Chapter 153

How to Build a First-Rate Library

Investing in quality, not quantity

I would be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time someone has walked in my office and asked, "Have you read all these books?" I made a big mistake when I started in ministry. Thinking that more books meant better preaching, I began collecting volumes from anywhere and everywhere. I set out to build as big a library as my shelves would hold—and then some. I took pride in stockpiling volumes of books that served no purpose other than to look impressive. After lots of wasted money (not to mention a strained back from moving my library several times!), I'm now giving books away. Through this experience I learned two helpful principles to guide the development of my library.

(1) I build my library functionally. I now take time to identify and collect only those works that will directly inform my Christian walk and preaching ministry. Most of us can't afford to be book collectors. So avoid cluttering your shelves with inferior books donated by well-meaning friends or acquired on sale tables at discounted prices.

(2) I build my library economically. I use discount book sellers,1 and I am disciplined in acquisitions. I try to include my wife in planning for acquisition as well as each individual purchase. Such a simple discipline is not only courteous, but also prevents unneeded stress in our home and provides her with another opportunity to share in my ministry. I also try to keep a wish list of materials in order of priority. That list is a handy way to provide potential gift-givers meaningful ideas for birthdays, Christmas, and other occasions.

A carefully assembled collection of library resources is as essential for preachers as the professional tools of a dentist or medical doctor. Paul charged Timothy to "be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15, NKJV).

I need a library for:

Inspiration. Reading challenges both my heart and conscience, calling me to higher planes of spirituality, morality, integrity.
Stimulation. As with physical exercise, I'm strengthened through mental gymnastics that stretch me intellectually.
Cultivation. My preaching is enhanced by people who enlarge my vocabulary, teach me to think, and instruct me in the art of compelling speech.
Information. Reading is my primary means of keeping abreast of the age and remaining well-informed in my field.
Communion. I have the opportunity to fellowship with the greatest and godliest masters of all ages through their writings. One of Paul's "deathbed" requests of Timothy is, "Bring … the books, especially the parchments" (2 Timothy 4:13, NKJV).

What should be in the preacher's library? Most preachers' libraries have both glaring voids as well as overkill. To overcome that, plan your objectives and priorities for acquisitions. I suggest developing your library according to the following essentials and priority.

Computer and software. A computer helps you study more proficiently. Consider getting a comprehensive and expandable Bible study software program2 that includes word study and language tools, commentaries, multiple translations, as well as libraries of computerized books.3
With a computer and Internet access, you can also take advantage of Internet sites with Bible study search engines, illustration databases, periodical and book indexes, libraries of various institutions, general reference works, and powerful search engines.4
A simple search of "Bible study resources" or "preaching resources" on an Internet search engine usually will produce many available links to helpful resources. Lists of online resources for preaching and Bible study also can be found on websites maintained by many seminaries and Bible colleges.5
Books. To determine a potential book's usefulness before I buy, I lean heavily on personal recommendations, book review articles in periodicals, best-seller lists, as well as book introductions, footnotes, bibliographies, conclusions, publishers, dust jackets, and author information. I buy the best book or books on a given subject first. When acquiring commentaries for the study of a particular Bible book, I have made it a practice to contact four or five respected preachers or teachers and ask them to suggest their top five favorite works on the subject. In addition, read the books that evaluate commentaries and other Bible study tools.6
Periodicals. The list of magazines and newspapers we can read is long,7 but it and the reading of theological journals and the like keeps us on top of the most current thinking.8

Although the lion's share of our study should be given to biblical and theological pursuits, our libraries ought to expose us to a variety of fields. I like to regularly read works on history, biography, leadership, communication, political and social issues, and of course preaching.

I have a friend who keeps a Lazy Susan bookcase on his desk containing one book each from a variety of fields. During scheduled reading times, he rotates the shelf and reads a chapter or so in each book. The development of a working knowledge in various fields will not only sharpen your intellect, but enable you to engage the church and the culture from an informed perspective.


1. Some good distributors include Christian Book Distributors, P.O. Box 3687, Peabody, Massachusetts 01961–3687; Christian Publications, Inc., P. O. Box 3404, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania 17105–3404; Scripture Truth Book Co., P. O. Box 339, Fincastle, Virginia 24909; Great Christian Books, 1319 Newport Gap Pike, Wilmington, Delaware 19804–2895.

2. Some of the better programs include: Logos Series X for PC; Bible Works for PC; Accordance for Macintosh.

3. An annual review of available software programs can be found in the September-October issue of Preaching and at

4. Such as Google.

5. One example is the Virtual Reference Room on The New Orleans Baptist Seminary website at

6. Guidance in acquiring the most needful and useful commentaries and other Bible study tools can be found in the following: Daniel L. Akin, Building a Theological Library (Louisville: Daniel L. Akin, n.d.); Tremper Longman III, Old Testament Commentary Survey (3rd Edition) (Baker); D. A. Carson, New Testament Commentary Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986; Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, c1981, 2003), 265-75; Bruce Corley, Steve Lemke, and Grant Lovejoy, Biblical Hermeneutics (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1996), 385-416; James F. Stitzinger, "Study Tools for Expository Preaching" in John MacArthur Jr.'s Rediscovering Expository Preaching. Dallas: Word, 1992: 188-208. Stitzinger's list is updated periodically on the Master's Seminary website at

7. Christianity Today magazine; Leadership journal; Preaching journal; World magazine; In Other Words illustration newsletter; Newsweek magazine; Time magazine; USA Today newspaper; The Wall Street Journal newspaper.

8. The preacher who wishes to go deeper in biblical and theological studies might consider Banner of Truth, Biblical Archaeology Review, Bibliotheca Sacra, Criswell Theological Journal, Grace Theological Journal, Interpretation, Journal of Biblical Literature, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Review and Expositor, The Master's Seminary Journal, and Themelios.