It’s the that time of year when everyone (ok, mostly pastors) begin planning out their year in regards to what books they want to read. I might post my list soon, but thinking about what I wanted to read got me thinking about what I’d already read. Which books have been most influential in my life? This is my top 10. These aren’t necessarily my list of the best books, or even my favorite, though some of them are. It’s just the ones that have had the most impact on my life and ministry.
Two things to note. First, It occurs to me that with only a few exceptions, (Reverberation and Rhythms of Grace) I read most of them in my college years or in the years between college and my first ministry job. I was searching for clarity and direction and these books offered that. Second, there aren’t a lot of “classics” on this list (Augustine’s Confessions, Calvin’s Institutes, etc.). This isn’t because I don’t love those books, or that they’ve not had a great influence in my life. Rather, those books came AFTER I’d already read these ones. When I was younger, and less spiritually mature, these books opened my eyes to thoughts, theologies, and other Biblical truths that would later help me read the classics, but these came first, and are thus more influential. So this is my list for now, in no particular order. Thoughts? What books have you found most influential?
1. Desiring God by John Piper.
This was my first taste of reformed theology proper, and one of the only books, outside of Scripture, that stirs my soul to live for God’s glory. I reread it almost every year and I discover new “stuff” every time. I first read it during a time in my life when I knew I was called to ministry, but was fighting and dreading that calling, and Piper’s rephrasing of the Westminster Catechism, “The chief end of man is to glorify God BY enjoying Him forever,” was the first time I’d ever considered that God’s call in my life might actually lead to great joy. It has. Piper was right and I’m forever grateful to him for teaching that to me.
2. Knowledge Of The Holy by A.W. Tozer.
This short book is PACKED with great theology, and if you’re a preacher, great sermon quotes. His most famous being, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” I know you could argue that the most important thing about us is what comes into God’s mind when He thinks about us, but I think you’d be quibbling. Tozer’s point is the same, and valid. The extent that we entertain high or low thoughts about God, will determine both our relationship to Him and our usefulness to Him. This book is all about God and the more you read, the more you’ll rededicate yourself to Him and His work. Read it. You won’t be sorry.
3. The Making Of A Man Of God: Lessons From The Life Of David by Alan Redpath.
Redpath isn’t as well-known as I think he ought to be. He was a Baptist minister from the UK who came to the US and pastored the Moody Church in Chicago. It’s a simple book, just basic exposition from the Psalms and Samuel but it was given to me around the same time I was called into ministry. I can’t remember if it was right before, or right after, but either way, it affected my willingness to obey in a profound way. I also like to read it devotionally, because it’s divided up into stand alone sermons which lend themselves to a brief read.
4. Where Do We Go From Here? A Guidebook For The Cell Group Church by Ralph Neighbour Jr.
This is sort of a dark horse. I don’t agree with everything Neighbour writes and I’m not the pastor of a cell group church, though I’m not entirely opposed to it. I don’t appreciate just how critical he is of the traditional church and I think he could have written more graciously. Still, it opened my eyes to the dangers of a programmatic approach in church (where we assume we’re doing ministry because we’ve added more programs) and it still affects the decisions I make as a pastor regarding the allocation of resources within the church. The ideas in this book are the reason I counseled one of my churches to begin meeting in their gymnasium, which was more than adequate to seat their congregation, rather than build a new facility. The ideas in this book still lead me to believe that educational space, outside of children’s ministry, is some of the most underutilized and therefore greatest wastes of God’s resources. Read it critically. Eat the meat, spit out the bone as Dr. Stan May says.
5. The Chronicles Of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. (whole series)
If you’re tracking along with me, you’d probably have thought Mere Christianity, or the Screwtape Letters would have gone here. Every great Christian book list has at least one Lewis book and those are the most obvious. And while I do love both of those books, and just finished Screwtape again, I think the Chronicles series had more of an impact on my spiritual life. Mere Christianity helped me with apologetics and Screwtape helps fight temptation, but Narnia made me happy in God’s infinite, eternal, immutable plan. “Aslan is on the move,” was a reminder that Christ WILL redeem the whole world unto Himself, and that WILL work for our good and His glory. I’m not embarrassed to say that sometimes when I read it, I get a little weepy (don’t tell anyone), and if you’ve not read the creation passage in The Magician’s Nephew, where Aslan sings Narnia into existence, then you’ve got to go buy the set today.
6. Reverberation by Jonathan Leeman.
This is one of the newer books on this list. I’ve said that this list is supposed to be the most influential books in my life, but in truth, this book didn’t say anything I hadn’t read before. But that’s a good thing. What it did was put many things I’d read, many threads, and thoughts that were swimming in the ether of my mind and condense them into one brief, readable source. I have everyone in leadership at my church read it. In some ways it’s a systematic theology about ecclesiology. If that doesn’t sound interesting then you probably aren’t going to enjoy this blog. (It’s at this point that I’d place a smiley face emoji if I used those sorts of things)
7. Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem.
If Leeman’s book is “sort of a systematic theology,” then obviously this one is the real deal. It’s been listed as one of the most influential books of the late 20th Century and will continue to have great influence into the 21st Century. I consult it on an almost weekly basis in sermon preparation. Because Grudem is precise and concise in his explanations, and has a great ability to make difficult ideas seem simple, I recommend it for every Christian who wants to grow deeper in their understanding of God and doctrine.
8. Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God by Jonathan Edwards.
This isn’t really a book so much as it is a sermon, but it remains one of the most influential things I’ve ever read. It’s also probably the earliest read on this list. I can thank my high school English at Maranatha Christian School for assigning it sometime in the 10th or 11th grade. It was my first taste of the Puritans who now seem to dominate my reading, and it was the first time I’d considered sermons as influential outside of a local congregation. It also helped me see how to preach convicting sermons without the rank emotionalism so common in much of today’s preaching. Also, there have only been a few people in history with the kind of mind as Edwards. He is without argument the greatest theologian in American history, and perhaps the most important theologian since Luther and Calvin.
9. Rhythms Of Grace by Mike Cosper.
This is another one of those books that might surprise you. It was written so recently that I hesitated to put it on the list. How can I know it will continue to have the kind of impact that these others have had? Well, I don’t. What I do know is that in reading it, I found a simple, thoughtful, helpful analysis of worship ministry. I’m not sure anyone else has really done that, at least not that I’ve read, and so I’m thankful for it. I especially appreciate the Christ/Word-centeredness of his approach and it’s one I continue to try to emulate in worship at my own church.
10. 9 Marks Of A Healthy Church by Mark Dever.
Every pastor, every Christian should read this book. Far from being a book on church growth or a spiritual primer on your personal relationship with God (not that there’s anything wrong with that), this book offers a Bible-centric definition (is there any other kind?) of what the church really is. If Christians read this book and really took it to heart, we wouldn’t have half of the trouble we do in the American church.
So what do you think? Are there any glaring holes in my list? What have been the most influential books in your life?