Book Review & Recommendation: Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer

            A few months ago, I wrote about the too-soon Homegoing of my good friend Michael Spencer due to a viciously aggressive cancer. It was too soon for Michael’s family and those of us fortunate enough to call him friend. I often think of picking up the phone for a chat or shooting him an e-mail, only to realize I can’t.  I miss him terribly.

            But it was also too soon for the church of Jesus which he loved and served in many ways, but most broadly through his writing as the Internet Monk (www.internetmonk.com). Michael had a lot of important things to say, and conversations to help us have about the gospel and the things that matter most.  With the posthumous publication of his only book, Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to a Jesus-Shaped Spirituality (Waterbrook, 2010), we get a taste of the things that resonated most in his soul and the journey he faithfully pursued to his final days.

            Mere Churchianity is in many ways classic Michael Spencer writing: irenic, confessional, colorful, pungent, provocative, ruthlessly honest and insistently Gospel-centered.   But to my ear, there is a difference here from the blog writing or at least another flavor is more prominent. This writing is more evidently tender, more pastoral in heart and tone.  Of course, that’s who Michael was by calling.  

            That tone and heart is important to note because Mere Churchianity is a pastoral work.  Michael writes to those who have yet to decide about Jesus because of what they see in His people.  But it is primarily addressed to Christians who love and want to follow Jesus “who may still be associated with the church, but no longer buy into much of what the church says.  Not because they doubt the reality of God, but because they doubt that the church is really representing Jesus… I’m writing to those standing in the foyer of the church, ready to walk out, yet taking one last look around…to those who have left, who will leave, who might as well leave, and those who don’t know why they are still hanging around.”  He is facing head-on the fact that one in four young adults have no connection at all to the local church and that this is a major problem for the future of the evangelical church.

So, on one level, this is a lover’s quarrel with the church. Michael notices that the church, especially in its contemporary evangelical form, is the emperor parading about with no clothes. Behind the church signs that advertise “Jesus is here”, there is a conspicuous absence of the Jesus people are seeking.  In Part 1, Michael calls it The Jesus Disconnect or in a telling metaphor, “making pecan pie without pecans”. Hear the prophetic ring in these words that mark the theme of the book’s first section:

            “ What evangelicals in North America call Christianity is, ironically, largely disconnected from Jesus as He appears in the four Gospels….[it] has evolved into a movement that Jesus would not recognize if he were to show up next Sunday….Evangelicalism has become the sworn enemy of biblical Christianity. Instead, it’s more like a fraternal lodge with its own language, rules, requirements, rituals and secret handshakes….Evangelical churches haven’t lost a culture war of forgotten how to be relevant.  They have become a movement that has so little to do with the centrality of Jesus that many people simply don’t care any longer.  And they aren’t waiting around to see what’s next….”

Ouch.

What’s the core problem?  Well, following Jesus has to look like Jesus, for both individuals and the church. People should be able to look at Christians and know “the way of Jesus, the values of Jesus, and practices of Jesus.” But Michael asserts that much of our normal Christian activity could thrive without Jesus being referenced at all.   Evangelicals have developed a way of expressing our God-given spirituality that is church-shaped, rather than Jesus-shaped. It is “churchianity”.

“What kind of spirituality are many Christians finding on their plates when they go through the spiritual buffet line in the contemporary church? Evangelical Christians have a church-growth spirituality, where the experience of knowing God is shaped by activities of making the church bigger and its facilities more impressive….measured by attendance figures, buildings and budget…a culture war spirituality that produces Christians who might never share their faith, but are ready at a moment’s notice to debate politics, abortion and civil unions for gay people…. a spirituality emphasizing the Christian family as the central community in the Christian life….a spirituality of worship experiences…of prophecy and seeking revival….that endorses the obsessive pursuit of doctrinal and theological precision….of health, wealth and prosperity.  Is the transforming, revolutionary spirituality of Jesus residing in a quest for a bigger church building, a more moral society, a greater emphasis on traditional families or a more detailed doctrinal statement?”  (pp.84-85, emphasis added)

Does he offer a solution?  Yes, and it begins with a fresh look at Jesus himself through Part 2: The Jesus Briefing. If our spirituality is to look, sound, taste, feel, act like Jesus, we need to think clearly and intentionally about him. He is, after all, the source of Christianity.  But again, so many labels / agendas have been attached to Jesus that it takes some excavating to get to the reality of His life, heart and message.

In this section, Michael does a remarkable job of helping the average Christian wade through the most pressing and troublesome questions about the nature of Jesus. There are assumptions about Jesus in the culture, in academia and in the church that are vastly different from the Jesus the New Testament presents.  It may seem basic to some, but this is crucial thinking, if for no other reason than to review layers that have been added to our own thinking about Jesus.  Michael has obviously studied the thorny questions at play in contemporary academic debates about Jesus, but finds a way to address them without getting bogged down in technical theological language. He does the same with the themes of Jesus’ life and teaching:  the primacy of the Kingdom of God, radical inclusion of the excluded, attention to producing disciples, Jesus as the only mediator between God and man, and the movement by which his followers proclaim and live out the gospel.

Reviewing these basics may help reacquaint us with the compelling, wonder-full Jesus. “Jesus is completely unlike most of the stuff that Christians try to stick on Him.  Like it or not, the message about Jesus is distinctive, electric and stunning, because there’s nothing else like it.  He is the Way, the Door, the One, and there is no one else who even comes close.”  (p.80)

Interaction with the unique Jesus produces unique lives, and that’s where Michael heads in Part 3: The Jesus Life. In many ways, this is the heart of the book, because it is essentially about making disciples.  One of the best ways to draw Christians towards this life is to simply set them loose with the Bible.    Strong teaching is helpful, but “the greater good has to be the dynamic of God, one person and the text of Scripture…tak[ing] the risk of letting people seek God without constant supervision” (p.121, 123) The Holy Spirit dealing with one Christian in God’s Word can be earth-shaking because it will always leads to encountering this soul-freeing truth:

                                  “the Christian life is an expression of the gospel” (p.134)

That is one of the simplest and most profound statements Michael writes, and it opens a gushing spring of Jesus-delighting, gospel-saturated, chain-breaking truth that simply washes the soul with Jesus. The chapters on walking away from attempts being a “good” Christian and authentically admitting our weakness (not-togther-ness) as a means of soul survival are worth the price of the book.  They have the Biblical seeds of gospel revolution in them.  Listen:

“…the truth that Jesus is the one Mediator between God and human beings knocked me to the floor and suspended me over the truth that God had done all things necessary for my salvation.  I could stop looking for the secret key, and I could ditch the quest to demonstrate that I was a Christian hero. I was humbled as I looked at a universe of grace that filled my empty soul with the love of God in Jesus.

He did it all.  He traversed the separation.  He brought together the unreconcilable.  He had paid the debt and became the necessary sacrifice.  He had loved me to the uttermost.  He had given all this to me as a gift.  I had nothing to offer, nothing to contribute, nothing to do but simply stop ignoring his gift and receive it.  I was a drowning man whose rescue depended on stopping all efforts to swim and trusting Someone who was not going to make me a better swimmer, but who would drown in my place.  This experience did more than give me a racing heartbeat.  It demolished the idea that I could be anything other than what I was: a broken, sinful, wounded, failing, hurting human being.  To try to become something else was an affront to God’s love for me.  To try to make myself presentable or acceptable made me less capable of receiving the simple gift of Jesus’ mediation on my behalf.

Jesus was not clearing the road so I could ride victoriously through life.  He was becoming the road that would carry me through all the garbage, falls, failures and disasters that were the inevitable results of my existence.  In trying to make myself loveable, I had been distancing myself from true love.  In pretending to be a leading candidate for the religious life, I was abandoning the life of grace.  In seeking to be a good Christian, I was deserting the truth that there is no gospel for “good” Christians, because the Lamb of God was nailed to an altar for those who are not good and who are no good at pretending to be good.” (p.134-135)

So, instead of faking it until we make it and lying to one another about how strong our walk with Jesus is (the sort of performance-based walk that will kill us),   we simply “fall down…get up…and believe. Over and over.” This moves us away from church-based versions of disciple-making that are largely built on a classroom-based, information dump model. Instead it presses us towards the dynamic of simply walking with Jesus through our everyday lives as they come.  What that means is that Jesus-shaped disciple-making cannot be done as a cookie-cutter franchise.  Every disciple will look different, precisely because Jesus has created them to be so.  That enables us to be brutally honest about where we are and where we are not at any moment, because we are simply trusting Jesus and his gospel to help us take one more step.

That also means that we cannot do this life alone.  In Part 4, Michael invites Jesus’ people to be involved with The Jesus Community. One of the criticisms of Mere Churchianity from some has been that Michael is actively encouraging people to leave the church and pursue faith as an individual quest, or saying that the church is unnecessary for spiritual formation.  He is doing neither, but he is open to the idea that some may need to step away from the distortions of the institutional church for a season in order to follow Jesus more faithfully. 

Still, being Jesus-shaped requires being shaped by Jesus’ people in a community that engages the Scriptures, mentors one another, serves the Kingdom in the world by the gospel, and embraces the depth of honest relationships—together.  Such a community helps disciples wrestle with this profound question: “If I spent three years with Jesus, how would I think about ________, feel regarding ____________, act in _____________ situation?  Ultimately, all of this ties back to mission—Jesus’ mission of spreading the borders of God’s kingdom and making disciples of all nations. 

Mere Churchianity is an important contribution to the conversation that the evangelical church must have if we hope to still be a viable alternative for the spiritual quests of people in the coming decades.  It should be read and discussed by pastors and their people, used by small groups and in other settings. 

With his last words, Michael reminds us that people are still searching and Jesus is still the answer, but it is Jesus to whom we must relentlessly point and it is gracious Jesus we must passionately follow with our minds, emotions, and actions. Thanks, my friend.

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