On My Shelf: Life and Books with Sam Chan

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I asked Sam Chan—theologian, preacher, doctor, and author of Evangelism in a Skeptical World and Preaching as the Word of God—about what’s on his nightstand, his favorite fiction, the books on evangelism he’s found most helpful, and more.


What books are on your nightstand?

I used to teach in a seminary, where I needed to stay on top of the “canon” of books by Christian authors—Don Carson, Kevin Vanhoozer, Tim Keller, and so on—partly because my students would ask for my informed opinion on these books, but also because they presented important ideas I needed to be familiar with.

But now that I’m in a primarily evangelistic ministry, I need to stay on top of the “canon” of books by non-Christian authors. Often I find out about these books through what my medical colleagues are reading.

So, on my nightstand—actually on my Kindle (because you can read this in the dark)—is a bizarrely eclectic assembly of books. Everything from Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, and Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed to . . . wait for it . . . Geoff Thompson’s Watch My Back, which includes tips on how to win a street fight!

What are your favorite fiction books?

I could pretend to be highly cultured and name Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which was gifted to me by my students. But I needed an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the characters—and by the end of the book I couldn’t remember who was who!

Instead, my guilty pleasures are page-turners with drama, tension, and anti-heroes—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and The Girl on the Train. Three different books, by three different authors, and all with the word “girl” in the title!

But, when I want to invest some time for a deeply satisfying emotionally-rich read, it’s worth a night or two, in a comfy chair, to get lost in Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, Dirt Music, and Breath (now a movie!).

Which books have most influenced your thinking and how?

When I arrived in Chicago from Australia to study at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I attended a seminar by Paul Hiebert designed to orientate “international students” to the challenge of settling into the foreign U.S. culture. Hiebert’s insightful, clear, and sophisticated analysis of culture and human behavior blew me away.

Since then, I’ve jumped into Hiebert’s Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (way more interesting than it sounds!), Transforming Worldviews, and The Gospel in Human Contexts. Hiebert’s books have influenced me in so many profound ways, but I’ll limit myself to three. First, his analysis of postmodernism helped me understand my 21st century Western audience.

Second, his books introduced me to critical realism, which has given me a mediating “third way” to navigate between the two extremes of modernity’s naïve realism and postmodernity’s idealism. My appropriation of critical realism revolutionized the way I taught at seminary—I no longer needed to be (or pretend to be!) the all-wise, all-knowing expert up front. Instead, I could benefit from (and not be threatened by) the students’ comments, questions, experiences, and perspectives. It also taught me there’s no one exclusive method when it comes to preaching, teaching, or evangelism—we can employ a variety of methods.

Third, his appropriation and synthesis of multiple disciplines—anthropology, philosophy, sociology, missiology, theology—taught me that I could employ similar methods for evangelism.

What three books on evangelism have you found most helpful?

Christine Dillon’s Telling the Gospel Through Story. For the last few decades, we’ve been stuck in a one-size-fits-all model of preaching and evangelism—namely, the logical, linear presentation of propositional ideas. This method is great for abstract-ideational thinkers. But, estimates are that four out of five Westerners, and nine out of ten non-Westerners, prefer concrete-relational thinking. In other words, they learn from hearing stories, rather than from abstract ideas. Dillon’s book is the helpful addition we’ve needed. Finally, we’re freed up to use stories in not just preaching and evangelism, but also in the way we lead Bible studies and teach in Bible colleges and seminaries. Get the book, check out the website storyingthescriptures.com, and give it a go. You’ll be blown away by how simple it is. And soon you’ll be telling stories—the “mother tongue” of the majority of our audiences.

John Dickson’s The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips. For a while, books on evangelism concentrated on evangelism as all of us getting out there, trying to do one-on-one evangelism. And, while there is a time and place for this, Dickson’s book helps us to see that evangelism is much more than this. While we have a collective responsibility to give away our faith, we each do this differently at an individual level. One of the best ways we can do this is to complement each other, by becoming evangelistic corporately, rather than only doing evangelism as an individual.

Paul Hiebert’s The Gospel in Human Contexts and Transforming Worldviews. These books explain what happens when someone changes their worldview (e.g., from non-Christian to Christian) at a cultural, sociological, and anthropological level. So it got me thinking, Why are the missionaries the only ones employing missiological principles of contextualization? Because, surely, all of preaching and evangelism is, by nature, cross-cultural. We all need to be using contextualization in our ministries.

My own book on evangelism tries to apply Hiebert’s missiological principles to our task of evangelism in a 21st century skeptical Western world.

What’s the last great book you read?

Steve Biddulph’s Manhood. Biddulph is an Australian psychologist. This book will explain to both men and women what it is to be a man. It has profoundly helped me better understand myself, my relationship with my earthly father, and how to be a better father to my children. I’m not sure if Biddulph is a Christian, but he’s certainly sympathetic to Christianity. And his final chapter on spirituality makes it an easy book to lend to a friend and then bridge to deeper issues like the gospel.

Though, if I’m now allowed to pretend to be cultured, I will say that I read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment about 10 years ago. Yes, I used an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the characters, just like I did with The Brothers Karamazov. But this book was worth the effort. I was drawn into the dark and disturbing world of the anti-hero. And the stunning, jaw-dropping, pivotal moment when one of the key characters reads an excerpt from the Bible—John 11—is worth the several days (or weeks!) it takes to get there.

What’s one book you wish every pastor read?

A few years ago, I was feeling a bit disaffected by professional Christian ministry and the failings of some Christian leaders in my circle. And then someone gave me Paul Tripp’s Dangerous Calling. Tripp nailed it. For too long, when hiring a leader, we’ve only concentrated on their giftedness, qualifications, and experience. We don’t probe into their character.

For some reason, most of us in professional Christian ministry are prone to being profoundly insecure. But, because we’re also put on a pedestal, we’re also prone to pride. Pride and insecurity are a dangerous cocktail. They’re the traits of a narcissist. Now, not all leaders will be narcissists, but all narcissists will find a way into leadership.

We have to be careful about who we hire! We also need to examine ourselves, to see if we might be in professional Christian ministry for all the wrong reasons, despite our giftedness, qualifications, and experience. We need to remove the log from our eye and work on our character, lest we hurt the ones who love us the most.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

When Jesus called me to follow him, he asked me to follow him on a journey. In God’s way of doing things, his journeys never go straight from A to B. There are detours. There will be, from our point of view, incredible inefficiencies and dead ends. For example, Joseph spent time in prison. The Israelites wandered in a desert. David was a fugitive before he became king.

That means, from our point of view, there will be many false starts—relationships that end badly, failed exams, and jobs that went nowhere. But that’s what it’s like to be on a journey with Jesus. He doesn’t take us on the route we would’ve taken. Somehow, in his wisdom, there will be a purpose to our journey, even if we can’t see it from where we are.


Also in the On My Shelf series: Matthew Lee Anderson • Melissa Kruger • Isaac Adams • Denny Burk • Vermon Pierre • Jake Meador • Russ Ramsey • Jason Allen • Jason Cook • Mack Stiles • Michael Kruger • Robert Smith • Tony Merida • Andy Crouch • Walter Strickland • Hannah Anderson • S. D. Smith • Curtis Woods • Mindy Belz • Steve Timmis • David Mathis • Michael Lindsay • Nathan Finn • Jennifer Marshall • Todd Billings • Greg Thornbury • Greg Forster • Jen Pollock Michel • Sam Storms • Barton Swaim • John Stonestreet • George Marsden • Andrew Wilson • Sally Lloyd-Jones • Darryl Williamson • D. A. Horton • Carl Ellis • Owen Strachan • Thomas Kidd • David Murray • Jarvis Williams • Gracy Olmstead • Matthew Hall • Drew Dyck • Louis Markos • Ray Ortlund • Brett McCracken • Mez McConnell • Erik Raymond • Sandra McCracken • Tim Challies • Sammy Rhodes • Karen Ellis • Alastair Roberts • Scott Sauls • Karen Swallow Prior • Jackie Hill Perry • Bruce Ashford • Jonathan Leeman • Megan Hill • Marvin Olasky • David Wells • John Frame • Rod Dreher • James K. A. Smith • Randy Alcorn • Tom Schreiner • Trillia Newbell • Jen Wilkin • Joe Carter • Timothy George • Tim Keller • Bryan Chapell • Lauren Chandler • Mike Cosper • Russell Moore • Jared Wilson • Kathy Keller • J. D. Greear • Kevin DeYoung • Kathleen Nielson • Thabiti Anyabwile • Elyse Fitzpatrick • Collin Hansen • Fred Sanders • Rosaria Butterfield • Nancy Guthrie • Matt Chandler

Browse dozens of book recommendations from The Gospel Coalition’s leaders and sign up your church at Hubworthy.

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