but if not, the preacher might use one from another source such as the BCP/CW, The Valley of Vision (short edits perhaps as many of these prayers are multiple lines), or any books of classic prayers and poems (Donne and Herbert can be very good here), or write one based on the text.
  5. If this is working well, the gold standard is that we should find that the reflection ends up being suitable for the preacher to use at the end of their sermon, or the congregation to say together at that point. This may not always be appropriate, but the link of reflection to sermon response is why we ask the preacher to provide the reflection.

Of course there are other ways to maximise the edificatory and gospel purpose of a printed service sheet or overhead screen (use of images, printing sermon outlines or key texts, etc). If you’ve got novel ones too, I’d like to hear from you.

 

Marriage tells “a better story” than the one told by the sexual revolution

“This is about that”. Kings Church Eastbourne has produced a wonderful short video on the gospel meaning of marriage: For a book-length treatment of this, see Ray Ortlund’s Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel. I’m preaching through Song of Songs in a few weeks and am thinking this video makes all the gospel and NT links to love and marriage that one would want to; in just a few minutes.

 

Divine infinity – a primer

From time to time I make new entries into this continuing series called “Theological Primer.” The idea is to present big theological concepts in around 500 words. Today we look at the divine attribute of infinity. ******* Lightstock There are a number of ways to categorize the attributes of God, but the most common way…

via Theological Primer: Divine Infinity — Kevin DeYoung