Jim bought a soul on eBay...or rather rented it for a time to spiritually inform it as the fine print stated. The flurry of media attention surrounding it spurred Jim to write a book about how churches are perceived by the unchurched, and searched to find an atheist who would fit the bill and be up to the challenge. Matt Casper picked up the gauntlet, and visited some of the best known mega-churches in America with Jim, along with some little known organic churches (mostly Emergent congregations, which seem more like Jim's preference). This is that book.
What could have been a dry rehashing of the obvious in the places of worship that they visited opens instead like a long conversation between two new friends who share a very open dialogue concerning matters of faith. Whether you agree with everything taught at these churches or not, Jim and Casper Go to Church gives you a glimpse inside some of the highest profile places and movements in contemporary American religion, including T.D. Jakes' Potter's House, Joel Osteen's Lakewood Complex, and Erwin McManus' Mosaic. Casper's blunt assessments sometimes collide with Jim's assumptions about how the services are perceived, but they maintain an informative and friendly discourse covering a lot of ground in the debates of relevancy inside church communities and how well churches embrace unbelievers inside their sanctuaries.
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Review 1 for Jim and Casper Go to Church
NOT a better model for church
Date:December 5, 2012
This book is not without useful insights, and is not badly written. Personally, I support Jim’s stand that we need to be tactful and compassionate in our approach to unbelievers (atheists or otherwise) and be willing to really be their friends (if they will let us) and listen to them. I also share some of his opinion that the mega churches are missing the boat in some respects. But I do not necessarily see evangelical churches as a whole as being guilty of all charges raised in this book, nor do I do see a Biblical case for limiting the church to only a message that is palatable to an atheist. Sorry Caper, but if you are truly a committed atheist, the church is not for your and never will be no matter how we do it. I believe that we will not ultimately prove to be the atheist’s “friend” by not challenging their view of truth, God, and eternity. And in spite of our best efforts, if we are truly honest, there may come a point at which someone will reject our friendship because of our faith. This is more likely to happen than not as even the "friendly" unbeliever is inherently hostile to the gospel.
I did not find the book in any way useful as a guide to how to build a better church. It purports to reveal the reactions of a non-believer that most believers would have no idea of. On the contrary, what is revealed is that an atheist thinks that most Christians are hypocrites (with some justification). Not a news flash. There are real problems in Christian churches that this book correctly identifies. To name a few: our actions don’t always match our message, glitz and polish can overpower the message, there are distorted versions of the gospel being preached, we sometimes fake things (like friendliness) and that is usually detected, Christianity as a whole does not present a consistent message. While these and other things are true, the book pretty much points out the obvious. We don’t really need to hire an atheist as a consultant to tell us these things. Further, the solution is not to abandon all claims to truth and avoid all questions of eternal rather than merely temporal consequence. Nor is it to abandon the gospel that God is ultimately looking for faith in Him, rather than works, as good and as necessary as they are. The solution is to know what the Bible teaches and be as consistent with that as possible.
Despite the good points, the book has some fundamental problems.
First, is the choice of a committed atheist as the ideal “consultant” to advise us as to what a church should be. Find someone who is predisposed to find fault and then pay him to do so. Surprise, surprise he is extremely critical. Casper is a “friendly” atheist (compared to say, Richard Dawkins) in that he has personal relationships with believers whom he likes personally. He is tolerant of religious “beliefs” as long as we understand they are not actually true. But make no mistake, he has a pretty big chip on his shoulder and is hostile to any God who is real. While his comments have an air of objectivity (he is being paid to be objective), he is not. We must ask the question, is a person fully committed to the fact that God does not exist the “customer” that the church needs to serve? Or more to the point is he the best judge of “what would Jesus want us to do”.
A second problem is the sample of churches that were selected. They are mostly either mega churches or non-typical churches in some fashion. The mega churches are significant in that they are influential because of their fame, but they are not at all representative of the vast majority or “ordinary” evangelical churches. The closest to an “ordinary” church is First Presbyterian, which was only included because it had been picked by an agnostic friend, and may or may not be evangelical; it is impossible to tell from the book. This church is basically a boring non-entity. One interesting pick is Jason’s House, a house church. But one wonders if this church would have been included if it were not for the fact that Jason happens to be a personal friend of Casper. While there are some "positive reviews", most churches visited were churches Jim finds fault with before visiting them, so this is decidedly a sample biased toward churches the primary author wants his atheist friend to criticize. Jim is basically using Casper to grind his ax for him.
The final problem is that Jim does not seem to even be very sure of his own faith, and definitely not very clear on what the Christian message is. - Hymns that mention the blood of Jesus are obnoxious - We cannot claim that the Christian faith is actually true, only that we hope and trust that it is - Belief is irrelevant except as a means to motivate good works; it does not seem to have eternal consequences. Jim says “Jesus had no interest in religion other than his cultural connection to it.” and we should only “practice bringing out the best in people’s understanding of spirituality even when it doesn’t sync with our beliefs”. In another section he says “What if following Jesus meant something simple… like providing affordable housing… What if that’s all we did? Would that be so bad?” Jim implicitly agrees with Casper when he contemptuously says, “Just follow… Following is a means not an end” (the end being simply doing good things in this world). Is what we believe really that irrelevant? Is the destination more important than the One we are following no matter that leads? Only if there truly is no God and no life beyond this one. - Jim says, “Christians often use the word lost to describe to describe non-Christians… I don’t like this term or subscribe to this view.” The term is a bit uncomfortable, but Jesus consistently and deliberately uses it, not once, but repeatedly.)
The bottom line for Jim is we need to “do church” in a way that will not make an atheist uncomfortable. Eternity may or may not exist, only good deeds done in this life count anyway. I get the impression that Jim believes that if we can only get an atheist to “join the club” (or not) and walk the walk, then what he believes about God won’t matter in the end. I hope this is not all Jim believes, but I can’t be sure.
The church answers to God, not the world—according to the New Testament. But the New Testament also has Paul presenting himself as “all things to all men” in order to spread the message of salvation. Paul wasn’t, of course, some kind of chameleon (or hypocrite), but he did take the audience into consideration when he preached. Still, the message was the same in its essentials, and Paul saw the church as a gathering of fellow believers, not primarily a marketing tool to reach the unsaved.
Now, to the book: the idea of two “observers” visiting megachurches is appealing—or at least it is until you get into the actual “reviews,” where you see that Matt Casper, the atheist, is hardly an objective observer of the churches he and Jim visit. He is not the proverbial “visitor from Mars,” but an atheist with (like all atheists) some prejudgments about what the church should be. He criticizes the megachurches for not emphasizing social action—but he bases that criticism on his attendance at Sunday worship, and that isn’t the time or place to see social action at work. He is correct that the church ought to be doing works of charity—but wrong in thinking that is the primary mission of the church. (That is the great divide between evangelicals and liberals. Note that the liberals haven’t exactly grown their churches by making social action their highest priority.)
I was more disturbed by the words of Jim Henderson, the former pastor who (obviously) knows more about “church culture” than the atheist does, but seems just as hostile to it. More accurately, he lets the reader know up front he already dislikes these churches. He is driving a Saturn and observes the parking lot at Saddleback Church is full of SUVs (those hypocritical Christians, so materialistic!). He wonders why Christians feel compelled to look happy at church. (Probably—duh!—the same reason we smile at parties—to show we’re pleased to be where we are, and to leave our gripes at home for awhile.) Henderson gives the impression that, since he is no longer in the church business, he can put on a sarcastic smirk toward anything that takes place in churches. (Guess which it is easier to do—grow a church or criticize?)
Lord knows there is much to criticize in the megachurches, and I already had a jaundiced view of Joel Osteen before reading this book. But I can’t really see what purpose the book serves, other than to make money for the ex-pastor. I know that God desires all people to be saved, but the message of this book (if it has one) is to make sure very worship service is something that would appeal to snide observers like Jim and Casper. I would hardly categorize either of them as a “honest seeker,” since Casper was HIRED to attend church, and Jim sees his role as one of criticizing pastors more successful than himself.
I’m so sorry Tyndale published this, since in the past they were reliably evangelical and would not have published a book like this.
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Review 3 for Jim and Casper Go to Church
Good insight but...
Date:March 28, 2012
I had to constantly remind myself, while reading, that this book had one objective and that was to look at church from an atheists perspective. There were some questions I would have liked to have seen answered (some were addressed at the end of the book). One thing that was not mentioned at all, and I think the project should have focused on this, is that the church gathers to worship God and Jesus Christ, not to see what we can get. If our focus is on people and not on God then we've missed the point of gathering together. The other point I disagree with wholeheartedly is Casper's offense at the Gospel presented as fact and not one's belief or hope, a point Jim seemed to agree with. Jim states that even believer's will not know for sure until they die. Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life." He didn't say, "I hope I am the way..." "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."
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Review 4 for Jim and Casper Go to Church
Date:July 16, 2008
I will grant that this is an interesting book. It held my attention and made me think. Unfortunately it made me think most about the prejudices and bias of the "Christian" author and the wisdom of tailoring church to meet the demands of the market. This book certainly goes forward with the belief that non-Christians are a market force we should be tailoring our services to. I also was struck my the constant "Emergent" feel of the author that the only good church/gospel is a socially appealing church/gospel, and that view I must reject. I will continue to be old fashioned and teach Jesus Christ and him crucified even though I know this will be counted as folly.
This book makes for interesting reading. What it also makes you realize is that every atheist has their own flavor. Casper still bears the imprint of church childhood influence and measures every ministry and life through the eyes of service. His attraction to the house church format also reveals his hunger for a sense of family and belonging. Atheists don't "gather."
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Review 6 for Jim and Casper Go to Church
Date:October 16, 2007
A great insight into the church through the eyes of an atheist. You may not think you can learn anything from an atheist, but this book will get you asking if maybe the churches in America have taken a wrong turn following the road of entertainment & materialism rather than humility and servanthood.
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Review 7 for Jim and Casper Go to Church
Date:August 24, 2007
I JUST PUT THIS BOOK DOWN AND I MUST SAY AS A PASTOR IT MADE ME THINK OF HOW WE REACH THE LOST AROUND US. IT WOULD BE A GOOD BOOK FOR ANY PASTOR TO READ THAT IS LOOKING TO REACH THE UNCHURCHED.
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Review 8 for Jim and Casper Go to Church
Date:June 8, 2007
A great review of differences between some major and minor churches, with subtle suggestions on the author's preferences for what makes a church a better church. (Serving its congregation? Serving the church community? Serving the greater community?) Includes lots of thought-provoking comments.