By Joe LaGuardia
Last year, following a mission trip to Cuba, I wrote a lengthy blog series on books that have shaped my ministry, faith, and life. During this season of COVID-19, I decided to revisit my bookshelf and narrow down, as impossible as it was, the top 10 books that have shaped my ministry and became “game changers” for me.
What is a game changer? One of those books that hooks you so profoundly, you do not think the same again. A book so well written and rich that it actually shapes how you see the world, in which the very grammar becomes your first language.
So with that said, I made a video–but also a list the top ten books below:
1. Wounded Healer, by Henri Nouwen. Once upon a time, Nouwen’s works, recommended by my grandmother-in-law and spiritual sage, Granny, saved my life from depression. This book, however, shaped how I view my own vocation as a minister and “priest” to God’s people. A classic in ministerial identity and writing, Wounded Healer, stresses that ministers ought to recognize their own needs, flaws, and suffering, connect them with Christ, and meet others in the midst of their own needs and suffering, thus connecting them to Christ too. A beautiful book, though concise, written within the “atomic age” and ecological distress of the late 1970s.
2. Put Down Your Sword, by John Dear. This book, part Bible study, part memoir, establishes a biblical and theological foundation for non-violent resistance and pacifism. This book, among a couple of others (at least one other book on this list, Kingdom Ethics), have shaped my thinking about what the sanctity of life–and the implications of what I call a holistic pro-life stance–actually means.
3. Invitation to a Journey, Robert Mulholland. Mulholland’s introduction to the field of spiritual formation shows why spirituality is an actual academic discipline, complete with a history of interpretation and application, as well as a theological framework that stretches all the way back to early, third-century monasticism. This became pivotal in my dissertation–also in the field of spiritual formation–and I know Mulholland’s definition of spirituality by heart: “Spiritual formation is the process by the Holy Spirit of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” Bam!
4. Kingdom Ethics, by Glen Stassen and David Gushee. This tome is a monumental work on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and what the Sermon means as both a blueprint for “Kingdom living” and application to contemporary ethics. The book explores the values and convictions inherent in Jesus’ Sermon, and then applies them to modern day issues, such as the environment and nonviolence. This book has inspired me to read the entire Bible, forwards and backwards, through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount–the standard by which Jesus demanded his disciples to live.
5. The Prophetic Imagination, by Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann is a popular name in Old Testament studies, but this accessible introduction to his though on the prophets and how to read the Bible from the perspective of justice is a fascinating book.
6. The Jesus I Never Knew, by Philip Yancey. Although I read numerous books on the “historical Jesus,” which I considered my “official” field of study in my bachelor’s degree, Yancey’s book is the best written and accessible book to Jesus and Jesus’ own identity as the Risen Savior. Yancey explores nuances of Jesus’ life and how those lessons apply to Christ’s Church, as well as those individuals who choose to follow him.
7. The New Testament World, by Bruce Malina. When I hit seminary, I moved out of historical Jesus studies and into socio-rhetorical criticism of scripture. The foundational “introduction” to the field of social sciences is Malina’s work on the first-century world, which explores facets of culture from group-thinking to honor and shame. This provided the interpretative “grid” by which I read the Bible to this day.
8. Leaving Church, by Barbara Brown Taylor. Taylor’s memoir follows her from her call to the priesthood to her movement from priest to professor in the North Georgia Mountains. Her storytelling is concise and sharp, and her observations of ministry–and the inner working of church life–is spot on. I recommend this book to everyone who is in or is choosing to go into full-time ministry. It might just save your sanity–I’ve read it three times.
9. Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, by John Claypool. Claypool’s collection of sermons spans the time of the initial diagnosis of his daughter’s leukemia to her eventual death. Claypool’s sermon on Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac, the first sermon he preached upon his return after his daughter’s death, is one of the most powerful and stirring sermons I’ve ever read. It you read this book, better bring along Kleenex. You won’t be the same on the other side.
10. The Hidden Lives of Congregations, by Israel Galindo. Galindo’s book teaches ministers how to “read” their congregations by assessing various markers of identity. This book is helpful in letting us know how to minister in the church while avoiding making the church in our own image, and by allowing churches to be whom God called them to be.
These books, for me, span over 25 years of ministry, and still make an impact today. What about you? What books have been formative in your ministry through the years?