Sunday, April 29, 2007

An Atheist Goes to Church

I've had a chance to do just a little reading on my road trip, so I read a little book. It's called "Jim and Casper Go to Church" (I've listed it under books I've been reading in the sidebar at the right). The premise is this: Jim Henderson (through a bit of a convoluted process) hires (yes, pays money to) Matt Casper (an avowed atheist) to come to church with him. Their purpose is to have Casper evaluate the churches he attends and give Jim an outsider's view of those churches. What impresses him, what doesn't. Would he ever consider attending this church? Why or why not? Jim's goal is not necessarily to convert Casper but to do research and as such tries to keep their conversations at a professional level - although you can see that there is much personal interaction going on and a friendship is developing. They go to the big name churches (Willow Creek, Saddleback, Mosaic) and mention the big names (Bill Hybels, Joel Osteen, TD Jakes, Erwin McManus, etc.) and also go to some smaller churches including a house church. All the churches take in the broad range of what would constitute Evangelical in the USA.

What impressed me about the book was the fresh and honest look at what we as Christians sometimes take for granted in our culture. Things like the fact that we've kind of accepted that lots of money is spent at big "production-style" churches because that's how to compete with the rest of the culture. We've taken for granted that it's ok to be entertained instead of discipled, that it's more important to be friendly than real, or that we need to strive for professionalism at the front (in speaking and worship leading) instead of striving for authenticity. (The mannequin style worship singers always have me saying "What's the point?")

Casper makes a number of excellent points about how we run our churches and how we unconsciously exclude those who are not like us. One of the most significant points was about how almost all the churches followed a basically identical format (ie songs, message, offering, challenge at the end) no matter the style (seeker sensitive, mainline traditional, emerging, rock church, etc.). The other aspect of that point is that every church seemed to have a different message. For some it was work with the poor, for others it was heaven, and others it was God will give you money. He felt like he didn't hear the same message although he attended only Protestant, evangelical churches.

What I didn't like was that there was very little appreciation for God or faith or even joy in his responses (which makes sense I suppose). But he really does fundamentally miss the God piece. When Casper heard someone say they had prayed for someone and that person had been healed, Casper responded by saying if this guy can heal, why aren't you taking him to the hospitals and on to the streets to help those who can't afford health care.

All in all the benefit is that he provides an honest, outsiders perspective and deeply challenges the fact that we as the church are often not living out the Gospel. He challenges the focus on money (and on money spent on our own agendas and our own entertainment). He challenges the ongoing racism and segregation in the church. He challenges the confusion about the true message of Jesus being presented in churches. And he challenges the bigger is better myth. It's a quick and easy read and worth reading but probably not worth keeping in your library - try to borrow it.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Hi, Michael! 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: