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Renovate: A Helpful, Practical, Timely Book About Renewal

the right words + the right time = CHANGE

That's the formula that undergirds Léonce Crump, Jr's Renovate: Changing Who You Are By Loving Where You Are. In this new book about cultural renewal, the author has the right words--about the gospel, race, social justice, and a "theology of place." But this book also comes at just the right time; issues of race and reconciliation dominate the news, social media, and conversation perhaps now more than they have in at least a generation or two. And if enough people digest the right words at such a ripe time as this, that's a recipe for the type of renewal the author is seeking.

However, this book is not only about race. At the bottom, this is a book about reflecting the glory of God, and how Christians and churches achieve that--especially through the actions of intentional Christians investing in their communities. In what I thought was the best part of the book, before giving six very practical and helpful ways to seek change, Léonce Crump, Jr, explains clearly--and practically--how cultures change:

through community, not heroic individuals. Renovation happens through networks of people who think critically about culture and seek out ways in which the gospel can be applied to their work or creativity, creatively. (p. 127)

Renovate has many strengths, and I would recommend it to anyone--especially other pastors who wish for their people to embrace their "sent-ness." By itself Chapter 4, "A Theology of Place," is worth the price of the book. The author has a clear passion for being intentional in the place to which you've been sent, as well as a pastoral concern to see Christians and churches take on the task of renewing their cities to the extent that race relations, politics, education, and all other areas are affected -- and that's a message we all need right now.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging For Books, in exchange for an honest review.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging For Books, in exchange for an honest review.

Offering Money Is No Help; People Need Cash Instead

It seems like we're always hearing about Christianity's decline. About how fewer and fewer people are attending church or doing whatever a particular researcher needs them to do in order to be considered "Christians." At the same time, we're told that people are increasingly calling themselves "spiritual." They're spiritual, but not religious. They are the people who "seem to want some connection to the divine, but...don't feel affiliated with traditional religion." They're not part of the Christian religion, and they're not part of another religion--but they are something.

And most often what they are, is simply turned off by the word religion. Their beliefs and spiritual practices or habits probably square pretty closely with one of the hundreds(?) of religious sects in the world--even if they don't fit nicely into one of the big ones. But they're "not religious," and that's too bad because contrary to a very popular belief today--not all religion is bad. Sure, there are harmful religions (and I believe all others besides Christianity are eternally harmful for the soul), but in terms of whether they help or hurt society, there are religions that have had positive effects--and the Christian religion is leading the pack.

What was born out of this perfect man’s perfect message is called the Christian religion.

Though, Christianity is not perfect. Admittedly, there are dark spots and blemishes on its history--but its founder was perfect--still is. And the good news he proclaimed was perfect. So why don't I join in on the "spiritual, but not religious" zeitgeist--or to sound even cooler, "Give me Jesus, but not religion"? Simple. Because what was born out of this perfect man's perfect message is called the Christian religion.

In other words, religion is not the answer, but the answer is contained within a religion. 

Sound like we're going in circles? We sort of are, because you can't very easily separate Christ from Christianity. And it never gets any less confusing, no matter how spiritual it makes you sound. Suppose a person begs you to help them with a dire financial need. And suppose your answer is, "You don't need money to meet your need; what you need is some cash."

Now they also need to get away from you and your crazy talk.

But even though historically Christianity is not a perfect religion, it does contain the gospel. The gospel is the basis for this religion. Within the Christian religion is the answer to life's biggest need--redemption and a restored communion with God. And as the gospel takes root in a life, the outworking looks like the Christian religion: going to church to fellowship and be in relationship with your brothers and sisters, doing ministry to equip the saints for the work of evangelism, baptizing new believers, sharing in communion together as you remember the incarnation and death of Jesus, worshiping together who God is and celebrating what he's done. Praying, studying, solitude, fasting, giving some of your income, doing service.

All religion. All done because of Jesus.

And as the gospel takes root in a life, the outworking looks like the Christian religion: fellowship, relationship, ministry, evangelism, baptism, communion, prayer, fasting, service.

And that's why I don't want Jesus without religion. I want Jesus, but I also want his bride, the Church. I want the religion that bears his name and all the good works done by its adherents throughout history and all over the world. Everywhere the Christian religion has spread, the culture has been affected for good. Give me that religion! Give me a religion that:

  • Fights for human life because murder is a sin, and every person is known by God from the womb. (Psalm 139.13) So the pro-life movement is largely driven by the Christian religion, which is no surprise; Christians have been instructing against infanticide (a common practice) since as early as the first or second century.*
  • Dignifies women because--although created with complementary roles--every person is created equally in the image of God. (Genesis 1.26) So while many cultures even to this day treat women as inferior, "Christianized" or western cultures no longer see a woman as a second-class person or the property of her husband.*
  • Cares for the poor, the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow--in other words, those who are most vulnerable--because God is compassionate. (Jeremiah 22.3) So the Christian religion helped end slavery, and records some of the earliest records of organized charity.*
  • Desires and promotes literacy and education because God revealed himself in a book, and we want people to have access to it. (2 Timothy 3.16-17) So Christian missionaries are responsible for many foreign (tribal) languages being first written down, and in colonial America 122 of the first 123 colleges beginning as Christian institutions.*
  • Encourages creativity, beauty, and the exercise of our gifts because we imitate our God who creates beautifully. (Genesis 1.1-27) So the Christian religion includes in its history authors such as Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky, composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel, and European cathedrals which showcase some of the most incredible architecture in the world.*

The list could go on. Hospitals and healthcare have been heavily influenced by the Christian religion as people sought to alleviate suffering and bring healing. American government and some of our oft-taken-for-granted freedoms are born out of Christian belief. Science--yes, even science--doesn't escape Christian influence because of men like Blaise Pascal, Isaac Newton, and Louis Pasteur. And on and on we could go.

Everywhere the Christian religion has spread, the culture has been affected for good.

"But if you read the gospels, Jesus didn't tell us to start a religion." No, no he didn't. But that's what his followers did. Keep reading. Read the Acts of the Apostles. Read Paul's letters. Read Peter's letters. They started churches, and helped a rapidly growing number of Christ-followers to organize themselves and learn how to conduct themselves and their gatherings. They wrote letters that we've canonized because we believe they are just as inspired by the Holy Spirit as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

So cut religion a little slack. Sure, plenty of people have done it wrong over the years. I have. But lots of people have done it right. Lots of people are doing it right. Yes, start with Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Lead with the gospel; that's the first answer. But then let the gospel do its work.

The religion that follows it can be a pretty beautiful thing.

*For more on Christianity's positive effects on history and culture, go here.

When Your Tongue Lets You Down

For several months now, it's been my habit in the morning to tweet a poignant, usually spiritual, quote. They come from all over; sometimes they're from something I'm reading. Other times they're just copy-and-pasted from another twitter account doing the same thing. My purpose has been simply to encourage (or convict) others with a quote that's encouraged (or convicted) me. I've accumulated quite a few quotes from which I choose every morning, and--in an unexpected way--it's been a great tool for me since I read many of them over and over for days or weeks before they get sent out to the interwebs.

Once they're out there, they normally get a couple of Facebook likes and maybe a retweet or two. I hope they're hitting home with others like they are for me. But every now and then, you put one out there and figure out you've really struck a chord. It happened yesterday.

When our tongues let us down, it is because we have not first watched over our hearts and thoughts. -Alistair Begg

I posted this quote yesterday because it was relevant for me. Reading through Matthew, I'd just been meditating on 15.11: "it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person." So I sent it out--and almost immediately started getting notifications that it had been liked or retweeted--and they continued all day. Until they stopped at 11 retweets and 26 likes on Twitter, and 5 likes on Facebook. Now, those are not astronomical numbers, but it's certainly a bigger response than I'm accustomed to on my daily, obscure Christian quotes. I normally have to post pictures of my kids to get a response like that. 

Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. Matthew 15.17-19

So why this quote? Why did this one resonate with people so much? I think because we all know it to be true. This is an experience--a biblical truth--with which we're all too familiar. We've all said something or thought something we regret. Some of us do it every day. Or every hour. The words we say, the thoughts we think, reveal who we are deep down. If it's in my heart, eventually it'll make its way out of my mouth. And the same goes for you.

The things that are outside of us may influence us, and they may be harmful. Music, movies, friends, conversation, art, food, drinks, there are a million things outside of us that may influence us negatively. They may feed, highlight, or encourage the darkness in our hearts, the darkness just waiting to escape by the mouth. But those things are not what defile us. Sin defiles us--and my sin starts in my heart. Words. Thoughts. Actions. Those are all just ways to let it out.

So do you say things you wish you could take back? Look at your heart.
Do you think things you're glad no one knows about? Look at your heart.

As you look, though, remember--"good in, good out" or "bad in, bad out" is a simple enough philosophy. There's some truth in that, but there's one easier. Just because you put Christian music and Christian movies and Christian books and Christian other things in, doesn't guarantee you'll get Christian things out. Try this one instead: gospel in, good out.

A heart fixed on the gospel, on the grace, mercy, and kindness of God, is the heart that brings forth good words, thoughts, and actions. A heart fixed on the good news that, in Christ, there's nothing you can do to make God love you more, and there's nothing you can do to make God love you less, is a heart that's been "watched over."

And if that's where your heart is, your tongue won't let you down. 

Folly To Some, Power To Others

"For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (1 Corinthians 1.18)

"For the word of the cross..." Inevitably, the more time we spend in the scriptures, the more we see the importance of reading them in context. Starting with "for," Paul forces us to read back at least one verse, where he has referred to preaching the gospel, "not with words of eloquent wisdom," but truthfully. In Corinth (and other large Greco-Roman cities) well-skilled orators and philosophers would gather to speak, debate, and ultimately, try to make a name for themselves by displaying their "wisdom." Verse 18 (and through verse 5 of chapter 2) is meant to remind the Corinthians of the power of the message of the cross. In other words, Paul says that no matter how eloquently or skillfully put, the crucifixion of the Messiah cannot be explained in a way that will make sense. Because we cannot reason our way to an understanding of God, Paul calls the Gospel "folly" or "foolishness" to the darkened mind. Paul means for the Corinthians (and us) to understand that the cross, more specifically, is impossible to understand by means of human wisdom, reason, or rationality. In fact, the crucifix was such a horrendous means of execution that it was taboo to even talk about in polite company.

"For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing..." Who are those who are perishing? Two groups of people make up those who are perishing: 1. Jews and 2. Greeks (Gentiles) - and that pretty well includes everyone who does not embrace the gospel with his/her whole life! To the Jews, the cross is folly for a couple of reasons. The Jewish people were looking for signs (1 Cor. 1.22), and though Jesus did His share of miraculous signs, they were not the signs any Jew was expecting. He did things like wash His disciples' feet (John 13.1-20) and drink from a cup borrowed from a Samaritan whore (John 4.1-30). But the Jews wanted a political leader to rise up to restore Jerusalem to its former glory, free from Roman rule. They looked for displays of raw power, not displays of love. Plus, they knew their Torah; they knew that "a hanged man is cursed by God" (Deuteronomy 21.23). And even though they had the prophets and knew Isaiah 53, a Messiah who suffered (or served) was way outside the expectations. The cross (and its implications) was simply impossible for Jews to overcome.

To the Greeks (Gentiles), the cross is folly for entirely different reasons. They valued men like Plato and Aristotle. The Greeks sought wisdom (1 Cor. 1.22), and though Jesus was incredibly wise (ritually stumping the Pharisees and teachers with His answers when they challenged Him) the Greeks dismissed and ridiculed the gospel and those who preached it due to the simplicity of the message and the typical blunt-ness with which it was presented. Paul's lack of "words of eloquent wisdom" (1 Cor. 1.17) seemed uncultured and laughable. Plus, they had their preconceived ideas of God - God could not become a man, because that would involve Him in mundane human affairs, which was insulting for a god. Then theres "apatheia," or the inability to feel. To the Greek, Jesus could not be God because if He felt sorrow or joy, then some person must be influencing Him and is therefore more powerful than God. So for the Greek who tried to philosophize his way to God through mere human wisdom and rhetoric, the cross was not only an impossibility, but was ridiculous.

"For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to those of us..." To those who can come to the cross in spite of our expectations. To those who come without needing wisdom or reason.

"For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved..." Who treasure Jesus. Who have been justified and redeemed. Who are being sanctified. Who will one day be glorified.

"For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved it is the power of God." The cross. The gospel. The joyful (Heb. 12.2), sorrowful (Matt. 26.38-39), beautiful, painful torture and death by the most excruciating and disgusting means of punishment ever invented. Then the defeat of death and its sting (1 Cor. 15.55-57). Salvation (Rom. 1.16). Eternal life (1 John 5.20).

Amen.

If You Only Read One Book This Year...

I love books. If you know me or you’ve been in my office, this will come as no surprise. I love the idea of “books,” the reading and learning - but I also love books per se. Physical, tangible books. No eBooks or digital copies here. If I could get a car air-freshener in “New Book Scent,” I would.

Maybe it’s because I’ve built my life around a Book. Or because God wants us to glorify Him with our minds, too. Or maybe because I’m just weird.

But whatever my reason, there’s something about reading and learning and devouring books that seems right for Christians - and especially pastors. God has preserved His words in the form of a book. Therefore, pastors are vocationally readers. They go to meetings to plan and strategize, they visit with people, they counsel people spiritually, and they cast vision and make budgets - but none of that matters if they are not devoted to the ministry of the Word (Acts 6.1-7). The Church spreads by proclamation of the Word, the gospel message that Jesus Christ saves sinners. Pastors (and Christians) are better served when they are readers, reading the Bible to hear from the Lord, but also seeking wisdom by reading commentary and books written by the godly who’ve gone before us.

So what's one book that's made a huge impact on me? The Cross Centered Life by CJ Mahaney. This book is all about the gospel and its importance in our day-to-day everything we do. So often we slip into this mentality where the gospel is just something that unbelievers need to hear to be saved. And no one does it on purpose. Do’s and don’ts and lots of other things lull us into thinking that the gospel belongs in a tract for the lost, but it really doesn’t have anything to offer us after we get saved. Mahaney argues just the contrary - that the gospel is in every way for the believer after their conversion, and that daily reminding ourselves of the cross can transform our lives one day at a time. He writes about why we need to be reminded of the gospel daily, but he doesn’t leave us hanging. He also devotes time at the end of the book to how we can do it - simple ways to put into practice the cross centered life.

Weighing in at only 96 pages, this short book can be read in one sitting. I know. I’ve done it. But that was the second time I read it. When I put this book down after the first time, I immediately knew it was one that I would come back to regularly. And I encourage you to read it, too. After all, we can never have too much exposure to the gospel of Jesus!