Monday, July 02, 2007

Jim and Casper go to Church review



Earlier this spring, I attended a seminar dealing with various views of the afterlife as part of my graduate program. As is the case with most discussions, the class moved from talking about faith to American culture. And I am not even sure how it happened, but before long, someone brought up the North American church. And people were not impressed.

You have to understand that a majority of the people in the class were not Christian. At least not Christian like you and I understand the term. Most were spiritual, but they were not right-wing, evangelical, W. Bush-backing, Bible-Belt followers. So in the midst of the mild debate, one person told a story that shocked the rest of the students. She explained that she knew a guy who knew a guy that told her that he knew of a church in Texas that had a Starbucks in the lobby. The class was appalled. I thought the guy next to me was going to fashion a whip, find the church and chase the caffeinated Christians out screaming, “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers!”

With this conversation still fresh in my mind, I happened to pick up a copy of Jim and Casper go to Church at the CIY Station last week. It is a short little book and a good read if you desire something that will make you think about the way that we do church in North America. Ultimately I encourage you to pick up a copy and make up your mind about it, but I can’t let you get away without putting in my two cents first.

The premise of the book is captivating to say the least. A minister (Jim) of 30 plus years hires an atheist (Casper) to attend several of the nation’s best known churches and give his honest opinion about what they encounter. The book reads a lot like a Michael Moore documentary. In every chapter you turn the page looking to see which high profile pastor they are going to bash next. You think to yourself, “Oh, it looks like your goose is cooked Erwin McManus.” Readers will no doubt sit on the edge of their seats as these guys expose all of the little imperfections of the churches we all wish we started/worked for/attended.

You have to realize that the very premise of the book encourages readers to be cynical. Of course, most worthwhile reads can cause this attitude. Yet really, how beneficial is it to me if an atheist does not have a good worship experience at Mars Hill? I’m honestly not that concerned what an atheist thinks about a worship service in the first place. But before you write me off as closed-minded, here is what I mean.

There is a difference between an atheist and a typical non-Christian that may wander into a church building. An atheist has already done the research and has a philosophical reason for his/her un-belief in god. I’m sure they would disagree with calling it a belief system (atheism is unbelief) but it is at least a worldview. But because of Casper’s unbelief, I am unsure what critical critique he can give on how people he disagrees with worship a God he doesn’t believe in. He is ultimately not attracted to the church because he doesn’t believe in God, not because he thinks the drums are too loud. The two sides work from completely different perspectives. All of the characteristics he dislikes have to do with customer service and friendliness of the greeters. Sure, these are important for any church. But they are also important for any Wal-Mart.

Maybe that is part of the point of the book. Perhaps our churches look too much like Wal-Mart from both sides of the fence. Jim and Casper attended churches of all sizes and, across the board, Casper hated the mega-church style. I have always thought it was funny that non-believers have a certain way that they believe church should be (who’s closed minded?) and Starbucks and fog machines typically don’t fit into that mold. This also reminds me that most things we do in church (rock walls and coffee bars) are to maintain customers, not attract new ones. I am sure a lot of non-Christians are thinking, “Why join a church for a coffee bar when I can continue going to my favorite one down the street without ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’?”

Time and time again, Casper was attracted to the congregations that had a presence in the community. He wasn’t impressed by the things that impress a lot of church-seeking (he wasn’t a seeker, so again, how valuable is his opinion?) people are impressed by. Rather, community service impressed him. Routinely he wanted to know what these people were doing… not just what they believed. Christianity should be about action (Jesus would agree) not just about a belief system. Of course, don’t throw away the doctrine. Actions are fueled by doctrine, not the other way around.

So was Jim and Casper go to Church the best book I have ever read? No. But it was a worthwhile read that should get you thinking about the American concept of church. Jim ran the theme of “defending the space” throughout the book. He also plugged his website quite a lot. Anyway, he encourages Christians to maintain dialog with non-believers and value communication over apologetics. After all, progress, and ultimately conversion, cannot be made without the security of open dialog. And I know a great coffee shop where that can take place.

8 comments:

Jacob Epperson said...

I picked up a great one and read it a couple of weekends ago going to and from Arkansas. Jim had a bit to do with this one as well, but didn't write any of it. I Sold My Soul to Ebay was written by Hemant Mehta, an atheist who said every $10 of the winning bit would equal a sit through a church service. Mr. Henderson ended up winning with $504. Jim and Hemant worked out a plan: Hemant would go to many different churches, ranging from under 100 attendees to mega-churches, around a 4-state radius, and he would write objectionable critiques about each. Hemant did a wonderful job pointing out strengths and weaknesses of all. He and Rob Bell became friends. Very good read.

Jim Henderson said...

Jacob you have a wonderful writing voice and a great instincts and insights.

"Maybe that is part of the point of the book. Perhaps our churches look too much like Wal-Mart from both sides of the fence."

Maybe?

Jeremiah Woodring said...

Jason...I happened across your blog and read your book review...nice job! How is your grad program going? It is so good to see things from the other side of the fence! Keep up the good work!

Epp said...

My name is Eric.

Matt said...

Eric, thanks for reading, and writing about, mine and Jim's book. I think your review is balanced and right-on.

You make some wonderful points about belief/non-belief and the church, a couple of which I'd like to delve into a bit…

"An atheist has already done the research and has a philosophical reason for his/her un-belief in god."

I'm not sure I'd call it philosophical. It's really more about being data-driven. And to believe in a god of any kind, you have to look past the absence of any empirical evidence or data. Which I currently find myself unable to do.

"I’m sure they would disagree with calling it a belief system (atheism is unbelief) but it is at least a worldview."

Maybe? I don't know. Atheism is the absence of belief. It figures into one's worldview, for sure (just like being blind or Chinese or one-armed or spoiled rotten in the suburbs do), but is not a standalone worldview.

"because of Casper’s unbelief, I am unsure what critical critique he can give on how people he disagrees with worship a God he doesn’t believe in… I have always thought it was funny that non-believers have a certain way that they believe church should be (who’s closed minded?) and Starbucks and fog machines typically don’t fit into that mold."

This is "the big one," and a point similar to one many people have made—why should we care what an atheist thinks of church? I always say, "Hey, it's not what I think. It's what the god you worship 'thinks,' and all anyone knows about what this god thinks is in one book. And in that book, there appears to be little to support much of what's happening in today's churches."

What I'm saying is that I don't think my opinions about the church are really "my opinions." I am simply looking at the words and deeds of Jesus in the bible and asking why what I see in churches doesn't appear to match what this street preacher from 1st century Palestine did.

Thanks again for reading and writing.

Matt Casper

Rick said...

Eric,
Glad to see you are reading this kind of stuff. Nice review. I am commenting on it also at www.rickroyer.blogspot.com. Oh and regarding shirt tails: I am 42, been married 22 years, have a 21 year old daughter, 17 year old son....and today I wore my shirt untucked! To work!!

Rick

Epp said...

Matt, I think you are right when you say that you are able to give an unbiased opinion on church. We (Christians) often rate a church for so many different reasons and love the things Jesus would disagree with. I of course did not mean that your opinion was worthless (I don't think you read it that way) but I do think we approach the issue from two different views (obviously). Are we comparing apples to apples here?

I will push back a little on your comment that those who believe in God have to look past evidence. I question which evidence you are referring to. Sure, I can't prove God exists. But you can't prove that he doesn't either. I'll stop before I break into some, "if you died tonight, do you know where you would go?" Afterall, those lines are designed to scare someone into faith. And second, I am not even sure what happens to a Christian as soon as they die (another topic for another day).

Matt, discussing this with you is a joy. I am truly honored. I would love to check out some of your additional writings if you venture back this way.

Rachel said...

Hi, Eric! Thanks for reviewing "Jim & Casper Go to Church." I'm a volunteer with Jim's organization Off the Map and I wanted to let you know about our Live event coming up this November in Seattle. Both Jim and Matt Casper will be speaking at this event. Here is the link if you want to find out more: http://www.offthemap.com/live