Every December, I post a list of the top ten books I read the previous twelve months—not necessarily the best or most popular books, but books that impacted my life and ministry, books that stretched my faith and restored my soul, books that made me think deeply and lead wisely, and books that helped me honor God and make disciples.

My goal is to encourage leaders to become readers.

Someone (I can’t remember who) from my earliest days in vocational ministry in the 1980s said this quote that has been stuck in my head: “If we want to think great thoughts, we must first read great books.” It was a long time ago, so that might not be the exact quote, but I still stand by the basic idea that if we want to “think like a leader,” we must be a reader.

Thankfully, between my Kindle app—which enables me to carry hundreds of books everywhere I go—and audible.com (and similar services)—which empowers me to “read” while driving—reading has become more convenient than ever.

Without further ado, here’s my list of ten books that impacted my life and leadership in 2021.

1. Art + Faith: A Theology of Making

by Makoto Fujimura

If you love great art and sound theology, the creative process and thinking outside the box, and learning and making, then you’ll love Art + Faith.

Probably my favorite book of 2021, I found myself reading then rereading paragraph after paragraph so as not to miss a single word Fujimura wrote. It shows Japanese minimalism at its finest. Like I often do when I discover a great book, I have given away at least a dozen copies of Art + Faith.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, how we view the world, how we educate, and how we value ourselves have been all about purposeful efficiency. But such bottom-line utilitarian pragmatism has caused a split in how we view creativity and making. To what purpose, we ask, are we making? If the answer to that question is “we make to be useful” then we will value only what is most efficient, what is practical and industrial. The thesis that undergirds the entire culture care project, and the Theology of Making, is an antidote to such utilitarian pragmatism: the essence of humanity under God is not just utility and practical applications; the essence of humanity may be in what we deem to be “use-less” but essential.

2. Word & Spirit: Truth, Power, and the Next Great Move of God

by R.T. Kendall

The Kentucky-born, Oxford-trained theologian has written over fifty books, and in my opinion, Word & Spirit might be his most important. After pastoring London’s Westminister Chapel for twenty-five years, R.T. “retired” in the USA. Earlier this year, I had the privilege of having lunch with R.T. then hung out in his West Nashville apartment for a few hours. What a gift to learn from such a legend, who is still preaching and writing at eighty-seven years old! R.T. is equally passionate about God’s Word AND God’s Spirit. We never have to choose one or the other, it is always BOTH.

Merely to preach doctrine, however accurate that teaching might be, would not be enough. My mentor, Dr. Lloyd-Jones, used to slap the wrists of those “sound” preachers who were “perfectly orthodox, perfectly useless.” In a word: we need not only the Scriptures but also the power of God. It is the conscious power of God that (surely) every preacher wants.

3. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation

by James K.A. Smith

I have found that I am a better preacher, leader, and human when I read or reread at least one James K.A. Smith book each year. May his books have the same effect on you.

The core claim of this book is that liturgies—whether “sacred” or “secular”—shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love.

4. For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body

by Timothy C. Tennent

For those who actually do ministry (as opposed to “thought leaders” who strategize, theorize, and live in an ideation doom loop), this might be the most important theology book you will read this year. As a missiologist and the president of Asbury Theological Seminary, Dr. Tennent’s approach to gender and sexuality is both theologically robust and missiologically compassionate.

The church has failed to understand that these seemingly disparate issues (same-sex marriage, gender reassignment, digital pornography, abortion) are actually manifestations of a single root problem—namely, our failure to articulate a Christian view of the body.

5. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope

by Esau McCaulley

Dr. McCaulley, assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, has provided the Church with a timely, unique, and important perspective on Scripture interpretation (a.k.a. hermeneutics). There is much to learn from McCaulley’s book, even if you are not an American or an African American. The cross-cultural hermeneutics principles are universal. Hopefully, the quote below will inspire leaders from every nation, every culture, and every ethnos to write and publish.

In my evangelical seminary almost all the authors we read were white men. It was as if all the important conversations about the Bible began when the Germans started to take the text apart, and the Bible lay in tatters until the evangelicals came to put it back together again. I learned the contours of the debate between British evangelicals and German liberals. It seemed that whatever was going on among Black Christians had little to do with real biblical interpretation. I swam in this disdain, and even when I rejected it vocally, the doubt seeped into my subconscious.

6. One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race and Love

by John M. Perkins

Published in 2018, One Blood was supposed to be the fourteenth and final book by the civil rights legend. (Until He Calls Me Friend: The Healing Power of Friendship in a Lonely World appeared in 2019.)

I’m eighty-seven years old. I’ve lived a long life, and I’m full of gratitude for the opportunities that I’ve had to serve a wise, merciful, almighty God. I’m continually in awe of how far He has brought me, a poor boy from Mississippi with only a third-grade education. I grew up in a sharecropping family in Mississippi and dropped out of school between the third and fifth grade. Yet, by God’s grace, I’ve lectured at world-renowned universities and received honorary doctorates. My older brother Clyde, who served his country in the Army in World War II, was shot and killed by a deputy marshal soon after returning home. I have been spat upon and brutally beaten by police. Yet, by God’s grace, I’ve worked tirelessly to help build good relations between local police and urban communities. I’ve ministered in country towns, inner cities, and before large crowds. I’ve traveled across Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. I’ve had the privilege of teaching wide-eyed emerging leaders as well as foggy-eyed accomplished pioneers. All of this . . . by His amazing grace.

7. Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World

by Tara Isabella Burton

Highly recommended by William Murrell, I found Burton’s research to be both disturbing and hopeful. While American engagement in traditional Christ-centered, Bible-based Christianity is certainly waining, spirituality and “faith” are alive and well, but woefully misguided. People are searching for meaning, community, and spiritual experiences, but not in institutional religious settings. 

Americans are not abandoning religion but remixing it. In search of the deep and the real, they are finding meaning, purpose, ritual, and communities in ever-newer, ever-stranger ways.

This reality gives me hope and provokes me to do life and ministry in a way that honors Jesus and makes disciples.

8. Christian Mission: A Concise Global History

by Edward L. Smither

If you always wanted to read Kenneth Scott Latourette’s two-volume church history, but either got intimidated or couldn’t find time to read 1500+ pages, then Smither is your new best friend. His “concise” history is just as promised—concise.

Like Latourette before him, Smither focuses on global expansion, particularly on the world reaching the world as opposed to the West reaching the rest. If you only read one church history book, read this one. If reading Smither causes greater hunger for more church history, then I highly recommend Latourette’s two-volume series—A History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500 and A History of Christianity: Reformation to the Present.

9. The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business

by Erin Meyer

While not a religious book, Meyer’s work can seamlessly be applied to any cross-cultural ministry endeavor. Therefore, I highly recommend it to every vocational minister in Every Nation. If only I knew then (1984) what I now know after reading this book (2021), I could have avoided countless cross-cultural mistakes. Besides ministry, this book is essential for anyone in a cross-cultural marriage.

For an example, just think for a minute about the histories of the two bookend countries on the scale, the United States and Japan. High-context cultures tend to have a long shared history. Usually they are relationship-oriented societies where networks of connections are passed on from generation to generation, generating more shared context among community members. Japan is an island society with a homogeneous population and thousands of years of shared history, during a significant portion of which Japan was closed off from the rest of the world. Over these thousands of years, people became particularly skilled at picking up each other’s messages—reading the air, as Takaki said. By contrast, the United States, a country with a mere few hundred years of shared history, has been shaped by enormous inflows of immigrants from various countries around the world, all with different histories, different languages, and different backgrounds. Because they had little shared context, Americans learned quickly that if they wanted to pass a message, they had to make it as explicit and clear as possible, with little room for ambiguity and misunderstanding.

10. Spirit-Empowered Prayer: Partnering with God in Advancing His Kingdom

by Manny Carlos and Walter Walker

I first started working with Manny Carlos in ministry long before he earned the titles of Bishop of Victory and a Doctor of Ministry. When he left a promising career at CitiBank to join the Victory pastoral team, Manny was a humble scholar with a passion to know and serve Jesus. With all his ministry accomplishments, he remains a humble scholar with a passion to know and serve Jesus. A few years ago at our annual Every Nation Global Office strategic planning meeting, we recognized the need for an Every Nation global leader to write a book on prayer that would instruct and inspire believers all over the world to seek God in prayer and fasting at a deeper level. As soon as we recognized that need, there was only one person on the short list to write that book: Manny Carlos. With the help of Walter Walker, Manny has written a book that I believe will serve the global church for decades. This is not only a book to read but a book to pray through over and over again.

When the Holy Spirit inspires and empowers one’s prayer life, it often becomes shockingly informal and unashamedly bold.

I hope this post inspires you to read a wide variety of authors and topics. And, for some of you, may it inspire you to write. Maybe one day your book will make the list!

Here are some previous lists: 2020, 2019201820172016.

Top 5 Snubs of 2021: Really good books I read or reread in 2021 that almost made the list—until they didn’t.
  1. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels by Kenneth E. Bailey
  2. You Are Not Your Own Belonging to God in an Inhuman World by Alan Noble
  3. The Testament by John Grisham (In my honest opinion, by far the best of Grisham’s 40+ novels.)
  4. Who God Is: Meditations on the Character of Our God by Ben Witherington III
  5. Bruchko by Bruce Olsen (One of the best missionary biographies ever!)