by Austin Maxheimer
If we are going to truly Refresh the Church, then alongside the Bible and our favorite Christian authors, we need to be reading the books of our age. When was the last time you read a book by a non-Christian, someone writing outside of a biblical framework? How can we effectively minister to the people of the world if we are not regularly crawling inside their mindset and viewing the world from their vantage point?
The following six books are not the only ones to read, but are certainly a good start. They simply represent books that I have read relatively recently that have helped me to grow in my understanding of our cultural moment and have contributed to my ministry effectiveness as a pastor. The following are not summaries, but rather a rationale for why you should read them. There are a couple of fiction and some non-fiction; the authors are atheists, spiritualists, and pragmatists; and some are hostile to Christianity, while others appreciate the beauty of the Christian tradition. All of them are reflected in our culture.
Read and enjoy:
1. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I just finished this book, and it is what gave me the idea for this post. With the terrible tragedies in July 2016 there could not be a more timely read for white Americans. Coates gives a first-person report on what it is like to grow up black in America, but it is not merely descriptive; it is beautifully written prose that draws you in and helps you to live the experience yourself. It is a painful and mournful read. Only out of the ashes of this type of honesty can we hope to gain understanding and bring about peace. For an extra bonus, Coates writes from a strict materialist worldview which shapes his beliefs and opinions on what we should be about in life.
2. Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at Time by Jeff Speck
In 2006 half of the people in the world found themselves living in urban centers. By 2050 that number will increase to between 66-75%. That’s right, within our lifetime, nearly three out of every four people in the world will live in Cities. How do Cities function, what do people in Cities want and need, how can the church start positioning itself now in order to be present where people are and will increasingly be? Read this incredible book by Jeff Speck and get well acquainted with Urbanism.
If your ministry context is rural and will remain rural and you do not think you’d find value in this book, then I urge you to think about your children. Much is written about Millennials and the emerging generations in Christian circles. You will learn more about the ethos of the next generation in Walkable City than 100 blog posts from church leaders.
3. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
This one may be familiar because it was made into a Hollywood movie in 2012. Even if you have seen the movie, go read the book. The fictional autobiography and internal monologue of the main character Piscene fully captures the dominant religion of our time: Pluralism. In this beautifully told story, Martel does not attack Christianity directly (he even has many wonderful things to say about Jesus and our faith), but the uniqueness of Christ is clearly set aside. The idea that Jesus is one of many credible ways to spiritual formation is not only “out there” in the world, but in the seats of your church. This book helps you to understand the emotional and rational moves people take to hold that worldview.
4. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
While Pluralism may be the dominant worldview of our time, the New Atheists represent the loud vocal minority. I could have included any one of the voices here—Dennett, Harris, Hitchens—but Dawkins seems to be the most popular and outspoken. This book helps you to know what the classic arguments from strict rationalism and materialism say. Forget the fact that many of the arguments have been destroyed (even from other Atheists), they are going to say them and say them loudly. You will inevitably come across this line of thinking in YouTube and Netflix videos; might as well go straight to the source.
Two words of caution here: (1) You will find yourself feeling attacked when reading this book. Don’t fall into the trap. Read and understand, listen to our culture, hear what the people are saying. (2) Dawkins rhetoric is strong. I recommend reading a book like Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart in accompaniment so that you can get help from a trained theologian on how to easily dissect the arguments in the book.
5. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
You should read this book just to fall in love with Prabaker. He is maybe my favorite character of all time! For those of us who are thoroughly Americanized to the point where it teeters on Americanism, this book will help you fall in love with another country, India. Besides being a thrilling semi-true story, it explores spirituality from several different angles. Most importantly it explores morality from several different angles. Roberts blends the lines between right and wrong in the best possible way, forcing cognitive dissonance and making you question how you would act or react in the situations presented in the book, but always helping you to see why he made the decisions he did.
6. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
This one is quite a bit different from all the others as it deals with business practices. We should all be honest; church work needs an overhaul. With the digital-information revolution, we are in a new reality and our practices need to change. Not our doctrine. Not our theology. Please don’t mishear me. But how we operate as an organization should catch up with the age we find ourselves in. Not to mention many of the principles laid out in the book would help our churches be much better stewards of Kingdom resources (both human and financial) and lead to more effective ministry.