Book review: Renewal
I originally wrote this review for a church-planting internship on November 8, 2018.
Renewal by John James succinctly champions the merits of church revitalization for the cause of the gospel in the United Kingdom. James’ first chapter is a wake-up call to Christianity’s decline in the U.K., and he argues that church revitalization is one biblical and strategic response. He defines a church revitalization in this way: “Church revitalisation is a local church intentionally recovering its calling to make disciples of Jesus. It is a process of deliberate change in order to bring about a new beginning, with the goal of recovering a gospel frontier for mission, and re-establishing gospel growth within a church community.” The book then basically splits into two sections. Chapters 2-4 are a gentle polemic, defending the viable contribution of church revitalization for re-evangelizing the U.K. on strategic and theological grounds. Then, chapters 5-9 seek to guide current church revitalizers and attract new ones by providing the details of how to successfully navigate the unique challenge of revitalizing a church, such as diagnosing the cause of a church’s decline and communicating a change-inducing vision. Throughout the book, short case studies are inserted for encouragement and brief illustration of the principles in practice. Overall, Renewal is an accessible and persuasive appeal for church revitalization.
The two chief strengths of James’ book are its contrasts with church-planting and its godly wisdom. Church-planting is so common and popular that these contrasts pointedly clarify the unique value of church revitalization. To give one example, church-planting entices young ministers because of the supposed freedom to express a fresh vision unentangled by past traditions and messy relationships. But James, citing church-planters, writes, “Without exception, these individuals have all affirmed that, within seven years of founding their churches, deep-seated traditions became the norm and had to be addressed.” So, church-planting quickly faces a similar difficulty. More than that, the relational and communal history of a revitalizing church should actually be regarded as a strength. He writes of a revitalization work: “Basically, there was a ready-made mission field of people that the church family already had a love and a burden for but were struggling to reach.” The book provides many such illuminating contrasts. Secondly, Renewal insightfully applies the Bible’s priorities to its discussion. For such a practical and accessible book, it does not dabble in superficial pragmatism. It deflates the flashy novelty of a new church plant, and directs us to the long-term goals and motives of truly faithful church ministry. For this reason, the entirety of chapters seven and eight deserve re-reading and internalizing.
The book only falters in occasionally attempting to do much with too little. The key insights could be more readily shared in a series of blog posts. Expanding to the length of a book invited more complex and difficult issues, which the book does not always address adequately. For example, chapter 5 seeks to help churches diagnose why their church is in decline. James’ five reflective questions, while true, do not impart sufficient insight to provide a church with meaningful diagnoses. To preserve the book’s accessibility, James should include a series of additional resources in an appendix to direct readers into further study.
Renewal surprised me with its applicable instruction for a church planting trainee. Even though church revitalization and planting are two different kinds of work, this book was helpful for both. For church-planting, Renewal exhorts two things: perpetual reformation toward a clear vision and prioritization of indigenous disciples. Even when I was in a church-plant that wasn't a year old, we already faced regular pressures to mistake applications of our vision (e.g. activities, programs, and events) for the vision itself. Our weekly activities should only be a means to the end of our vision. And yet, more than we might want to admit, our week was quickly filled with tasks instead of people; we could spend more time planning events than we did evangelizing; our anxieties drifted from the unity of the church to the adequate stocking of our café. This happened quickly because our sinful nature would rather calcify our vision into structures for curating than advance our vision into lives for loving. James writes, “Sooner or later we have to learn to love people more than we love the route we have planned, and wherever we start from, that is never easy.” To make disciples of Jesus, we must perpetually reform our activities to that end. Some of our activities might just need sharpened. For example, our church had a toddlers’ group and kids’ club. James pushes us: “Does your strategy begin with a youth club, but go on to engage with the whole household? In theory at least, how will it do that?” As far as I knew, we did not have a theoretical path of evangelizing and discipling those households. Some of our activities might need to cease. James warns, “It is easy to think that in order for new life to enter the church then more stuff needs to happen. In actual fact it may well be that so many activities are running that it is stopping people from giving quality time and effort to core tasks of evangelism and discipleship.” Every activity’s service to the vision must be scrutinized, regardless of why we cherish them. Even for a freshly planted church, we must regularly reform our weekly schedules to serve the vision of the church.
To apply Renewal, church-planters must also prioritize evangelism and discipleship of indigenous people. One strength of revitalization is the church’s relational history in its neighborhood, which James discusses throughout chapter 3. A church-planting team, on the other hand, enters their new context without any relational history and the accompanying influence. While building as many new relationships as possible is a faithful approach, it is more strategic to identify cultural insiders and prioritize them. The reason this is worth mentioning is because cultural insiders are harder to connect with than cultural outsiders. People who are not settled in the community are eager for friendship. We are, of course, grateful for everyone whom the Lord brings to our church! It is simply worth adding that we must also do the hard work of reaching people who are harder to befriend: cultural insiders. The breadth and depth of their relationships in the community are beyond what any church-planting team will ever have.
James also gave more biblical shape to my future ambitions for gospel ministry. I had been driven for a long time by zeal for the abstract goal of planting churches among an unreached people group. As an abstract ambition, I had been too free to fantasize about the particulars of such a ministry, inventing ideal people and circumstances that fit my idolatrous need for significance more than they fit biblical expectations for gospel ministry. James gently rebuked my fanciful notions, especially in chapters 7 and 8. In my ideal, I wanted to jump into a ministry and be overwhelmingly fruitful from the start, but James writes, “Any new attempts to engage a local community take time to bear fruit.” In my romanticism, I wanted to build an efficient and bustling church-planting machine, but James writes, “We have committed ourselves to a continual refrain of ‘people not programmes’ and have sought to develop only as much organisation and structure as has been needed to get us to the next stage in our relationships with people in our community.” These are just a few examples of how James reoriented my heart’s ambitions toward low-key, long-term, biblical, church ministry. And in the meantime, he targeted my impatience to get there. I remember our church baptizing three new believers. It should have been a moment of rejoicing and thanksgiving for me, but I felt part of my heart just impatient for more—three baptisms fell short of my idealistic vision of a self-glorifying, high-octane, church-planting ministry. James recognizes this temptation, so he writes, “Be thankful for everything, and celebrate together the wins, however small they may be.” What a sweet and convicting word! May this book continue to batter my future ambitions into a humbler and more biblical shape.
 John James, Renewal: Church Revitalisation along the Way of the Cross, (Leyland, England: 10 Publishing, 2016), 16.  Ibid, 32.  Ibid, 46.  Ibid, 28.  Ibid, 64.  Ibid, 101.  Ibid, 85.  Ibid, 86.  Ibid, 102.