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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Book Review - Mere Churchianity

I write this review as one very grateful that Michael Spencer was able to complete this book before he died in April, 2010. I also write as a pastor who has led a very small church (for 9 years), and currently leads a small-mid sized church (5 years). The reason that is important is Spencer writes as one looking through the scope of a gun. He takes aim and fires, and his target is church.

Spencer’s assault is refreshing because it is brazenly honest. He pulls no punches. Nor does his favor one flavor of Christianity over another. Books abound that criticize one form of church (whether that form is defined by theology, polity, or approach to out reach, or less often by denomination), and then turn around and impress upon the reader the rightness of the author’s form. Spencer does not do that. All forms of church are ripe for his critic’s pen.

Spencer doesn’t hesitate to continuously rip Joel Osteen’s approach to church. He is more muted in his critique of Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago, but he does take his shots at Willow as well, even if that assault is implicit. Saddleback also falls into his sights, albeit subtly. Yet, Spencer is not only angry at the huge, famous, wealthy megachurches.

The suburban and country churches that dot America’s highways with their pithy church signs are also a favorite target. In fact any church, whether evangelical, mainline, liberal, Orthodox or Catholic, with 10,000 members or less than 100, any church that claims to be where Jesus is falls under Spencer’s wrath. This is because the churches seem more driven by institutional success than by what drove Jesus. This is because in the name of conformity, people who are hurting and lost go into these churches and they are immediately expected to put the very hurt that defines them into a locked closet. The church may say, “Come as you are,” but Spencer feels like the truer message is “come and act the way we say you should.” That disconnect (between the church and the lost the church is supposed to help and love) angers Spencer greatly. In fact based on his passion for the Gospel and his penchant for direct speech, my description of him being angry is understatement.

He says, behind the Jesus is Here church sign, “you don’t know if Jesus is there or not” (p.16). What’s galling is that you can’t tell either by the behavior of the members nor by the way they welcome new comers whether Jesus is among. But, Spencer would undoubtedly go further than that. Observing the conduct and more importantly the heart, he would say in most churches, it is not hard to discern. It can easily be seen that Jesus is absent and has been for some time.

As a pastor, I some times found myself saying, “Wait a minute. What he’s saying here is not fair and is not true, as least not at my church.” I definitely felt defensive moments where I wasn’t happy with Spencer’s writing. But it is clear Spencer was not himself happy as he wrote but rather he was distraught. He wants people to come to Jesus and his dire concern is that church most of the time drives people straight away from Jesus. And for each time I felt that defensive impulse there were two or three other times where I felt something quite different. In Spencer’s blitzkrieg on conventional 20th and 21st century American Evangelical culture, I had to stop reading and ask myself, “Am I doing that? At our church, are we guilty of confusing people and manipulating people the way Spencer suggests?”

Upon completion of the book, I cast aside my defensiveness. I instead felt provoked. The best word for Mere Churchianity is ‘provocative.’ What Spencer proposes is dramatically honest, close to home, and worthy of extended consideration by all who pastor in the United States.

That said, I do think the author is guilty of some unfair generalizations and some overstatement. He says, “American Christianity has evolved into a movement that Jesus would not recognize if he were to show up next Sunday” (p.24). Also, “possibly millions of people are walking away from any association with the religion known as traditional Christianity” (p.25). And also, “Stop by any number of evangelical churches on Sunday morning, and you’ll hear about all of these [popular life style type issues] in terms that seldom mention Jesus and totally miss what the Jesus movement is supposed to be about” (p.31).

It’s true that much of what passes for church is far removed from what Jesus taught and modeled. Some of the unintelligibility of today’s church can be accounted for my 1000’s of years and 1000’s of miles. The same Gospel message will be look different in a different time and culture. But Spencer is right, many evangelical churches (as well as churches of other flavors) have departed from Jesus and they need to repent and change so that they truly teach all comers that God loves them and that they are called to be Jesus-followers. Spencer is right that repentance is needed. But when he says millions are walking away, it is not only because of the failure of churches. It is partly because they leave one to try another. And it is partly because people have a good experience, but choose to chase the temptations of the sin or the allure of other religions. And while Spencer accurately cites the churches that totally miss the Jesus movement, his books is sorely lacking in examples of churches that truly understand the Gospel and try their best to live it. If he were still alive he might say, “That’s because there are no churches that truly get the Gospel.” If he said that, I’d respond, “Michael, I am glad you are alive. But you are partially wrong on this one.

There are numerous generalizations and overstatements throughout the book, and I have only quoted those from chapter 2. But, if the reader can appreciate how strongly Michael feels as he writes, it is easy to accept his position and not be distracted by it. And I admit, being an optimist by nature, that I assume the good in people, including that smiling megachurch pastor from Houston Michael lambastes more than once. I agree completely with just about all the faults Spencer points out throughout the book. I just don’t know if they are as widespread as he reports. I may be wrong.

Spencer’s refreshingly honest and comprehensive critique of American Christianity is the strength of the book along with two other important strengths. First, his explanation of how church fails in making disciples verses how Jesus made disciples is a very strong section. This comes in chapter 13, specifically pages 155-157. There he describes seven methods of Jesus in creating disciples. Second, at the end of chapter 15, Spencer does an outstanding job of articulating “Jesus-shaped” spirituality. His phrasing is descriptive and helpful, and worth any Christian’s attention.

In conclusion, I could sum up my review with two words: must read. For all pastors, this is a must read. For all Christians who are thinking about leaving the faith, this is a must read. For all church goers who have grown too complacent and too comfortable in their churches, this is a must read. For all on the outside who want an unfiltered look at an insider’s view of church, Mere Churchianity is a must read. I certainly will recommend it to people in the church where I am a pastor. I can’t think of a stronger way to endorse this book.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review."

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