Thursday, July 29, 2010

Top 12 Books to Read Before Undergraduate Ministerial-Theological Study

I've shared elsewhere from my story of calling and vocation, how, at the tender age of 18, I made the decision to begin taking steps toward becoming a professor of Christian theology, a life of teaching and writing in service to the church (and a path on which, seven years later, by God's grace I still find myself). I am the oldest of three boys, born of two adult converts to the faith, and thus mostly devoid both of hurtful history (substantive ecclesial baggage) and healthy history (familial spiritual tradition). What a surprise, then, to discover that not only I, but all three of us brothers will, in one way or another, be devoting our lives in formal service to the church.

My middle brother, Garrett -- about whom I have also written elsewhere, and whose blog you can read here -- has a story of calling worth telling in full, and by him; but as a consequence, he just finished his undergraduate degree in Bible, is beginning his Master of Divinity in a month, and in three years will with his wife leave the dry comforts of Abilene, Texas, for the east African nation of Tanzania. They will be part of a mission team devoted to a particular region and people there, and through proclamation, service, and sharing life together, prayerfully hope to partner with God's Spirit to see God's reign embodied, believed, and obeyed in communities of faithful discipleship.

For the last five years, then, Garrett and I have been partners in similar ventures, mutual theological springboards, and so on. God just happened to call us brothers into brotherly pursuits. We always assumed, however, that our youngest brother, Mitchell, would be in a different field altogether. Mitch is undoubtedly smarter and a harder work than both of us, and with an entrepreneurial spirit, was likely to be supporting us in our relatively meager financial returns.

That all changed over the last year, as Mitch felt increasingly called to the ministry of preaching. Given that there was never a hint of trying to follow in our footsteps -- besides, who in their right mind would choose to be a preacher? -- it has been a wonderful experience to walk with him through this time of discernment. God may yet have different plans for him, but for now, we expect for Mitch to begin his undergraduate studies next year majoring in ministry and preaching.

I realize this is a bit different from mainline denominations, in that many (most?) seminarians earn their undergraduate degrees in whatever major, then go on to a 3-year MDiv as their preparation for ministry or theological education. As churches of Christ have no formal ordination or ministerial "track," the way things go in our case is usually to start with Bible/ministry in college, then (if time and money allow) to go on to the Master's level. (You can imagine my surprise -- and dismay -- when my first semester at Candler felt like freshman year all over again.)

In any case, with Mitch planning to start his studies in a little more than 12 months, Garrett and I took it upon ourselves to begin his theological education in advance. I have seen others' examples of "pre-theological reading" lists, but keep in mind that ours is aimed at someone in their final year of high school, in preparation not simply for theological thinking, but for a lifetime of ministry, proclamation, and Christian pastoral care.

So without further ado, with one book assigned per month (a generous allotment of time for the reading, we think), and having already had Mitch read other authors (Barbara Brown Taylor, Arthur McGill, Shane Claiborne, C.S. Lewis), here is our list of the Top 12 Books to Read Before Undergraduate Ministerial-Theological Study (just rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?):
  1. Mere Discipleship by Lee Camp
  2. Simply Christian by N.T. Wright
  3. Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright
  4. After you Believe by N.T Wright
  5. The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen
  6. The Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter
  7. Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
  8. Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon
  9. The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder
  10. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  11. The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry
  12. The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez
You can probably gather our general approach from the list: grasp the gospel, know the story, involve your self. Of course, we have a thousand other suggestions for each year of his studies, for the Master's level, for essential novels and poets and films and art -- and blogs! But we wanted to keep it simple, lay the groundwork, expose him to multiple authors, and get his wheels turning. Besides, there are enough radical ideas in that short list to change his life forever a thousand times over. So we shall see!

In any event, Garrett's shorter post yesterday sharing this list inspired me to broaden out the story and context a bit; moreover, I'm curious to hear from others. What would your list be? What was your list? What are we missing? What might be missing, but fits someone at a later stage of development or education? What must a burgeoning preacher read as soon as possible? What say you, garrulous and furtive blogosphere?


  1. Wow...a daunting task! Things that jump out to me specifically for ministry:

    Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination
    Nouwen, The Wounded Healer; In the Name of Jesus
    Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited
    Brother Lawrence, Practice of the Presence of God
    Ronald Sider, Good News and Good Works
    Everything by Mother Teresa

    And I echo Camp and Bonhoeffer, especially

  2. Nice suggestions. We limited ourselves to only one by Nouwen, but those two are sort of included in the back door. And originally we had Brueggemann, but thought maybe a year or so into his studies would give him the skills necessary to navigate that book.

    I like the Thurman idea -- can I admit I haven't read it yet? I realize it would take me all of two days; and it's been sitting on my shelf from the library for some time now. Either way, I'll have to put these and other suggestions together in an email for Mitch, just so he knows how much is waiting for him!

  3. Great list. I suspect like with Nouwen, just about anything by CS Lewis and Stanley Hauerwas would fit in (the Hauerwas Reader is a great collection), while deficient on Bonhoeffer, his Life Together is very good (and short). Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace and Scot McKnight's A Community Called Atonement, somewhat hard to find by Brad Kallenberg, Ethics as Grammar is very good for a preacher on language (focus on Wittgenstein and Hauerwas). Unfortunately very little out there on the COC/CC, but a few years ago a sort of encyclopedia was issued and put some flesh on the history of the Restoration Movement.

  4. Bill,

    I like the idea of the Hauerwas Reader -- I hadn't even thought of that. Garrett is also a fan of McKnight's book, so that might be on the next round. And we both like Kallenberg, as well, so I'm glad to have that recommendation. Thanks for the suggestions.