I wrote the following for my Missional Growth and Health class at Northwest Nazarene University. Given the requirements of the assignment, I did not write all that I could write about this great book. I highly recommend it.
I was born and raised in a Christian family. I have been in a worship service almost every Sunday of my life. Though I did not become a Christ-follower myself until I was fifteen years old, I have always accepted the validity of the Christian message. Thus, in my most objective and honest moments, I must admit that my objectivity is, in fact, quite lacking. In his Forward to Henderson and Casper’s book Jim and Casper Go to Church, George Barna writes, “Most churched people have been so immersed in the church world that they have completely lost touch with what it is like to come through the church door and try to fit into a place that has very distinct habits, language, goals, events, titles, architecture, traditions, expectations, and measurements” (Location 112). Barna’s words describe my own situation well.
Henderson and Casper’s book tells the story of Jim Henderson, a Christian pastor, and Matt Casper, an atheist, as they journey together for two months to several different churches. Henderson writes, “This is the story of what happens when two guys with polar-opposite worldviews go to church together. As a Christian, I was overwhelmed by the experience of seeing something I took for granted, through the eyes of an atheist. It was simply life changing” (Location 371). People can learn a great deal about themselves when they learn to listen to those different than themselves. Henderson’s experiences with Casper helped him to become aware of things that churches do that create barriers in connecting with the unchurched, but these experiences also revealed things that churches do that can help bring unity to people from very different backgrounds. We can and should learn a great deal from this book to help us improve the ways in which we connect with unchurched people in our own settings.
Henderson took Casper to a variety of different churches, including some of America’s leading mega-churches. First up was Saddleback, the church pastored by Rick Warren. Casper’s first critique about Saddleback was regarding the music. He thought that the presentation was top notch, but He did not have a positive reaction to it overall. Casper, a musician, told Henderson, “The music is too contrived, too slick, too professional, really . . . When it comes to music, I like it pure. Too much polish and you lose the heartfelt power, you lose the soul of the music, and you’re not gonna move anyone” (Location 533). He had a similar reaction to the music at Willow Creek: “This stuff doesn’t seem to be doing anything for anybody” (Location 1096). In contrast, when they visited Lawndale Community Church, a church that connects directly with many people in need, Casper perceived the music differently: “I’m just enjoying the songs more here, even though the call to belief in the words is the same as we’ve seen elsewhere . . . But these folks are singing these words with abandon, real feeling” (Location 1523). Likewise, Casper had a positive reaction to the music at Imago Dei in Portland: “There’s definitely something much less contrived about the people onstage here . . . There’s something folksy about it” (Location 1904).
Though Casper and I come from different backgrounds, his reaction to the music at these churches is similar to what mine likely would have been. I am not fond of an overly-produced worship experience. Music should certainly be done well, and all those involved in the technological side should do their best to keep things running smoothly, but when things are too slick, it seems to me to lose a certain amount of authenticity. God has called us to come to God in our brokenness, not to try to perfect ourselves first. I do think that we should desire to bring our best to God, but realistically speaking, our best is insignificant next to the glory of God. Besides the amount of effort put into the production, though, there was something else about places like Lawndale and Imago Dei that won Casper’s favor.
As Henderson took Casper to Lawndale, Casper had a hard time locating the church at first. He saw places labeled “Lawndale”, but he did not see what he expected of a regular church building. Henderson wrote, “Stand on the street in front of Lawndale Community Church, and you’ll see what church growth backward looks like” (Location 1464). The neighborhood in which the church is located contains Lawndale Health Center, which was started by the church. Nearby, you can also find Hope House, which is a recovery place for drug addicts. There is even a pizza restaurant that the church started to provide both a community gathering place and jobs for people that the church is helping through the recovery process. After hearing the sermon at Lawndale, Casper said, “Too often what I’ve seen thus far is pastors being focused on one thing: saving souls . . . But this guy I get. I mean, he’s saving people” (Location 1544). When they visited Imago Dei, they found that the church met in the auditorium of a school building, and most those attending were young people. In the worship service, they watched a video showing the work of a team from the church in restoring a public park. Casper responded to the video, “That was excellent . . . They are going out there and making Sacred Spaces, and it’s not about plastering a bunch of Bible quotes or getting in people’s faces. It’s about making a tangible, visible, practical difference. I get that” (Location 1924).
Casper’s comments show his concern that so many churches focus on gathering funds simply to produce the church service. Henderson writes, “But the one question that was far and away the most difficult for me to hear was this one: ‘Jim, is this what Jesus told you guys to do?’” (Location 2732). Casper asked this question time and again while they were on their journey together. When Casper saw the evidence of lives being transformed through the work of the church, he could see something worthwhile taking place. However, far too often, what was most visible was the amount of money spent on production and facilities to house the production.
Casper’s concerns parallel much of what I have found myself thinking in recent years. In the Great Commission, Jesus told His disciples, “Go . . .” Often, though, we seem to think that the Great Commission is, “If you build it, they will come.” I think that facilities are important, but they are not the heart of the Gospel. We live in a broken world, and God has established the church, with Christ as its head and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to bring restoration to brokenness. Though the regular worship gathering is important, there is much more that we are called to do. We gather to be empowered, but then we are to take what we have received and extend it to all those around us. Casper’s observations are important for us to take note of. If we are to be a restorative people in the broken world, we need to be less focused on polishing ourselves and more focused on showing love and compassion to all, and especially the marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed.
Henderson, Jim & Matt Casper. Jim & Casper Go to Church. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2007. Kindle.