Book review: Jim and Casper Go To Church
What does church look like to an outsider, much less one who doesn’t even believe in the God the churches preach about?
And, what would that person’s observations be if he was taken on a tour of contemporary megachurch evangelical Christianity, and was told to be upfront and straight-up honest about what he saw?
We get to find out what one atheist thought in the book Jim & Casper Go To Church, co-written by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper. Casper is the atheist, and Henderson (co-founder and executive director of Off the Map) is a Christian who offered to take Casper on a tour of 11 churches in southern California, suburban Chicago and metro Houston to get his views on what he saw and experienced at each church, and that included his views as an atheist.
The book conveys the duo’s experiences very well, and is written in the first-person (from Henderson’s point of view). Henderson writes each chapter about the experiences he and Casper had at whatever church they chose to visit and critique. He would tell something about the church they were in and answer whatever questions Casper had, and Casper would give what he was hired to give: his honest feedback.
Casper and Henderson visited some of the biggest and most well-known megachurches in America – Saddleback, Willow Creek, Potter’s House, Mosaic, and Lakewood.
The duo also visited a couple of emerging churches in Portland, Oregon, along with the charismatic Dream Center in Los Angeles; Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church in Seattle; a white Presbyterian church in suburban Chicago and a less-affluent, predominantly black church 10 minutes away; and the house church of a drummer in Casper’s rock band.
The megas didn’t come off very well in Casper’s critiques; he noted, for one thing, their affluence and how it contrasted to his understanding of who Jesus was and what He represented. He also noted how many of them made their ‘pitch’ for people ‘s money (what most Christians understand to be the giving of tithes and offerings).
Casper seemed to give high marks to Lawndale (the urban Chicagoland church) for its outreach to the community and to “Jason’s House” (the house church) for its honesty and realism (as opposed to the megas).
But two things in the book stood out to me.
The first, and biggest of the two, is Casper and Henderson’s negative critique of Lakewood, in suburban Houston. This is Joel Osteen’s church, and by recent reports is drawing more than 40,000 attendees each weekend. Henderson’s modus operandi throughout most of their church visits was to remain silent while Casper spoke, ask questions, tell about the church and answer any questions Casper raised during the service. But he was as negative toward the Lakewood “show” as Casper was; Casper even commented Osteen didn’t say anything that Tony Robbins (the noted self-help speaker) hadn’t said better.
The second came in the chapter where the duo visited Mosaic, the church led by Christian “rock star” pastor and speaker Erwin McManus. Henderson writes about a conversation he and Casper had with McManus before the service, and the telling comments come in what Casper and Henderson said about the conversation.
“He had a savvy way of talking to me; he didn’t really fully answer my questions, yet I felt the conversation was progressing. It was weird, like talking to a salesman” (pg. 30), said Casper, who also noted how McManus seemed to misunderstand Casper’s lack of belief in any religion as a belief system of its own, like Hinduism or Buddhism (29).
Henderson observed that McManus wasn’t listening as much as trying to control the conversation (30).
Later in that chapter, referring to McManus explaining a video shown at the end of the service, Henderson said “many of my young Christian friends also want the opportunity to come to their own, uncontrived conclusions. Maybe this is the heart of the matter when it comes to communicating with non-Christians. Rather than talking down to people we’re trying to influence, we’d be wise to remember that just because they don’t have God, it doesn’t mean they have no soul.” (35)
This is a good resource to have when wondering what atheists might think of our Christian subculture, especially in the light of the growing influence of hardcore, aggressive atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on American intellectual life.
It’s also a good resource to have to see what contemporary American Christianity, in its megachurch, suburban, urban, charismatic, seeker-friendly, small group, mainline and emergent guises looks from the outside, by a person who more than once seems to understand more what Jesus was about than the churches themselves do.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I purchased this book myself, and my opinions are my own and not those of the author nor the publisher. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”