The Pastor’s Book (review)

The Pastor’s Book: A Comprehensive and Practical Guide to Pastoral Ministry
R. Kent Hughes
Crossway, 2015

the pastors book

Released just a couple of months after Jason Helopoulos’s The New Pastor’s Handbook, this book has a similar name but a very different purpose. While Helopoulous aims to provide bite-sized encouragements for pastors, this large tome is meant to be a complete go-to resource for pastors arranged under the categories of ‘Christian Gatherings’, ‘Parts of the Worship Service’ and ‘Ministerial Duties’.

While there is some useful material contained within it, the book seems to be aimed at pastors who have never thought these things through – for example the chapter on worship was written for a time ‘when so many churches don’t know why they do what they do’. Much of it is foreign to historic Reformed Christianity, with 54 pages devoted to Good Friday, Easter and Christmas, not including the section in the communion chapter on a ‘Sample Christmas Communion Service’.

While Kent Hughes gets his name in the biggest writing on the front cover, Douglas Sean O’Donnell also contributes quite a bit. His presence means we get two perspectives on baptism, though even the paedo-baptist advice is to leave it up to parents. The chapter on counselling is written by Robert W. Evans and gems like ‘Instruct your assistant to hold your calls’ during counselling sessions fuel the sense that much of the book isn’t relevant for most pastors across the globe.

At nearly 600 pages, the book is big enough that at least some sections of it will help most readers, but unless your convictions on worship closely match those of Hughes and O’Donnell, it’s not worth dropping £30 on.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

The New Pastor’s handbook (book review)

The New Pastor’s Handbook: Help and encouragement for the first years of ministry
Jason Helopoulos
Baker Books, 2015

new pastors handbook

The release of ‘The New Pastor’s Handbook’ after I had been a new pastor for about 3 weeks seemed like near perfect timing. Don’t go rigidly by the title though. Some of it, such as that on considering calls, would have been useful before this point, and most of it will be perennially relevant. The beauty of this book is the 48 small chapters of a page or two each, making it ideal to read one or two a day. None of it is rocket science but it’s all very helpful and Helopoulos is wise, winsome and caring. Occasionally, it’s quite American-centric, for example the assumption that you’ll have staff members or the statement that ‘Most men graduating from seminary desire an assistant pastorate’. However even chapters which don’t directly apply (as on ‘Youth Ministry’ or ‘Candidating’) contain useful principles that can be applied in other different contexts. Helopoulos shares his regrets so we can learn from them – such as not taking enough time before changing things so children were present at worship services. I found this to be a hopeful, helpful and realistic book which I plan to return to. Helopoulos concludes with a call to perseverance as ‘many leave well before their time’. He is convinced however that ‘the pastorate remains a lifelong calling for most of us’ – and this book will encourage us along that road.

Thanks to Baker Books for providing a review copy.

Newton on the Christian Life (book review)

Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ
Tony Reinke
Crossway, 2015

newton on the christian life

A good indication of how well I like a book is often how many quotes from it I put into Evernote. When it comes to Tony Reinke’s highly anticipated book on John Newton, the total number sits at an unusually high 35 – almost all direct quotes from Newton himself. Last year I read a book of Newton’s letters to a young minister under the title ‘Wise Counsel’, and it’s probably one of the best books I’ve ever read. This book doesn’t quite hit those heights (though an ebook versus a lovingly crafted Banner of Truth hardback is always fighting a losing battle!) but it’s provided me with a stack of quotes from Newton on a whole manner of themes that I know I’ll keep coming back to. I think one of the biggest attractions of Newton is his honesty about his struggles, for example with unbelief or distractions in prayer. Reinke writes: ‘Newton was open and honest about his weaknesses, and this honesty marked his entire forty-one year ministry’. His humility and winsomeness also shines through, and some of his illustrations are just amazing. Newton is about as far from a ‘stage cage’ Calvinist imaginable. He writes: ‘It will be in vain for ministers to declare that the doctrines of grace (Calvinism) are doctrines according to godliness, unless our testimony is supported by the tempers and conduct of our people’

That’s not to say I found the book uniformly great, and I nearly gave up somewhere around the middle. I’m glad I kept going however; Chapter 8, on ‘Christian Blemishes’ is worth the price of the book. I hadn’t come across this before, but Newton goes Pilgrims’ Progress-style and comes up with seven picturesque portraits of the failings of Christians: Austerus (Orthodox but strict), Cessator (Heavenly minded but earthly disconnected) etc. With the abundance of online sermons, falling into the latter category is probably a bigger temptation today than it was in Newton’s day: ‘A mere hearer…running hither and thither after preachers…lean cows; they devour a great deal but for want of proper digestion they do not flourish’. The following quotation is also too good to leave out: ‘They usually grow wise in their own conceits, have their head filled with notions, acquire a dry, critical and censorious spirit; and are more intent upon disputing who is the best preacher than upon obtaining benefit to themselves from what they hear’. Well does Reinke conclude: ‘This chapter should sting’! The next chapter, on trials, is also very helpful. Normally I skip the hymns in books (and real life), but not here: if you’re not familiar with ‘I ask’d the Lord that I might grow’ then check it out!

I did find some parts of the book disappointing though, especially the omissions. While you get a rough idea of Newton’s life from the scattered references, more on the context to his writings would have been appreciated. I also think Reinke really missed a trick by not giving us more on the sorts of books that Newton read. Reinke has after all just written a blog post on: ‘The 70 best books of 2015’, so to say he’s a bit of a reader is an understatement. There are scattered references to books Newton liked/recommended (Riccaltoun, Fuller, Leighton, Flavel, Thomas Wilcox) but then when Reinke actually writes a paragraph on ‘The other books’, it’s largely a pious-sounding attempt to say just read the Bible! For someone with the interest in books that Reinke has to go through Newton’s whole corpus and not give us something more substantial seems a bit of a waste.

The editing of the book isn’t flawless either. Newton’s advice that ‘a believing view of Jesus does the business’ is great, but quoting it three times as if each is the first time isn’t. The kindle edition also has a number of jumbled sentences in the footnotes. And even if you don’t mind Tim Keller, the sheer amount of quotations from him soon begins to grate. Oh, and while this isn’t Reinke’s fault, now that Banner have released a re-set edition of Newton’s works, most of his footnotes will be meaningless for anyone inspired to go and read Newton himself.

One final disappointment is with Newton himself. Reinke flags up that he was weak on definite atonement. Why is it so hard to be nice and a fully fledged Calvinist and at the same time?! Because unlike many ‘Theologians on the Christian Life’, Newton is impossible to dislike. Rather like this book.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

Comfort the Grieving (book review)

Comfort the Grieving: Ministering God’s Grace in Times of Loss
Paul Tautges
Zondervan, 2014 (Previously published by Day One in 2009 as Comfort those who Grieve)

comfort the grieving

After two decades as pastor in the same church and several years as a hospital chaplain, Paul Tautges believes he has been exposed to far more grief and death than the average pastor. This book is his attempt to share what he’s learned with those given the responsibility and privilege of ministering to grieving people. This is not a book of gushy sentimentality however. Tautges realises that not all comfort is true comfort. He nails his colours to the mast early on: ‘Christ centred comfort is the only true comfort’ – anything else is temporary at best and deceptive at worst. In fact, at times of grief we must make death a servant of God’s purposes by seizing opportunities to gently speak the truth and redirect people to focus on eternal matters. Before getting into the practical side of things, the author begins with the spiritual foundations of comfort – which would be helpful for ministering to those dealing with anxiety/worry as well as grief. With that foundation laid, Tautges can move on to the practical, including a sample 16 month – 3 year plan for ongoing comfort once the funeral is over, and a chapter on letter writing.
The shorter second part of the book contains sample sermons (not quite so helpful, but might give a few ideas) as well as help for structuring a funeral. It is a sad comment on today’s church that none of his sample orders of service or appendix on ‘poetry, songs and prayers’ includes the singing of psalms. Apart from that it’s a helpful little book, but we’ll let Henry Cooke conclude:

“The most pious productions of uninspired men are a shallow stream; the Psalms are unfathomable and shoreless ocean. I was long in favour of paraphrases and hymns of human composure in the worship of God; but now I have learnt that nothing will do for a sinking soul in a dying hour but the Psalms of David”.

Thanks to Zondervan for providing a review copy.

The Pastor’s Wife (book review)

The Pastor’s Wife: strengthened by grace for a life of love
Gloria Furman
Crossway, 2015

the pastors wife

This book’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. It’s called The Pastor’s Wife, but relatively little of it actually speaks to the role of being a pastor’s wife. As Kristie Anyabwile comments after an otherwise positive review: ‘The only problem I see with this book is that the title is a little misleading’. And so any Christian involved in ministry (so hopefully any Christian) can benefit from this book.

The book is divided in three parts. The first part, ‘Loving the chief Shepherd’, is on finding our identity in Christ, not in our particular job or role, and so is relevant for everyone. The second section, ‘Loving an under-shepherd’, is more particularly focused on the role of a pastor’s wife, but could largely applied to any wife, or anyone wanting to understand their pastor’s role, and how they can better support him. The final section is entitled ‘Loving the bride of Christ’ and is helpful for anyone wanting to serve Christ through and in his church.

Furman writes well and the book is easy to read. Those looking for more specific guidance for pastors’ wives may be disappointed, while those who skip it because of the title may miss out. Is a minister’s wife a specific role? The book doesn’t directly address the question, but while marketed at a specific group, ends up being relevant to all Christians. Whether that is a strength or a weakness really depends on how you answer that question.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.