Sunday, February 6, 2011

Blogging for Books - Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer

Last December I sat in the drop-in tutor office at San Diego State, waiting for students to come in to ask for help.  In a three-hour block of time, I usually see two or three students, and the rest of the time I grade papers, do homework, check facebook, and read email, most of which is junk.  (I enter a lot of contests.)

One email in particular was very interesting.  Multnomah Press offers free books to bloggers.  All I have to do is promise to write a review and they will send me a free book.  I can get another one after I post the review on their website.  Wow.

Sadly, it took me six weeks to finish the book and start the review, but I also celebrated Christmas, went on vacation, and planned a curriculum.  I would like to say all my time has been constructive, but that would be a lie.

At any rate, here I am.

The book I chose was:  Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality by Michael Spencer.

As an aside, it turns out that Spencer started a blog, which became wildly successful, which led him to publish this book.  And it also turns out that Spencer passed away from cancer right before the book was released.

I chose this book because Spencer asks a question I ask all the time.  Why do people leave the church?  Why do people who grow up in church quit going?  Why do people who start going quit going?  Why do people just walk away?

He begins with a few examples.  A young woman in search of spirituality discovered that people her age don't share her spiritual hunger.  They also don't seem to care that she is there. For them, church is about having fun.  Including making huge messes in a restaurant where she worked and then not leaving tips.

I know people who leave for those reasons.  No one reaches out to them.  Talks to them.  Church seems like an exclusive country club they can't get an invitation to.

Spencer notes that others feel politically marginalized.  They don't identify themselves as Republications, but apparently Jesus loves the United States more than any other country.  And he's a Republican.  Or he would be if he could register to vote.  And he loves free markets.  The freer the better.

And I know people who leave for this reason too.  They say that Jesus cares as much about feeding the poor as he does about saving unborn babies from abortion.  And they note that free market capitalism often takes advantage of the poor, who Jesus loved.

But these are not the focus of Mere Churchianity.  These are simply example of a failure to promote what Spencer calls "Jesus-shaped spirituality."

He argues that Jesus is largely missing from our churches.  Instead of focusing on who Jesus is and what he says, we focus on what our churches say.  He claims that "North American Christianity may have the distinction of having promised more of God and delivered less of God than any single act on the stage of church history" (62).

These are bold claims, and Spencer provides multiple examples that illustrate these claims.  I've been in church my entire life, and I see it over and over.  We judge people who are different than we are.  It's difficult to be authentic and transparent, about addictions, struggles with marriage, rebellious children, doubts, and failures to live anything less than a totally "victorious Christian life."

Spencer observes that churches promise friendship and love.
We think everyone else has those friendships.  And yet, we may find ourselves lonely.
We get afraid that if anyone knew us, really knew us, they would be disappointed.

He suggests it is easier to get involved in ministries and events than it is to truly seek God.  It's easier to jump into church-shaped spirituality than undergo the radical and often difficult life-church with Jesus-shaped spirituality.

And so, Spencer claims, people walk away from church.  Disappointed.  Tired of the hype.  Churches promise a lot.  And rarely deliver.  Most of these people still desire God.  They still want to know Jesus.  But the Church of Jesus Christ has failed to be a place to find him.

Spencer urges people to seek Jesus.  And to find spiritual community.  In the church or out of it.

I know people who leave for exactly these reasons.  But I know more that leave because life is hard.  Because life is busy and seeking God is hard.  I watch them come back, broken, longing for God's presence, longing for spiritual community.  They've tried it on their own, and they find that it does work.  For better or worse, we need each other.

Some of them never come back.

And so I see Spencer's book as a challenge to the Church of Jesus Christ, a reminder to keep Jesus at the forefront of all we do as a church as well as a challenge to let Jesus shape the way we do church.

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