Today’s post will be a mixture of some of my conclusions about Spencer and his book, and some of his own conclusions. First up, I want to say loud and clear that I view Spencer as a dear departed brother in the Lord. I may disagree with him on a number of things- I certainly did with Mere Churchianity, but anyone who can write the following paragraph from the heart should be welcomed as a friend, and not condemned as an enemy. The context for this paragraph was Spencer realizing that partly because of the performance-orientated churches he had attended, and partly due to his own ignorance of Jesus’ true message he had come to the end of himself. Jesus, not Spencer nor you nor I, has really done it all:
He did it all. He traversed the separation. He brought together the unreconcilable. He had paid the debt and had become 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 lovable, 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 Read more at location 2184
Spencer is clear that such an experience of being broken before God is essential, and it is something you can only find on your own. My own conclusion is that he is dead right. We must stand or fall before God alone. It is such a shame that so many Christians today have struggled to even find time to be alone with God. If our Christian faith is only practiced passively as part of a large crowd on a Sunday morning, it is no wonder that we have missed out. But, for all his talk about people being justified in leaving Churches, Spencer did appreciate that as much as we are made for communion with Christ, we are also made for community with each other:
There is something about being human that demands and benefits from being alone, but there is also an aspect to aloneness that we recognize as depriving us of one of the best things about being human: our relationships with other people. We are made for a balance between solitude and community. Read more at location 2814
I do feel that he is again pretty close to the mark when he makes the point that sadly, for many Christians the Church is not providing the community they need. What has gone wrong with the church when we can truthfully say:
Thousands of Christians feel more comfortable in the nonreligious and non-Christian relationships in their lives than in the Christian relationships. I know Christians who have discovered that everything from bars to bowling leagues to AA meetings generate more genuine friendships and unconditional acceptance than many of their experiences of Christian fellowship. Read more at location 2833
As an example of the unreality present, Spencer talks about prayer meetings:
I’ve sat through hundreds of hours of church prayer meetings. You can request prayer for every kind of illness, right down to the gory details of Uncle Todd’s infected toe. If, however, you were to say that you’re struggling financially or your marriage wasn’t going well, the “awkward” buzzer would go off. Or mention that you just found out your son is gay or your daughter is pregnant by her boyfriend, and you’ll feel the “no love” express heading your way. A gay son, pregnant unmarried daughter, financial struggles, or marital strife belongs in the “unspoken request” file. You can raise your hand and indicate you need prayer, but we’d prefer that you not be specific…especially if it’s anything about your real life. Why would someone in a struggling marriage feel they would get more sympathy from members of their bowling league than from people in church? Why would a person struggling with mental illness feel like a freak in her church? Read more at location 2846
Now, I would add a small caveat here. There is wisdom in silence at times, and that must be balanced with our need to share. In a larger group, it often is not appropriate or helpful to share some of these kind of issues. But, one on one, and perhaps in certain smaller groups, we do need opportunities for true transparency with others. Otherwise, as Spencer goes on to say, what begins perhaps as wisely not wanting to air our dirty laundry in public infects everything we say or do with a dirty fake feeling:
In perhaps the most cutting phrases in the whole book, Spencer offers us the following diagnosis of 21st Century Western Christianity. We are, according to him, “mistaking Jesus fandom for Jesus discipleship.” Read more at location 3056. Once again, ouch. He elaborates:
In the early years of the church, if you were baptized and confessed Christ, you were frequently checking to see if your head was still attached to your body. You had relatives in prison, and your last pastor was likely a martyr. If you were revealed to be a worshiper of Jesus, it was considered political treason and led to economic ruin—if not worse. You became a target. Because your beliefs violated both the tradition of emperor worship and the laws of Judaism, you were likely to be blamed for any tragedies or natural disasters. And you didn’t have the option of taking comfort in reading the words of the New Testament. Even if you were literate, if you saw a scroll of one of the Gospels a few times in your life, you were fortunate. In the ancient world, the Jesus-shaped life emerged out of the deep transformation of identity that occurred when a person was declared to be a Christian. It was a high-risk life, so being a fan was not an option. Read more at location 3059
The Jesus-shaped journey runs directly counter to the primary model of Christianity that dominates the West: consumerism and its false promises. Consumer Christianity invites people to buy Christianity one product at a time. We own it. We wear it. We attend it. We benefit from being around it. Christianity belongs to us. It gives us enjoyment, fun, and status. Read more at location 3090
In the end, Spencer’s conclusions about the Church are rather disheartening:
Am I suggesting that all this activity, all this consumption, all these products and events and services don’t work together, along with the power of the Holy Spirit, to make us all better Christians? My answer is simply: Take a look around. What do you think? Read more at location 3108
Is he right? Well, yes and no! Is the church completely hopeless? No! Is God finished with the church? No! Is there any evidence of life and vitality in churches up and down the land? Emphatically yes! Is there more we could do to make disciples? Yes! Are there churches where unreality prevails? Yes! Are there times when the only solution is to leave? Yes! But is the hope for our world still the church? Absolutely, definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, yes!
When I finished reading Spencer’s book I found myself feeling sad. For here was a man who was something of a prophet in our time. He could clearly see where the Church has been going wrong. Like many with such insightful vision, he overstated his point at times. Nevertheless, I am convinced he basically got the diagnosis correct. But, what solutions did he really offer us? He did have some ideas on what discipleship needed to look like. He had stripped back his own faith to a new reliance on Jesus. But short of leaving a church if it was hindering you, he had little other practical advice. Like many who God gives this sort of prophetic insight to, he seemed to have no clear idea of how to fix the problem.
Should you read this book? Well if you want to be shaken from your complacency about the state of the church, then definitely. If you think that everything is going swimmingly with the Church, you do need a wake-up call. This book will provide it for you. If you want to understand the reasons behind many young people’s disillusionment with organized religion this book will also definitely help.
But if you are already depressed about the Church, you might want to skip this book. It won’t really show you the way out. There are a couple of great books that I plan on blogging about very soon that will portray a clear vision of what church can be like. If you already know that the Church has to change, you might want to skip Mere Churchianity, and move straight to them! But I am deeply grateful to God for the life of this man, and for the gift he has given us in this book in which the Internet Monk speaks to us from beyond the grave. I am confident that right now, Michael is “with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:2)