My Top Books of 2017

January 2, 2018 — 5 Comments
Dr. Albert Mohler in his book The Conviction to Lead describes the irreplaceable benefit of reading in the life of a leader:

“There is no substitute for effective reading when it comes to developing and maintaining the intelligence necessary to lead. Leadership requires a constant flow of intelligence, ideas, and information. There is no way to gain the basics of leadership without reading. We simply cannot lead without a constant flow of intellectual activity in our minds, and there is no substitute for reading when it comes to producing this flow.”

I’m constantly on the lookout for book recommendations from friends who read a lot. I get to benefit as they filter out the best of the best for me to read. So in the spirit of “do unto others” I typed up my favorite books I read this past year.


I thought it would be helpful to rank my favorites in genres. Because how do you compare Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch with To Kill a Mockingbird or The Blood of Emmett Till? They were all deeply moving on completely different levels.


I split Christian Devotional and Ministry into two lists. The Ministry books were particularly helpful for my job as a college pastor. The Devo books changed my heart and moved me closer to Jesus. I also split non-fiction into Historical and Leadership/Modern non-fiction. The latter helped me be a better leader in that they are purely Leadership books or they better helped me understand our times we live in.


So here they are, ranked in order of amazing-ness.


Top 10 Christian Devotional Books

  1. The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation – John H. Sailhamer
    • This is the book of which John Piper said “Sell all of your Piper books & buy this.” I’d keep all your Piper books, but… I found Sailhamer’s book to be incredibly enlightening and truly groundbreaking (as in – I’ve been studying God’s Word and listening to Biblical preaching for 20 years and Sailhamer shares hundreds of things that I have never heard taught nor have seen for myself in Scripture). Not an easy read. Boring at times. But fascinating. What I wish: that someone would take this book and edit it to be readable by the masses. It’s unnecessarily repetitive and dense. Definitely written to seminarians. But those willing to plod through it will be rewarded with gold. He is thorough in his exegesis and I never found myself thinking – “well, that is a bit of a stretch.”
    • Everything you think about the Old Testament and the Pentateuch is wrong. It was “not written to teach Israel the law. The Pentateuch was addressed to a people living under the law and failing at every opportunity.” Read the free (50 page!) intro and have your mind blown! As a (seminary grad) friend commented – “Just reading the Introduction left me feeling like I had never read the Pentateuch before!” REALLY long and kind of difficult. But so worth it. Great to read during your quiet time over a couple of months.
  2. You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity – Francis Chan
    • As one reviewer put it “A bait and switch but in the best possible way.” Not really on marriage – but about living on mission as a couple and family.
    • “There are plenty of marriage books that will teach you how to get along and be happy. This is not one of those books. Those books don’t account for the fact that you can have a happy earthly marriage and then be miserable for all eternity. We’ve made happy families our mission. That’s not the mission Jesus gave us. God has entrusted you with children so you’d make them into disciples who will go into every part of the world & make disciples. Our parenting is not exempt from the command to make disciples. Your marriage exists to make disciples.”
  3. The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness – Jerry Bridges
    • Haven’t read this in years. This book is so foundational to understanding Christian growth that I plan on re-reading it regularly.
  4. Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture – John Piper
    • Not a real easy read. But perfect to bite off a piece every morning in Quiet Times. Not difficult to understand, but just very detailed and methodical. I can think of few authors who are better than Piper at laying out a logical argument from Scripture.
  5. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God – Tim Keller
    • I’ve read over 20 books on marriage/dating/sex and this is by FAR the best (yes, better than the #2 book on my list. I’d recommend this book first as a marriage book. And then You and Me Forever as a follow up. You and Me was just more impactful for me personally this year). Cannot recommend highly enough. Incredibly practical and insightful. Especially helpful for singles to read pre-marriage and even pre-dating.
  6. The Holy Spirit- Sinclair Ferguson
    • Incredibly insightful on a topic(person!), I confess, I don’t understand very well.
  7. Mere Christianity – CS Lewis –
    • Ever feel < as a Christian (believing the world- ‘only foolish, uneducated people believe those old myths’)? Read Mere Christianity and be swept up in the beauty and intellectual viability of the Christian Truth. CS Lewis makes you proud to be a Christian. His arguments are compelling AND beautiful. Makes you WANT to believe them. Not just because they are logical and sound. But because in Christianity the world & life finally makes sense.
    • I hadn’t read Mere Christianity since college. I had put off reading it because I assumed it would be a difficult read. It is not at all. That is not to say that there weren’t some parts that were over my head. There are logical arguments that will probably take 10 readings before I really get them.
  8. The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters – Sinclair Ferguson
    • A LITTLE difficult to read (if you got it free via, RESIST the urge to listen to it. It’s too difficult to take in as an audiobook). But a good book to read bit by bit in your Quiet Time. Ferguson answers “how do the law and grace relate?” He asserts that legalism and antinomianism are not opposites but “nonidentical twins from the same womb.” “The cure for both legalism and antinomianism is the gospel.”
  9. The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
    • Mixed feelings on this book. I set out on my pilgrimage to read the book because many great Christian thinkers list it as the book that has most influenced them (apart from the Bible). I did NOT think I would be recommending this book. But as it gets going, you get used to the Old English (if you can’t get over that, there ARE modern English versions). For some tips on how to read it see my full review over on GoodReads
  10. The Mortification of Sin – John Owen
    • Owen puts on a master class of how to study the Bible and ask questions of a passage – most of this classic book being an extended meditation on one verse – Romans 8:13. Owen is difficult to read but not impossible.


Top 10 Christian Ministry Books

  1. A Grander Story: An Invitation to Christian Professors
    • liked it so much, this fall I started doing some ministry focused on Professors. Great mix of vision and practical ministry tips.
  2. The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South
    • A game-changing book that explains how the heart of Christianity is in the Global South. We have much to learn from our brothers and sisters in the Global South and it makes me hopeful for the future of Christianity, led by these Global Southerners.
  3. Dedication and Leadership – Douglas Hyde
    • A friend of mine on staff with Cru read 25 books on Movements. This book was in the top 2. (The other: Movements That Change the World by Addison). A former Communist who becomes a Christian, looks at what we can learn from Communism. The book is a case study in how a small minority can literally change the world: “It is probably true to say of the Communists that never in man’s history has a small group of people set out to win a world and achieved more in less time.” Caveat: The book is 100% not gospel centered! Definitely “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “if the communists can be so dedicated and sacrifice so much for a lie, how much more so, Christians…Come on Christians! Try harder!” But… taken with a grain of salt, the book is VERY thought provoking. Particularly relevant for my line of work – college ministry- as the book focuses particularly on how the Communist Party mobilizes young people.
  4. Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry
    • A little technical but very helpful on a difficult topic. Written to youth pastors but easily translates to college ministry.
  5. The Church in the Bible and the World: An International Study – edited by DA Carson
    • Very helpful for my understanding of ecclesiology.
  6. Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World – Tim Keller
  7. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
    • The only non-Christian book in this genre. Though a secular book, the content is incredibly relevant for those in ministry (especially college) on the power of community, especially in times of difficulty. My favorite type of book – concise and insightful.
  8. Discovering God’s Will – Sinclair B. Ferguson
  9. The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place – Andy Crouch
  10. The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion – Tim Challies
    • Imho – much better than Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. When I first read this in 2011, it truly changed my life. Opened my eyes to my iPhone addiction and how it was affecting me, my relationship with God and my family. The two chapters on distraction and the flood of information are worth the price of the book. Distraction is the biggest threat to my walk with God and deep thinking. “More information may lead to less wisdom.” I need to take in less information and seek more wisdom. “We need to devote more time to less things.”


Top 10 Historical/Biography

  1. Alexander Hamilton – Ron Chernow
    • I may be biased because my family LOVES the Hamilton play that was based on this book. But I found it absolutely fascinating.
  2. The Blood of Emmett Till
    • This should be required reading for every American. The story of the horrific death of a young black boy, and more widely, the civil rights movement.
  3. Churchill- Paul Johnson
    • From what I researched, this is the best short biography of Churchill. What an amazing man who almost singlehandedly saved civilization!
  4. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
    • It’s only by God’s grace that we haven’t nuked ourselves into a nuclear holocaust by now.
  5. Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties.- Paul Johnson
    • It’s long and ambitious. But Johnson brilliantly provides a thorough education on the twentieth century and plainly explains complex issues.
  6. How the Irish Saved Civilization
    • I’ve often heard references to CS Lewis’s warning against chronological snobbery. But I didn’t really believe him. And now I think I understand why- I think it comes from a false view of history as linear and progressive. Reading How the Irish Saved Civilization was eye opening. For 1,000 years knowledge and human learning trended straight upward – great works of architecture, reasoned works of literature, great cities. And then in 500 it all crashed. And all of the wisdom of Western Civilization would have been lost if not for the Irish.
  7. Undaunted Courage: Lewis and Clark’s Mission to Explore America’s Wild Frontier
    • Fascinating book. Name a more iconic duo. Now name one fact about them other than that they were the first to explore the west. I knew nothing about this famous duo before reading this. Their passage across the virgin west is fascinating – their discoveries, their courage, their leadership. I won’t spoil anything but I was truly shocked by the ending – mostly that I had not heard any of it before.
  8. Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill
    • Truly seems Providential that Winston lived long enough to later save the world.
  9. The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation – Michael Reeves
    • Easy and fun to read summary of the Reformation. Interesting note: college campuses figured prominently in the Reformation (Luther, Calvin, Puritans)
  10. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
    • Great book by one of my favorite authors. Reads like a novel but is 100% historical.


Top Leadership/Modern Non-Fiction

  1. Boundaries for Leaders: Results, Relationships, and Being Ridiculously in Charge
    • HIGHLY recommend this unfortunately named book. From the title, I assumed it would be a book about how to have good work/life boundaries.It is not at all about personal boundaries. It’s one of the best leaders books I’ve ever read. In some ways a best of the best book – bringing together ideas from some of the best leadership books out there – Thinking Fast and Slow, Death by Meeting, 4 Disciplines of Execution. Dr. Cloud is concise and very practical. One thing Dr. Cloud addresses like no other book I’ve read: The Emotional Climate that a leader creates. This one makes a great audiobook.
  2. Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike
    • Knight is incredibly honest, not skimming over his regrets and mistakes. And I was surprised by the amount of spiritual searching throughout Knight’s life. The audiobook is particularly good. Have recommended this to many and all have loved it.
  3. The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance – Senator Ben Sasse
    • How do you turn children into adults? Senator Sasse is incredibly accurate on his diagnosis AND his prescription. I’m voting for this guy when/if he runs for president. [Update: just found out he was a student leader in Cru at Harvard and his wife used to be on staff with Cru. I knew there was a reason I liked the guy!]
  4. Next Generation Leader – Andy Stanley
    • A small book packed with incredibly leadership insight. Best insight I’ve ever seen on how to lead in the face of uncertainty.
  5. Team of Teams: The Power of Small Groups in a Fragmented World – General Stanley McChrystal
    • This book accomplishes a rare feat – combining incredible insight while being an easy/fun read. It’s the story of how the military had to totally restructure to fight Al Quaeda in Iraq. Which, by itself, makes for fascinating reading. But on top of that, the authors have great insight into how sharing ideas is THE key to managing complexity and achieving organization-wide focus. I particularly liked their insights on how to build trust/sharing when resources are scarce.
  6. Do More Better: A Practical Guide to Productivity – Tim Challies
    • This is more like an extended blog post than a book. But lets be honest, I wouldn’t take the time to read a series of blog posts on productivity. That’s the beauty of books. Books force you to slow down and consider – to think deeply on one topic. And because this book is so incredibly practical, I feel like it will actually change my life more than other, better productivity books like Essentialism and What’s Best Next. My advice: read Essentialism and What’s Best Next first. To change your heart and beliefs. To convince you of the need to: focus/prioritize (Essentialism), understand the Biblical and God-honoring motives for productivity (What’s Best Next). Then read Do More Better to actually start making real changes in your schedule and life.
  7. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration – Isabel Wilkerson
    • How the Jim Crow south forced southern African Americans to migrate to the north and west. Long but really eye opening.
  8. Elon Musk: Inventing the Future – Ashlee Vance
    • About the fascinating founder of Tesla and SpaceX.
  9. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander
    • Would have been all the more powerful if she could have trimmed it to a concise 200 pages rather than a repetitive 300. Nonetheless it was incredibly eye-opening and I’m very glad to see that it has effected change. I’d never say this with most books – but you’d get the same effect from watching the movie/documentary – 13th on Netflix. This book makes you wonder what in the world our government is doing (when compared to other modern states) – appalling and immoral.
  10. The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football
    • Great (and shocking) read for any college football fan. Basically the story of how deeply flawed young men act when given absolute power.


Top 10 Fiction

  1. Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler
    • Outstanding novel based on real events in Communist Russia in the 1950’s. Really helped me understand the mindset of communism in a way no other book has. As an American, I’ve always discounted communists as idiots. Koestler’s account is not favorable to communists but it does show the very intelligent rationale behind brutal communist policies. Makes me want to learn more about the worldviews of the 20th century (which is why I read Paul Johnson’s Modern Times).
  2. Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry
    • This book was good for my soul. I value efficiency and speed and productivity. Wendell Berry describes community in an age before TV’s and cell phones – a life of slowness and anti-efficiency. I think I want what they had. It truly made me consider what life is about – work/productivity or relationships. Makes you contemplate the brevity of life and what truly matters – what you will leave behind. Apart from the theological and interpersonal insights, this book would be worth reading just to wonder at Berry’s writing ability. Like Jared Wilson said – “Reading this book is like laying in cool grass under a spring sun by a lazy brook.”
  3. To Kill a Mockingbird
    • Not much I can say about this classic that hasn’t already been written. As you can see from my list, I’m trying to go back and read the classic novels and, I must say, enjoying them FAR more than I thought I would. I thought they would be difficult and dry. They’re Classics for good reason. They have great plots and great writing. The best of the best.
  4. Silence – Shūsaku Endō
    • A fictional book but based on true events. Enthralling and challenging novel based on the real life persecution of Portuguese missionaries in Japan.
  5. All Quiet on the Western Front
    • Man. What a great, gripping & thoroughly depressing book. I think I was forced to read this book in high school. A good friend, John Majors, recommended the audiobook to me recently. I echo his thoughts on the book: “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better performance on an audio book (the narrator was Frank Muller). There were many times I was completely gripped by the drama of the story. I had read this a few years ago and enjoyed it, but it didn’t have near the affect of the audio book. Definitely put this on your listening list. The quality of the writing is among the best of all novels I’ve experienced. And the way he captures the thought life of the soldier is art at its finest.” Loved all the classic books on this list.
  6. Jane Eyre
  7. The Great Gatsby
  8. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  9. The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  10. Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie

I just got on this year and have thoroughly enjoyed it. Great way to track your reading progress, set goals for yourself, and see what other avid readers are reading. Would love to connect over there.

What were your favorite books you read in 2017?



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  • alan mitchell

    Brother, thanks again for all you do for the Church/campus ministry world.

  • Tyler Williams

    My top 25 books of the 2017 (in approximate order of my enjoyment)
    1. Born a crime – Trevor Noah – Fantastic listen, he does all the accents and languages.
    2. You and me forever – Francis and Lisa Chan
    3. Jesus the King – Tim Keller
    4. Replenish – Lance Witt
    5. Preaching – Timothy Keller
    6. A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 – W. Phillip Keller
    7. Pride and prejudice – Jane Austen
    8. The Ragamuffin Gospel – Brennan Manning
    9. Murder on the Orient express – Agatha Christie
    10. Known – Dick Foth
    11. A Weekend with Warren Buffet and other shareholder meeting adventures – Randy Cepuch
    12. The Iliad & The Odyssey- Homer
    13. The God Ask – Steve Shadrach
    14. A tale of 3 Kings – Gene Edwards
    15. Leadership as an Identity – Crawford Loritts
    16. The Horse and His Boy – CS Lewis (read 4 of the Narnia books, but this was my favorite)
    17. The freedom of self forgetfulness – Tim Keller
    18. Harry Potter and the sorcerers stone – JK Rowling
    19. Peter Pan – J.M. Barrie
    20. Transforming grace – Jerry Bridges
    21. What’s your Secret? -Aaron Stern
    22. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
    23. What’s so amazing about Grace – Philip Yancey
    24. Hillbilly Elegy – JD Vance
    25. Cost of discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

    • timcasteel

      Great list man! We have similar tastes (I’m trying to read classic fiction, huge Harry Potter fan, Tim Keller, etc). How many books did you read in 2017? Do you have reading goals?

      I added you to the Cru group “Readers are Leaders” on Workplace (private Facebook for Cru staff). Are you on GoodReads? Would love to follow what you are reading on there.

      Born a Crime is high on my reading list for 2018 as I’ve heard it recommended by many. Helpful to hear that it’s a good audiobook. I honestly think Audiobooks can be far better than books, especially when it has accents.

      You and Me Forever was surprisingly amazing huh? Surprised Hillbilly Elegy is so low on your list – it was in my top 5 last year.

      • Tyler Williams

        Thanks man, I had started but not finished 6 books in 2016, so my goal in 2017 was to read 13. I finished with 44, and my goal now is 52 in 2018.

        Thanks for the add, and yes, I just signed up for goodreads this year, but I’m better at just keeping my list on my notes on my phone.

        And a quick note about Born a Crime. I Stinted in South Africa, so I’m little biased, but it was so good that I told everyone who asked me last year that they had to listen to it. However, there is definitely some language… but if that’s not a deal breaker, it’s phenomenal.

        You and me forever was so good I read parts of it 3 times. I thought that Hillbilly Elegy was good (to be honest, I read a lot of book I really enjoyed) but it was so much in the same vein as far as story and culture as Born a Crime that I think that pushed it down the list.

        How many years have you done your top list? I wonder if you’d ever do a best of the decade list for the books you’ve loved most over the years?

        • timcasteel

          With your high rec, I moved Born a Crime to the top of my list and am almost done with it. You’re right – his narration is phenomenal. And as I read, I also had the immediate thought- this is a lot like Hillbilly Elegy.

          I started keeping a list in 2015: with 17 books.
          2016: 52 books
          2017: 104 books (main difference – added audiobooks to the mix)

          What has helped you read more? SOMETHING obviously changed – to go from 6 to 44. I’m going to put up a post on how to read more and would love to hear your thoughts. You can comment or just email me.