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Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality
by Michael Spencer

Reviewed by Matt Edwards

 

In Mere Churchianity, Michael Spencer (aka The Internet Monk) urges those wounded by the church to return to a Jesus-shaped spirituality. Writing primarily to those who have left or are leaving the church, Spencer urges his readers to forget the idols of megachurches, superpastors, prosperity preaching, culture wars, patriotism, moralism, and conformity, and look for the God who is Jesus. For those familiar with Spencer’s writing, the book is classic iMonk.

Hundreds of thousands read Spencer’s blog, www.internetmonk.com. In 2009, his Christian Science Monitor article, “The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” became an internet sensation and catapulted him to the national spotlight, landing him television and radio attention and a book deal. Mere Churchianity would have been the first of many books written by the prophet from Appalachia, were it not for his tragic death in April 2010 of a brain tumor. We lost a great man.

I am hesitant to review Mere Churchianity because of the timing of its release and of Spencer’s death. I don’t want people to misunderstand me. Before “The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” Spencer’s next project was to be the search for Jesus-shaped spirituality. It seemed that Spencer’s deconstructive journey through the post-evangelical wilderness drove him to a Jesus-shaped reconstruction. Given the theme and subtitle of the book, it feels like the consummation of his ministry as Internet Monk. Undoubtedly this would not have been the case, but given the timing of its release with his death, it feels like it is.



All of this is to say that this
is a review of Mere Churchianty, not of Spencer’s life or ministry. That
review is someone else’s to write. I was (and continue to be) a faithful reader
of his blogs. I would even call them “life-changing” for me. I emailed him a
couple of times, listened to his podcast, 
and even contributed some articles for a series he called “The
Evangelical Untouchables” (think Eliot Ness), but I never talked to him. I am
not qualified to write about the legacy of the Internet Monk, so please, read
this as a review of the book, not the man.

Mere Churchianity is
written to people who have either left the church or who are leaving the
church. He opens with a story from his early days as a youth pastor, taking his
group to a Dairy Queen after a long Sunday of church activities. The students
were loud, obnoxious, and destructive, and he later received a letter from one
of the Dairy Queen employees. She lambasted Spencer for allowing his group to
behave so selfishly, uncaring about how their behavior affected others or about
who had to clean up after them. She also let him know that she was a member of
his church and had recently become an atheist. She wrote, “Christians like you
have convinced me that God is a myth, an excuse used by religious people to
mistreat others. As long as there are people like you and your youth group,
I’ll never come to church or believe in God again.” (2)

In his youth, Spencer wrote the
girl off as a disgruntled atheist looking for someone to blame for her
problems. In his older age, he realized that there was more to the story than
the girl let on. He recognized an unwritten subtext to her letter, “You see,
Mr. Spencer, even though I’ve left the church and the faith you are pushing, I
still know a bit about Jesus. Christianity ought to be about Jesus, and with
you, it’s not. . . . If Christians were at all about Jesus . . . then I might
have some hope again that the church isn’t full of liars.” (6)

Spencer came to realize the
truth in the girl’s words. Christians should be about Jesus. At Dairy Queen,
Spencer and his youth group weren’t about Jesus; they were arrogant,
ungracious, unloving, and confident that God was on their side. He writes, “The
girl working behind the counter pointed all this out to me more than three
decades ago, but I wasn’t listening. Today I am paying attention, and this book
is my repentance.” (7) 

The theme of Mere Churchianity
is that, because most American evangelical churches have abandoned Christianity
for churchianity, post-evangelicals need not leave Jesus, even if they have
left the church. Churchianity is Christianity without Jesus. Like a pecan pie
without pecans, most churches have little to nothing to do with Jesus, even if
they have a big sign out front proclaiming “Jesus is here.”

The problem, according to
Spencer, is that most evangelical churches care more about numbers, budgets,
celebrity, influence, culture wars, or patriotism than they do about Jesus. The
solution, according to Spencer, is return to a Jesus-shaped spirituality. How
do we distinguish the real Jesus from false Jesuses? The Scriptures (83, 118).
What can we know about Jesus? Jesus really existed (85), Jesus was Jewish (85),
Jesus was a part of an oppressed people (86), Jesus accepted the Old Testament,
but reinterpreted it as about him (88), and Jesus is God incarnate (89). What
does it look like to follow Jesus? Following Jesus means proclaiming the gospel
of the kingdom of God, encouraging discipleship, and witnessing to the presence
of the kingdom (102). Discipleship includes knowing God as Father, experiencing
forgiveness, following Jesus in community, and participating in the mission of
the church (100).

One of the more provocative
ideas in Mere Churchianity is the role that Spencer gives “the church”
in Jesus-shaped spirituality. On the one hand, Spencer agrees with Luther that
“the church” is where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are
administered (212). So, two Jesus-followers meeting over coffee does not
qualify as a “church.” On the other hand, he questions whether “only the most
self-defined, formally recognized institutions get to make the call on what
qualifies as Jesus’ movement.” (212)

Spencer compares following Jesus
to playing baseball. Baseball was always a big part of his life and his
childhood summers were filled with sandlot ball. Now, in the same town, there
was also little league. In little league, there were uniforms. There were
scoreboards, and umpires, and bleachers. Sandlot ball had none of that. A tree
served as second base. There wasn’t always enough players to field every
position. But did that make sandlot ball less “real” baseball than little league?
In the same way, a coffee-shop gathering of Jesus followers may not be a
“church,” but it isn’t any less of a Jesus movement. The problem with the
church, according to Spencer, is that it is full of people who know all of the
rules, own all of the equipment, know all of the stats, and blog about player
performance, but who have never played the game. Spencer wanted to see people
play the game, however informally.

The best thing about Mere
Churchianity
is hearing Spencer’s voice again. In several places I found
myself tearing up as I remembered what an important voice we lost in Michael
Spencer. I miss his wit. He writes about the pressure to conform, “There are
many who leave the church because they find they are confronted by an
inexplicable hostility toward solitude and individuality. In the community that
says ‘God loves you,’ many feel that the next line is ‘and he dislikes
everything about you.'” (182)

I miss his compassion. He writes
to those who have failed to live up to the lie of “victorious” Christian
living, “If you have left the church or are headed for the door, there is a
strong possibility that you have to leave in order to hold on to your
integrity. You realized you can no longer play the religion game. You may be
playing other games–I’m not letting any of us off the hook. But you found you
could no longer be party to the endless act that you are living the victorious
Christian life.” (136)

I miss his honesty. He writes
about his wife’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, “I’ve never seen my wife
happier in her relationship with the God she knows through Jesus. We love each
other and rejoice that we belong to Jesus and share communion in him, if not at
the same table.” (179)

I even miss his snark. He writes
about the coming evangelical collapse, “If you’re ever around evangelical
Christians, though, you realize they have the opposite problem. They believe
their ship is listing to one side because it gives them a more interesting look
at the iceberg. Evangelicals believe that people who distance themselves from
the church are not disenchanted but are ‘under conviction of the Holy Spirit.’
Christians are convinced that the generally low opinion people have of
them–such as not wanting Christians as neighbors and trying to avoid having a
conversation with Christians–is because people can’t deal with the
uncomfortable truth about Jesus. Evangelicals believe the growing numbers of
young adults who grew up in church-attending families and then abandoned the
ship of faith is the fault of Hollywood, liberals, rock music, and sex.

Riiight.” (23)

The book is a must-read for
iMonk followers.

People have written much about
Spencer’s unique voice. They appreciate his honesty, his passion, and his grace
(even when refusing to back down from an argument). I always appreciated his
love for the church. In an age when it is popular (and easy) to bash the
church, Spencer loved her. But, he loved her as one whose heart had been broken
by his beloved’s abusive and self-destructive behavior. He loved her as one who
had to put his foot down and say, “enough.” Internetmonk.com was an
intervention. But, despite his frankness about the house of cards we
evangelicals have constructed, he never left. “Enough” never really meant
“enough.” In the spirit of Martin Luther, Spencer’s true desire was to reform
from within. This desire bleeds through the pages of Mere Churchianity.

After quoting Jesus’ message to
the wayward churches in the first few chapters of Revelation, Spencer writes,
“It’s astonishing to hear Jesus speak to first-century Christians this way, and
even more astonishing to read his invitations to these churches; to return to
Jesus himself. Over and over, the same invitation: return to me.” (210)

My one concern when reading Mere
Churchianity
is what people would do with it. Would they take Spencer’s
advice about reforming from within (perhaps redefining what “within” looks like),
or would they latch on to Spencer’s critiques and ignore his exhortations? The
last thing Spencer would have wanted was for his book to start a movement of
“Jesus-shaped” Christians who represented “the biblical Jesus” and who wagged
their fingers at all the godless phonies, cowards, and sell-outs who refused to
see evangelicalism for what it was. Sadly, people being what they are, many
will do just that.

So, my question for the Jesus Creed
community is, “How do ‘Jesus-shaped’ Christians (or Third Way Christians or
whatever you want to label yourself) treat those who refuse to join us?” Let’s
grant that Spencer is right–evangelicalism has sold out and is going the way of
the dinosaur. Let’s grant that a new breed of evangelicals is emerging from the
smoldering ashes of what went before. Given that this transition will take
decades to realize, how do we move forward without sitting in judgment over
those who have gone before? Can we follow Spencer’s example and “share
communion with them, if not at the same table”?

If you are a member of a church
committed to “churchianity,” what thing(s) can you do to encourage your church
to return to Jesus? If you have left “churchianity” in favor of something new,
what things can you do to guard yourself from a new self-righteousness?

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