Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality (Colorado Springs, Colo.: WaterBrook Press, 2010).
Several years ago, maybe when I was in high school, I came across the blog of Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk. One of Michael’s dreams was to help evangelical Christians find an identity that was simultaneously charitable, Biblical, and centered around the traditional practices of protestant piety in a way that put the spiritual focus of individual evangelicals on Jesus himself.
In hindsight, he was a very helpful guide despite not being an extremely good author. Something about his apparent character and earnestness attracted me to his writings. His last year or so of life was pretty rough because he ended up with brain cancer which lead to his death just before the release of his only book. I read the book as soon as it came out and meant to review it and just never got around to it.
Before I move on to specifics in the book, I’ll say that I think it would be helpful for group discussions more than for individual consumption. It’s one of those books that, while insightful, I think requires a group of people to discuss their personal “aha” moments that match the author’s own experience and the experiences of those present. Reading it on your own, if the book doesn’t match what you’ve seen or felt may only be helpful in brief snippets. Onto my typical review strategy:
The book has some good sections and good lines. The chapter, What Does Jesus-Shaped Spirituality mean brings up some good questions about people who are looking for spirituality over organized religion. For instance, he says, “I am convinced that people who say they are seeking spirituality and not the Christian religion are on the right path. (85)” Based on what most people mean by those two things, he’s probably right. But whether you think he is or isn’t, the point raises good questions about evangelism, faith, and what kind of life churches claim to offer people in the gospel they present. That same chapter ends with this, “I’m looking for a spiritual experience that looks like, feels like, sounds like, lives like, loves like, and acts like Jesus of Nazareth. It’s that simple. (85)” The wonderful thing about this point is that, hopefully, as we grow in understanding of Scripture and through the trial and error experience of following Christ with Christ’s people, we will come to understand Jesus anew and more fully. In other words, a spiritual experience oriented around Jesus simultaneously gives our spirituality an objective orientation (Jesus, crucified, raised, as he is presented in Scripture) and meets us where we’re at (our understanding of Jesus).
Another good aspect is the concept of churchianity. What Michael means by this is the multilayered conformity of Christianity to whatever the churches in the United States happen to be saying/doing at the time without reference Jesus himself. So churchianity includes obsession with certain traditions despite the contradiction between them and Christ, the disordered patriotism of certain factions of the political right, the focus on self-helpy positive thinking rather than Scripture, the mall-like megachurch movements that revolve around consumerism rather than the four gospels, and so-on.
The beginning of the book starts with Spencer’s recollection of his time as a youth pastor making messes at Dairy Queen with his students. I used to get frustrated as a youth group member at the incredible messes that would be made when I went places with the youth group. It was hard for me to imagine an adult allowing that to happen, but Mike explained how the experience of getting a sad note from an employee really affected him (1-7).
Michael’s understanding of sanctification is mistaken (142-144). He claims that “the gradual process of becoming…experientially righteous in daily life” is not “true to the message of the gospel… (142.)” But the fact of the matter is that Jesus himself says that people will not only hear his teachings but “put them into practice” (Matthew 7:13-28). I get what Mike was trying to say, and we should always and ever be skeptical of our alleged spiritual growth, but we also shouldn’t doubt what the Lord is capable of doing in us. I think the most important thing to remember is that the book’s earlier definition of Jesus shaped spirituality entails that those who are spiritual in such a way will come to be more and more the kind of person Jesus envisions his followers to be.
Now, one of the bad things about the concept of churchianity is that it may inadvertently minimize the centrality of church-life to the gospel. Church life includes moral accountability, wise council, public reading of Scripture, prayer, material assistance, spiritual examples, traditions that survived because those who followed them grew in their knowledge of Christ because of them, and so-on. If the gospel is the message of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of God is the reconstitution of God’s people around Jesus, then the gospel is the message about Jesus and his church. It can’t be less than that. So, in one sense churchianity is a good thing.
Sometimes the book feels a bit rant-like. Rants can be good, but looking back on it, it’s neither as fun nor winsome as Mere Christianity nor as argumentatively sound.
Over all, I think the book could be helpful for Christians in a small group context if they’re looking for some answers to the “I feel like something is missing, what is it?” question. Otherwise, there are books that more effectively diagnose the problems of American Protestantism like The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard.