Mere Churchianity, by Michael Spencer (LentBooks 2012 #5)

I’d never read Michael Spencer’s blog, Internet Monk, before his untimely death in 2010, but I’ve heard a lot of recommendations for this book, so I finally decided to pick it up. Subtitled, “FindingYyour Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality,” the book is aimed mainly at those who have become disillusioned with church and specifically with the American evangelical subculture, yet who still retain, or want to retain, a faith in Jesus.

As such, I wasn’t really the book’s target audience, although I certainly share many of Spencer’s critiques of American evangelicalism (Spencer was a Baptist pastor for many years) and recognize many of the same shortcomings in the Adventist subculture. Spencer begins the book with a story about a Baptist youth group behaving badly at Dairy Queen one night after a youth group meeting, leading a non-Christian staff member to write him a letter chastising the young Christians for not reflecting the spirit of Jesus. I’m sure the same scenario could have played out on many a Saturday night in the fast-food joint nearest to most Adventist academies and college campuses. All of us professed Christians, Spencer argues, are very much in love with our church culture, with acting churchy and behaving in ways that promote what he calls “churchianity” but may have very little to do with Jesus.

Spencer does a good job at pointing out the disconnect between church culture and the Jesus we claim to follow. I think he’s a bit weaker on the prescriptive part — what does “Jesus-shaped spirituality” actually look like, and how do we keep the pursuit of a “Jesus shaped” life from becoming just another exercise in being, or seeming, “good”? Maybe the reason the later part of the book didn’t connect with me is because I’m not quite the target audience: I agree with many of Spencer’s critiques but come at them (as he probably did himself) from the perspective of someone still every much invested in the church and in church culture, who wants to know how we can make it better. The two things I took away from his vision of Jesus-shaped spirituality were certainly things I need in my spiritual life: humility and honesty.

In Spencer’s view, a Jesus-shaped spirituality consists not of going to church and doing churchy things so you can fit in with the club: it consists of being honest about your brokenness and reaching out to other people in theirs — reaching out, it should be added, in the real-world context of where you live and work, rather than through church “outreach” programs. Some will criticize his vision as placing too much emphasis on the individual and too little on the community, but it’s important to remember here that he’s speaking to people who believe the Christian community has failed them — and he agrees that it has.

Michael Spencer was certainly an engaging and readable writer with a message that needed to be heard. As with anyone who dies too young, it’s a shame he didn’t have more time to share his insights.

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