May 30, 2005

From the Archives

Survey Reveals The Books and Authors That Have Most Influenced Pastors

Books sales and book influence are two different factors. While bestseller lists identify the books that generate the greatest revenue, a new survey by The Barna Group, conducted among a nationwide, representative sample of Protestant pastors, shows that the most influential books often fail to reach the bestseller lists. That’s one of several key findings drawn from the list of books that pastors say have influenced them the most in the past three years. The survey also found that a relative handful of authors have the most consistent influence on pastors, and that a dozen or so books have had the most widespread impact during that time frame.

[barna-ad offset=0]

When pastors were asked to identify the three books that had been most helpful to them as a ministry leader during the past three years, more than two hundred different books were listed. However, only nine books were listed by at least 2% of all pastors; just ten authors were identified by at least 2% of pastors, and just three categories of books were named by at least 10% of the church leaders interviewed.

Most Helpful Books

Two books emerged as the most helpful of all: The Purpose Driven Life and The Purpose Driven Church, both written by Rick Warren. Purpose Driven Life topped the list, with one out of every five Senior Pastors (21%) naming it as one of the most helpful books they have read in the last three years. The larger a pastor’s church was, the more likely the pastor was to include this book among their top three. Demographically, the book had twice the appeal among pastors born during the Baby Boom generation as among pastors from the Baby Bust cohort.

Not far behind was The Purpose Driven Church,   an earlier volume by Pastor Warren that was listed by 15%. Its appeal was pretty consistent across all pastoral segments except Baby Bust pastors, among whom only 3% included this book among their top picks.

The rest of the list of invaluable books was a broad selection of more than 200 other titles. Only seven additional books gained recognition from at least 2% of pastors – and each of those seven publications was chosen by 2%. Those books were What’s So Amazing About Grace?    by Phillip Yancey; Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire   by Jim Cymbala; Wild At Heart   by John Eldredge; Courageous Leadership   by Bill Hybels; Spiritual Leadership   by Henry Blackaby; Next Generation Leader   by Andy Stanley; and the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership   by John Maxwell.

Most Influential Authors

Although the numerous books cited by pastors were authored by dozens of writers, there were only ten authors who were listed by at least 2% of the pastors interviewed. Not surprisingly, Rick Warren was king-of-the-hill in this listing, as his books were mentioned by 30% of the pastors. John Maxwell was the runner-up, with books listed as among the most helpful by 5% of pastors. Five writers were mentioned by 3% of the nation’s church leaders: Henry Blackaby, Jim Cymbala, Bill Hybels, Andy Stanley, and Phil Yancey. The other influential authors were George Barna, John Eldredge and John Piper, each of whom was mentioned by 2%.

Another outcome of the research concerned the authors who had the greatest number of influential books listed by pastors. Six authors stood out as having multiple volumes that have helped large numbers of pastors. Researcher George Barna, who had ten influential books identified by pastors, headed the list. Following him were Max Lucado and John Maxwell, with nine books each; Charles Swindoll and John MacArthur, each with six books; and Phillip Yancey, with four acclaimed books.

Most Useful Types of Books

When the books designated as the most helpful were categorized, there were three types of books that pastors found to be most profitable. A majority of pastors (54%) listed at least one book regarding discipleship or personal spiritual growth. Books about church growth, congregational health or ministry dynamics were the next most prolific, listed by 23% of pastors. Leadership books were equally valued, identified by 22%. No other category was cited by at least 10% of the sample.

Less influential types of books included those about theology (9%), evangelism and outreach (6%), pastoring (6%), and prayer (5%). Books regarding charismatic perspectives (5%), trends and cultural conditions (4%), and preaching (3%) also generated noteworthy interest.

[barna-ad offset=1]

Different Segments Like Divergent Books

The size of the congregation led by a pastor was related to the types of books mentioned. Pastors of small congregations not only read fewer books than did pastors of larger churches, but also had more restricted categorical tastes. Discipleship books were their clear favorite, listed by half of the small church pastors, but no other category of books was mentioned by even one out of every five of those leaders. Specific leadership books were identified as among the most helpful by four out of ten pastors of large churches and by three out of ten mid-sized church leaders, but by only one out of every eight pastors of small congregations. In fact, small-church pastors were only half as likely as those from large congregations to include The Purpose Driven Life   among their influential books.

Pastors of mainline churches were more than twice as likely as their colleagues from non-mainline Protestant churches to cite specific theology books while being less than half as likely to list a volume related to evangelism or outreach. Mainline pastors were also less than half as likely to mention any books regarding leadership thinking or practices.

Pastors who lead charismatic or Pentecostal congregations were by far the least likely to include books on theology among their chosen titles: only 2% did so.

The age of the pastor had a clear impact on the books they regarded most highly. Pastors in their mid-fifties or older were only one-third as likely as their younger colleagues to mention any leadership books. The oldest pastors also showed a preference for authors from their own generation, including men such as Dallas Willard, Charles Stanley and Warren Wiersbe among their favorites, although those writers did not make the national list.

Pastors under the age of 40, meanwhile, were more than twice as likely to mention books on prayer; only half as likely to include The Purpose Driven Life; and just one-sixth as likely to place The Purpose Driven Church in their top-ranked volumes. In fact, while one-third of all pastors over 40 mentioned at least one book by Rick Warren, just 14% of those under 40 did so.

The under-40 pastors championed several authors who were not ranked highly by older church leaders. Those authors included business consultant James Collins, seminary professor Thom Rainer, nineteenth century Seventh-Day Adventist icon Ellen White, and pastor John Ortberg.

Male and female pastors share many views, but there were some differences. Male pastors were twice as likely to include leadership books among their favorites, twice as likely to include theology volumes, and three times more likely to name books about evangelism and outreach. The list of most influential authors among female pastors took on a different shape, incorporating Henri Nouwen, Tommy Tenney and Leonard Sweet along with Barna, Cymbala, Lucado, Stanley, Yancey and Warren. However, Blackaby, Eldredge, Hybels and Maxwell were not included in the female rankings.

The Role of Books in Leadership

“One of the most interesting outcomes is the different taste of younger pastors,” pointed out research director George Barna, “Given the divergent points of view that they consider most helpful and influential, it seems likely we will continue to see new forms and strategies emerge in their churches. They lean toward books and authors that extol adventure, shared experiences, visionary leadership, supernatural guidance and relational connections. If their choices in reading are any indication, they seem less obsessed with church size and more interested in encounters with the living God. They are also less prone to identifying the most popular books in favor of those that are known for their passionate tone. The fact that less than half as many young pastors considered the Purpose Driven books to be influential in their ministry suggests that the new legion of young pastors may be primed to introduce new ways of thinking about Christianity and church life.”

[barna-ad offset=2]

Research Source and Methodology

The data described above are from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 614 Senior Pastors of Protestant churches conducted in December 2004. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with that sample is ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Pastors in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of churches in the sample reflects the proportion of the churches from that denomination among all Protestant churches in the U.S. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a statistically reliable distribution of pastors.

“Mainline” churches are those associated with the American Baptist Churches/U.S.A.; United Church of Christ; Episcopal Church; United Methodist Church; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; and Presbyterian Church U.S.A.

In this report, “small churches” were defined as those that attract less than 100 adults to their weekend events on a typical weekend. “Mid-sized churches” in this study were those that attract 100 to 250 adults; large churches were those attracting 250 or more adults.

Baby Busters are adults born from 1965-1983; Baby Boomers were born from 1946-1964; Elders are a combination of two generations, and represent those born prior to 1946.

The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984, it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. If you would like to receive regular e-mailings of a brief overview of each new bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna Research web site (

© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.

Copyright Disclaimer: All the information contained on the website is copyrighted by The Barna Group, Ltd., 2368 Eastman Ave. Unit 12, Ventura, California 93003. No portion of this website (articles, graphs, charts, reviews, pictures, video clips, quotes, statistics, etc.) may be reproduced, retransmitted, disseminated, sold, distributed, published, edited, altered, changed, broadcast, circulated, or commercially exploited without the prior written permission from The Barna Group, Ltd.

Click here to obtain reprint permission


About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

Get Barna in your inbox

Subscribe to Barna’s free newsletters for the latest data and insights to navigate today’s most complex issues.