Book Review: Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer

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.

  • http://mrben.jedimoose.org/ mrben

    Good review. Having just finished up “Crazy Love” by Francis Chan, it feels like the 2 books are coming at a similar problem from different angle. Chan is very much calling the church out by encouraging the people to live lives that are sold out for Christ. Spencer appears more concerned of calling people out of the church into something different, but not well defined.

    As often seems the case with “emerging church types” (at least from my POV, having not read the book), Spencer has some very accurate (and, let’s face it, sore) critiques of the church, but is unwilling to either fully define a viable alternative, or set a roadmap to help churches actively change. I first saw this book reviewed by Adrian Warnock – he took 4 lengthy posts to do the review justice, although his conclusions are pretty much the same as yours. Definitely worth a read if people want a bit more info before shelling out their hard-earned cash :)http://adrianwarnock.com/?s=mere+churchianity

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      Thanks Ben; Adrian’s review is top-notch. I’m glad he decided to take four posts to engage with the content.

  • Schandler

    You summarized a lot of my feelings on the book. I was really frustrated reading it. Most books which frustrate me that much I just put down, but he had just enough which drew me back in.

    If I had to summarize my frustrations, I think they’d fall into three points (I read the book last September so I might be a bit rusty remembering things).

    TALKING ABOUT “THE AMERICAN CHURCH”

    People frequently talk about “The American Church” (so this critique isn’t unique to him), but I’m not sure what that refers to. I live in fairly small town with less than 20 churches. We have a church which only does hymns on a piano and doesn’t like outsiders. We have a contemporary Baptist church…we have a traditional Baptist church…we have a sugar-coated light on sin church. Is he talking about the top 5% of churches which fall into the mega-church category? Because those aren’t all that similar either.

    When you criticize with such broad strokes you kind of touch everyone, but at the same time you kind of touch no one.

    NO ALTERNATIVE

    Like mrben mentioned, Spencer didn’t offer much in the way of an alternative. He offers plenty of articulate finger-pointing, but anyone can do that. Bill Hybels has openly admitted that his model didn’t produce what he wanted and he’s now looking for an alternative. Plenty of leading pastors of the “AMERICAN CHURCH” are writing books criticizing their own actions and looking for an alternative.

    Everyone knows that things need to change. We don’t need a cynical outsider to tell us that. We need direction for what the church should look like in the 21st century.

    FEEDS THE CYNICS

    I know a bunch of disenfranchised evangelicals who sit around complaining about the church they grew up in, and come up with ludicrous critiques. Spencer feeds all of their conspiracy theories and gives them some new ones.

    GIVES EXCUSES FOR PEOPLE LEAVING THE CHURCH

    Having grown up in a church which was a mega-church by the time I graduated, I’ve seen peers abandon the faith. Having done youth ministry for 7 years, I’ve seen former students abandon the faith. I haven’t seen anyone walk away from the faith in search of Jesus. Everyone I see leaving the faith are pursing sin and laziness. When I see people leave the faith, the result isn’t that they finally discover Jesus or have a more real spirituality, instead I see people embracing their favorite sin without over guilt.

    Writing a book tell them that they left because they didn’t find Jesus in the church feeds them an excuse, and it ignores the fact that WAY more people DID find Jesus at the church.

    That was not three points and was much longer than I intended. Like I mention, the book frustrated me.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=593265604 Emily Armstrong

      I agree with point number 3. People tend to rewrite history the further away they get from it – “I wanted to smoke pot” becomes “my church was too legalistic” over time.

      The only time that people get MORE Jesus from leaving a church is if they immediately transition to another church, which clearly is not being given as an option by the author.

      • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

        Emily, this point:

        The only time that people get MORE Jesus from leaving a church is if they immediately transition to another church

        is spot on. Excellent assessment.

  • http://chriscanuel.wordpress.com ChrisCanuel

    I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for several months but have yet to read it…I really want to. This is the first non-positive review I’ve heard or read about it. Has peaked my curiosity even more. Thanks Aaron.

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      Chris, when you’ve had a chance to read it, let me know your thoughts – I’d love to get your take.

      • http://chriscanuel.wordpress.com ChrisCanuel

        Will do sir.

  • Taylorcspencer

    Michael was never antichurch. Maybe because he was my teacher and minister for 3 years, I have a more full version of what he was trying to say. The reason he didn’t offer an alternative was because he wasn’t trying to call anyone out of the church. He was only saying if your church community isn’t helping your relationship with Christ thrive then find a new one or find a small community of believers and begin a new community in Christ. As for only chucking rocks, even as a small child I wondered why no one in the American churches I attended seemed to know or respect Christ as I felt the Bible clearly represented him. Michael changed all that. He showed me and thousands of others students that people can actually live like Christ. Michael loved the church and his hope was it would stop trying to harvest souls and start trying to nurture them.

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      Thanks for commenting, Taylor. I appreciate the clarification from your perspective as one of his students.