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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Review of Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer

I became familiar with Michael Spencer’s writing over a year ago found in his blog at Internet Monk. I read an article titled The Coming Evangelical Collapse and found similar thoughts I that I myself have been thinking for a while. Unfortunately, Michael became sick with cancer and died before he could see his book released.  I have read his book and now offer some of my thoughts about it.  This isn’t a thorough review, I offer some observations and ask some questions. I find his writing very thoughtful and unique. He does not regurgitate someone else’s thoughts. He writes what he learned as a Christian pilgrim and offers challenging views on the church.
Michael’s topic is what he calls “Mere Churchianity.”  This title of course mirrors the title of C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity.” But for Michael “churchianity” is “the church-dependent religion.” (186) It is the church as an institution in its various forms and Denominations. This type of “churchianity,” according to Michael, is not what is found in Scripture.  This type of church has left Jesus.  He writes for those who have left or are about to leave the church (or churchianity) offering advice and helping them move to the “Jesus-Shaped spirituality”. These people still believe something (17). They are “God seekers” (18).
One of the big presuppositions of the book is that those leaving the church are seeking some sort of spirituality (18, 63) and Michael offers his thoughts as to why they do this. I do agree that many (Christians?) are leaving the organized church. I do think that some are genuinely seeking the path of Jesus or the Jesus-shaped spirituality. But I can’t agree that most of them are doing this for this reason.  I would have liked to see some actual testimonies as appendices in the book of those who Michael knew that had left or were about to leave the church. This would have added more credibility to this assertion.  I won’t deny that Michael knew of these people first-hand, but I am not fully convinced about it even though I understand and agree that this may be the best these people can do. I also have found myself going from church to church and what I have observed has left me wondering if this is the church that Christ had in mind. What I have observed is the church as an institution but not as an organic movement representing Jesus.  Programs, activities, Bible studies, conferences and positions run the church and not Jesus. The script is there and everyone is expected to follow it. It is very hard to find “Jesus-Shaped spirituality.”
According to Michael, the church has little to do with Jesus and more with being successful and relevant (25). It is like a pecan pie but without the pecans.  The church does not resemble the community Jesus intended for his people. What we need to have according to Michael is “a movement of culture-resisting, church suspicious rebels and Jesus followers who have taken the same view of religion that Jesus took in his denouncements of religious phoniness.” (44) I agree.
For Michael, the solution to the church’s incongruities (with what is and what ought to be) is to get back to Jesus.  We need to go back to the Jesus we find in the New Testament. We need to model our life after his. “The genuine Jesus-follower walks a narrow path with a unique and exclusive Jesus,” (78) according to Spencer. The Jesus follower is concerned about the Kingdom of God, those who are excluded, making disciples the way Jesus did, and sharing the message of Jesus as the only Mediator (ch. 8). The church also needs to get back to reading the Bible. Most churches spoon-feed their parishioners by giving them selected verses but do not encourage personal Bible reading. The Holy Spirit will guide believers as they read the Bible (ch. 10). The church also needs to be real and stop using adjectives such as “victorious” and “successful.”  We need to start realizing our own failures and struggles and stop pretending to be “good Christians” (ch. 11). We are all for hearing from those who have been redeemed by Christ but we don’t want to hear about their struggles as they live the Christian life.  We avoid this at all cost. But for Michael, “The fact is, we’re screwed up.” (141)
Michael writes: “The life of faith is warfare.  I fight. Jesus will finish the work. I will groan and do battle, climbing the mountain of holiness bearing wounds and battle scars.  But I will climb it, since Christ is in me.  The gospel assures victory, eventually.” (148)
The Jesus-shaped spirituality calls us to be honest before God and live an “unscripted” life (107). The community Jesus had in mind, is a community that allows for a “sacred spirituality,” that is done in solitude (181) and not dependent upon the church. But we also foster the relationships we have in the community of believers.  For Michael, this community does not necessarily mean “churchianity” or the organized church. This can happen outside the organized church among the body of believers.  I agree with Michael here as well. But I hardly see any sense of community in the church.  In my opinion, the institution has replaced community. There’s more time for solitude but I doubt we are spending time with God.
According to Michael, a mass exodus of people will leave church (189) due to disillusionment for being misled.  They will no longer be willing to follow the church’s script and instead be true to themselves. They will leave consumer Christianity.  They will move on to a more personal faith, a “designer approach to faith.” (190) Michael offers advice for them: a Jesus-shaped spirituality that is both personal and communal, mentored, saturated with Scripture, growing in the context of service and the gospel and found in relationships (ch. 17).
As I read the book, I found that I agreed with most of what Michael writes.  I have had many of the same observations about Christianity and the church.  I foresee a similar fate to what he observed.  But contrary to Michael, I don’t see many of those leaving the church embracing any spirituality. I am more pessimistic.  I believe God will have to intervene to bring us back to himself.  He may have to be drastic. 
Michael’s view on those leaving the church made me a bit uneasy.  I can see and understand why they do it, but I can also see the danger of leaving. I hope no one thinks he is encouraging anyone to leave the church.  It’s not as easy as it seems. Many will not seek any spirituality and will be sucked into the culture. But for those who understand what Jesus intended for the church to be, who have struggled in it, who sought to change it but have failed, it may be the best option. They will still follow Jesus in solitude and in community with those who have taken the same path but never alone and with much humility.
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