Michael Spencer's posthumous book comes out in June, Mere Churchianity. Towards the end of introduction (which you can read here) he says of his early days in the church: "Far from being Jesus-shaped Christians, we were church shaped. In fact, we were deniers of Jesus. We were frighteningly close to being Judas."
Michael is probably the voice that has shaped my understanding and spirituality most in the last five years. He handily drew me to agreement with his perspective on Scripture, Jesus-centered spirituality, ecclesiology, and more. His rants intelligently voiced all my concerns that I was never able to put into words. The breadth of his knowledge of the Church stunned me, but not simply cause I admire high IQs. I was shocked at his super-informed way of charity for denominations not his. I was also enchanted by his ability to both intelligently and cuttingly critique the problems with nearly any expression of Christianity there has ever been. That's what the Gospel does I guess, equips us to distinguish light from darkness. It was a charity that could only come from being painfully broken of theological/denominational arrogance. He was firmly protestant and yet knew Catholicism intimately, and not so he could write them off as "not really Christians." He categorically accepted no one particular dogma. Yet he always retained and based his scrutiny on a search for the seed of the Gospel. Just anger was clear in much of his writing, along with patience and forbearance with those among whom Jesus was clearly walking and working.
The question remains for many of us now that Michael has passed. Having the benefit of his example, how do we approach problematic Christianity when the papers are all in order? Because you don't have to be an outright heretic to have a low view of Jesus and a spirituality shaped by church. Lots of people who are saying "all you need is Jesus" are certainly acting as if they really, really need church and an attractive, white, rich preacher-guy too, and by the way isn't the contemporary worship music awesome? This stuff isn't coming from the ranks of the heterodox. It's not as if no one's throwing around the language of "on fire for God" or don't have "solid Bible teaching." Yet it's effective heresy. It's sweet-tasting poison. It's a gross perversion that needs a good bashing-in. Yet when you say these things, you can easily be seen as "divisive," "not on board with the vision," "against church growth," or "opposing God's work." Shame is often the wages of reservations expressed.
Church-shaped spirituality, at least for those not familiar with Michael's work, is not easily identified because most of it is coming from places where the proper boxes are checked, and there's enough fruit of some sort for people to be able to believe that God's blessing is there. There's enough commitment to the basics to keep it from being easily repudiated. Yet it's distracted, self-medicating, pseudo-spirituality, and no one should be ashamed to say so. Once Michael gave me a nod on his blog for a rant that I wrote concerning Todd Bentley and the complete carnival that ensued surrounding his meteoric rise to super-stardom and super-gnosticism. He was an easy target. Even I can nail that one. It was a neat buzz to get on Michael's radar for a few seconds, I'll admit. But what about when the more difficult ones come along? The ones who start by agreeing that the Gospel is everything but subtly insinuate that commitment to the program is also a measure of one's faith. What about the vulnerable who think p&w choruses of "I lift my hands to you Lord" means that a church is good enough to get their allegiance even when there's rancidity and abuse below the surface?
This is not about writing off entire churches, people as individuals, or movements. It's about repudiating lies. Exposing terrible priorities and not worrying about it too much if the stupid thing crumbles as a result. As shiny as it was, that doesn't mean God wanted it there. It's about calling functional heresy what it is, even when there's a visible affirmation of orthodoxy. (I don't think Michael ever used the term "functional heresy" to describe churchianity, but I just did.) It's about refusing to let superficial results dictate what's valuable to us.
Calling the baby ugly is one thing Michael did well. And fearlessly. Sometimes relentlessly. As an SBCer (with no intention of going anywhere) he was able to render the stock phrases of that particular brand of church-lust in order to ridicule what often amounts to Jesus-absent Christianity. Those that are "there every time the doors are open" are often the ones posturing in compensation for the deepest spiritual vacuity. In the four part series "The Coming Evangelical Collapse," Michael prophesied(he wouldn't use that word) that in 20 years evangelical Christendom in the west would be house deserted of half its occupants. The reason? Spiritual vacuousness is completely unsustainable. As soon as fast cars, reality shows, crystal meth, or Islam produces a more entertaining lifestyle than preachertained McChurches do, that's where the "on fire" people will go. Because that's what brought them to "evangelicalism" in the first place, not Jesus.
With all this on the table, there ceases to be much room to criticize or condescend to people who've dumped church. Because adoration for Jesus and commitment to church increasingly have nothing to do with each other. Despite many ongoing attempts to "relevantize" and "radicalize" things, it usually smells like a pleading sort of "We REALLY like church, what can we do to make you like church too?" kind of like the way they peddled "church can be fun" to us with pizza and board games in youth group long ago. Only now it's for grown-ups. And amidst all of it, the goals and priorities in such environments don't require Jesus Christ to have ever entered history. Sadly, as Brant Hansen has noted, while outsiders "like Jesus but not the church," the ranks of Christendom often "like church but not Jesus." The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. But they are prevailing against much of what passes for it.
In the intro to his book, which I plan to pre-order, Michael called himself and the youth group he pastored as a young adult "an ungrateful gang of spoiled suburban brats, (who) ignore the people who served us, leave a mess behind, and still feel we were authentic representatives of Jesus because we were 'good church people.'" He wrote that the book is his repentance. Any true critique of this foolishness will have to have true repentance at the heart of it. And anyone who dismisses such a critique had better be ready to reap tears and regret.