Ministry Today | Serving and empowering church leaders

How to choose the books that will strengthen your personal knowledge as well as your effectiveness in the pulpit
Being a pastor and historian requires a lot of reading. But for my dad, Bill Cooke, that has never been a problem. I am the "preacher's kid" who grew up in his household, and some of my earliest memories have to do with his reading habits. Waiting at the doctor's office, standing in line at the grocery store, on vacation or before bedtime, my dad always had a book in his hand. Through the years he has built an impressive personal library.

It may sound like the life of a nerd, but the fact is, my father is anything but a nerd. He was an all-state football player in high school, a Golden Gloves boxing champion and was in the First Marine Division that hit the beaches and saw the bloodiest fighting throughout the Pacific during World War II. No, a nerd would not be the way to describe my father.

From his youth in a small mill town in North Carolina, he realized that knowledge would be the best way to lift him out of backbreaking factory work and into a better life. So after the war, he enrolled in college and started reading. When I came along in the 1950s, it didn't take long for my dad's reading habits to rub off on me. Today I find my own library growing exponentially. (One thing he didn't teach me was how to avoid the stern look on my wife's face when I come home with another book in my hands.)

What did I learn from my father about reading? I learned that reading can prepare you for just about anything.

As a pastor, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, when America was going through one of the most radical transitions in its history, my dad had answers. Not just simplistic, pat answers, but real, in-depth answers that helped people face the challenges of politics, education, morality, family issues and much more.

While other pastors struggled to understand issues such as racism, Vietnam, evolution, creeping liberal theology or personal issues such as divorce, suicide or abuse, my father had a "deep bench," and was tapped into resources that dated back to the earliest days of our faith.

Even today, though he's semi-retired, I'm amazed that his book-buying has continued unabated. Retirement to my father simply means "more time to read."

I didn't follow my father into the ministry. In fact, I'm a TV and film director based in Burbank, California. But I also consult with numerous churches and ministries on media issues--particularly regarding how we can use the media more effectively to reach this generation for Christ.

But in working closely with pastors and ministry leaders today, I'm regularly surprised--even shocked--at how few books they own. It is not an unusual event for me to meet with a pastor or ministry leader and notice that he owns less than 10 books. And most of those volumes are recent "fluff" on the latest trends. In many cases, they focus on financial prosperity, positive thinking or "how-to." Many pastors' so-called libraries look more like a motivational collection than a pastor's bookshelf.

I want to be motivated, and I certainly would like to be prosperous. But if a pastor is getting his ministry advice from Tony Robbins rather than historic church fathers or other qualified church leaders, he will end up feeding his congregation fast food instead of steak--and eventually the signs of spiritual malnutrition will start showing.

So what types of books should go into a well-designed pastor's or ministry leader's personal library? Ask 10 pastors, and you'll probably get 10 answers. However, in talking with numerous pastors, professors and ministry leaders, as well as from my own graduate research, I have discovered a common framework that can help a pastor or church leader create a powerful resource for his or her own ministry.


The framework used to build a strong personal resource library consists of six key areas: history, biography, theology, apologetics, current culture and fiction.

1. History. Why duplicate the mistakes of the past? By learning the history of the church, we can see the mistakes others made and avoid them today. In the same way, we can learn from past success and take our ministry to a new level.

Recently the world mourned the death of Mortimer J. Adler, who died at age 98. Adler believed in the power of unchanging standards of truth and understood the value of "the classics": the great books of the past whose principles and lessons never change. He instituted the Great Books program, which had enormous influence on American education. He understood that there are "eternal verities"--issues that mankind struggles with from generation to generation--and that if we're not learning from the past, we're leading lives of shallow futility.

2. Biography. Somehow, we believe that only the hottest TV evangelists or most talked about Bible teachers have cornered the market on the latest insights. We've fallen into celebrity worship, just as the secular world. But we forget about the men and women of the faith whose teaching and preaching changed the course of history.

Have you read the biography of Martin Luther, who began the Protestant Reformation? Or William Tyndale, whose translation of the Bible into English earned him the honor of being burned at the stake? What about St. Augustine, John Calvin, George Müller, Charles Spurgeon, John Wesley, William Wilberforce or William Carey? And the list goes on. These and others influenced governments, spoke to thousands without the aid of microphones, created modern-day missions and changed the course of history.

3. Theology. Theology, particularly what is called "systematic theology," is simply the study of what the Bible teaches about any given subject. It is a disciplined, orderly approach to the Bible. A serious knowledge of theology should be the basis for any leadership position in the church.

Sadly, the church today is filled with inaccurate and erroneous teaching. The most effective vaccination is a strong dose of sound theology. If you don't have at least a few volumes on the subject, you're missing a key resource that can transform your ministry. Understanding good theology allows your church or ministry to be self-correcting, not subject to the winds of the latest trendy or erroneous teaching.

4. Apologetics. While theology is the study of what the Bible teaches, apologetics is essentially the defense of those principles.

Today, more than ever, church leaders need to understand how to defend Christianity from the onslaught of competing worldviews. It is imperative that pastors know how orthodox Christianity stacks up against the claims of Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientology, the New Age movement and other groups.

In a culture where cults and false religions are winning converts at a record pace, few Christians have the scriptural knowledge to persuade others to the truth. One of the best things you could do for your church is to start teaching a class in Christian apologetics.

5. Current culture. The history of evangelism is littered with the failed efforts of those who loved God and understood the Bible, but had no clue about how to relate their faith to the immediate culture.

Does the Bible address explosive issues such as evolution, homosexuality, abortion or euthanasia? You can hardly turn on the news without hearing the current debates about stem cell research. But do you understand the gravity of this debate or its implications in light of biblical teaching?

If a successful, educated, married couple in your church comes to you seeking advice about having an abortion, a simple, "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" approach just isn't enough. While that statement is true, the couple also lives in a culture where personal freedom is paramount and every other message they receive tells them that abortion is her right, and her rights are all that matter. Therefore, to minister effectively, you need to comprehend the culture, so you can provide biblical answers in a way people will understand.

The secular culture didn't get this way overnight, and it will take more than shallow teaching to make a course correction. We need pastors and church leaders who understand the issues within our culture and can provide intelligent, thoughtful answers.

6. Fiction. Except for a couple of volumes from the Left Behind series or a Frank Peretti novel, this is probably the least likely type of book you'll find on a pastor's shelf. For some reason, Christians have historically viewed fiction through skeptical eyes.

One pastor said, "I don't have time to read anything that isn't true." He is correct--fiction isn't true. However, fiction can communicate truth. I find it interesting that Jesus spent an enormous amount of His earthly ministry telling stories, and yet many pastors are horribly inept storytellers themselves.

The Christian community needs to regain its understanding of fiction. I'm not talking about most of the shallow, trite and cheesy fiction you usually see on Christian bookstore shelves. I mean powerful novels and short stories by writers such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov), Flannery O'Connor ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "The Violent Bear It Away") Madeleine L'Engle (A Wrinkle in Time), John Bunyan (The Pilgrim's Progress), C. S. Lewis (the Chronicles of Narnia series) and many more.

What's important in a fiction story is not the overt action, but the "subtext": the real story behind the obvious action. When you read a great novel, you begin to see the many layers of meaning and insight, as if the writer is opening a secret door that reveals an entire world inside the story.

That's why fiction stories are so much like life--and that's why Jesus used them with such great effectiveness.

Today, dramatic stories in movies, television and popular novels drive this culture, and it's not difficult to see that this generation learns morality and behavior from modern media. Therefore, if you don't understand the power of fictional novels, movies and television, you're missing the single greatest mission field of this generation.


The following are my suggestions for building a strong personal library:

1. Seek out experienced pastors and ministry leaders you admire for their advice. They will understand which books have helped them in ministry and can assist you in finding the right tools that will help the most.

2. Talk with college or seminary professors. They will be especially helpful in the theology and history categories, and their insights will be invaluable. You don't have to be a student--most Christian college professors would be happy to offer advice and counsel.

3. Whenever you have the opportunity, talk with a bookstore manager or librarian on a Christian college campus. College bookstore managers and librarians have to know all the competing texts as well as the current and historical books for a wide range of Christian subjects. His or her advice will be invaluable toward making the best purchases.

4. Develop a lifelong attitude toward learning. If you intend to remain a vital Christian leader, you can never stop growing. Start building your library, enroll in a college or continuing education class, and keep learning from the giants of the faith.

In his excellent book, Love Your God With All Your Mind, J. P. Moreland relates that during the Middle Ages, the cultivation of a rich interior life through intellectual reflection and spiritual formation was of critical importance. But in this century, the ability to project a powerful image, attain celebrity status or possess consumer goods has become our preoccupation.

It's difficult to argue with the message of Proverbs 4:7: "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding" (NKJV).

A Peek Inside the Libraries of Successful Leaders

We asked five Christian leaders this question: "If you were stuck on a desert island with only 10 books other than the Bible, which 10 would you select?" Here are their choices.

Jack Hayford, founding pastor of The Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California, and chancellor of The King's College and Seminary:

1. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance

2. Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (10 volumes)

3. Harris-Archer-Waltke's Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (2 volumes)

4. The New Englishmen's Greek and Hebrew Concordances (2 volumes)

5. 26 Translations of the Bible (AMG Publishers, 3 Volumes)

6. With the Arndt-Bauer-Gingrich (Greek Lexicon) and Brown-Driver-Briggs (Hebrew), use the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language (8 volumes)

7. Keil and Delitzsch--Commentary on the Old Testament (10 volumes)

8. Lenski's Commentary on the New Testament (12 volumes)

9. A.T. Robertson's Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament

10. Nelson's Bible Dictionary/ Encyclopedia (or other choices such as the classic International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)

Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas:

1. The Saving Life of Christ by Ian Thomas

2. A Diary of Private Prayer by John Bailie

3. Spiritual Leadership by J. Oswald Sanders

4. Heart Cry for Revival by Stephen Olford

5. Lectures to My Students by C.H. Spurgeon

6. Listening to the Giants by Warren Wiersbe

7. Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell

8. Evangelism Explosion by D. James Kennedy

9. Expository Sermons on Revelation by W.A. Criswell

10. Ordering Your Private World by Gordon MacDonald

Ron Gleason, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Yorba Linda, California:

1. Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin

2. Our Reasonable Faith by Herman Bavinck

3. City of God by St. Augustine

4. Historical Theology by William Cunningham

5. Dynamics of Spiritual Life by Richard Lovelace

6. New Testament Introduction by Donald Guthrie

7. Introduction to the Old Testament by R.K. Harrison

8. The Ten Commandments by J. Douma

9. A Christian Directory by Richard Baxter

10. Knowing God by Jim Packer

Greg Laurie, pastor of Harvest Christian Church in Riverside, California:

1. The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit by C.H. Spurgeon

2. Nave's Topical Bible

3. The Westminster Pulpit by G. Campbell Morgan

4. Lectures to My Students by C.H. Spurgeon

5. The Making of a Man of God by Alan Redpath

6. The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer

7. Evangelistic Sermons by Martyn Lloyd-Jones

8. The "Be" series by Warren Wiersbe

9. Preaching and Preachers by Martyn Lloyd-Jones

10. The Sermon on the Mount by Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Ted Traylor, pastor of Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida, and former first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention:

1. God, Revelation and Authority by Carl F.H. Henry

2. The Treasury of David by C.H. Spurgeon

3. Spiritual Leadership by J. Oswald Sanders

4. New Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell

5. Lead On by John Haggai

6. Hebrew Greek Key Study Bible by Zodiates

7. Holman Bible Dictionary

8. The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel

9. An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words by W.E. Vine

10. Anointed Expository Preaching by Stephen Olford

Phil Cooke's TV work has been profiled in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. He teaches, writes, consults and lectures on media-related issues. You can visit his Web site at

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