Friday, June 01, 2007
Book Review: Jim & Casper Go to Church
I should say right off the bat that it's going to be impossible for me to review this book without comparing it to Hemant Mehta's book, "I Sold My Soul on eBay". Being a personal acquaintance of both Jim and Hemant, and having been both an observer and participant in the odyssey that has led to both books, I have a perhaps slightly greater insight into the genesis of this book than the average reader would. The short version of how this book came about is that Hemant put an ad on eBay offering to go to church for the highest bidder. Jim Henderson from Off the Map won the bid and "hired" Hemant to be an atheist mystery shopper for a number of churches in and around Chicagoland (including my own). After this initial round of churches was completed Hemant got a book deal to write about visits to a second round, while Jim found another atheist (Matt Casper) and decided to do another book with the same basic premise: an atheist's impressions of church.

However, the crucial difference is that while Hemant's church visits were solo (which one could argue is more authentic to how most seekers initially encounter church), Casper had a tour guide of sorts since Jim accompanied him to all but one of the churches. Indeed, this dynamic makes all the difference between the two, as "Jim & Casper" is more of a conversation while Hemant's book is just straight observation. Also, whereas Hemant's book is written from the viewpoint of an atheist, Jim & Casper's book is mostly written by Jim. It's an atheist's perspective as filtered and interpreted through a Christian lens (albeit, a Christian who has been rather disillusioned by most contemporary institutional evangelical churches himself).

That's actually what makes this book so interesting to read. It's like getting to listen in on a good conversation between two friends. Jim is able to ask the probing questions that force Casper to really explain his gut reactions to the churches they visit, and he is also able to provide a little bit of the context and explanation for things that didn't initially make sense to Casper, which in turn allows for deeper insights on Casper's part. When I reviewed Hemant's book I complained that his discussion was too one-sided - I wanted to be able to respond to some of his questions and explain some of the practices that left him confounded. In this book Jim is able to do that for Casper and it does make a difference in his impression of the churches. It makes me think that every newcomer to a church ought to have a tour-guide to help walk them through the experience.

Another interesting difference between Hemant's and Casper's impressions of church is that Casper has clearly had some prior experience with Christianity and an idea of what churches really ought to be all about, whereas Hemant came to it without much previous experience with Christianity - more of a blank slate as it were. Thus, while Hemant tended to judge churches based on their quality of entertainment and personal applicability factor (with both of these being a good thing in his eyes), Casper generally critiqued churches that seemed to be all about entertainment or appealing to individual self-interest. Instead, he gave high marks to churches who were primarily involved in making the world a better place and motivating people to serve others around them. For example, while Hemant gave Joel Osteen's church high marks for it's top-notch stage show and broadly applicable self-help messages with little religious content, Casper was utterly disgusted, calling Osteen a "bottom-feeder" who appealed to the worst in people, their "greed, selfishness, envy, pride: 'You're gonna get rich, you deserve abundance, you're better than nonbelievers.'" At the same time, he criticized the blandness and superficiality of Osteen's messages, saying that they'd be impossible for the average person to live out without the help of Prozac.

In contrast, the churches that made the biggest positive impression on Casper were the ones that demonstrated their faith through service in the world. He speaks highly of Lawndale Community Church in Chicago, which is known for the numerous community programs it offers to its inner-city neighborhood. He was also impressed by the handful of emerging churches he visited (e.g. Imago Dei and The Bridge, both in Portland) and his friend Jason's house church in San Diego because of their missional focus and the authenticity of relationships and worship found in the smaller group setting (as compared to the many megachurches they also visited - Willow, Saddleback, The Potter's House, etc.)

Actually, one of the things that disappointed me about this book was the number of megachurches they visited (7 out of 12). By contrast, they visited no smaller or mid-sized evangelical churches (like the type I grew up in), and only one mainline church. Neither were there any rural churches. In fact, with the exception of the one mainline Presbyterian church, every one of the churches had something exceptional about them, something that set them apart from the average church. For example, expect for the Presbyterian church and his friend's house church, I had heard of every one of the other 10 churches prior to reading the book. In other words, they are all nationally known. Personally I would have liked to hear his impressions of more "ordinary" churches, not just the celebrity churches. (Indeed, this seems to color his observations, since by the end of the book Casper seems to have the idea that a lot of pastors are just in it for the recognition and the money. While that might be true of some of the pastors at the churches he visited, I can say from first hand experience that your average pastor is far from becoming rich or famous through their ministry.)

Nonetheless, as with Hemant's book, I was very impressed with the depth of insight offered by Casper. Like Hemant, he often seems to have a better idea of what the church should really be all about than some Christians do. He challenges us to live up to our own ideals, and to give a second thought to why exactly we do the things we do in church. So often we do or say things that make sense to us as insiders, but which are utterly inexplicable or even offensive to an outsider like Casper. The value of this book then, as with Hemant's, is to be able to see ourselves from that outside perspective. It's like looking in a mirror and being able to see all the blemishes on your face that are invisible to you without the mirror.

For that reason, and just because it's a fun read, you should pick up this book - especially if you're a pastor or on church staff. A few weeks ago I got to hang out with Jim as he did a Q&A session about his book with the staff of a local mega-church. It was interesting to hear their comments. They were sensitive to Casper's concerns and really wanted to know how they could do a better job of reaching people like him. However, they were also defensive at times, defending their practices that Casper criticized, saying that "He just doesn't understand." Of course, that's kind of the point, right? If a church wants to be hospitable to newcomers - "seeker friendly" as they say - then shouldn't we always be explaining the reasons why we do what we do? Even for those people who have been a part of church for a long time, we shouldn't make any assumptions. It's always good to be reminded that the things we do in church usually have a purpose and are not just dead rituals. (And if they don't have a purpose, maybe it's time to rethink what we do.)

Anyhow, again, I'd recommend both this book and Hemant's for two unique and complementary perspectives on what church is like to true "outsiders". And if you do read it, come back here and let me know what you think.


posted by Mike Clawson at 6:43 PM | Permalink |


At 6/03/2007 08:11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous


Your review was very insightful and thorough. Thanks for taking the time to read it and encourage others to do the same



At 6/04/2007 11:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

I am in Australia, I subscribe to Barna Update so a few weeks ago we got the email about the book. Waited patently for our local distributor to import the book.
Had a great one days read. Now rereading it a little slower (I can do that now thanks to Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Read style)
For us who don't live in the US it is not all that bad that lesser known churches are in the book because to us there are a few that are known but mostly they are not, so it for us is not all that bad. For me I was really interested in the technology aspect. I thought that was an interesting insight, focus how a churches focus came across to a seeker!

I must say that since then I have watched all the interviews online a read all the blogs (how I got here)
I think that this is a very important message for the church. That what we say & how we say it is important if we want to reach beyond ourselves.