As a book lover, it is easy for me to overwhelm people with options when they request a book recommendation. It seems like there are certain kinds of books or issues about which people request advice pretty regularly. If I could only recommend one book for several categories, here would be the ones I would encourage people to read.
What’s the best study Bible to help me go deeper in my understanding of Scripture in its context?
There are now dozens if not hundreds of study Bibles that are prepared from certain slants. For a basic bread-and-butter approach that says, “How do we make sure the reader knows a little more about the background of this passage to understand how to interpret it?”, I recommend the NIV Study Bible. It’s a classic, and still my favorite overall.
What’s the best study Bible I can get to help me figure out how to apply Scriptures?
Not everyone really enjoys a deeper dive into Scriptural context or history. For a person who’s more action-oriented or who wants to know what to do with Scripture, I recommend the Life Application Study Bible. It is available in more than one translation. Everyone I’ve recommended this to has seemed pleased with it.
Someone is wanting to talk to me about their problems. What’s the best way to talk to someone in a counseling-type role?
To begin with, if the person’s problem is such that it couldn’t be fixed or worked through in 4-6 conversations or fewer, they need to talk to an actual counselor or therapist. Also, any time you believe that a person could harm themselves physically or is suicidal, you need to get them professional help. If you have any question about this at all, you should ask them directly.
I usually say something like, “Hey, I can see you’re very upset and in a dark place. It’s important to me to know you’re going to be ok. For your well-being, I have to ask you, have you been thinking about harming yourself?” If the answer is “Yes,” you must get additional help for them. In fact, my understanding is that you’re legally obligated to do so. It feels weird the first time you do this, and some people are taken off guard by the question, but it’s too important not to ask them if a person seems in a really bad place mentally and emotionally. You don’t have to ask this of every person, but if you feel your gut say, “I hope they aren’t thinking of suicide,” just go ahead and ask.
Interestingly, I’ve never had this backfire on me. On a few occasions, it’s actually helped put them in a better mindset. They sort of chuckle, “Oh, no no no. I’m upset, but I’m sure I can make it through this.” It also gives you a chance to affirm that you take them seriously. “OK, good. I figured probably not. But you matter to me too much for me not to ask. Some people in your shoes wouldn’t be handling this as well as you are.”
And now for the recommendation…
If it’s something milder that is more like a life dilemma to work through or a conflict that needs resolving, I believe every church leader should read Competency-Based Counseling. It’s a very practical and positive approach that helps a person focus on their strengths and sources of happiness to find a path forward. No one’s life is only bad all the time. Let’s build on those positive exceptions!
Even though I read a variety of books in training for both counseling and spiritual direction, this is still the approach I lean on the most in all of my conversations. I’ve ended up doing an enormous amount of personal counseling in my ministry, far more than I ever imagined I would. Fortunately, I’ve been pretty effective at it, largely thanks to this book. If you’re just the kind of person who is a magnet for people wanting to talk about their problems, this book will help you help them.
I have some questions about our beliefs and practices in churches of Christ. How can I find good answers for why we do what we do?
No better book exists on this topic than Ferguson’s The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology For Today. The only thing I don’t like about this book is that he put “ecclesiology” in the title. (Ecclesiology simply means “the study of churches.”) If you assume this book is too high-level, you’d assume wrong. It is an accessible read where he grounds most of our beliefs and practices in churches of Christ in both Scripture and church tradition while being extremely even-handed in how he addresses both. I’ve actually ended up baptizing several people by sharing excerpts from this book with them, which is the best way to use it. I’ve never even attempted to read it cover to cover. Someone has a question? Go to the section on that topic. You’ll seldom be disappointed.
Our church is struggling with direction. We can’t seem to get above our current size. What should we be doing?
Good news, you don’t need a book. You need to read this handout by Timothy Keller. Leadership and Church Size Dynamics is the single most useful document/book I’ve ever come across for setting strategic goals at church. Keller is himself a highly successful church planter and now runs an organization of church planters. I don’t know of anyone with more credibility on this topic than him.
I like Keller twice as much because the megachurch he grew follows a traditional format. His methods were not all the stage lights and pyrotechnics that many churches are leaning on. But there is so much wisdom here about the differences in church sizes, what helps them to function well, and what they need to do when trying to shift from one size to the next size. It’s a free download. You should read it. Even more importantly, you should implement what he recommends.
If I were to get only one commentary on the Bible, what should it be?
The best one-volume commentary on the whole Bible is the Transforming Word commentary from ACU Press. It’s just terrific. It is a few notches up from a study Bible, but way cheaper than buying a lot of commentaries.
I need to teach Bible class. How do I prepare good questions for discussion?
You should get a Serendipity Bible for Study Groups. For most chapters in the Bible it provides warm up questions, discussion questions, and application questions. There are also several guided studies on relevant topics that point you to a variety of specific chapters. When I’m feeling short on ideas for class, this is the first place I look. Note: I really hate that this one hasn’t been updated in many years. Currently, you have to buy these used, and sometimes at great price.
Our church is experiencing some conflict. How do I help move our congregation through it?
Every church leader ought to seriously consider Steinke’s Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times. It explains the essential leadership concept of self-differentiation and the non-anxious presence. Every time I connect with my congregation in a situation where I recognize, “In this moment, they are looking to me as a minister and leader,” this book is floating around in my head. Your kind of presence is so, so critical to the wellbeing of your church. Regardless of your level of leadership, if anyone looks up to you, this book tells you how to be as a leader.
I’m feeling dry in my spiritual life. How do I get myself feeling more alive in my faith?
I could give you book recommendations with more robust outlines for strategies and rhythms, but honestly, I’ve never had anyone like a book as much as people seem to like Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God. It’s a collection of letters and correspondences from a really humble guy who was exceptionally good at finding God in the ordinary routines of life. It’s a short read and a total delight that will inspire you.
Everyone is talking so much about LGBTQ+ issues. I just don’t know where to begin to wrap my mind around this. Where can I start?
There are a lot of new resources coming out on this topic. It is also important to recognize that there are a spectrum of Christian views on this. I know some Christians who want to treat all LGBTQ+ persons as if they are pedophiles (they most assuredly are not), and on the other end, I know serious Christian people in my own religious tradition who are totally affirming of gay marriage.
I think most churches of Christ would generally fall in the category of believing Scripture teaches that what we do with our bodies sexually is a very serious matter, and also that we want to highly value all people, regardless of what their particular struggles might be. Washed and Waiting is written by a Wesley Hill, a celibate gay man whose views on what he ought to do with his body align well with what a traditional church would affirm. But he also provides a lot of insight into what it’s like to struggle as a devoted Christian who is also a gay person. He also provides a very serious engagement with Scripture that I found helpful as well as advice for how Christians can love people who experience same-sex attraction.
Where can I learn more about what the early church thought and practiced?
If you have a lot of resources about what the Bible says, but you’re curious with what the early church did with it, you should check out Everett Ferguson’s Early Christians Speak. It’s a categorized collection of early Christian quotes on a variety of topics. If you have an appetite for more, there is a second volume.
The (Republicans/Democrats) at church are driving me crazy. I feel like there are good people on both sides. How do we strive for better unity?
Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is a larger read than I’d normally recommend, but it’s just such a good read. Haidt is a committed liberal psychologist who provides a remarkably even-handed analysis of what makes both conservatives and liberals tick. Knowing this can help you gain empathy. He ends the book with suggestions for how we can bring good people together to try to heal some of the partisan divide. And as he does all of the above, he shares fascinating study after fascinating study. So many great illustrations and stories in this book.
I’ve read the more popular Bible translations several times. What’s a good translation to read that’s a little lesser known that you enjoy?
If you’ve done the KJV, NIV, and ESV, you ought to try the Christian Standard Bible from Broadman & Holman. It’s my favorite translation for personal reading. They do a few things just interesting enough to make it feel fresh but without being outlandish. Certain versions have some wonderful tools included. I love their bulleted terms, where if something is a highly cultural concept that a modern reader wouldn’t understand, they put a small bullet beside it. A collection of definitions in the back provides a nuanced understanding of the bulleted term. It’s the best way I’ve seen to provide better insights without having to carry around a hulking study Bible. Likewise, some of their translations will put all Old Testament quotes in bold when they occur in the New Testament. It’s an insightful thing to see just how interconnected the Testaments are. I’ve enjoyed this one a lot.
How does a Christian respond to someone experiencing Gender Dysphoria?
The name to know is Mark Yarhouse. His book Understanding Gender Dysphoria provides a thoughtful, Scriptural exploration of this issue. Yarhouse has worked for many years as a therapist specifically with people experiencing Gender Dysphoria, and so he is not merely a casual observer who wants to have an opinion. He has walked with people through this struggle, and some of the ideas he provides helped and challenged me.
Things are rocky in our marriage. How can we work on rebuilding our relationship?
There is no bigger name in relationship research than Gottman. John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is based on rock-solid research. The tools provided are clear and simple. If you implement his ideas, your relationship has a great chance of improving.
What am I missing?
Those are some of the most common questions that people ask me. What else would you include? What other resources have been a great help to you?