I frequently receive emails from folks asking for my recommendation on a one-volume, popularly written church history survey. Just this past week, a recent SEBTS graduate asked for a book like this for the men in his church’s pastoral internship program to read together. There are loads of options out there, but I’d recommend the following five books.
Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 4th ed. (Thomas Nelson, 2012). In my opinion, this is the gold standard in terms of popular church history surveys. Shelley writes from an overtly evangelical perspective, making this the perfect initial foray into the history of Christianity. The one negative is that it may be a bit long for some readers at approximate 550 pages, so it may be better for personal edification rather than a reading group.
Timothy Paul Jones, Christian History Made Easy, 2nd ed. (Rose, 2009). This is probably the best short introduction to use in a reading group. Jones’s expertise is actually Christian education, so his book is very user-friendly and ideally suited for local church usage. Jones has also produced a twelve-week curriculum based on the book which included DVD teaching sessions.
Stephen Tomkins, A Short History of Christianity (Eerdmans, 2006). This is another greater shorter introduction, though it doesn’t translate as well into a formal curriculum as Jones’s book. Tomkins is a journalist, so his book is blessed with a punchy style that makes it a joy to read.
Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 3rd ed. (Baker, 2012). Noll is a distinguished historian of Christianity who “brings the cookies down a shelf” in this popular introduction to church history. I first read this book when I was a senior in college; it was one of several books that helped cultivate my desire to study church history and historical theology. The only drawback is that Noll structures the book around thirteen key events in church history, which may or may not be the thirteen events about which you most care to learn.
Jeremy C. Jackson, No Other Foundation: The Church through Twenty Centuries (Crossway, 1980). Though out of print and a bit dated, Jackson’s single-volume introduction is a delight to read. I wish Crossway would publish an updated version of this book because I think it would be a blessing to many readers.