Diversity is perhaps the key word to describe the survey results.

If it is true that we are what we eat, it is equally true that we are what we read. With this in mind, CHRISTIANITY TODAY informally surveyed about 40 evangelical leaders to find out what books, other than the Bible, they considered most helpful or influential in their personal lives or ministries. Each was asked to list five such books and to give a brief statement describing why these were considered important. We thought a “top ten” would surface, but that was not the case. What did emerge was a very complex picture that shows how varied are the interests today of evangelicals at the leadership level.

Diversity is perhaps the key word to describe the survey results. Few books received more than one or two votes, so a list of the most influential books could not be compiled. It was possible to sort out the choices into four basic areas, from which large numbers of books were chosen: doctrinal theology, practical theology, general spirituality, and social issues.

Doctrinal theology. This was by far the largest category, with some 40 percent of the books chosen from it, including such topics as apologetics, Christology, systematics, God, language, holiness, kingdom of God. Scripture, and general surveys of doctrine. James M. Boice, pastor of Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church, made this comment about The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, by B. B. Warfield: “This classic exposition of the Bible’s witness to its inspiration, authority, and inerrancy has been foundational to the way I have approached Scripture in my own daily work.” The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, by C. F. W. Walther, elicited this statement from J. A. O. Preus, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod: “This book taught me more about preaching and respect for the Word of God and the proper distinction of law and gospel in preaching than any book I have ever read. It still affects every sermon I preach.”

Practical theology. About 27 percent of the books selected were from this category, and included such topics as: preaching, worship, prayer, and discipleship.

John Huffman, minister of Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian church, Newport Beach, California, found Building the Word—The Dynamics of Communication in Preaching, by J. Randall Nichols, to be especially helpful: “He made me reexamine every one of my homiletical presuppositions. Most of them are still in place, but I will never view them in quite the same way again.”

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General spirituality. This covered approximately 20 percent of the selections and included a wide range of topics dealing with the Christian life. An example is Ruth Paxon’s Life on the Highest Plain. Pastor Jess Moody of First Baptist Church, Van Nuys, California, said of it: “This book introduced me to enthroning Jesus Christ at the center of my life and taught me the sources of spiritual and evangelical magnetism.”

Social issues. Fourth on the list were the 13 percent chosen from this category. James Earl Massey of the Mass Communications Board of the Church of God selected Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, dealing with social issues. He said, “This book, published in 1949, helped me to see the experiences of Jesus in connection with the teachings he gave about handling life as a member of a minority race in the midst of a sometimes hostile majority culture.”

It is significant that books on theology played such an important role in shaping these leaders’ views. It indicates that far from being passé, theology is alive and actively influencing thinking evangelicals today. It is also significant that on the whole, academic rather than popular books were selected by about 8 to 1—for example, Systematic Theology, by Louis Berkhof. Of it, Clayton Bell, pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, says, “This comprehensive but concise systematic theology has been a continued and helpful reference book.”

Very few respondents said they were influenced to any degree by such nontechnical books as In His Steps or The Screwtape Letters. It is also interesting to observe that more than half the books chosen were written before 1945 and that relatively few (about 10 percent) were written within the last 10 years. Whether this means our leaders stopped reading as they grew older and could only remember the influence of earlier books upon them, or that more recent books have had less of an impact upon them because they are more mature now and less open to influence, or that fewer significant books are being written now, is hard to say. I have an idea it is the second alternative.

It is not surprising, but still noteworthy, that almost no one chose any books that are mass marketed or on the so-called best-seller lists, Christian or otherwise. This shows a rather wide gulf between what the average evangelical reads and what evangelical leaders think is important. The same is true for topics. Subjects that seem to have vital interest for the mass market, such as charismatic gifts or the Second Coming, did not receive a single selection. This would seem to indicate that these are settled issues in the minds of the leaders, but unsettled issues elsewhere.

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The diversity of authors chosen was as striking as the diversity of topics. The largest percentage of authors chosen were evangelicals (about 70 percent), but others were selected as well. Writers such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, G. Delling, P. T. Forsyth, John Baillie, and even Harry Emerson Fosdick and S. I. Hayakawa appear. The standard evangelical writers appear in abundance, of course, and Carl F. H. Henry, Wilbur M. Smith. F. F. Bruce, B. B. Warfield, John Stott, C. H. Spurgeon, G. Campbell Morgan, and A. T. Robertson are among these.

There was a surprising absence of any mention of theological classics from such writers as Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, or Wesley. Calvin’s Institutes was mentioned once, but that was the exception to the rule.

There seemed to be no denominational preferences displayed. Books were apparently chosen on merit rather than the label worn by reader or writer.

The areas that produced no significant books are as interesting as those that did. There was no book selected as “most significant” from psychology, sociology, statistical studies, missions, or church growth. Very few books were chosen from the categories of science, counseling, commentaries, classics, or church history. There seems to be no pattern here, except that the social sciences and allied disciplines did not fare too well.

One book does stand out above the rest, having received five votes: C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Ray Stedman’s comment is typical, “It gave me great confidence in the truth of Scripture and its relevancy to life.”

It would be difficult to summarize all that came from this survey, but here are a few generalizations that would appear to be warranted:

• Evangelical leaders spend a good deal of time with books.

• A wide range of subjects is deemed important.

• Evangelicals find other evangelicals to be most important—but not exclusively.

• Doctrinal theology, practical theology, and spirituality are the most significant areas in which books were chosen.

• The social sciences were the least significant areas.

• Academic books outpolled popular books by a large margin.

• Older books were considered more significant than very recent books, also by a large margin.

• Best sellers don’t sell very well to leaders.

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