Three times in the past week, different leaders from around the world have asked me to recommend books on various topics pertaining to leadership. I took that as a gentle reminder that it is time to post my annual top ten book list.
As you peruse my list, may the words of my favorite doctor inspire you to read more in 2021 than in all previous years. Because, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” —Dr. Seuss
Here’s my list for 2020.
1. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith
If you only read one book from this list, read this book. If you only read one book in 2021, read this book. If you have read all of Smith’s books, including this book, read this book (again).
Summary quote: “What if, instead of starting from the assumption that human beings are thinking things, we started from the conviction that human beings are first and foremost lovers? What if you are defined not by what you know but by what you desire? What if the center and seat of the human person is found not in the heady regions of the intellect but in the gut-level regions of the heart? How would that change our approach to discipleship and Christian formation?”
2. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology by Eugene Peterson
This book was a Christmas gift from a friend. I recommend reading it slowly so you don’t miss anything. I started this one in January and finished in August, reading a page or two or ten each morning before reading my Bible.
Overview (from B&N): “Lamenting the vacuous, often pagan nature of contemporary American spirituality, Eugene Peterson here firmly grounds spirituality once more in Trinitarian theology and offers a clear, practical statement of what it means to actually live out the Christian life.”
3. Free at Last?: The Gospel in the African American Experience by Carl F. Ellis Jr.
Ellis started his ministry in 1969 as a campus missionary with Tom Skinner. He currently serves as professor of theology and culture at Reformed Theological Seminary and as senior fellow at the African American Leadership Initiative.
From the foreword: “There are well-natured Black practitioners who were baptized into a one-sided orientation of White evangelicalism that was void of a biblical view in social justice. However, some Black practitioners who were educated in liberal institutions have a high regard for addressing systemic injustice but a low regard for biblical authority. Praise God for Carl Ellis Jr. and the courage to speak grace and truth no matter the subject. This book lifts up a gospel that not only renews hearts but also renews institutions.”
4. Let Justice Roll Down by John M. Perkins
Born into poverty in segregated rural Mississippi ninety years ago, Perkins is a church planter, pastor, preacher, civil rights leader, entrepreneur, reconciler, bridge builder, and peacemaker. He is the recipient of sixteen honorary doctorates and the author of fifteen books. If you are not familiar with this living legend, this book is the place to start. After reading Let Justice Roll Down, you’ll want to read the other fourteen.
From the book jacket: “His brother died in his arms, shot by a deputy marshal. He was beaten and tortured by the sheriff and State Police, but through it all he returned good for evil, love for hate, progress for prejudice and brought hope to black and white alike.”
5. Is God Anti-Gay? And Other Questions about Homosexuality, the Bible and Same-Sex Attraction by Sam Allberry
I had the privilege of discussing this book with Sam over breakfast in Nashville before COVID. I learned much. Like a conversation with Sam in person, his book is clear, biblical, and gracious, with classic British “humour” popping up at just the right moment.
Quote: “When someone says they’re gay, or for that matter, lesbian or bisexual, they normally mean that, as well as being attracted to someone of the same gender, their sexual preference is one of the fundamental ways in which they see themselves. And it’s for this reason that I tend to avoid using the term. It sounds clunky to describe myself as ‘someone who experiences same-sex attraction.’ But describing myself like this is a way for me to recognize that the kind of sexual attractions I experience are not fundamental to my identity. They are part of what I feel but are not who I am in a fundamental sense. I am far more than my sexuality.”
6. A Bible and a Passport: Obeying God’s Call to Make Disciples in Every Nation by Jun Escosar
Jun is one of the first Filipinos I met in 1984 when a bunch of clueless Americans attempted to plant a church in Manila’s University-Belt. A year later, Jun was the first full-time staff member of Victory Manila. From then until now, Jun has served in almost every ministry role possible: worship leader, campus missionary, church planter, pastor, teacher, evangelist, mission strategist, and others. Jun earned a doctor of missiology degree from the Asia Graduate School of Theology, and beginning in January 2021, he will serve as the first president and professor of missiology at Every Nation Seminary. I can think of no one better to write a book about the global vision and mission history of Every Nation Churches & Ministries. This is a read-straight-through book.
7. A Public Missiology: How Local Churches Witness to a Complex World by Gregg Okesson
Gregg was one of the Asbury Seminary professors responsible for talking me (and other Every Nation leaders) into returning to seminary, and I am forever grateful. The classes Gregg taught went by way too fast. All his students sat there silently pleading for him to keep on teaching. Forget about lunch. Forget about bathroom breaks. Just keep talking. His lectures were that engaging. So is his book. Gregg is a great teacher and a better man.
Book quote: “We moved to Tanzania to plant churches, but I quickly realized one could not do evangelism, nor discipleship, nor ecclesiology of any kind, without taking seriously the public realities surrounding the people . . . How does church planting relate to poverty, or evangelism to health, or religion to development? I did not have good answers to those queries, but the questions lingered with me and resulted in this book.”
8. Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything about the World by Tim Marshall
Although this book is not written from a religious perspective, anyone passionate about maps or global mission will enjoy and learn much from Marshall’s geography philosophy.
Quotes: “What is now the EU was set up so that France and Germany could hug each other so tightly in a loving embrace that neither would be able to get an arm free with which to punch the other . . . Africa’s coastline? Great beaches—really, really lovely beaches—but terrible natural harbors. Rivers? Amazing rivers, but most of them are worthless for actually transporting anything, given that every few miles you go over a waterfall. These are just two in a long list of problems that helps explain why Africa isn’t technologically or politically as successful as Western Europe or North America.”
9. Stop Taking Sides: How Holding Truths in Tension Saves Us from Anxiety and Outrage by Adam Mabry
Adam has written another must-read book that can definitely save you from anxiety and outrage.
My official endorsement: “In the age of social media, it has become easier than ever to share opinions (informed or not) without considering how they may affect others. In light of our mandate to make disciples, it is vital that Christians understand how and when to engage one another (and the world) in truthful and gracious conversation. Adam’s book offers significant wisdom and points us back to what really matters. My suggestion: buy this book, read it, and stop taking sides.”
10. Race, Injustice & Discipleship: A Small Group Discussion Guide by Justin Gray and William Murrell
Knowing that Justin (Every Nation Music) and William (Every Nation Seminary) had been co-leading successful discipleship groups that addressed racial reconciliation, in hope of facilitating gospel-centered conversations about racial injustice, I asked them to create a six-week Bible study and devotional guide for our Nashville office to engage in the conversation. Our outcomes included relational trust, genuine repentance, and gospel hope. For a free download, click HERE.
Responding to the unsolicited input about this material, Justin and William are writing a book on the topic that will, hopefully, make next year’s top ten list.