Free Church Book Reviews

Our books this month offer the best of writers connected with the Free Church, along with titles designed to start or encourage you on your way with the Lord. 

BOOK OF THE MONTH: ‘Hymn Workouts’, Joe Barnard (2022)

A note from Joe Barnard, the book’s author:Most discipleship touches 3% of a man’s life. Cross Training Ministries takes a more holistic approach. We help guys meditate on Scripture, but we also help guys manage their phones. We help guys find more time for prayer, but we also help guys waste less time on video games and social media. Cross Training helps men break the bad habits that impede spiritual growth while also helping men establish the simple routines of a godly lifestyle. Our mission is to teach men how to build a lifestyle of putting Christ first. For more information, visit

A review from Robin Gray, Gardenstown New Church: If the less that can be said about your devotional life the better, then a delve into Joe Barnard’s latest book might well provide the spark to reignite it.

However, be warned that by ‘devotional’, Barnard does not mean something cosy, sentimental, or passive – the Christianized ‘chicken soup for the soul’ that sometimes passes for devotional material today. In fact, forget the idea of a ‘quiet time’ (that shibboleth of latter-day evangelical piety) altogether. Something far more spiritually strenuous is proposed by the Louisiana-born pastor of Edinburgh’s Holyrood Evangelical Church, hence the ‘Workouts’ of the title.

The kindling that Barnard believes can help reignite our devotional lives is the church’s storehouse of classic hymns. Well aware that more ‘traditional’ hymnodic fare may be perceived as unpalatable by those whose preference is for more contemporary worship songs, the author makes a forceful and persuasive case for mining this rich and often untapped resource for cultivating personal piety, whatever our age.

Their affective power, thematic breadth, God-centred gravitas and theological depth make these hymns devotional gold dust in the hands of those prepared to do the work of getting to grips with them. And that is just the point. There is nothing particularly satisfying in being spoon-fed well-worn spiritual platitudes, but there are rich rewards to be gained from wrestling with hymns whose turns of phrase need to be explored and unpacked, worried, and teased out before they will give up all their sacred nutrients. This is where C.S. Lewis’ oft-quoted comment regarding devotional literature is answered by Barnard’s gymnasium of spiritual exertion, where traditional hymns are the weights which, through repeated use, awaken and develop muscle groups that presently lie dormant and in danger of total atrophy:

‘I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.’

While the pipe is surely optional, if not altogether unadvisable, Hymn Workouts provides the ‘tough bits of theology’ which are likely to cause the heart to sing unbidden as the reader explores the mysteries of the Trinity, the incarnation, the union of the believer to Christ and dozens of other holy delights through the exultant language of church hymnody.

After an introduction that is worth the price of the book alone for its clarion call to devotional reformation, Barnard offers 100 hymns – some well-known, some obscure (to a UK readership, at least) – along with questions which provide ample grist to the mill for many a morning’s meditation on the greatness of God, the glory of the gospel, the way of discipleship and the life everlasting. 

As a Free Church reviewer, I can but express my desire for Psalm Workouts as a follow-up to this welcome and unique contribution to ‘books of devotion’, which I also hope will contribute to the rehabilitation of the genre as a whole. This book is available from Christian Focus.

‘Angola in My Heart’, Margaret Skea (2023)

I really enjoyed reading this very well-written, meticulously researched, book about the life of Ruth Hadley in Angola. From the outset, it highlighted all that Ruth gave up in her desire to be obedient to the Lord’s calling to the Chokwe people, in what were always very challenging – and for a long time very dangerous – circumstances. 

I particularly enjoyed the enlightening insight into the cultural background of the Chokwe people and the hindrances this posed for Christian faith.  In addition, the multi-faceted nature of Ruth’s missionary work was truly amazing. She had to turn her hand to everything and anything, especially when she couldn’t trust native Angolans to do it. I stand in awe of her and call to mind her own words: ‘…but I do not know how I would cope each day if it were not for God’s sustaining grace.’

I found Chapter 7 especially moving when the author writes about the illnesses and death of close family members, with Ruth so far away. It once again underlined how she gave up everything, even her family, for the Lord’s sake. I question whether I could have done that and remain greatly challenged, considering that He gave up everything for us. Read about Ruth’s life; you will be glad you did. 

This book is available from Echoes International.

Judith Lewis, Bedyddwyr Cymraeg, Tabernacl, Llwynhendy

‘2000 Years of Christ’s Power: Volume 5’, Nick Needham (2023)

I have not read any of the previous four volumes, but did not find this a barrier to appreciating the author’s overview of the changing dynamic of the Church in the 18th Century. I had previously read a fair bit of church history from this period through biographies of characters such as Whitefield, Wesley and Edwards. However, I learned so much more of the sweep of world history and of the Church through this work. 

The opening chapter on the Enlightenment is immensely useful from the point of view of understanding the context for the Church to work in at that time and which still strongly influences society today. Needham comprehensively covers revivals in the UK and America before looking in some detail at Lutheranism, followed by developments in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; highlighting some significant Lutheran Pietist influences within the Orthodox world at the time.  

The structure of the volume is well laid out, and it is easy to read and understand. A useful feature (which I understand is present in each volume of the series) is the use of extracts of the writings of key characters at the end of each chapter in order to illustrate their views and teachings in their own words. I found this really useful to get a greater sense of someone’s thought than is possible in a short summary within a chapter. If there is one more thing I would have liked, it is a chapter quickly summarising gospel progress (or otherwise) in reformed churches in countries such as France, Holland and eastern Europe.  However, my recommendation is the best possible one I can give in that I now intend to buy and read the rest of the series. An excellent volume with writing and reflection of the highest order. 

This book is available from Christian Focus

Duncan MacPherson, North Harris Free Church

‘Priscilla, Where Are You?’, Natalie Brand (2023)

“What we believe about God is the single most important thing about us”. Yet, theology is often thought to belong to a select few, those who are particularly keen, or in ministry, or professional theologians. In her short, concise book, Natalie Brand seeks to counteract that idea, she wants her readers to know that theology, which is simply the study of God, is for all Christians and in fact all Christians are theologians whether we know it or not. Particularly aimed at women, Brand wants her readers to see that “we all need theology, because truth about God and the gospel fortifies the Christian.”

Brand bases her book on the story of Priscilla and her husband Aquilla in Acts 18:24-26 where they correct the Apollos’ by ‘[explaining] to him the way of God more accurately’ (Acts 18:26). She takes Priscilla’s role in gently correcting her brother in Christ and uses it to encourage women to be serious about their theology. She explains that when it comes to knowing more of God we start with God’s self-revelation in creation, through his word, and ultimately through him stepping into history in the person of Jesus. She then encourages her readers to pay attention to our guides in theology, those great theologians who have studied deeply and written to help us understand more of who God is. Brand shows how this deeper theology leads to weighty worship that is saturated by the riches we have mined. Finally, she encourages us to see that as we grow to know more of God we have the joy of sharing that with others and building up the church just as Priscilla and Aquila did with Apollos. This task isn’t just for the minister in the pulpit but for all Christians.

While we may know little of Priscilla, who Brand bases this book on, the big point being made is important. We are all theologians and we should all take seriously the call, and privilege, to know God more. Brand provides helpful starting points for women (and men) to begin to develop a love for theology and a delight in knowing God more, for “our Christian lives will only be as strong as our doctrine. Our enjoyment of God will only be as full as our gospel understanding.” There are questions at the end of chapter to help think through things further, a great opportunity to discuss with friends and grow together. 

This book is available to purchase from 10ofthose.

Carrie Marlow, Free North Church, Inverness

We are always looking for new reviewers to join the team. You don’t need any experience – just a love of reading and a willingness to write a paragraph of your thoughts. If you’d like to get involved, please email [email protected]