Cultivating Communities, Reading Guides

Five Important books for the Thriving of Local Churches! [April 2021]

Thriving Local Churches  Thriving Local Churches  Thriving Local Churches

by ERB Editor,
C. Christopher Smith 

2020 was a difficult year for most churches. Not only did the raging global pandemic mostly confine churches to virtual gatherings, but it also was a year of public reckoning with our histories of racism and sexism, sins that have both plagued (and continue to plague) churches. And on top of all these struggles, churches face an escalating exodus of members that began well before 2020.

So, what are churches to do in the face of these manifold challenges? There are, of course, no clear-cut paths through this wilderness, but there are guides whose wisdom can help us navigate our way through these brutal times. The following five books are exceptional in their capacity to help our churches navigate this wilderness.

Thriving Local ChurchesActs: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief Series)
Willie James Jennings

Hardback: WJK Books, 2017.
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Although strictly speaking, this book is a commentary, it is no ordinary commentary. Unlike many commentaries, it is well worth reading this one from cover to cover. By his careful reading of the church’s genesis and its earliest years, Jennings reminds us of deep realities in which our Christian faithfulness is embedded, realities that are often obscured by modern, Western culture. He helps us see that many of our deepest struggles (against racism and nationalism, for instance) were ones that were not unfamiliar to the earliest churches. This book will be one of the most important biblical and theological works that will guide churches in the post-2020 world, and likely through a good portion of the remaining decades of this century.

 *** READ a key excerpt from this book 

Thriving Local ChurchesThe Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community
Stephanie Spellers

Paperback: Church Publishing, 2021.
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IndieBound ] [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]

This book was written primarily for Episcopalians, but it contains rich wisdom for all churches about how we move forward after the pandemic.

“In this critical yet loving book, the author explores the American story and the Episcopal story in order to find out how communities steeped in racism, establishment, and privilege can at last fall in love with Jesus, walk humbly with the most vulnerable and embody beloved community in our own broken but beautiful way.”

 *** LISTEN to a talk that the author gave about this book

Thriving Local ChurchesThe Congregation in A Secular Age
Andrew Root

Paperback: Baker Academic, 2021
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IndieBound ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Many of the challenges facing churches stem at least in part from our taking our cues from – and trying to stay relevant to – late modern-culture that is ever-accelerating. The Congregation in a Secular Age is a meaty book that engages the work of philosopher Charles Taylor and sociologist Hartmut Rosa to help us understand the social dynamics of the 21st century within which churches must operate. “Living in late modernity means our lives are constantly accelerated, and calls for change in the church often support this call to speed up. Root asserts that the recent push toward innovation in churches has led to an acceleration of congregational life that strips the sacred out of time. Many congregations are simply unable to keep up, which leads to burnout and depression. When things move too fast, we feel alienated from life and the voice of a living God. The Congregation in a Secular Age calls congregations to reimagine what change is and how to live into this future, helping them move from relevance to resonance.”

Thriving Local ChurchesA Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing
Scot McKnight / Laura Barringer

Hardback: Tyndale Momentum, 2020
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“A Church Called Tov addresses the way in which church cultures of all kinds form members, warning signs of toxic church culture including narcissism and power through fear. Scot and Laura also name the ways toxic church cultures respond to healthy criticism. Their overview summarizes the core factors of toxic communities, but is not designed to be a full exploration of power dynamics, abuse, or cover-up. (There are a number of other books and blogs that have delved into these subjects in greater detail, many of which are referenced in Tov’s endnotes.)

The book’s emphasis isn’t on sketching out the rotten, but instead focuses on what it takes to create a goodness culture in a church – tov, in the book’s title, is the Hebrew word for good. Scot and Laura contend that good churches are not perfect churches, but they are committed to cultivating empathy, grace, people above institution, truth, justice, service, and Christlikeness in and into their unique culture.

‘…creating a grace-based family of siblings requires trust, the invisible glue that binds people together. Power and fear can undermine trust, but grace creates it. Without trust, there can be no genuine siblingship. To trust someone is to believe in that person in ways that make the world safe. Sadly, in fear-based power cultures, trust breaks down and makes life as siblings nearly impossible. When a collection of siblings called a church has untrusting relationships, the family breaks down into cliques and tribes and interest groups.'”
(From a review by ERB contributor Michelle Van Loon, read the full review)

 *** Listen to a podcast interview about this book

Thriving Local ChurchesRadiant Church: Restoring the Credibility of Our Witness
Tara Beth Leach

Paperback: IVP Books, 2021
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[ IndieBound ]  [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ] [ Audible ]

“Something is not right. The witness of the church in North America is eroding. Many Christians are alarmed by the decline in church attendance and seek a culprit. Too often, we point the finger away from the church, make culture the enemy, and build walls between us and others. But our antagonism and enemy-making are toxins that further eat away at our witness. Is there a better way? Tara Beth Leach could easily be one of those millennials giving up on the church. Instead, she is a pastor who loves the church and is paradoxically hopeful for its future. In an era where the church has lost much of its credibility, Leach casts a radiant vision for Christians to rediscover a robust, attractive witness. We need to name the toxic soil we’ve grown in, repent for past wrongs, and lean into a better way to become the church that Jesus proclaimed we would be. Leach casts down idolatrous false images of God to recover a winsome picture of a kingdom of abundance and goodness. We can be sustained by practices that will tune our hearts to God’s and form us into the radiant communities God intends for us and those around us.”

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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