Normally when you think of a monk from Kentucky who writes challenging books on spirituality you think of Thomas Merton, but in this case the monk is Michael Spencer and I can honestly say that his book “Mere Churchianity” is one of the best books on the Christian life that I’ve read in years and one that I will certainly be reading again soon (I normally don’t read books more than once). If I were to write a book on the church and my frustration with it, this would be it. Michael Spencer was the author of a very popular blog called “The Internet Monk” where thousands of readers found his analysis of the church and modern evangelicalism to be challenging, inspiring, and sometimes infuriating in its honesty. Spencer is no outsider lobbing brickbats at the evangelical church: he was a minister and a teacher in a Christian school until his death in 2010 and his frustrations are those of an insider. He has his credentials and has paid his dues to write this book and it is a tragedy that he is not able to follow up on it.
“Mere Churchianity” is ostensibly written for those who have “left the church in search of Jesus” and for those who are in the church but are thinking of checking out, not because they don’t believe in Jesus or no longer want to follow him but for just the opposite reason: because they love Jesus but don’t see him represented by the church. Spencer’s analogy in the beginning of the book is of “Deer-crossing” sign on the highway; the implication of such a sign is that deer could be expected to be near such a sign. He points out that he has never seen a deer near such a sign. Likewise, a person would expect that a building with a sign promising that it is a Christian church would be a place where Jesus could be expected to be found; sadly this is often not the case. Spencer attacks the idea that a church-centered spirituality, which so many of us are familiar with, is the true or only way to follow Christ. Indeed, he empathizes with those who have left or are leaving the church and insists that the failure of the church to lead people to Christ (as opposed to a counterfeit church culture) is the reason that many people have left the church rather than some kind of apostasy or moral failure. Spencer relentlessly skewers the church for missing the point and lays out a Christian life which is centered on following Jesus: he calls this a Jesus-shaped spirituality. This is a life in which believers actually study the bible on their own to find Jesus, live honest, grace-centered lives, and serve Christ by serving the needy instead of just attending church programs.
Spencer really spoke to my heart as a minister in a Christian church. I suspect that even though this book is written to those who are outside or leaving the church it will really resonate more with those who are in the church. It must be emphasized that Spencer is not anti-Church;, he’s just against churches which are not pointing people towards Jesus. Most of his ire is directed towards fundamentalism and consumer-driven mega-churches, but its obvious that any church which is failing to emulate Christ and provide a honest, grace-filled place to find community would be considered a failed church (in other words, this is not just a reaction to fundamentalism or a critique on mega-church excesses). To be honest, there were times when I was greatly disturbed and even angered at Spencer’s analysis of the church, but in most cases my anger was not because he was saying something wrong but because what he was saying was absolutely right. Many of his assessments are hard to read because he is speaking as an insider—a former minister and a teacher in a Christian boarding school for decades. He knows what he is talking about and is not just attacking the church from the outside. On many topics he strays very close to the third rail—you think he is going to cross a line which would place him into heresy—but he always manages to say things which are challenging and even disturbing without going too far or being unbiblical. For example, he stresses that true Christian life should involve social work without falling into the camp of those who would ignore the Gospel in favor of good deeds. “Find a community that encourages servant Christianity. Wherever God places you, make it the place you serve him. Whenever possible, seek out the little corners of darkness and pain in our world. Go there and the Jesus-shaped path will rise up to meet you. While crowds rush to a megachurch to be entertained, you go to the poor, the obscure, and the forgotten” (pg. 204). He encourages people to drop the pretense of trying to be a “Good Christian” and instead rely on the grace of a God who loves us in our fallen state without slipping into antinomianism. He attacks the failings of the church without being anti-church, more of a Martin Lutheresque reformer than a bitter critic. Suffice to say, if you are an evangelical who is invested in the church you will get mad at what he has to say but you will most likely have to agree that his views are correct. Furthermore, if you are simply someone who despises the church or has left the church with a chip on the shoulder you will not find ammunition in this book to attack Jesus: his goal is to lead people to Jesus, whether they do so in their current church or denomination or not. “..My purpose in writing this book is to talk to you as someone who is willing to follow Jesus, not as someone who has decided to give up on Jesus. You may have given up on a kind of religious experience or a particular kind of institutional religion, but you haven’t given up on Jesus” (pg. 198-199). He does stress the need for community in the Christian faith—which is what the church should be—without insisting that it has to be in the traditional church setting. As he says in the last page of the book (pg. 221), “It is my hope that the time we have spent together will encourage you to keep pursuing Jesus, no matter where you are in your journey. Don’t neglect the search for authentic, Jesus-shaped spirituality.”
If you are involved in a church and yet you sometimes wonder if the church in America, especially the evangelical church, is somehow missing the point, you must read this book. Oh, it will challenge you, it might even enrage you, but you will find that your anger is only because Spencer is pointing out the dirty secrets that we like to keep hidden in the church: that often the church is more interested in promoting the church than it is in glorifying Jesus. Spencer speaks not as an outsider-critic but as an honest insider. At the end of the book you may find yourself more determined than ever to get closer to Jesus and in the process to bring the church closer to Jesus.
Disclaimer: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review, but the thoughts are mine and I am under no obligation to give a favorable review.
You can read an excerpt of the book here: http://waterbrookmultnomah.com/catalog.php?isbn=9780307459176&view=excerpt
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