There are some books you really look forward to reviewing and others you approach with trepidation. Mere Churchianity is the latter. The reason has less to do with the content and more with the fact that the book’s author, Michael Spencer—better known around the interwebs as the Internet Monk—passed away in April, 2010. So now, there’s no opportunity to interact with him over it. And reading the book left me wanting to sit and hang out with him and just talk about it. Here’s why:
American Christianity, in Spencer’s mind, has succumbed to a false religion: churchianity. Instead of being people who are transformed by Jesus, shaped to be like Him, we’ve settled for playing church. We’ve replaced relationship with religion.
And this has forced him to ask, “When millions of people walk away from the church that has a sign out front saying Jesus is inside, what are they walking away from?” (p. 21). Are they walking away from God or from empty religion? Are they abandoning Jesus, or are they “walking away from a church that has become disconnected from Jesus and all he stands for?”
Perhaps the leavers and quitters are sending a message about Jesus that Christians need to take to heart. Perhaps churchianity has done more to alienate people from Christianity than all the best-selling books written by angry atheists. It is clear that the church has overadvertised something it has lost, and it’s time to answer some questions about the Jesus who doesn’t live behind the church signs. (p. 21)
The big idea behind Mere Churchianity is provocative—yet not. It’s provocative in the sense that it’s a very bold statement about the way things are in the church in North America. Yet, the claim itself has been made by so many (usually in a way that lacks charity and humility) that it’s become very easy to ignore. How did I respond? My reaction was… mixed.
Spencer describes a Christianity that is more motivated by personal gain than consideration of the lost. He laments (rightly so), “Jesus fandom” as a substitute for following Christ and churches who seem more concerned with building their own empires than actively pursuing the mission God has given them. And, if we had to be honest, there is a great deal of truth to this. There are a lot of churches that have substituted their own kingdom for God’s. There are many who are too quick to demonize anyone with whom they disagree. And there are many who prefer to simply play church rather than pursue Christ.
There is a great deal in Mere Churchianity that I wholeheartedly agreed with; we need to be wary of there being an unholy sort of contentment in our faith. We do need to embrace a spirituality that is shaped by Jesus—one that will look markedly different from everything around us.
Yet, as I read, there were times when I found myself asking, “If this is just going to another book slagging the church, why am I even bothering with it?” Frankly, there are points in the book that border on the ridiculous. Spencer warns of being wary of any pastor who doesn’t want “you reading your Bible to find Jesus as the heart of the matter” (p. 120)—though, I can’t say I’ve ever met a pastor who didn’t want people reading the Bible for this express purpose. He likewise warns that one of the reasons we don’t have a Jesus-shaped spirituality is “the conspiracy among successful pastors to keep displaying only the tame parts of the Bible on the overhead screen. We have been placing our trust in church leaders who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, not in telling us all that God has to say” (p. 121).
I tend to make a lot of notes in my books as I read; it’s particularly helpful when I’m reading for the purposes of reviewing. This is what I wrote after reading this paragraph:
“Come on now, this is just getting silly.”
I’m not a fan of the so-called seeker sensitive movement, but think about this for a second: Can you picture Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and a few others sitting around a smokey boardroom plotting how to keep the hard parts of the Bible out of the hands of the people (followed by a rousing game of lawn darts)? This whole idea of a conspiracy among successful pastors is just plain goofy and, in my mind, really hurt the book.
What was perhaps most evident in Mere Churchianity was Spencer’s love/hate relationship with the local church. While he writes that, “the church is a resource for spiritual development and can be a sign of what God wants to do on earth” (p. 152), his approach seems to be one of treating it as a “nice to have,” provided it is in the right place. But it’s not a necessity.
Indeed, it seems as though his harshest words are directed toward the church. He writes, “Much of what passes for proclaiming of Jesus is, in actuality, churches concerned with attracting large numbers on Sunday mornings, directing financial resources toward church budgets, and showing Christians how to get in synch with church activities.” (pp. 159-160).
I’m not suggesting that any local church is perfect or doesn’t have some really goofy things going on within it, but this seems to be a little over the top. Do churches need to hold to their methodology a little more loosely? Absolutely. Are some way too concerned with church activities at the expense of engaging the community with intentionality? Yep. My concern with Spencer’s commentary doesn’t stem from a denial of these realities, it’s that it’s an example of standing outside and chucking rocks instead of coming to help breathe life back into the church.
Now to the big question: Would I recommend this book? Maybe. While I did find some of Spencer’s analysis in Mere Churchianity to be spot on, readers will need to wade through a great deal of murky territory to get it. Spencer’s insights would be beneficial to those who are working to revitalize and refocus their local church. But for those who have been hurt by their experience in the local church, my concern is that this book would become a tool to nurture any lingering resentment that may exist in their hearts. If you do decide to read Mere Churchianity, I’d encourage you to do so with your thinking cap on, your Bible open and a great deal of prayer.
Title: Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality
Author: Michael Spencer
Publisher: Waterbrook (2010)
A complimentary copy was provided for review purposes by the publisher.