I realized the other day that the common denominator in this month’s reading is how church leaders can retrieve impulses from classical theologians (not to mention from Scripture) for shaping ministry and church renewal today. This has long been a passion of mine since graduate studies in early church history. The press of pastoral duties has meant I could only ever pursue this passion in drips and drabs. But I’ve recently realized it has consistently motivated my reading and thinking over the years. Here’s the basic approach I’ve had in mind—more intuitive than systematic:


  • Reading extensively from an author’s works, as well as exploring secondary studies.

  • Looking at specific ministry issues and how an author’s insights and own ministry practice suggest pathways for renewed practice today.

  • Conversation with practicing pastor/theologians (friends often) who exemplify the process of retrieval I’ve described—testing out insights drawn from reading.

  • Establishing a biblical/theological framework, significantly influenced by principles of the Continental and English Reformations.

  • Distilling from my reading some overarching pastoral principles to inform practice, to ground change. So, for example, I have over the years paid particular attention to the way the Reformers renewed worship as part of a larger strategy to build a gospel-driven church.

  • Integrating the insights and impulses drawn from a particular author with an even more ancient set of dynamics for renewal contained in the Nicene Creed and in key New Testament passages.

  • And then seeking to influence my own ministry practices in line with insights retrieved from my reading.


In one way or another, that basic approach is behind much of the reading I have always done and still do. It has meant reading widely but also purposefully. It has, at times, meant focusing on one author intensively for a while. And it has certainly meant reading old as well as new books.


C.S. Lewis’s well-known dictum comes to  mind: “The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”


Three books I’ve been reading/re-reading lately:

God's Presence

Frances Young


In this work, based on her Bampton Lectures given at Oxford, Young covers key topics in the Christian faith, including creation, anthropology, Christology, soteriology, spirituality, ecclesiology, and Mariology. She connects early church theologians to our context, providing an excellent model for how to retrieve wisdom from the ancients responsibly. She engages biblical theology and draws out the contemporary implications of Christian doctrines. She concedes that there is much in patristic literature that is alien to the modern age, but insists that there is still much that can be recovered and recycled for our benefit today.


Interestingly, she also injects her personal experience into her expositions. As Gerald Bray wrote in a review of the book: “Not everyone will know that she has been the chief care-giver to a highly disabled son for more than forty-five years, but everything she writes is set in that context. Arthur (her son) is a constant presence throughout the book, and it is clear that her theological positions have been worked out very much with reference to him.”


It’s worth mentioning Bray’s primary critique of the book; he notes that Young “belongs to a liberal Methodist tradition which continues to guide and inform her judgments at key points. Thus, for example, she respects the Bible as the chief source of Christian teaching but not as the revealed Word of God. . . . What Dr. Young must know but does her best to ignore is that the church Fathers accepted the Bible as the revealed Word of God and submitted themselves to its teaching, even when they did not particularly like it. They were converted to a Biblical world-view, which they saw as the mind of Christ. This is something that Dr. Young cannot share in.”

Private Devotions

Lancelot Andrewes


Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), Bishop of Winchester, was on the committee of scholars that produced the King James Translation of the Bible, and probably contributed more to that work than any other single person. Learned and eloquent, a master of English prose, and fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and eighteen other languages. His sermons were popular in his own day, but may be too academic for modern tastes. And it takes some getting used to his rhetorical flourishes. A spirited recent lecture by poet Malcolm Guite at Southwark Cathedral helped me understand and appreciate Andrewes. Have a listen to Guite’s sonnet for Lancelot Andrewes’ Day (September 25) and to his lecture: https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2016/09/24/the-word-and-the-words-a-sonnet-for-lancelot-andrewes-4/ 

Andrewes prepared for his own use a manuscript notebook of Private Devotions, published after his death, apparently intended to serve as a guide and stimulus to prayerful meditation. I’ve started reading from the Devotions as well as from selected sermons as a stimulus to my own praying. Here’s an example, an “Act of Confession”:



Essence beyond essence, Nature increate,

        Framer of the world,

    I set Thee, Lord,before my face,

    and I lift up my soul unto Thee.

       I worship Thee on my knees,

and humble myself under Thy mighty hand.

    I stretch forth my hands unto Thee,

my soul is as a thirsty lands toward Thee.

        I smite upon my breast,

        and say, with the publican,

        God be merciful to me a sinner,

            the chief of sinners;

        to the sinner above the publican

        be merciful, as to the publican.

            Father of mercies,

        I beseech Thy fatherly pity,

            despise me not,

an unclean worm, a dead dog, a body of death;

despise not Thou the work of of Thine own hands;

    despise not Thine own image,

       though defiled with sin.

Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean.

Lord, speak the word only, and I shall be healed.


. . .


O that mine eyes were a fountain of tears,

    that I might weep day and night;

that with Magdalene I may hear Thee say,

        Thy sins are forgiven thee,

        and with her may love much,

        for my sins, which are many,

            are forgiven.


And Thou, all-holy, good, and life-given Spirit,

        despise me not, Thy breath,

        despise not Thine own holy things;

    but turn Thee again, O Lord at the last,

        and be gracious unto Thy servant.

Thriving Communities: The Pattern of Church Life Then and Now

C. Kavin Rowe with L. Gregory Jones


The last book this month also aims at retrieving cues for renewed ministry from an ancient source—the book of Acts. Kevin Rowe, a brilliant young New Testament scholar at Duke Divinity School, who has written extensively and insightfully  on Acts, partners with Greg Jones, former Duke dean and leadership consultant, to produce this challenging and delightful little book. Rowe and Jones state as their purpose: “To cultivate thriving communities that bear witness to the inbreaking reign of God that Jesus announces and embodies, in all that we do and are. That is our goal: Christian communities that are a picture of and testament to God’s reign.”

Their fundamental conviction is that “the words of God challenge us, change us, and transform our lives fundamentally. And in so doing, they transform the institutions we lead.”


The book outlines six features of a pattern of life in thriving communities, six strands of a unified community life which, when woven together, help Christian communities to serve their purpose in the world. The book is structured around short but penetrating reflections on sections of Acts, paired with vignettes from a variety of churches.


These are the six features Rowe discerns in the life of the early church portrayed in Acts:


  • Networks and networking—establishing a personal, meaningful connection between geographically separated churches

  • Visibility—public witness in the presence of and for the good of those around us

  • Provision for the weak—not as a kind of add-on, but as something integral to its identity, at the very core of what it means to be a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God

  • Articulacy of belief—everyone in the community, and not just scholars or intellectuals, must learn to speak about why the community exists

  • Processing conflict—conflict is not a symptom of failure to thrive; using conflict as a springboard toward further growth and development of our mission and identity

  • Suffering—living through suffering reminds the world of both its brokenness and its hope


I highly commend this book for reading in vestries, church staffs, and small groups. It’s a great example of creative and faithful retrieval from the past for pastoral practice today.

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Durham, NC 27717