“Step by Clumsy Step”
A Review of
By Michael Spencer.
Reviewed by Michelle van Loon.
By Michael Spencer.
Paperback: Waterbrook Multnomah, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
I’m putting all my cards on the table up front. I was a huge Michael Spencer fan. In fact, I penned these words on my blog in early April, right after I heard he’d died at age 53 after a brief, intense battle with cancer:
Spencer’s prodigious output of blog posts and podcasts under the Internet Monk moniker have been touchstones in my spiritual life over the last several years. His intelligence, honesty, humor and willingness to ask lots of hard questions of God, of his fellow Christians, and occasionally, of the world at large have both comforted and confronted me. He poured out his soul and shared the mess of his journey all while doing his day job at a rural Kentucky boarding school. His insistence on Jesus-shaped spirituality in all spurred me (and at times, provoked me) to think like a disciple of Jesus. He was the real deal.
I am not alone in my admiration of Spencer, though his laser-beam observations from, as he aptly dubbed it, the post-evangelical wilderness certainly amassed his share of detractors as well. These observations were rooted in his high-octane blend of a pastoral gifting and a prophet’s calling. Though the two can often function like oil and vinegar, Spencer managed to emulsify both into a unique ministry that led the way toward Jesus through the ecclesiological wilderness in which many of us find ourselves.
Mere Churchianity is a love letter to those wandering that wilderness. Spencer, mercifully, does not spend a lot of time excavating the same “what’s wrong with the (evangelical) church” ground mined by dozens of other writers over the last decade. He deftly describes the problems in that world as he opens the book by describing an uncomfortable letter he received as a youth pastor three decades ago from a Dairy Queen employee who’d quietly watched the rude, self-satisfied antics of his youth group. Their “witness” left a bitter aftertaste in her soul.
At the time, Spencer dismissed the letter as the rant of an angry atheist: “Back then, I was a paid expert in churchianity. I knew how to impress the home crowd. I used all the right words to rally the troops. Sadly, I knew very little about Jesus and the life he calls his followers to live.” His own youthful certainty was eventually chiseled away over the years by the realization that he was seeing some of the same behaviors in his church tribe that the DQ server observed.
Institutional Christianity of the fundamental Baptist variety certainly nurtured Spencer spiritually, but it also left him hungering for more. It is this hunger that is the focus of his book.
I am convinced that people who say they are seeking spirituality and not the Christian religion are on the right path. If this offends you, let me ask: what is the other option? The only other option I can see is for Jesus-hungry people to try to content themselves with the religious junk food offered in the next new topic study, the bigger building program, the capital campaign, the latest attendance figures…the problem does not lie with those who refuse to sit down, be quiet, open their wallets, and do what they are told. I don’t believe for a moment that those who have abandoned organized Christianity have always found something better, but I’m sure they are looking for something better. I know, because I’m looking for the same thing.
Spencer never left the Southern Baptist world, though his wife Denise eventually did when she joined the Roman Catholic Church. The hunger brought the couple into healthy contact with all sorts of other Christian religious traditions and voices. Mere Churchianity distills those voices, from high church to home church, into a call to follow the Head of the Church first and foremost, and to not allow the institution to take Christ’s rightful place in our lives. Chapters exploring who Jesus is and who we all-too-human followers of Christ are form the marrow of this book.
Though his audience is those who are disenfranchised with the church, Mere Churchianity serves as a bit of a drill sergeant in that it doesn’t encourage us wanderers to wallow in a state of perpetual victimhood. However, the book seems to pull up a wee bit short when it comes to offering readers a prescription to figure out a healthier relationship with the Body of Christ. Spencer doesn’t encourage permanent disconnection (though he affirms some who could use a serious detox sabbatical!), but encourages becoming a part of some kind of church community. He can’t provide a magical Rx that tells us to just do steps 1, 2 and 3 and it’ll all be better, precisely because no such cure exists. I believe the bits of fuzziness in the final section of the book come in large part because Spencer was still in the process of working his own relationship out with the church. He hadn’t yet arrived at a satisfactory landing place.
He has now.
I actually got choked up at a couple of junctures as I read this book. I miss Spencer’s unique wit and intelligence, as well as his deep, orthodox and provocative love of Christ. The pages of Mere Churchianity capture both facets with clarity.
But even if you’ve never heard of Michael Spencer, you will be enriched by reading this compelling book. It will leave you even hungrier than you already may be – a good gift! And it will urge you toward Jesus, the head of the Church, who Spencer was learning to follow, step by clumsy step.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com