Ever since I was able to read, I have loved to read books by the stacks. Along the way, that meant winning a few read-a-thons, reading Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology over a winter break, and collecting more books than I can possibly read. I think anyone invested in the lives of teenagers should be reading books that inform that work, especially those of us in paid ministry. And I believe that we can find books that are valuable from all specialties, not just books that are explicitly geared towards youth ministry. As I look back on 2021, I wanted to share a few of the books that stood out to me:
Best Fiction Book – the Red Rising series by Pierce Brown
I love reading fiction because it stirs up the imagination, and often we can see biblical themes expressed through story. They’re also just fun to read! This year, I read the first 5 books in the Red Rising series – I’m eagerly awaiting the sixth book sometime this year. They tell the story of a civilization where humanity has subdivided itself into 14 “colors” through genetic modification, where each color corresponds to a role in society (i.e. violet are artists/creatives). The books, which are separated into two trilogies, are about an uprising against the injustice present in the society’s system. I really enjoyed how Pierce Brown built the world and characters, and there were several “no way!” moments. The series explores themes of injustice, power (especially the lust for power and how it cannot satisfy), community/family, and fate. If you enjoy science fiction I highly recommend giving this series a go.
Best Book for Students – What if Jesus was Serious About Prayer? by Skye Jethani
I don’t usually read many books geared specifically for students, and this book was not either. However, the succinct and engaging way Skye Jethani unpacks biblical truths about prayer is really helpful for students. The book has over 50 short chapters (at most 4 pages) and each chapter has a doodled illustration to visually express the point. I found it beneficial for myself personally, but especially as a tool to hand to students who have trusted in Christ and want to understand what living life with him might look like.
Best Books for Youth Workers – Lead Them to Jesus by Mike McGarry and Something’s Not Right by Wade Mullen
It was impossible to decide between these two books, which are equally valuable in a youth worker’s library. Lead Them to Jesus is the best handbook I have seen for paid and volunteer youth workers alike. Mike McGarry provides a wealth of accessible chapters on both theological and practical questions, all with an emphasis on doing ministry that is truly gospel-centered. I gave a copy of this book to all of my youth leaders this Christmas, as it’s simply a fantastic resource for anyone working with teenagers to have.
I was also blessed by Wade Mullen’s book on understanding abuse, Something’s Not Right. Mullen is an expert on recognizing and responding to abuse, having done research and consulting in the field. His book explains the common tactics or warning signs of abuse, as well as how to respond as a victim and as an observer. Every youth worker needs to be vigilant and responsive in understanding and addressing abuse properly, and this book is invaluable in that regard.
Best “Old” Book – Republocrat by Carl Trueman
This coming year I plan to read some more books that are actually “old”, as Republocrat is just from 2010, but I wanted to give it a shoutout as it was very insightful and relevant. Carl Trueman, who describes himself in the book’s subtitle as a “liberal conservative”, examines the worldviews of both political liberals and conservatives to both critique and affirm what can be. In a climate that has grown increasingly polarized in the last 5 years, Trueman’s book is refreshingly abrasive, and demonstrates that we still have work to do in thinking critically about politics as followers of Christ.
Most Challenging Book – Take Back Your Family by Jefferson Bethke
I don’t know if this was actually the most challenging book I read this year, but it was one of a few that were, and I wanted to highlight it. Jefferson Bethke examines the nuclear family ideal we hold to in western society and contrasts it with the vision of family found in Scripture. Take Back Your Family is about, as it suggests, taking back your family from the patterns of burnout and individualism that is often the mark of a family in our culture. He paints a picture of a family as a team, with a common mission and partnership, and I resonated with his emphasis on allowing the “why” to determine the “what”. It can be possible to be too focused on mission, though, so this was a great book to read in the same year as the next one I’ll mention down below.
Best Author – Skye Jethani
Some years the best author I read may be a new one I discovered, or the author who I read the most books from. This year, it’s the author who I wanted to read everything from (and who I consequently ended up reading the most books from). There are still a few books from Skye Jethani on my shelf that I’m looking forward to reading this year, but it was refreshing to read a few from him this year. I’ve been listening to The Holy Post podcast for a few years, who Skye co-hosts with Phil Vischer, and I appreciate his perspective on faith, the church, and culture – he also co-hosts The Movie Proposal podcast. I’ve also found that very few people know about him, so if you get a chance this year, read a book or listen to a podcast from Skye!
Best Overall Book – With by Skye Jethani
The best book I read this year, which stood head and shoulders above the rest, was With by Skye Jethani. Skye explains 4 ways we typically relate to God – living life under, over, from, or for him. Each of these ways fall short of fully expressing what our relationship with God should look like. For example, living life for God happens when our mission (doing ministry, saving souls, etc) becomes more important to us than God himself. What Skye suggests instead is that we live life with God, focusing on our communion with him. Everything else flows out of that. While this is a concept I was familiar with and would have affirmed, the way Skye presents it in this book was incredibly illuminating and I think it’s a book every follower of Jesus should read at some point – the sooner the better!
If I felt like using a couple thousand more words, I could give an award to every book I read this year. I was encouraged and challenged in many ways, and hope some of these books do the same for you. My goal for 2022 is to read a book a week, including many that I’ve had on my shelf for years and a few that I’m excited to re-read. Whether I hit that goal or not, my prayer is that God continues to transform me through the renewing of my mind, and that all the content I read helps me to love and serve the students in my care more and more.