Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jim & Casper go to church

Tuesday after Pentecost 14
August 31, 2010

The Lord be with you

Jim & Casper go to Church: Frank Conversation about Faith, Churches, and Well-meaning Christians (Carol Stream, Illinois, BarnaBooks, an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers, INC., 2007) is a book by Jim Henderson and Mat Casper. Jim is a Fifty-nine-year-old ex-Pentecostal preacher, ex-housepainter, current leader in the organization called Doable Evangelism, Christian, and resident of Seattle, WA. Matt Casper is a thirty-seven-year-old marketing copywriter, musician, atheist, ex-New Yorker, and current resident of San Diego, CA.

Jim was puzzled by the fact that many non-Christians say they like Jesus, but not his followers (Christians). There is a famous quote attributed to Gandhi where he said this very thing. However Gandhi’s sentiments have been echoed many times by others. So what is it about Jesus that attracts the admiration of Atheists, Hindus, Moslems, and more? And what is it about his followers that these same people find off-putting?

In order to discover at least a piece of the answer, Jim hired an Atheist (Mat) to attend Christian worship services with him (Jim) and give his (Mat’s) honest impressions. Jim advertised in the Wall Street Journal, and Mat won the job. Together they visited twelve different churches around the country, dialogued about their experiences, and wrote this book. At the time of the book’s publishing Mat was still an Atheist and Jim was still a Christian.

The great strength of this book is that it provides the honest impressions of a non-antagonistic atheist of the worship services he attended. The great weakness is the selection of churches Jim made. For the most part they went to “megachurches.” These are churches that accent, as Jim calls them, the three “Bs” (Buildings, Butts, and Bucks), They pack in thousands each Sunday, meet in multistoried buildings or even sports arenas, have restaurants, book stores, waterfalls, lighting and sound systems that would make any director in New York green with envy, etc., and are on the cutting edge of “contextualizing” the Christian message ("compromising" the Christian message if you are not a supporter of such moves). The real problem with these choices is that Mat visited churches that represent less than 1% of the churches in America. These churches all had a similar style of worship, and it certainly wasn’t historical. There was one exception, a Presbyterian service (which Mat seemed to appreciate greatly). Even then the Sunday services attract about 500 people each Sunday, which makes it a large church. Well over half of the churches in America have under a hundred worshipers each Sunday. The only service of that size Mat attended was on an “off” Sunday, when he visited a worship service of a friend of his. At that, though, it was not an historical worship format.

The reason for this selection is clearly Jim’s bias against historic worship services, and the historic expressions of Christianity in general. He believes that, with the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire by Constantine, the followers of Christ abandoned what Jesus intended his followers to be and slipped into what he calls “beliefism.” In short, this is when Christianity became a “religion,” in Jim’s view.

Because of the churches Jim selected, some of Mat Casper’s observations miss the mark for most churches in America. Just one exchange between Mat and Jim illustrates this point.

    Jim said, “So are you saying that at a megachurch, it’s impossible to connect to God? It seems like you’re saying that the larger a church grows, the more difficult it is to keep people connected, and not only to God but to each other.”

    “I hate to simplify it like that, but yes,” he responded. “Think about it: How do schools sell themselves? By class size. The lower the student/teacher ratio is, the smaller the class size, the better the education. It’s because you get more interaction with ‘the expert,’ and more interaction with your classmates.

    “Why do churches seem to do just the opposite? Why is a church deemed successful by its size rather than its ability to truly teach its people?”
As Jim says in the book, “Atheists say the darndest things.”

In spite of the book’s obvious weaknesses, I can strongly recommend it. It can give you a refreshing look at contemporary Christian culture from an outsiders view. If we agree that the Church has been called to reach those who are not part of it with the love of Christ Jesus, knowing who we are reaching out to and what they think is a wonderful asset. I should also add that the book is entertainingly written. On more than one occasion I did laugh-out-loud and also felt compelled to read Kitty this or that passage.

A Word about Contextualizing the Faith: The Church has always contextualized the Christian Faith. The very fact that you have an English-language translation of the Bible is more than enough proof of that. The question is: How much contextualizing to your current culture can you do before you start compromising the Christian Faith? On that question, there is much debate.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for reading and writing about our book. We're currently running a website that may interest/horrify you: www.churchrater.com. The main goal, IMO, is open dialog, but it's kind of like "yelp! for churches." Anyway, hope to see you there! Thanks again...
    Matt Casper