Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Jim and Casper Go to Church - Review

I read this little book published by the Barna group. Not too impressed by it, but some insights were helpful. In the main, don't be a jerk to other people. Here's my review for class:

Jim Henderson and Matt Casper, a pentecostal minister and copy-writing atheist respectively, visit 12 churches in about 2 months to get an outsider's view of church events. Jim serves as Matt's guide through a broad yet unrepresentative collection of “evangelical1” churches. Matt's insights move from the petty to the incisive as a thoughtful atheist shares his piece. Jim endeavors to remain objective and is largely successful, however he does let his slip show in the selection of churches as well as his comments regarding certain theological issues, ministry practices, and in the case of the pentecostal churches they visit - everything, as he openly admits in a “warning: loss of objectivity” tag. The book lives up to its goal in that it provides a platform for an outside voice to give honest critique of church activities and a frank dialogue to be carried out on paper.
The main critique of the book is in the premise motivating the venture. This premise can be illustrated by the answer to the following question: For whom is the Sunday morning church service? There are at least two answers, perhaps more, but in the main one can answer: for Christians; otherwise one could answer: for everybody (and anybody) who would like to come. The authors/publishers are of the latter persuasion while this reviewer is of the former. While Henderson does begin to address this in his epilogue, by then 150+ pages have been written on the observations of the pair critiquing church services. Consider if one were to take an aspiring bow-hunter to an ice-cream making seminar. Obviously the two subjects do not necessarily overlap and should the bow-hunter object to the befouling of his scent with sugar and eggs and the like, we are not likely to change the recipe for ice cream because of his concerns – valid as they may be for bow hunting deer. The absurdity of this scenario is present for the 'church is for christians crowd' in this text.
If one were to admit that the primary purpose of a church service is not the assimilation of outsiders into the community, but for the building up, training, and encouraging of the members, than many of the critiques of the book ring hollow as they are out of context. The surprising thing about the dialogue is that as Casper finds so many elements foreign to himself, one is left wondering why he does not explicitly say - “Oh, yeah, that's because I don't belong here.” Perhaps this sounds unduly harsh but while he should not be discriminated against while entering these church meetings, he should feel the part of the alien as these churches are groups of people (supposedly) united by belief and experience of which he shares neither. There are a few moments in the book where this realization comes to the fore but mainly in a small “house church” (a gathering of 15 people in a house to “do church”) in San Diego. Ironically this is his home town and he is personal friends with many of the people in attendance. Quite the scene for dissociation.
Furthermore, if one were to admit that the church service is intended for Christians, not the general public, the sermon takes on a different role. Throughout the book, the reader is left wondering – What is the purpose of the sermon? With so much emphasis built into the order of worship (which was startlingly consistent between the spectrum of churches visited) with the sermon the supposed climax, to what end are those words spoken? Many of the comments in the text focused on the presentation, emotional manipulation, ethical dilemmas, and biblical references of these sermons. Little thought is given to the purpose of them until Henderson's epilogue. In one instance, at “The Bridge” in Portland, OR – the church mentioned that this reviewer is most eager to visit after reading the book, the “sermon” was given in such a way as to allow continued conversation and interaction in and with the congregation, such that 'dialogue' rather than 'monologue' would be the best description. The crux of the matter regarding sermons does come in Henderson's epilogue when he says:
“ basic question for pastors and Christians of all kinds: Are we in the preaching business or the people-changing business?”
Sadly, Henderson does not realize the false dichotomy he presents, and although he has served in “ministry” for three decades, does not understand the fundamental means of ministry to God's people – the preaching of the Gospel. His statement above offers that preaching and “changing people” (presumably for the better) are two different things. Perhaps they overlap but not necessarily or directly. But one must ask: How shall I change people? If people need changing, which must be an assumption of Henderson, how can I or anyone else change them? Perhaps one could coerce them through fear, bribery, intimidation, etc? Obviously that would not produce the changes desired – to love God and neighbor, seeking first God's Kingdom. But this desired end requires a change of the heart, of the inner motivations of a person, and who can change the desires of a persons heart? Clearly applying some law or social code external to people will not change them. Neither will teaching, as educated sinners will emerge from ignorant sinners. Henderson believes that by serving people the experience of being loved will change them to follow Jesus. While this is half true it suffers as the sole means of ministry. While Jesus did serve those around him, he also preached2, which is something Henderson specifically misses3. Have they not read what Paul wrote in Romans 1:16-17?
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, The righteous shall live by faith.”
Surely both serving others and preaching this life changing Gospel is necessary in the ministry of the Church? Surely a maturation of perspective is allowed in 2000 years since Christ, whereby culturally specific forms may be employed – just as they were employed then? It is here, puzzling over the usefulness of the endeavor that Henderson and Casper leave this reviewer. Perhaps that was part of the point.

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