Monday, June 14, 2010

So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore

The predominant theme of the book is issues surrounding the local church (and because I would like to keep this review reasonably short, I will deal only with this issue in the review). The overall teaching is that the church as most Christians understand it is a human institution and one designed primarily to gain and to protect power. The Bible, according to the authors, does not teach that Christians should be part of any kind of institutional church. This is not to say that we should leave mega-churches to join smaller house churches; rather, we should abandon this kind of church model altogether.
While the authors do not clearly or precisely share what Christians should or can do in its place, it seems that it would look something like this: “Instead of trying to build a house church, learn to love one another and share one another’s journey. Who is he asking you to walk alongside right now and how can you encourage them? I love it when brothers and sisters choose to be intentional in sharing God’s life together in a particular season. So, yes, experiment with community together. You’ll learn a lot. Just avoid the desire to make it contrived, exclusive, or permanent. Relationships don’t work that way.” The book’s appendix is a pamphlet written by Jacobsen which addresses his view of church life. Here he says, “Fellowship happens where people share the journey of knowing Jesus together. It consists of open, honest sharing, genuine concern about one another’s spiritual well being and encouragement for people to follow Jesus however he leads them.” By the book’s closing pages, Jake has left the church and now meets irregularly with an irregular group of people from his community. This is presented as being a form of authentic spirituality that is closer to the biblical model than that which is practiced by the vast majority of Christians today. It is the better alternative to church as most Christians know and experience it.

Of course I would be drawn to this model, too, if my church was anything like the one Jake comes from. His congregation is much like a drunken fraternity. The pastor is an angry man who holds tightly to his power, who expects people to lie to protect his reputation and who is having an abusive affair with a vulnerable congregation member. The members of the church are petty and divisive, heartlessly shunning those who disagree with them, demanding immediate restitution for any perceived wrong, persecuting children who do not properly memorize their verses, and fighting for positions of prominence within the local church. Overall, the authors give an exceedingly negative portrayal of the local church. It is a portrayal that includes all the stereotypes so treasured by those who hate Christianity. The church members are hopelessly ignorant, able to recite chapter and verse but knowing nothing of the “heart” of Scripture. Hence even two lifelong pastors react with apparent shock when they learn that “church” in the Bible primarily refers not to an institution but to a people (as if no Protestant has ever bothered to distinguish between the visible and the invisible church). Against this brutal portrayal of Christian community, the authors present their alternative. And needless to say, it looks awfully good in comparison.

But what if Jacobsen, instead of fabricating a ridiculous parody of a church, had looked to the New Testament church? While So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore is theological fiction, the reader may well note that there is little reference to the Bible. Because it is fiction we might not expect to see direct references to particular passages (and, indeed, we do not) but there is little by way even of indirect references. John assumes a certain knowledge of Jesus and common sense spirituality and uses this as his bridge to the hearts and minds of the reader. Rather than saying, “The Bible says this…” he tends to say, “This is what the church is like… Doesn’t my version look better?” And of course, with such a dysfunctional church in mind, it really does look better. He looks to the New Testament church on occasion, but is awfully selective, taking only those elements that further his case. He eschews any kind of church hierarchy or office (such as elder and deacon) and in its place leaves only peer-to-peer relationships. If it is in any way formal or organized, it is wrong, it would seem.

Though Jacobsen does occasionally affirm that institutional churches may do some good, the theme of the book comes through loud and clear. In the appendix Jacobsen says, without any apparent trace of hyperbole, “I can tell you absolutely that my worst days outside organized religion are still better than my best days inside it.” And from cover-to-cover, the book is heartlessly negative towards the local church. Christians should, and perhaps even must, withdraw. But the case is made through emotion and through false comparison. Those who hold closely to Scripture may affirm some of what Jacobsen teaches in this book, but they must reject its overall message.
Thank you Tim Challies for those insights.
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