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    Book Review: Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer

    March 30, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    Let me start by saying that I wanted to like this book. I empathize with Spencer {better known as the Internet Monk, may he rest in peace}. I spent most of my twenties experiencing what I can only call Church Angst. Sometimes, I still have Church Angst. All of this to say: I understand what it is like to be frustrated, confused, or worried about the state of the evangelical church.

    With that said, I haven’t experienced any church trauma. I’ve met people who were raised in abusive, controlling churches. I really think that is a whole other discussion, and I don’t think that Spencer is trying to tackle that sort of situation. I think the book is making two main arguments: (1) many evangelical churches spend more time being a part of, indulging, and chasing after the culture around them than following Jesus and (2) the people who leave such churches {and not necessarily to go to another church} are not necessarily leaving Jesus.

    My problem with this book is that I don’t really think it helps this situation at all, except perhaps to “raise awareness” of certain problems, or comfort Christians who are really uncomfortable in their churches with the knowledge that they are not alone.

    I could list off my many criticisms, both major and minor, but I’m not sure it’d be helpful. Instead, I’m going to try and boil all of this down to one super-huge point of disagreement I have with the author, and that is his choice to divide Jesus and Church in order to make his argument.

    Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped SpiritualitySpencer spends a lot of time talking about Jesus, and building a decent, basic, orthodox Christology. He quotes chapter and verse {in his footnotes} to explain where he’s getting his points. But he doesn’t do this for the Church. Instead, he makes sweeping {and I admit—sometimes very true} generalizations about evangelical church culture. This should not be a substitute for building a decent, basic, orthodox ecclesiology with which to compare his criticisms.

    The closest he gets to making a truth statement about the Church is to say that she is called to make disciples. True enough, of course. Like a lot of times in the book, Spencer starts out great, but then veers off into dangerous territory in regard to the church:

    Following Jesus…is about where God has placed you. It is about your relationships, your gifts…, your stewardship of possessions, and your particular map of Kingdom territory. You have a mission from your King. The church is called to serve and resource you as you live the Jesus-filled life in the world. {emphasis mine}

    If every member of the church were being “served and resourced,” there would be no one to do the serving and resourcing, now would there? Obviously there is more to this church thing than just being supported in my own personal ministry angle.

    Spencer claims the Church doesn’t spend much time scouring the Scriptures to make sure they are really following Jesus. The trouble is, in most problem {whether they know it or not} churches I’ve sat in, they’d do well to scour the Scriptures and discover not only who Jesus is, but also what the Church is.

    Let’s briefly look at what Scripture says about the Church:

    I’m not saying that the Church is not about the business of making disciples, but that there is so much more to it than that.

    Because Spencer neglected to explore what God reveals about the Church in His Word, I am not surprised that he didn’t have much advice for folks who want to leave the church at the end. He makes nebulous statements like “go among the poor.” I agree that Jesus was often found among the poor, but the Church is the body of believers, so it matters whether those poor people or saved or not {as he is implying this can replace church}, which is something Spencer never mentions. A life of service doesn’t negate the need for participation in, and connection to, the Body of Christ.

    There are other problems in the book, like the time he misinterprets Scripture, and then excuses himself by saying something like, “contextual considerations aside…” which seems to imply that he has decided to force his own meaning upon the passage, a dangerous path to start down, to be sure.

    I think Spencer definitely makes his case that evangelicalism is seriously lacking in some areas. Sometimes, he makes the case so strongly that he’s just plain mean and unfair to the sweet believers I walk with through life.

    I’ve spent many years searching for a good book on the Church Problem. Unfortunately, after reading Mere Churchianity, I find the need to continue looking.


    Note: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for the purpose of this review. If you have the time, I’d love for you to rank my review over at Blogging for Books. Just click the icon at right.

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  • Reply Charlotte Mason in the City April 1, 2011 at 5:12 am

    Really great review – I like a book review that is meaty and interesting like this. Thank you.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts March 31, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Whoops…I meant children’s Sunday School.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts March 31, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    By the way…Just to clarify to any readers: I think that Spencer’s books has some merit. He definitely asks some questions that should be asked. One that comes to mind off of the top of my head is, “Can discipleship really be accomplished through a six-week class on spiritual disciplines?” This is one where I liked his answer, which was basically NO, and then explaining that Jesus discipled people by living alongside them. I’m not against classes at church (my husband teaches one and I think it’s great), but definitely it is important to remember that they are not substitutes for the things we are called to. They are more like enhancements, or focused help along the way. 🙂 Spencer’s point was that churches created discipleship classe to replace traditional discipleship, which is unacceptable. This is sort of in line with my theory on Sunday School, that–at least in present day–it serves to replace the traditional family discipleship.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts March 31, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    B4B, I really like your thoughts here! Just so you know: I checked on PBS, and there was a copy of Bingham’s book available, so I ordered it. 🙂 It might be a while until it gets here, but it looks like I’ll have my own copy pretty soon. Thanks again for the recommendation. 🙂

  • Reply Books For Breakfast March 31, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    I agree that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with some modern practices, such as passing the plate, but I believe everyone should know where our practices come from and know why they originated. That way we can be less passionate and insistant about some of our trappings. When things such as cause division within the body, then they become very wrong.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts March 31, 2011 at 12:49 am

    B4B, Thank you! I will definitely put that book on my list. I totally agree with you that the problems are cumulative, and not easily solved. I actually considered going through the book chapter by chapter and pointing some of that out. For instance, he discusses the issue of asking Jesus to come into your heart critically, but never mentions that this remains from the Great Awakening (out of which was born some of the most notable cults). Or his criticism that he was told that God’s kingdom was only future, which contradicts specific parts of the NT (an idea popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible and scarcely over 100 years old). What I thought he failed to miss was that a pastor preaching one of these things might be very genuine, and yet a product of history and/or bad theology. This means that the solution would also need to be part theology, and not just practice.

    Like I said…I wanted to like this book! I think it’s very helpful for churches to have teased out the essentials. I don’t completely disagree with adding things (for istance, passing a collection plate), as long as we all agree it’s a nonessential, and can be subtracted if it causes problems.

    I look forward to reading Bingham!

  • Reply Books For Breakfast March 31, 2011 at 12:03 am

    In our Sunday School class, we are studying Church history, beginning with the early church. A collegue of our teacher, a professor of Christian Theology, has written a book, The Pocket History of The Church (by Jeffrey Bingham) that gives a person a starting point to begin studying on the Church Problem. I don’t think an adequate book has been written on this subject because the problem is so much bigger than what most people would think. We, as modern evangelicals, are products of history. Not everything that is tangled up in our practices, is distinctly Christian. Such as alter calls, choirs, protracted emotional public prayers, and passing the colleciton plate. Much of this is left over from methods born of the Second Great Awakening. The book provides no commentary as to why the church is the way it is today. It just provides a good starting place, with suggested readings if a person would want to dig deeper. The problem is so complex, and the only way to solve it is to go back to the way the church was in the beginning.

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