During my preparation for teaching a four-week Church History survey I read several single volume books on the topic and am here doing brief reviews to highlight the particular emphasis of each.
Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 4th edition (2013)
Shelley’s book is one of the classic single volume Church Histories. It has weathered well and sold well. The book is very accessible and reads quickly. It is intended to introduce people in the pew to the topic. I’ve heard of it being used as a High School text for homeschoolers, so that is a plus. Shelley focuses on the history of the Western Church, which is the traditional approach, but which is a place where other volumes may have improved since he wrote this book. Still, this is a solid volume that would be a good place to start on the topic. Shelley passed away in 2010, so it unlikely this volume will be updated for too long in the future with other excellent entries into the field.
Gerald Bray, The Church: A Theological and Historical Account (2016)
Bray is an excellent writer and historian. His single volume introduction the Church History is a bit more theological than Shelley’s, which fits because Bray is a Historical Theologian. His interpretations are fair, though Bray’s Anglican bias comes through on multiple occasion when dealing with the issue of baptism. This is an intermediate volume, but could be helpful for pastors and those with some background in Church History to gain a deeper knowledge. One downside on Bray’s writing is that his chapters and sections tend to be excessively long, which makes interrupted reading somewhat more difficult.
Joseph Early, A History of Christianity (2015)
This is a solid volume from B&H, which present Church History in a very traditional framework, like Shelley. He improves on Shelley in two ways: (1) He retells history from a distinctly baptistic perspective, while still maintaining a reasonable balance in critiquing other traditions; (2) His volume is shorter than Shelley’s, with no apparent downside. In all, Early’s volume is an accessible volume should be useful in churches, secondary schools and introductory college courses.
Ian Shaw, Christianity: The Biography: 2000 Years of Global History (2017)
Shaw’s approach is unique. He lines up the various stages of change in the history of the Church in parallel with stages of human life. The analogy works better earlier in the book, but it is entertaining. A major strength of Shaw’s book is his emphasis on global Christianity rather than just the Western tradition. This means that, in the abbreviated format Shaw uses, there is sometimes less information about Western Church History than I would have liked. However, I think the tradeoff was in the whole worth it. I would recommend this one over other volumes because I think it better represents a broad picture of Christianity.