Top 10 Books of 2014

Here, in no particular order, are the ten best books I've read this past year. Not all of them were published in 2014, but most of them were.

Beloved Dust: Drawing Close to God by Discovering the Truth About Yourself — I didn’t expect to love this one as much as I did. It’s one of the most profound books I’ve read this year. It’s about understanding who we are, discovering and accepting our limitations and the opportunity we have to commune with God in our humanity. I heartily recommend this book. I’ll be reading it again.

The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ — It’s one thing for the church to preach the gospel; it’s another for that church’s culture to be shaped by the gospel. Ray Ortlund does a great job of explaining what a gospel culture looks like. “The need of our times is nothing less than the re-Christianization of our churches, according to the gospel alone, in both doctrine and culture, by Christ himself,” he writes.

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God — I’m not surprised that a book on prayer by Tim Keller would be good. Keller approaches prayer from a theological, experiential, and methodological perspective. It draws on Scripture, church history, and Keller’s own experience. It’s a rich read, and it whet my appetite for prayer.

Redefining Leadership: Character-Driven Habits of Effective Leaders — This book should be required reading for all church leaders. Joe Stowell shows us that leaders are driven by Christ-formed character, and that successful leadership is not defined by the standards of this world but by the counter-intuitive perspectives of the Kingdom of Christ. It’s a detox from the ways we’ve adopted the world’s leadership values. So important.

Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith — Jen Pollock writes great pose. She also tackles an important topic with insight, helping us understand the place of desire in the Christian life. This book recently won Christianity Today’s Book of the Year award in Christian living, and it’s well deserved.

Samson and the Pirate Monks: Calling Men to Authentic Brotherhood — Men often struggle alone. Nate Larkin tells his own story of isolation and failure, and calls us into the freedom of gospel-shaped brotherhood. I wish that men in every church would read this book. We need the type of freedom, confession, and gospel safety that he describes.

What's Best Next: How The Gospel Transforms The Way You Get Things Done — Matt Perman helps us think about productivity and the gospel. It’s about serving others to the glory of God. It’s both theological and practical. If you want to think about why and how to get your best work done, this book will help you greatly.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less — I’ve read this book at least three times so far, but I’m a long way from implementing its lessons. It’s about the disciplined pursuit of less, and doing less, but better, so you can make the highest possible contribution. As someone who tends to overcommit, I really appreciated this book’s message.

A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams — I don’t even know if Michael Pollan is capable of writing a bad book, but if he is, this isn’t it. Pollan describes the process of building a small structure in the woods behind his house, and manages to turn this into a stimulating 350-page book. This was one of my favorite summer reads.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration — I’ve been amazed at the power of organizational culture. Ed Catmull not only tells the story of Pixar, but helps us think about not only building a great organization but a great culture. It’s a fun book to read with some important lessons

Four Books That Deserve to Be Classics

It seems that books come and go as fast as periodicals. Some books, however, have staying power.

It’s hard to predict which books from the past forty or so years will become classics, but if I had a say, I’d nominate these ones:

Knowing God by J.I. Packer (1973) — “As clowns yearn to play Hamlet,” this book begins, “so I have wanted to write a treatise on God.” Not only is this one of the best opening lines of a book since Calvin’s Institutes, but it sets the scene for a quality book that deserves a regular reading. It’s practical, too. It’s the kind of book I like the most: rich, theological truth brought to life.

No Little People by Francis Schaeffer (1974) — Most of us are aware of our limitations, and conclude that God can’t use us. Schaeffer begs to differ. “With God there are no little people,” he writes. If you read only the fourth chapter of the book, “The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way,” you will have gotten your money’s worth from this book.

Ordering Your Private World by Gordon MacDonald (1984) — The issues in this book are ones I continue to wrestle with today. MacDonald deals with the importance of the inner world, not just the outer one, and issues such as drivenness, busyness, use of time, and rest. This one doesn’t have the gravitas of a classic, but I find its lessons just as helpful today as when I first read it.

The Heart of a Servant Leader by C. John Miller (2004) — While this book was published in 2004, it was written before as a series of letters. I came across this book a few years ago when I was wrestling with what it looks like to apply the gospel to all of life. Miller, more than anyone, has a knack for working the gospel into every crevice of my heart. If you want to see the difference that a radical encounter with grace makes in a person’s heart, you’ll want to read this book.

What would you add to the list?

Saving Grace: Daily Devotions from Jack Miller

I read a lot of books, but there are only a handful that have changed me as much as The Heart of a Servant Leader by C. John Miller. I bought this book in early 2008. By this time I’d been listening to Tim Keller sermons for a couple of years, and I’d attended my first T4G conference. I’d been wrestling with the ideas of gospel centrality and was in the early stages of working through all the implications for my life and ministry.

The Heart of a Servant Leader accelerated all that. It was written by C. John (Jack) Miller, a pastor and seminary professor from Pennsylvania who had once quit the ministry in discouragement. In the months following his resignation, God transformed Miller, and he returned to his church and seminary a different man. I’ve met people who knew Miller, and they say that the difference was a marked one. When he returned to the pulpit, his son Paul Miller thought, “God is going do something with my father. You can’t be that excited about Jesus and something not happen.”

Miller went on to have the most effective years of his ministry, and that change continues to ripple through the lives that he influenced. The Heart of a Servant Leader is a collection of letters written by Miller, and it’s about as close as I could get to the man now that he’s with the Lord. The letters drip with the gospel, and could only be written by a man who had encountered God’s grace in a radical way.

That’s why I’m excited by a new book called Saving Grace: Daily Devotions from Jack Miller. Whereas The Heart of a Servant Leader was a collection of his letters, Saving Grace is a collection of meditations from his sermons. (His sermons, by the way, are also available for purchase.) It covers topics like forgiveness, relationships, temptation, prayer, joy, and perseverance. I haven’t read the whole year, but what I’ve read so far lives up to my hopes. Paul Miller puts it well:

A devotional is a particularly good way to hear Dad’s preaching. By taking it in small doses, you’ll be able to absorb it better. You’ll pick up a cadence in Dad’s preaching on grace as he woos you and then warns you. As he prods you away from yourself, the love of God will warm your heart.

I’m very excited by this book, and I’ve ordered a bunch to give out to people at our church this Christmas (don't tell). New Growth Press has the book for 40% off right now, and they also have a sample of one week’s reflections.

It’s not that Jack Miller was perfect. Quite the opposite. It’s that God’s grace got ahold of an imperfect man and completely changed him. The gospel joy that’s present in his writings is contagious. I’m looking forward to spending the year working through this devotional, working that joy into my own soul.

The $100 Church Plant

Think you need an elaborate plan before you can start a business? Think again. As Chris Guillebeau writes in The $100 Startup, you need precious little: a small venture, a very small amount of money, and a lot of courage.

Guillebeau identified 1,500 individuals who have built businesses earning $50,000 or more from a modest investment. In many cases, they started with $100 or less. Guillebeau focused on 50 of the most interesting cases, and has distilled the lessons into a how-to guide on how to start a micro-business. In some cases, the entrepreneurs didn’t even know they were starting a business. They started with the shortest of business plans, if they even had one. See this one-page template (PDF) for an example.

How did they do this? They focused on providing value for others. They focused on the convergence between what they love to do, and what other people are willing to pay for. They understood people’s emotions, and focused on those rather than on product features. They preferred action to planning, and got their first sale as soon as possible. They were okay with starting small if that’s what they wanted.

I first came across The $100 Startup a couple of years ago when it first came out. I’ve been working through it recently as I’ve been working on a side project. I believe that this book has huge value for church planters. I’m a believer in the value of bivocational ministry, and think this book has a lot to offer for planters and other pastors who are looking to earn income from other sources besides vocational ministry.

Can I suggest that there is also value in thinking about this approach for ministry?

Instead of dreaming of church plants that require tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, perhaps there is a way to begin with a simple, reproducible model with little overhead for salaries and facilities.

Instead of developing an elaborate plan, perhaps there is a way to begin simply and to figure things out on the ground.

Instead of expecting each plant to become a megachurch, perhaps there is a place for micro-churches that spread through neighborhoods and focus on reproduction.

Trevin Wax has interviewed Jimmy Scroggins on this topic. "One thing’s for sure," Scroggins says, "traditional, funded, full-time church planters are not going to plant enough churches to truly penetrate the lostness of North America." We need both traditional church plants and what he calls rabbit churches. J.D. Payne has also written about the need for simple, reproducible models, as well as experimentation and learning. Books like The $100 Startup make me long for these lessons to be applied in a big way to church planting in North America and beyond.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a role for more traditional church plants, just like there’s a role for traditional business. But there’s also a huge role for small, micro-church plants that don’t require a lot of outside investment. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of these in the future. I hope so.

Teach Us to Want: An Interview with Jen Pollock Michel

Jen Pollock Michel has written a book that I wish I'd read a long time ago. It's called Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith. A review at The Gospel Coalition says that the book "is an excavator for the heart; it digs into our foundations and helps us plant new roots." I'm finding the book to be both helpful and enjoyable.

I'm grateful that Jen was willing to answer some questions about the book and about her ministry.

Desire is at the heart of Christian formation, but we tend to focus on belief and behavior more than desire. Why do you think we tend to do this?

We owe our emphasis on rationality to the Enlightenment. When Descartes introduced the idea, “I think, therefore I am,” we began putting cognition at the center of human personality. This philosophical shift affected our theology, and the project of spiritual formation became something very rational. Certainly there are many Scriptures about belief (Romans 10:9, for example), so it’s not unimportant that we believe in Jesus. It’s just that belief must be held in proper balance with what Jesus named as the two most important commandments: love God and love neighbor. These commands make desire central to spiritual formation.

Behaviorism, of course, has long been a part of humans’ attempts at religion. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were the ones who measured virtue by externals. They were fastidious about their rule-keeping: washing hands before meals, observing the Sabbath traditions, etc.  As long as they could keep their “behaviors” in check, they assumed all was well. But Jesus disagreed, as we know. He called them “whitewashed tombs.”

Maybe we all prefer to emphasize belief and behavior in spiritual formation because these suggest something we can more handily manage. We feel in control of our beliefs and behaviors. But the moment we mention desire, suddenly, we’re aware of the deep work of transformation needed.  When we talk about desire, it’s as if we put our finger on an exposed spiritual nerve.  Do I want Jesus? Is he my greatest treasure? Those are challenging questions we would sometimes prefer to avoid.

Churches that value truth tend to focus on cognitive models of change. Why is this approach insufficient?

I was raised in a church that emphasized Biblical knowledge, and I currently attend a church that emphasizes good theology. I’m grateful for both! But as you’ve said, Biblical knowledge and theology, when viewed as ends rather than means, will prove to be insufficient. We need to know God’s word, and we need to develop good theology. But we need to do both of these in order than our desires for Christ and his kingdom may be formed. Otherwise, we’re on the way toward becoming Pharisees ourselves. Their example reminds us that we can know a lot, even obey very carefully, and somehow miss the divinely intended point. We can strain gnats and swallow camels (cf. Mt. 23:24). 
We don't usually think of The Lord's Prayer as having much to say about our desires. What made you choose that as your guide?

It’s been many years now that I’ve been studying—and praying!—the Lord’s Prayer. This is funny, I guess. I grew up Baptist, and we certainly did not make it a practice to pray the Lord’s Prayer together! But in my own spiritual life, I’ve loved the prayer for its simplicity. So often, I make things more complicated for myself than they need to be. I tend to get tangled up in my own thoughts. The Lord’s Prayer has been an invitation into what’s most elemental about God’s desires for me and for the world. It’s a prayer I find myself praying a lot, especially when words and understanding fail for a particular situation. When I don’t know how to pray, I remember that Jesus said, “Pray like this!”

But I have to credit Ben Jolliffe, who was an intern at our church for a couple of years, for really shaping the book’s use of the Lord’s Prayer. We were studying the Lord’s Prayer together as a church, and he preached that what we so often get wrong about prayer (and I think, desire) is the tension between, Our Father, and Hallowed by your name. First, there’s this beautiful invitation towards God’s generosity and love when we call him our Father. Jesus is saying, “Ask! You can’t believe how much God wants to give!” But right on the heels of this invitation is this necessary caution: God’s name must be made holy. Don’t ask thinking God owes you your wildest dreams.

When I heard that sermon, I had been working on the book already, but it gave me really clear language for the tension of human desire in the context of faith. We should want from God because he is so unbelievably good. And yet, we should want very soberly, knowing that God isn’t dedicated to the project of making our lives easy and convenient. Instead, he’s committed to his kingdom, his own glory. 

How has a deeper understanding of desire changed your approach to your own spiritual growth?

I use the question, “ What do I want?” as a way forward into understanding my own heart. Here’s an example: maybe I’ve been irritable with the kids. It’s easy enough to confess that irritability. But maybe there’s something worthwhile about digging into the desires, which promote that irritability. Maybe there are good desires that are being obstructed. Maybe one of my children is being persistently disobedient, and God is calling me into greater courage and consistency in my parenting. But maybe I have disordered desires, which need to be confessed. Maybe it’s my insane craving for quiet and order that makes me irritable, and I need to embrace that my children are children and not adults! As I understand what I want, for good or for bad, it informs the way I pray and then act.

Here’s another example: in my marriage, maybe I want greater intimacy with my husband. But maybe I also want to avoid the real work of participating in that growth. Maybe in asking myself the question, “What do I want?” I recognize that at the end of the day, I’m most interested in crawling into bed with a good book! 

When I pray, considering my desires, I can see my heart’s contradictions and bring these before God for healing. I don’t ever trust myself to change my desires. I simply look for God’s grace to be active in their transformation. I ask him to help me want and will what he wants and wills. 

How can we pray for you?

Thank you for this question! Right now, I’m feeling a strong sense that there are important “nos” I must say in order to be faithful to God. Often, we think of calling as the “yeses” we commit to God. But as I’m learning, every “yes” requires many more “nos.” I’d love to have the courage for the “nos.” I confess to wanting to please people, and this often leads me to agree to do things I have no business committing to. Also, I love feeling very indispensable to God’s plans, and there’s nothing that feeds my pride more than that kind of self-importance. Please pray that my desires will be formed for the approval of Christ alone!

Thanks, Jen!

Check out Jen's excellent blog, and read more about her book at and