Tuesday, March 27, 2012

So You Don't Want To Go To Church Anymore? - A Review

Here is a review of an interesting book my wife and I read. The book was given as a gift and I hope a constructive critique placed here doesn't dissuade anyone from gifting a book to me in the future!  We are grateful for having received it and were challenged by its message, but perhaps the most important thing the book did was cause us to examine our position and consider God’s Word more carefully.  I encourage you to make a habit of reading books with your spouse so you can discuss them and grow together in the Lord.
So, before I give my take on the book, let me first give a brief overview of the story narrated by Jake Colsen, a fictional character based on what appear to be the synthesized personal experiences of the co-authors, Dave Coleman and Wayne Jacobsen:

The book, which is a quick read, is about a young Associate Pastor of a fast growing mega-church. Jake is sincerely "trying hard" to serve the Lord in his role but with all that seems to be going well on the exterior, a bleak picture is painted of a church plagued with stereotypical, albeit very real, issues that could be found in any church community - legalism, pettiness, insincerity, gossip, facades, hypocrisy, traditionalism, power struggles, divisions, and what can feel like a mind boggling volume of programs and activities designed to get the community to come and see vs. going and telling.  Following a soul shaking encounter with a man named John, Jake soon realizes his life is deeply lacking the authentic relationship with Christ he longs for. He is disillusioned and wants to know more.  His curiosity leads him on a spiritual journey and a series of chance encounters with the protagonist character John. In each chapter, Jake is facing some new issue or hurdle in his life and John always mysteriously shows up to challenge him to reconsider what he believes about living out his Christian faith and about his understanding of the church.  Jake goes through a transformation over the course of the story and ultimately leaves the traditional church community and begins meeting with a group of believers on an informal, ad-hoc basis. It is clear, according to the authors view point, this resulted in Jake having a closer walk with God and a more authentic body experience than what could be found in the more organized model.

The Positives – my wife and I both found the book to be an interesting perspective on the organized church and it sparked good conversation. The book emphasizes a foregone conclusion that there are wrong-headed ways of viewing the church as an institution or place - particularly when it is viewed as being led or perhaps even controlled by people. The book addresses some of these common pitfalls head-on.  As C.S. Lewis famously said, “I thought I was coming to a place until I realized it was a person.”  Having been followers of Christ for most of our lives and having both served on staff in church ministry, Amber and I have witnessed literally every issue raised in the book and found ourselves identifying with the character Jake on more than one instance, particularly during the first half of the book. As John begins to challenge Jake by helping to point out some of these issues, it leaves the reader waiting for the proverbial "punch-line" that will offer the proper direction. This doesn’t exactly come to fruition but we will assume positive intent that the source of the answers, both within the story and in its application, is to be discovered by seeking the Lord. Most of the problems addressed by the book can be reduced to the inevitable susceptibility and imperfect nature of humanity and the tendency of man to put almost anything, except God, in His rightful place as the true head of the church. The book is calling the reader to get back to the essence of genuine Christian living, which requires first and foremost a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The book focuses on the aspects of grace and a more simplified church body. Christ as our ultimate source. The idea is to do away with anything that might otherwise become substitute to placing full trust and dependence on Christ. Once we discover this reality, we will naturally be filled and poured out on others on the same journey. It is on these points, in general, we agree.
The Critique - I hope to underscore that while I may not be in 100% agreement with the authors of this book, they are my brothers in Christ, and therefore I wish to be a constructive critic. First, allow me to lay out a high level critique and then I will sustain these observations in more detail. The reader may note this book is written in somewhat of an elementary style (the first chapter was a bit hokey and almost lost our attention altogether) and therefore may leave a lot to be desired for readers who are not particularly keen on this sort of fiction. For our purposes here, we will overlook this aspect, assuming this was an intentional way of reaching a broader audience.
First, the book is weak in its theology and hermeneutics of scripture concerning the church and the nature of God. Second, the picture painted of the church by the authors is historically distorted and therefore misleading, demonstrating poor ecclesiology. Thirdly, I am not sure I can buy into the fatalistic approach of the character John. Again, while there are certain facets of the book that I acknowledge as true or at least often true, I am a bit disappointed to conclude that the overarching message and the logic used to arrive there are fatally flawed. I think with a modified approach, this book could have been a sound and relevant work. As I said, allow me to sustain these observations:
Areas of Weak Theology - In the interest of brevity, I will cover the biggest theological gaps.  The first red flag for me was the surprising lack of solutions or alternatives offered when presenting one critique after another of the organized church, many of which a person could easily identify with.   I will get into the problems with the authors views of the church in the next section.  The second concern was realizing the lack of reference to scripture, even indirectly. Where scripture is referenced, it is very narrow in both scope and context, which is a common hermeneutical fallacy called de-contextualizing.   This approach basically allows a person to make the scripture say whatever you want.  As I mentioned, the book rightly speaks of the relationship with Christ and of His grace, but speaks basically nothing of His being just, holy, worthy of reverence, or of him being Lord - the King of Kings. Christ's death extended to the world an unmerited favor, grace, and forgiveness.  These are precious truths whichare indisputable, but it therein lies the reality of a necessary reconciliation and propitiation for willful rebellion and sin. No other sacrifice could have accomplished this work.  I was surprised at how these and other significant orthodox truths of the Christian faith were marginalized. 
On Matters of the Church - this is the main thrust of the book, as you might easily conclude from the title. I'm sure the authors would have wished that to be perhaps the secondary message but the bias is clear. Anyway, the thought that came to my mind as I read the book was the old cliché of "throwing the baby out with the bath water." As I recall, a large portion of the New Testament epistles deal specifically with instructions and encouragements to organized church congregations. These churches were comprised of elders; deacons; men and women using their God given gifts so the church would be organized, accountable and consistent in upholding the gospel message, orderly, and effective - not random, relative, and disconnected (Read: 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4). But wait…didn't the early church meet in homes and isn't this more authentic to what God wants? The early church did meet in homes, but at no point does the Bible outline a preferred meeting place for the church. The early church, especially the Gentiles, met in homes primarily because of persecution from the Jews and Romans, not to mention the real obstacles of feasibility.  Also the gatherings did not necessitate the use of a building since most of the Jews at the time still clearly continued to attend worship in the temple.  The point is a change in the location of our gathering makes little difference.  Believers are what comprise the church – not brick and mortar.
Issues the book clearly takes with more traditional organized church models, as legitimate as many of those challenges or issues may be, are not unique to the local church or with traditional church models.  The portrayal of the church by the authors is not exactly an attitude of love.  It is one of frustration, judgment, and condemnation.  On some points, it is clear the authors have a prejudice against organized church communities (perhaps from bad experiences). So, are we to conclude that churches who meet in homes are immune from the issues that plague humanity?  The Bible teaches we are to love our wives as Christ loved the church (Eph 5:25). Let’s not forget the church, regardless of where they gather, is His bride. A quote from Wayne Jacobson in the back of the book reads, "I can tell you absolutely that my worst days outside organized religion are still better than my best days inside it." Depending on his experience, that may be true.  However, it is not an objective universal truth taught by the Bible. My point is the book paints, unfairly I think, a predominately negative picture of the local church and seeks to justify not only why we might be frustrated but why it makes sense to abandon traditional churches.  In so doing, it ignores nearly all of the positive aspects found in the local church, such as corporate worship and prayer (which is the very setting in which God first anointed the disciples with the Holy Spirit), community of believers, discipleship, encouragement, Christian friendship, instruction, edification, charity, missions, outreach, etc.  The logic used against an organized model, I submit, represents issues common to humanity in general, not the local church specifically. If we follow this logic to its conclusion, the exact same problems can be found in the workplace, in local sports clubs, and in our homes - should we retract from those organized gatherings too? Rebellion from organized religion does not eliminate the propensities for distraction from Christ in our daily walk, for other things to take His place (idolatry), or to chase after self interest.
I agree we are naturally drawn to other Christians because we share a common bond and affinity in Christ and in the Holy Spirit. I can’t tell you how many times I was able to recognize the Spirit of Christ in another person who I didn’t even know.  So I trust in His ability to draw us near to other followers of Christ and to Him. I am also convinced there is no perfect church model as Solomon said "under the sun" but that doesn't mean we forsake coming together in an organized way. We should have grace toward the church in all its various assembly styles and long for the day when the church is gathered in that perfect harmonious union in the eternal presence of God.  Let’s focus instead on the uncompromising truth of the gospel vs. petty stylistic differences and personal preferences which are distractions in and of themselves.
Regarding Fatalism - fatalism or determinism are entirely different from faith. Fatalism means a power or force driving us toward a destination over which we will never have control or influence. In essence, all things have been predetermined, so we are merely playing out a script of events like puppets or like a train on a single track.  John is a character in the book that pops in and out of the life of Jake, leaving his relationships and encounters intentionally to chance, saying repeatedly that if they are supposed to meet again, they will. You may be thinking, "No, he left their future encounters faithfully in the hands of God!"  If that is the case, then perhaps he was a great man of faith. I guess my concern is that we do not see Jesus or any of the apostles in the Bible taking such a flippant approach in their relationships, much less their discipleship, with others. It was always intentional. Faith is trusting in God not because He has pre-programmed all the choices and events, but because He knows the past, present, and future simultaneously.  This is why when He speaks to our hearts, we can be sure His Word is trustworthy.  Hebrews 11:1 says "Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." The faithful can be sure because Christ is the only real source of hope and we can be certain because He holds the full scope of eternity. As I see it, Jesus did not call us to be drifters riding on a sea of fate.  He expects us to trust him in each step we take as we make decisions at one fork in the road after another.  This is why Isaiah prophesied of Christ saying, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Let me say the book "So You Don't Want To Go To Church Anymore?" made some fascinating points and very sincere observations which made the book worth reading. What we should always keep in mind is that works of men must always be subjected to the inerrant truth of the Word. I do hope this review proves helpful to you in your journey and if you have read the book, I would love to hear your thoughts as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment