Reading Suggestions

baby Tim Isbell (added The Christian Century magazine to the Periodicals section, 11/2018)

Would you like a way to grow as a Christian? Do you need gift ideas for someone who is a Christian? Then try some good reading material written by healthy Christian authors. This reading list identifies some excellent writers and also briefly describes a few of their writings. When you read one and it helps you, then I recommend reading more by the same author. Befriend a few writers and they will lead you to a fresh experience of the authentic Christian faith.

If you are especially looking for good books for intellectual investigators of faith, notice the ones highlighted like this.

If you want to discuss any of the books below with me, you can just Contact Tim... or you can meet me over at Good Reads.

Bible translations

Bible - New Living Translation, 2004. This is my primary working translation and very readable by people for whom English is their second language, which was the case for many of my parishioners at New Life Church. 

The Message is another fine translation in a very colloquial style. It was translated by Eugene Peterson, who happened to be my Spiritual Formation professor at Fuller Seminary. I use it when I want a (very) fresh view of scripture - the kind of view that helps me see that scripture in a new way.

Bible - New Revised Standard Version, 1989. Excellent Bible for the serious student. This is the one recommended by most of my professors in seminary. Very readable for anyone with English as their first language, but maybe not as easy for others.

Spiritual reading (lighter)

Gilkey, Langdon. Shantung Compound. This is the true story about life in a civilian internment camp in North China during the war against Japan. At the time, Japan had overrun China and decided to round up all non-Chinese and force them to live as prisoners in an internment camp in the Shantung Province of China. The camp quickly overflowed with Americans, Europeans, Australians, and the other ex-patriots. These teachers, business people, and missionaries were thrown in together to self-organize and live as prisoners. The book recounts the process of how they survived. It is an excellent illustration of the nature of humans. Langdon Gilkey, a young American teaching English in China, was rounded up in the first wave and taken to the camp. After the war, he became a professor at the University of Chicago. I use an anecdote from this book in the sermon Sin - Distrusting God (the 4th of The 10 Big Ideas of Christian Faith)

Hauerwas, Stanley and Willimon, William. Resident Aliens. A very solid book in the vein of the Missional Church. Great supplemental reading to go with The Alternate Life sermon series.

L'Engle, Madeleine. Writer for women. Wrote the Crosswicks Journal series of 3 books. A Circle of Quiet - reflections of a mature woman about life, family and being an artist. The Summer of the Great-Grandmother - deals with her mother’s death in the context of caring for her at home. The Irrational Season - personal reflections following the Christian calendar. A Wrinkle in Time - classic children’s mystery and adventure story. 

Lewis, C. S. Professor, wrote non-fiction and fiction. In the first category, Mere Christianity - describes Lewis' thinking as he moved from an agnostic Christian. The Weight of Glory is a book named after one of the essays in the book. For more on this, see my article Weight of Glory revisited. Another great essay in this book is "The Inner Ring." In the fiction category, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a classic children's story with a deeper message for adults. And The Great Divorce is an intriguing fantasy about Heaven and Hell.

Nouwen, Henri. Priest, professor. Very short books with very deep insights. The Return of the Prodigal Son - helps us see that our ultimate role as Christians is to become the father. The Life of the Beloved - about being and living as God’s beloved. This book was my primary source for the sermon: Living as the Beloved (Year A Baptism of Jesus, 1 Epiphany). In the Name of Jesus - based on the temptation of Jesus, a “must-read” for leaders. The Way of the Heart - deals with solitude, silence, and prayer. 

MacDonald, Gordon. Christian leader/writer. A Resilient Life - for those wanting to “finish well.” This book was primary source material for the 2 sermon series Resilience. The Life God Blesses - chapter 7 was the primary source of material in the sermon What Kind of Old Person Do You Want to Become? (Year A 3Epiphany). Also good are Ordering your Private World and The Life God Blesses, from which I extracted some material for the second sermon in the Paschal Mystery series. 

Monroe, Kelly. Finding God at Harvard. This is a collection of essays about the lives of students who found God in the exceedingly secular environment of Harvard University. A great read for the skeptic, as well as anyone working in student ministries at the university level.

Ortberg, John. Pastor/writer, very readable. If You Want to Walk on Water You Have to Get Out of the Boat - risk-taking in the Christian life. Love Beyond Reason - affirming book describing the kind of love God has for you. The Life You’ve Always Wanted - about real transformation, from the inside out. 

Smedes, Lewis B.. Psychology professor at Fuller Seminary, died a few years ago. Forgive and Forget - superb in understanding forgiveness and reconciliation. Shame and Grace - unpacks the difference between these very important concepts. I use the material in these books in virtually every sermon I preach, and every person I help, in the area of forgiveness. These books are also at the core of Freedom from Guilt, Shame, and Bad Habits.

VanAuken, Sheldon. A Severe Mercy. The story of the journey to faith of an atheist academic who stumbled into the path of C.S. Lewis and found his way into Christian faith. An excellent read for the intellectual inquirer.

Yancey, Philip. Very readable writer. What’s So Amazing About Grace? - shows God’s grace at work in individuals as well as in the life of nations. The Jesus I Never Knew - healthy perspective on the Jesus of the New Testament.

Theological reading (heavier)

Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking - a wonderful lexicon that Buechner developed out of his experience teaching prep school students.

Flemming, Dr. Dean. Dean is a long-time, personal friend for whom I serve as one of his book reviewers. He writes especially for ministers, teachers, and university students. His first book, Contextualization in the New Testament helps us understand the New Testament in ways that connect with today's multicultural thrusts. I used this as the primary source in a 3-sermon series: Good News for Everyone. His second book, Philippians, A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition is the primary source for a 4-sermon series: A Study in Philippians. His third book, Recovering the Full Mission of God is a biblical perspective on being, doing, and telling the Good News of Jesus. Why Mission? (Reforming New Testament Theology) is his latest book, 2016).

Guder, Darrell. Missional Church. Another classic in the field of the theology of the church in North America. This is a primary reference for The Alternate Life sermon series. 

Keller, Timothy. Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He writes great books that help us understand Christian thinking in the context of today's world. For example, Every Good Endeavor is an insightful book about the theology of work. Prayer makes the wisdom of the ages accessible to moderns, and at the same time adds Keller's own valuable insights on developing a deep prayer life - the kind that leads to intimacy with God. Other popular titles are The Reason for God and Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, and Center Church, which is about doing balanced, gospel-centered ministry in your city. Another must-read by Keller is The Prodigal God. There is one chapter by Keller by this same title in A Place for Truth, edited by Dallas Willard (below). You can find Keller's sermons at Redeemer Presbyterian's website.

Law, Erik H.F. The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb (A Spirituality for Leadership in a Multicultural Community). Written by a Chinese young-adult minister, this book is a must-read (especially) for any native-born American who is leading a multicultural church that involves Asians. I had many years of experience in multicultural settings in business and ministry, particularly among Asians, before I read this book. I wish I had read this book at the outset of my ministry! It does a great job of unpacking both the cultural and theological issues involved in leading such a ministry.

Newbigin, Leslie. The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. This was a foundational book from a British missionary who spent decades in India. Newbigin's book was the starting point for much of the Missional Church development that came later - and continues. Another similar book is A Place for Truth, edited by Dallas Willard (see below).

Peterson, Eugene H.. Author of The Message. Also authored many great books for pastors, among these are the following four: Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Working the Angles, The Contemplative Pastor, and Under the Predictable Plant.

Strobel, Lee. Christian writer, apologetics. The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith - both are excellent in addressing intellectual questions that most thinking people struggle with on their journey to Christian faith.

Stone, Bryan. Professor at Boston University. Evangelism after Christendom, The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness. This is a challenging read but offers a fresh look at the theology of evangelism. It is one of the source materials for the fourth sermon in the series The Alternate Life.

Willard, Dallas. Professor of philosophy, writer, speaker. His books are challenging to read, but very worth it. Hearing God - is on developing a conversational relationship with God and finding direction in life’s decisions. The Divine Conspiracy - describes the Christian life and how to live it, based on the Sermon on the Mount. Renovation of the Heart - Superb book on transformation. A Place for Truth - contains 15 chapters summarizing the content of 15 talks by 15 writers (including Neuhaus, Guinness, Keller, Francis Collins, Rosalind Picard, N.T. Wright). These all come from talks giving at Veritas Forums in various universities (Yale, Stanford, Chicago, Cal Tech, U of Michigan, Columbia, MIT, Cal, Georgetown, Tufts, Harvard). If you want a summary of the best thinking across science and philosophic thought today, this is the place to start! You will find the influence of Willard throughout my sermons, including The Alternate Life series.

Wright, N.T. Bishop in the Anglican Church. Simply Christian - a great book for someone considering Christian faith, and just as great for seasoned Christians. This is the current sequel to Mere Christianity. Simply Jesus is another great book by this author. This is similar to a systematic theology book that starts with Jesus instead of the customary topics. Especially notice chapters 14 and 15, which clearly articulate the role of Christians in the contemporary Kingdom on earth. Another excellent N.T. Wright book is Surprised by Hope, which is about rethinking the resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

Systematic Theology reference

Systematic Theology. Written by Millard Erickson. Every theology student needs to choose a primary systematic theology core reference book. Systematic theologies are organized by theological subcategory. They are dry reading, but extremely insightful and a key to keeping pastors from drifting into heresy. In seminary, I took a series of classes in this area of systematic theology. In one of them, the professor exposed us to what he considered was the best available from the United States, Britain, and Europe and challenged each of us to choose one from his list of (probably) 75 books. After some research, I chose this one and was always glad I did. Systematic theologies are for the serious student.

Devotional reading

A Diary of Private Prayer. John Baillie. This little book offers a morning and an evening prayer for 31 days. It is written in the language of the King James Bible. While I've used it as a guide for personal prayer, I have also rewritten several of these prayers into modern English and used them to guide congregational prayer in worship service settings.

Disciplines for the Inner Life. Bob Benson and Michael W. Benson. This is a devotional book for the serious Christian. 

My Utmost for His Highest. Oswald Chambers. A classic daily devotional guide. 


I recommend any one or all three of these to you.

Christianity Today. The is my first choice in Christian periodicals that is popular among the center and center-right (conservative) Christians of many denominations. Check it out at

The Christian Century. The is my first choice in Christian periodicals that is popular among the center and center-left (liberal) Christians of many denominations. Check it out at

Holiness Today. A high quality monthly published by the Church of the Nazarene. Check it out at

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