The opportunity to read more was one of the bright spots in an otherwise difficult and dark year. I’ve averaged somewhere around 50-55 books in recent years, but the added time that quarantine provided gave a boost to my reading schedule, particularly in the evenings, so that I was able to read 70 books in 2020.
I’ve said and written plenty of times before that the sheer quantity of books does not matter as much as developing the habit of reading good, published books so that we don’t allow digital headlines, snarky tweets, and provocative social media posts to be the bulk of our reading consumption day in and day out. Many of you blow me out of the water and read over 100 books a year, others may only be able to read a handful of book each year, and yet a daily rhythm of reading the Bible first and foremost, as well as good, thought-provoking, heart-stirring books is a worthy labor whether it’s a few pages or a few chapters each day.
With a nod to my friend and fellow pastor, Ryan Hawkins, I decided to follow his lead and share my favorite books in 2020. This list does not mean I agree with or endorse everything written in every book (I can only say that about the Bible!) but they stood out in the way they engaged my mind, stirred my heart, and at times, challenged my preconceived notions. The list is broken down by the following categories:
General Ministry and Leadership
On the Christian Life
Church Ministry and Leadership
The Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges: A book that I’ve heard quoted and referenced by enough people and authors, that I decided to take the plunge. My first thought after starting? I waited too long. It sharpened the primary focus of pastoral ministry, while being thoroughly biblical and helpfully practical.
Disappearing Church by Mark Sayers. The staff read this together at the beginning of 2020, leading to great discussion each week. I’d recommend anything Sayers writes due to his general insight on culture, and specific insight on how the church engages a post-Christian society. His concept of withdraw and return in this book is something I will never forget.
A Field Guide on False Teaching by Ligonier Ministries. I read this while preaching through 1 John in the fall, a letter where John exhorts the church to test everything they hear to see if it is true. This short book is accessible for all believers, and it walks through the most prevalent false teachings within the church, as well as the most prevalent false worldviews outside the church. One overlooked aspect of “loving your neighbor” is understanding the underpinnings of their beliefs and knowing how the true gospel compares and contrasts with their foundational worldview.
The Quest for the Historical Adam by William VanDoodewaard: Maybe it’s coincidence or maybe it’s an indicator of something deeper, but I’ve received more questions from Christians and non-Christians alike related to young earth/old earth and the Genesis creation story in the last year than all my previous years in ministry combined. This book was an enjoyable and insightful travel through 2,000 years of the church’s stance on the topic, and how important a historical Adam and Eve is to not only the creation story, but the gospel itself.
Liberating Black Theology by Anthony Bradley: This is not only a deep dive into the origins, founders and dangers of black liberation theology, but it also points out the fact that this theological system came about in the first place due in large part to the sin of white supremacy within the church. This book is 10 years old now, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Bradley’s books in 2021.
Recovering From Biblical Manhood & Womanhood by Aimee Byrd: A compelling read that interacts with and pushes back against the greater emphasis on men and women’s differences than their similarities in the local church. Byrd affirms Biblical distinctions between men and women, but she challenges the way they tend to get applied in life of the church.
On the Christian Life
Prayer by John Onwuchekwa: The staff read this together over the summer and while most books on prayer focus on an individual’s prayer life, this book from the 9Marks Building Healthy Churches series stands out because of its focus on corporate prayer in the life of the local church. It’s not an overstatement to say that the health of a church can be measured by how often and how zealously it prays together.
Compassion & Conviction by Justin Giboney and Michael Wear: It was the providence of God that this book was released in July 2020, as it served as a prophetic word in both the realm of racial relations and political engagement for Christians in a year when both took centerstage. If you can only buy one book off this whole list, I’d put this at the top.
Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund: Another book the staff read through and discussed together. Jesus described his own heart one time in the Bible, and what two words do you think he used? The title says it all. Perhaps many people do not come to Christ or grow in Christ not because they are too rebellious, but because they’re too ashamed. This book is an oasis in the spiritual desert.
Plantation Jesus by Scot Welch and Richard Wilson: The authors dig deep into how large swaths of the Christian church appeal to a “Plantation Jesus” rather than the Biblical Jesus. It is a quick read, yet with a lot of information and data to back up its claims. I especially enjoyed the distinction between covenant privilege (that all Christians have) and white privilege.
Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor by D.A. Carson: Church history is filled with pastors who do long-term, faithful ministry with no public “platform” or a large following outside of their community. The danger of today is pastors who look beyond their local congregation in hopes of getting noticed, and Carson’s memoir of his father should be required reading for anyone going into ministry.
Educated by Tara Westover: A fascinating read that provided a glimpse into an American context and experience far removed from my own. Among other things, it’s further pushed me into the conviction of speaking less, asking and listening more, and not assuming I know people’s backgrounds or lived experience.
My First White Friend by Patricia Raybon: About 15% of the books I read in 2020 revolved around the topic of race, and aside from my comment on Educated above, this memoir affirms the power of a friend. It may just be that I’m not seeing them, but books on the power of and vital need of friendship are lacking year in and year out.
Bavinck on Christian Life by John Bolt: This could have fit in both the theology and Christian life category as well, but this was my first deep dive into Bavinck’s life and contribution to the church. I especially appreciated Bavinck’s notion of discipleship extending into “secular” vocations and not limiting it to just church work and evangelism.
Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties, and Today’s Culture Wars by Barry Hankins: The subtitle says what you need to know, but the connections between Fundamentalism of the 1920s and the Religious/Political wars of the present is worth the price of the book. History truly is a constantly repeating cycle.
The Wright Brothers by Dave McCullough: This was the first book I read in 2020 after receiving it last Christmas, and it solidified the conviction that I will read anything McCullough puts out. I would never have read this unless it was gifted to me, and it was captivating, insightful, and of course, extremely well written.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: Right after things shut down in March, I read a tweet that said something along the lines of, “this would be a terrible time to read Station Eleven for the first time”, so naturally, that made me want to read it. As someone who doesn’t read many novels, this was a fast read with several thought provoking moments of “what would I do if…”
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: Again, I’m not the go-to guy on novel assessments, but this book was so good and it even slipped into a couple sermons as illustrations over the course of the summer. Never before has a novel contained one liners that stopped me in my tracks.
Top 5 Books for 2020:
- Compassion and Conviction
- Gentle and Lowly
- Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor
- All the Light We Cannot See