Fretting is a worldly habit, not a Christian virtue. Nevertheless, I have been fretting about how to review the recently released book by Michael Spencer (the Internet Monk). Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality (WaterBrook, 2010) is Michael’s long-overdue, first and only book. Its release is filled with pathos, since the Lord took him home just a couple months before he could have held a copy in his hands.
Michael’s book is much like his blog. Parts of it made me want to shout for joy, open my Bible, and remember all the reasons why I love Jesus. Parts of it made me want to tear my hair out and say, Are you serious? The Internet Monk always succeeded in eliciting some kind of reaction from his readers.
Because Michael was a friend to me and a source of encouragement in the blogosphere, I am grateful for his life and work. Because the Lord saw fit to take him home so early (at least according to human understanding), I am torn by how best to review this book.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Michael wanted to start a discussion. He would have been more offended at the thought that I avoided serious critical interaction with his book than he would have been offended by my critique. And though I grieve the fact that he isn’t here to respond to my pushback, I am confident that serious conversation would be his desire. So that’s what I hope this review will provide.
Michael’s main point is to call us back to Jesus and away from “churchianity”, the kind of spirituality that is church-centered, but looks nothing like Jesus Christ. When the church becomes a place for like-minded people to rally the troops and put on smiles that mask the hidden reality of sin and brokenness, the church becomes an obstacle to true spiritual growth for people who love Jesus and want to be formed into his image.
What’s the solution? Get back to Jesus. Be challenged by his life, his teaching, and the meaning of his death and resurrection.
I want to add an “Amen” to large portions of this book. It’s true that Christians often don’t look like Jesus. I’m always befuddled to find people who claim to follow Jesus yet know next to nothing about his life. Our marginalization of Jesus opens the door for groups to co-opt him for their pet causes.
So Michael’s main solution is right. Go back to the Gospels. You’ll find the real Jesus within the pages of the Scriptures. Listen to what he said. Watch what he did. Trust in the Jesus-centered gospel. Don’t settle for anything less than a Jesus-shaped life. Michael’s illustrations brilliantly buttress his point. (Example: Sometimes, our churches are like pecan pies without pecans. We advertise Jesus, but he’s not there.)
Likewise, Michael rightly critiques the prosperity gospel and the “health-and-wealth” teaching that seeps into even the most conservative evangelical churches. Other authors (such as Michael Horton) have provided critique from a theological perspective. Spencer’s critique comes from a pastoral point of view, wherein he shows how hurtful the prosperity teaching is.
By far, the best chapter in the book is “It’s a Bad Idea to Be A Good Christian.” Michael’s embrace of the Lutheran emphasis on justification is recounted in a poignant and pastorally sensitive manner.
Before I get to my critique, let me also mention the great number of pithy quotes in this book. The Internet Monk’s work is eminently tweetable:
- The life of faith is a battle fought in weakness and brokenness. The only soldiers are wounded ones.
- God is the Sun too bright for us to see. Jesus is the Prism who makes the colors beautiful and comprehensible.
- What speaks more loudly of grace: your theological definition of the word “grace” or the tip you leave at dinner?
- Some Christians claim biblical authority, while only telling you what they have decided in advance what the Bible has to say.
- Ask yourself this question: If I were to spend three years with Jesus, what kind of person would I be?
- Jesus-shaped spirituality is cross-centered and Christ-centered. The good news of the kingdom is that the King died to save us.
- Jesus isn’t looking for admirers. He’s enlisting followers.
- Evangelicals have invented a spirituality that has Jesus on the cover but not in the book.
Now that I’ve praised the best parts of this book, it’s time to turn to my main problem with Mere Churchianity. I can sum it up in one phrase: pitting a Jesus-shaped spirituality against a church-shaped spirituality.
I understand why Michael goes in this direction. I feel the same frustration. Yes, organized Christianity has major problems. Just about everything that Michael critiques needs to be critiqued. We need to ask the questions that Michael asks.
But how does leaving the church help the church? How is it spiritually healthy to leave the church? How does leaving the church make us more Jesus-shaped?
Throughout Mere Churchianity, Michael’s view of the church goes back and forth like a yo-yo. He insists on the importance of community and yet also insists on the legitimate option of leaving the church as an institution. So, even though he remains within a church (and speaks well of his fellow church members), he doesn’t blame church-leavers at all and practically encourages them to head out the door.
Michael wants genuine community, but he divorces that idea from the church as an institution in a way that is impractical and unhelpful. Here are some examples:
“For many of you, leaving the church may have been the most spiritually healthy thing you ever did.” (57)
“Jesus-shaped spirituality has nothing to do with churchianity. Following Jesus does not require you to pledge allegiance to a religious insitution.” (6)
“Am I saying the people who left the church are in the right? I’m saying I don’t blame them at all.” (26)
“If someone doesn’t find Jesus inside an established church and chooses to leave, what is gained by labeling that person as carnal, or spiritually immature, or out of fellowship with God? I trust individual Christians – including those who have left the institutional church or are on the verge of leaving – to know where God wants them to be.” (212)
“Life as a Jesus-follower grows out of Jesus and the gospel, not out of the church.” (152)
I suppose the main reason I scratch my head at Michael’s encouragement to leave the organized church is because he is so gloriously right on the gospel for the individual. I am at a loss to understand why he fails to extrapolate that same teaching when it comes to the church.
For example, Michael rightly teaches that the gospel is for people who recognize they are messed up, rebellious, sinful, broken and dysfunctional. Christianity is for the losers, for the people who recognize their need for salvation outside of themselves. So far so good.
But let’s engage in a bit of logic. If churches are organized groups of these messed up, broken, dysfunctional people, why in the world would we expect the church to always live up to some unattainably high ideal? I’m not saying we shouldn’t shoot high. I’m not saying we should be satisfied with Christless churches. But surely Michael should give groups of broken people (churches) the same patience he gives individual broken people.
So in the end, I want to say, “Michael, you’re right about individual Christians. We’re broken, wounded, sinful and selfish. So why can’t you see that churches are going to be that way too? Please don’t encourage broken people to leave churches that are broken! Just as we need Jesus in us as individuals to slowly remake us into his image, we need Jesus-filled people in churches if there is any hope for the church to reflect the glory of Christ to the world.”
If Christ remains committed to us – as broken and messed up as we are – why would we not remain committed to his followers? Why would we bolt out the door when our church experience becomes a hassle? What looks more like Jesus – to hit the road? Or to stay with a congregation through thick and thin, through good and bad?
Michael thinks the church’s problems are an obstacle to Jesus-shaped spirituality. I think the opposite: commitment to bear with the church’s problems is the method by which we become more Jesus-shaped.
I share Michael’s craving for a strong presence of Kingdom focus and missional thinking in the Church. This desire is a God-given holy discontentment. Dissatisfaction should stretch our faith and stir our imaginations. But denigrating the church because of its shortcomings ultimately undermines the cause of Christ in the world.
Though no local church is perfect, and the universal Church often looks more like a cheating spouse than a faithful bride, we are to identify myself with this bungling bunch of believers. The church is home. The church is God’s beloved. The church has been bought with precious blood. Though the presence of the Kingdom is not as intensely felt in the church as I would like, it is the sign of the Kingdom in this age, faults and all. And if Jesus is content to give his life for an unruly Church, we should seek satisfaction in serving his church – warts and all.
In the end, I don’t want to divorce Jesus-shaped spirituality from church-shaped spirituality. I want to see these two spiritualities become one and the same. I think Michael would agree, except that I believe leaving bypasses the cross. Committing to love fault-filled people we’ve identified with through baptism is the way to see Jesus-shaped spirituality become a reality.