By Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk
Michael Spencer has noticed that many people are leaving institutional churches and not coming back. Those in the church decry those abandoning her as abandoning Jesus and being under the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Most of the people who are leaving are doing so not because they have abandoned Jesus, but because they love him.
Spencer notes how the Evangelical church in America seems to have abandoned the Jesus of Scripture for a shallow, feel-good, prosperity-oriented Jesus. Such a Jesus isn’t very satisfying. He accuses many in the modern Evangelical church of creating a “church-shaped spirituality” instead of encouraging their members to pursue a “Jesus-shaped spirituality.”
Throughout his book, Spencer focuses on what he calls “Jesus-shaped spirituality.” He shows how a person should pursue Jesus, not church programs (though the two can and sometimes do overlap). He encourages both private and corporate worship opportunities. He also encourages those who find that their churches pursue “fake Jesuses” to leave their church. Find some other opportunity to worship Jesus; it is obvious your church is more interested in pursuing its own agenda rather than being disciples of Christ.
This book was not written to me or for me. Spencer is up-front with his target audience: He is talking to those who are dissatisfied with their churches. He is speaking to those who have left or are considering leaving the church, but not Jesus.
He addresses what he calls “the organized church” throughout the book. Especially near the beginning of the book, he seems opposed to organized religion in general, but as he continues to describe and refine what he is standing against, it is clear he is complaining about the form of the church that he is most familiar: Evangelical Christianity. While I recognize Spencer is attempting to broaden his audience as much as possible, it would have been nice if he were more up-front with the target of his complaints. Many of his complaints simply do not apply to other groups. However, I do believe even small church bodies who do not at the moment suffer from “church-shaped spirituality” could learn much from this book.
What appealed to me:
Without ever using the terminology, Spencer often refers to the Theology of the Cross. This theology, in a nutshell, says that just as Christ suffered on earth, so will his followers. However, this suffering does not mean God does not love us; rather, God uses this suffering to bring him glory and to strengthen us. Our lives on earth as Christians will never be easy, but just as Jesus rose on Easter morning, we will rise on the last day to glory.
Spencer notes that many Evangelical groups, particularly those who at least seem to have the biggest churches and the best book contracts, have abandoned any note of suffering, but sell a Jesus that will bring you your best purpose-driven life now. Such a Jesus simply doesn’t appear in the Bible! Jesus promises suffering!
It was refreshing to see such a proclamation outside the circles I usually travel in for my theological reading. Spencer doesn’t sugar-coat the truth that Christians suffer. He addresses the myth of the “victorious Christian” as it is often explained in Evangelical circles: the idea that a Christian is always smiling, his life is always great, and he always feels a direct connection to the divine. In reality, Christians are often troubled, perplexed, and beaten down, though never defeated, and the author recognizes this. Spencer encourages those who find trouble being broken people at their own church buildings to find a group of Christians with whom they can be true: they can express their concerns and worries and find acceptance and encouragement.
I appreciate Spencer’s candor in dealing with the Theology of the Cross, but I find things that I cannot accept in the book.
Spencer encourages people to get to know Jesus. He states that the Bible is the “primary” way to do this. He allows that the Holy Spirit may bring a revelation that even goes contrary to Scripture. He cites Peter’s vision in Acts 10 as an example of God going against Scripture. In this vision, God tells Peter that if he has made something clean, Peter should not designate it unclean – in this way, God showed Peter it was time to tell gentiles about Jesus. However, Spencer believes this is God actually going against Old Testament Scripture. He says that if the Holy Spirit were to reveal something to you, even if it is contrary to what the Bible says, you should obey the Spirit. As someone who has worked with the mentally disturbed, I can tell you that this is not just theologically fishy, but actually a dangerous statement to make.
Spencer also encourages those who have left their churches because of a lack of Jesus to find a group of like-minded Christians who do pursue Jesus. If you’ve given up trying to “fix” your church, leave and look for similar Christians. I find it a bit disappointing that Spencer never suggests Christians should stay at their churches and attempt to proclaim the truth there, nor does he give any sort of indication when someone should give up and look elsewhere for the truth. However, given that he speaks specifically to those who have already given up, it does make sense that he would focus on those already gone.
What sort of thing should these searchers look for? Spencer seems to poo-poo any sort of theological or confessional evaluation of churches. He accepts his wife’s Roman Catholicism as well as his own Baptist beliefs. Rather than focus on doctrine, people should evaluate what a church does. Are they reaching out to the lost? Do they help the poor? Do they form true relationships with each other? Rather than pointing to a preaching of sin and forgiveness, law and gospel, he points to how developed outward sanctification is.
This man is a bit of an odd mix. He quotes Luther several times; for instance, Spencer defines church as “wherever the word is preached and the sacraments are administered” (he dubiously drops the adverb “rightly”). He knows that people need Jesus. He devotes a chapter to the forgiveness Jesus brings. He states that we need daily forgiveness. He says that our sanctified living should flow from the recognition that we are forgiven. He encourages regular independent Bible study as well as corporate Bible study. Then he spends several chapters showing how churches have failed to teach these things.
However, after he plunks down these great teachings, he spends several chapters on Christian Discipleship. He says that being a Christian is something we do, not something we are. Unless we are “doing” discipleship, we are not Christian. He ignores that a being a Christian means having faith; actions go with that, but do not define a Christian. While it is true that we naturally produce fruits of repentance, these fruits do not make us disciples any more than an apple tree is an apple tree only when it produces apples.
I wonder how correct Spencer is when he says that those who are leaving the church are leaving because they are not finding Jesus. I am sure that for at least some it is true. I am also certain that there are many who leave church because of relatively petty problems (“We wish there were more youth programs.”) and because of straight-out rejection (“I can’t believe he said that only Christians will be in heaven!”). He is speaking of a church population I am not as familiar with, so I simply do not know if I can agree with his evaluation of the matter. I’d like to think in the churches I am most familiar with Jesus is proclaimed faithfully, so those leaving to search for Jesus would be best served to search where they are.
Whether or not you believe your church preaches Jesus faithfully, I do believe the book may be very useful. Spencer asks some good questions, and while I disagree with at least some of his answers, I find the questions worthy of consideration. Read the book with discernment and perhaps with a mature Christian and definitely a good helping of Scripture to help find answers to the questions which Spencer raises.
Whether or not you read the book, it encourages something I hope your church encourages: Pursue Jesus on your own as well as with a group of Christians. Know Jesus not only through the filter of your church, but also because you walk with him every day in Scripture. Be shaped not only by what your church teaches, but know the Bible, know Jesus, and make sure your church agrees with what is taught there.
Legal nuts and bolts: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.