How do you write a book review of a book that is unsure of how to define it’s primary concept? Such is the conundrum of It by Craig Groeschel, a book ostensibly about church leadership. While Craig never defines (and admits being unable to) It, many of us know exactly what he’s talking about. It’s the sense that God is up to something here in a way that is not typical. It’s a spiritual attraction. A buzz. But it’s deeper than that, too. It’s Spirit-empowered joie de vivre, if you define joy and life as the spiritual fruit and eternal life, respectively. It’s the activity of shalom—that sense that all is right in this place.

Some churches have It and some churches don’t. Some churches used to have It but lost It, and now they want It back. Other churches have never had It and want nothing to do It. It is mysterious. It is dynamic. It is spiritual. It’s not something that can be observed, but you know It when you see It. It is a feel-thing.

Because this It is so hard to define, Groeschel spends much of his book talking around It. The second part of the book, which is the bulk of It, lays out the seven things that contribute to It: Vision, Divine Focus, Unmistakable Camaraderie, Innovative Minds, Willingness to Fall Short, Hearts Focused Outward, and Kingdom-Mindedness. These seven attributes of a church create an atmosphere of Spirit-empowered joie de vivre, that sense of the deep joy of eternal, resurrection life where It is practically painted on the walls.

itThe most poignant chapter, for me personally, was Unmistakable Camaraderie. Churches that have It like each other. They get along. They have fun. Craig tells stories of practical jokes played at the office, and he even offers a few digs at some of his friends on staff. While this type of work atmosphere doesn’t appeal to everyone, it certainly appeals to me. Ministry is supposed to be fun. Look at what we get to do! Sure, it’s hard sometimes, and you’re often walking with people through the darkest times of their life, but there is something joyous about this calling that you wouldn’t expect to find in commercial enterprises. It doesn’t exist in churches with staff cultures where strife, isolation, and competition are the norm. It is the adventure of a team moving in the same direction, and having a good time along the way.

The most important chapter, however, is the penultimate: Do You Have It? Does It Have You? Craig begins with the story of how he lost It, how he got caught up in trying to be a good pastor and lost sight of the God who was his first love. Slowly and subtly, the passion drained out of his relationship with God. He found himself worshipping the Church rather than Jesus. It took him two years to kill his idolatry and get his passionate love back for his Savior. The challenge to pastors and leaders is this: If you want your church to have It, you must have It. It comes from God, and you have to return to your first love.

If I had to define It, I would do so relationally: It is God’s happy and favorable response to our joyful, humble, passionate and faith-filled response to his gracious, loving initiation of a love-relationship through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. I know that’s a mouthful, which is why the book is just called It. That’s how I read It, anyway.

Have you seen It in your church? Have you seen a church or ministry lose It? Do you have It, or have you lost It? What must you do to get It back?

As an introvert, I’ve often felt pressure to change my personality type in order to belong to and grow in the evangelical church. As Adam McHugh points out in his book, Introverts in the Church, evangelicalism, like America itself, is an extroverted culture. From the social hour to the sermon, chatter is constant. In worship we move at a frenetic pace, but seldom give silence and reflection any time at all. We want our leaders and pastors to be gregarious, extroverted personalities that are most comfortable working the crowd, mingling and socializing with the masses. Our buzzwords are “relationship” and “conversation”. We measure spirituality by the number of people we can influence and the amount of events in which we are involved. There is no place for the shy, quiet, reflective types. An overwhelming majority of us even believe Jesus was an extrovert! It’s no wonder, then, that McHugh concludes, “in evangelical churches you walk into what feels like a nonalcoholic cocktail party.”

2001_mchughThe book is filled with Adam’s personal experiences as a college minister and hospital chaplain. So much of what he wrote about college ministry, particularly in regards to evangelism, resonated with me. Campus ministry, with its ubiquitous emphasis on evangelism (that is, walking up to people you don’t know and talking to them about the deepest, most personal things in the world), can be a nightmare for introverts. I experienced this both as a student and as a staffer, and I can affirm that the subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) message to introverts is: the path to spiritual growth, for you, lies in changing your personality. Extroversion, on campus and throughout evangelicalism today, is spiritualized.

Of course, extroverted spirituality is not the only viable spirituality. Introverts bring a spirituality that is much needed in this fast-paced, shallow, tweet-induced 140 character world we live in. Introverts prefer slowness and depth. We need to process internally rather than speaking our thoughts as they come to us. We are reflective and contemplative. We tend to listen well. The church, and for that matter the world, need both extroverted and introverted spirituality in order to thrive.

For any of you introverts who have been burned by an extroverted culture or church, please consider picking up this book. You will find in it the words of someone who understands. You will find a friend. And, I trust, you will begin to find some healing.

People love fish out of water stories. In her first book, In the Land of Believers, Gina Welch straps on the scuba suit and tries to live with the fish. While growing up in Berkeley and attending college at Yale, Gina had heard all about “evil evangelicals” and their agenda to conquer American society, force their religious views on everyone, and mandate public prayer to Jesus only. When she moved to Virginia to attend graduate school, she knew she was entering the heart of Red State evangelical fervor and hoped to educate herself by reading a “fleet of books by liberals out to dissect the evangelical body politic” and New York Times reports on the weird practices of these fundamentalist Christians.

But after living in Virginia for a short time, where a third of the population is “born-again”, she felt a disconnect between the liberal reportage on evangelicals and the people themselves. The caricatures didn’t fit the characters, and she needed to find out which side was right about these Christians. She “wanted to know what [her] evangelical neighbors were like as people, unfiltered and off the record, not as the subjects of interviews conducted by the ‘liberal media.’” (5) The best method, she surmised, was to pretend to become one of them—so she got “saved”, was baptized, and even went on a missions trip with the right-wing fundamentalist evangelicals of Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church.

Her journey begins like the life of a newborn calf—clumsy and awkward as she stumbles about, searching for the strength in her legs. Unsure of what to wear, how to speak, or even where to go, she trips her way through the “front door” experiences of the church until she hits her stride with EPIC, a ministry for singles. At EPIC she made friends with other young single women, fended off awkward advances from single men, and even went on a weeklong missions trip to Alaska.

inthelandofbelieversHer prose is engaging and honest. I couldn’t put the book down, finally finishing it in one sitting at 2am on my birthday. Gina treats the people she met and came to be friends with honorably, exercising no vendetta, neither caricaturing nor whitewashing. We see them as they are—evangelistic, hopeful, Christ-centered, prayerful, homophobic and staunchly conservative. I came away with a great deal of respect for my fundamentalist brothers and sisters. They seem to be far more faithful and committed Christians than myself.

Gina’s journey from suspicious unbelief to sympathetic unbelief is fascinating to watch as it unfolds. In the midst of her deception she seems to have authentic encounters with God and discovers a genuine love for the friends she has made. She even found herself grieving over the death of Jerry Falwell!

The most rewarding development of her journey was her newfound understanding of evangelism. She had always thought of evangelism as an exercise of religious imperialism designed to subdue every soul in the world and force them to believe precisely the way the evangelist believes. For her, and for many liberals, it is solely about power. But she came to understand that evangelism is rooted in empathy. Because evangelicals sincerely believe people are lost and doomed to hell without Jesus, evangelism is an exercise of love and hopeful rescue from the worst fate that could befall a person. After watching her friend Alice led a couple to the Lord in Alaska, Gina writes, “Giddy tears were filling my eyes. …I was wired with delight, and I wasn’t even a believer. But one didn’t have to believe to see that this was indeed the birthing room, and if it wasn’t the birthing room of God in that moment, it seemed to be the birthing room of fresh possibility.” (244)

In many ways this is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. It’s sad because Gina had authentic experiences with God while living a lie, and because of her deception she couldn’t see him in those moments. It’s sad because her deep friendships were a sham, but her friends didn’t know it until much later. It’s sad because her words make me long for the warm, safe cocoon of fundamentalism, where the world makes sense and there’s an answer for everything. The people she deceived were flawed but good, limited in their understanding and yet full of grace and forgiveness. They truly cared for nonChristians, and though they’ve been hurt by her, I suspect they still truly care for Gina.

On one level I’m deeply grateful that Gina wrote this book, as it helps to destraw the evangelical strawman, and replaces him with flesh and blood people. I wish she could have gone about this project without such sustained and profound deception, but as Alice says after discovering the lies, “You wouldn’t have known if we were being real with you.” (326) Do the ends justify the means? I don’t think so. But the ends are still important. Though Gina Welch swam with the fish for two years, she never managed to remove the oxygen tank. But I still hold out hope that someday she’ll learn to breathe underwater.

Questions: What do you think of the ethics of living undercover with a group of people in order to understand them? Do the empathetic ends justify the deceptive means? What does Gina’s book contribute to the cultural conversation at large? Can atheists and Christians, conservatives and liberals, learn to get along through empathy and mutual understanding?

God has called us to change, to experience real, heart-level transformation into the image of Jesus Christ. But so many Christians see almost no amount of recognizable change in their lives. Despite the small groups, the Bible studies, regular church attendance, and even counseling, too many people struggle to change their sinful behavior, much less their desires.

How People Change is a fascinating book that presents absolutely nothing new whatsoever…which is why I like it so much. There are no seven easy steps, no 5 p’s of progress or ch’s of change. All that authors Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp do is present the gospel, thoroughly worked out in the trivial and mundane, but critical, moments of our lives.

6a00d8341c7a1453ef0133f4a17ed0970b-320wiThe problem for most of us, they say in the first chapter, is that we don’t understand how the gospel works right now. We get that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again; we get that he’s coming back and we get to spend eternity with him; but we don’t understand what all this means for overcoming my anger, lust, pride, envy, and so on. Our trouble stems from three blindnesses: 1) We are blind to the depth and pervasiveness of our sin; 2) We are blind to what God has provided for us to live the life he has called us to live; and 3) We are blind to the process by which God refines our character.

These blindnesses create a gap in our understanding of the gospel, and we inevitably find gospel substitutes to fill that gap. The authors have identified seven gospel substitutes that inevitably focus more on externals than on the condition of our hearts.

  1. Formalism | Participating in every conceivable church activity under the sun.
  2. Legalism | Always striving to keep the rules.
  3. Mysticism | Jumping from spiritual experience to spiritual experience–always looking for that spiritual high.
  4. Activism | Getting involved in the most important social causes.
  5. Biblicism | Focusing on acquiring biblical knowledge and theological correctness. (Nothing wrong with this one. Move along, move along.)
  6. “Socialism | Maintaining and developing friendships in the church through constant fellowship.
  7. “Psycholgy-ism” | Seeing every issue in life through the lens of psychology.

These are all false ways of understanding and living the gospel. “The lies that capture us as Christians usually seem to fit well within the borders of our Christianity.” (11)

The authors offer five gospel perspectives that will reorient us to the true gospel and away from the seven gospel substitutes that merely focus on externals. These five perspectives are:

  1. The Extent and Gravity of Our Sin | “Only when you accept the bad news of the gospel does the good news make any sense.”
  2. The Centrality of the Heart | “Everything we do is shaped and controlled by what our hearts desire.”
  3. The Present Benefits of Christ | “The hope of every Christian is a person, the Redeemer, Jesus Christ.”
  4. God’s Call to Growth and Change | “[God’s] goal is to free us from our slavery to sin, our bondage to self, and our functional idolatry, so that we actually take on his character!”
  5. A Lifestyle of Repentance and Faith | “The Christian life makes God’s work of change our paradigm for living, while we celebrate the grace that makes it possible.”

And that’s all in the first chapter! This is a tremendous book, but it is not light reading. This will take time, but it’s well worth it. Many of the most popular Christian spirituality books take shortcuts. This one doesn’t. I highly recommend this book to you. Chew it over. Read it carefully. Reflect upon it. You can thank me later.

Christians are the worst. So say the critics, many of whom come from within the Church. Everyone has a story of some Christian acting like a hypocrite, lying, committing adultery (or worse), or just plain being mean. The book UnChristian found that Christains (and Evangelicals in particular) have an image problem among nonChristians in America.

9780764207464Bradley Wright, a sociologist at UConn, says, “Not so fast my friend.” He believes that Christians don’t have an image problem so much as pollsters have a numbers problem. He doesn’t believe the polls, and doesn’t think you should either. The date, he claims, indicates that Christianity (and Evangelicalism in particular) is alive and well in this country.

To prove his point about the numbers game, Wright comments on a recent, shocking poll that claimed the only group of people who were viewed more unfavorably than Evangelicals were prostitutes. The truth, however, requires a closer look at the numbers. A disproportionately large number of people responded “Don’t Know” when asked if they had a favorable opinion of Evangelicals—more than twice the number of the next highest group. Maybe a lot of folks don’t know what an Evangelical is. The poll also asked people their opinions of Born-Again Christians. Maybe others didn’t know the difference between Evangelicals and Born-Agains. The point is, according to Wright, you can’t always trust a poll, nor can you always trust the pollster’s conclusions.

While I don’t have space to address all of the data (mostly encouraging) that Wright presents in the book, I do want to look at one issue that gets bandied about a lot these days, and that is the fear that Christianity is dying in America. Maybe you’ve heard some of the following statistics (11):

  • “Christianity will die out in this generation unless we do something now.”
  • “Only 4 percent of this generation is Christian.”
  • “Ninety-four percent of teenagers drop out of church, never to return again.”

These are frightening statistics! And they’re also demonstrably false. Almost 76% of Americans self-identify as Christian, and 26% say they’re Evangelical. While 16% claim the title Unaffiliated, only 4% of our population are agnostic or atheist. (35) Not quite the death-knell of Christianity, is it?

Evangelicalism isn’t shrinking either, having held steady at 26% of the population for 30 years. While the number of religiously unaffiliated people has grown in recent years (largely from the exodus of political liberals from mainline denominations), a majority of those believe in God, believe the Bible is the Word of God, pray regularly, and consider themselves to be religious and/or spiritual.

The truth is that atheism is not taking over America. Despite the fears of many Christians, atheism has not grown in the past 20 years, and atheists constitute less than 2% of the total population.

This is a very readable book that will help to dispel some of the myths about Christians and Christianity in America. Things are not nearly as bad as they seem. And if you read UnChristian (like I did), and thought that things were hopeless for Christians (like I was), then this book will be a great encouragement to you. Cheer up, Christian. You’re not really the worst!

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