Jim Henderson, former pastor and co-founder of Off the Map, a ministry which helps Christians communicate with non-Christians, teams up with Matt Casper, a confirmed atheist, to visit and critique evangelical churches across America. Henderson wanted to communicate to church leaders what the unchurched perceive when they attend church, “What do first-timers see? How are they treated? What are the central messages they glean? How do they process the experiences? On what basis do they decide whether or not to return” (p. xi).
To this end, Jim hires Casper to travel the country with him giving his observations of church services from an unbeliever’s viewpoint. The concept is intriguing, if not doomed from the start. It is flawed because the Lord has already informed us that the gospel is foolish to the unbeliever (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). The church gathered is, according to Scripture, the people of God who have come together to worship, study, pray, partake of the Lord’s Supper, fellowship and then scatter to be the light of the world in their communities. But the fact is, many evangelical churches have abandoned the biblical paradigm and forged new models of the church. These churches are gearing their gatherings to attract the unbeliever and it is of utmost importance that they be aware of how unbelievers respond to their services. Jim and Casper Go to Church was written to provide this type of information.
For their research Jim takes Casper to mostly well-known megachurches scattered throughout the country. To the renown such as Saddleback, the Dream Center, Imago, Mars Hill, Mosaic, Willow Creek, Lakewood, and the Potter’s House, are added a couple of mid-sized churches and a house church. It should be observed that no conservative, Bible-centered churches were visited. Average churches in America would have around 100 attendees with 90% being less than 300, but this range of churches was not included. Nor were churches of any size visited in which the teaching of the Word was central. No congregation that understands the biblical model for the church as outlined above made the book. All churches listed, with possibly one exception, were either seeker-sensitive or emergent.
But what did Casper think of the churches he visited? Of the churches most successful at attracting “seekers” – Saddleback, Willow Creek, and Lakewood – he found their “performances as slick and professional, but contrived and soulless (pp. 4, 16-16, 18, 32, 39-40, 54). He was also quick to proclaim phoniness in such churches (pp. 43-44, 55, 67, 93, 120, 136-142). He was turned off by the “prosperity gospel” found in several places and even called Joel Osteen a “bottom-feeder” who is in it for the money (pp. 20-21, 123, 127-128, 138). Only in the smaller churches did Casper sense authenticity (e.g. p. 55). And while Casper may be right in his assessment, there is one big problem with it – he apparently does not represent the average unbeliever. Megachurches are mega because they have been successful at attracting and retaining unbelievers (hopefully bringing at least some of these to Christ). That Casper is put off by the very things that are attracting millions tells those who are interested in this book that it doesn’t offer them much in the way of advice. Follow Casper’s formula and your church may be more genuine and authentic but it will be small, and people reading these books do not want small churches.
Casper makes some good points: the message at most churches he visited was too vague (p. 46); it seems out of place to hire non-Christian musicians to professionalize the performance (p. 56) and pour money into light shows, cameras and fog machines; and many pastors “cherry-pick” from the Bible rather than teach it in context (pp. 60, 141-142). As might be expected from an atheist, he misunderstands the whole point: he thinks the church overemphasizes the blood of Christ (p. 92), dislikes biblical teaching on the role of women in the church (p. 101), distains Christians making truth claims (pp. 110, 145, 166-167, 169), is ignorant of the teachings of Jesus even as he claims to love them (p. 154), is not interested in what Christians believe (he just wanted to know what they do) (pp. 6-7), and believes what Christians should do is make the world a better place to live, not try to save souls. Casper does leave his Christian reader with one profound question: “Is this what Jesus told you guys to do?” That is a question worth pondering with an open Bible.
Jim, on the other hand, is the Christian in this pair and yet he is certainly not your typical evangelical. Jim is clearly in the emergent church camp and, as a matter of fact, this whole book seems to have been written in disguised form to promote the emergent agenda. Jim claims to be a Christian who is opened minded about his faith, to such a degree that he apparently could walk away from it (p. xxviii); after all, “non-Christians are just like me, except they’re not currently interested in Jesus to the same degree I am” (p. xxxv). His ministry teaches people that they “don’t have to be a Christian to be a follower of Jesus” (p. 51). And the task of the church is to be missional rather than evangelistic. Over and over Henderson hammers home the idea that “Jesus came to start a movement that would advance his mission of bringing reality, sanity, and love back to planet Earth” (p. 19). The mission of the church is to provide affordable housing, relieve world suffering, and make this world a better place (pp. 8, 18, 19, 62, 64, 83, 84, 93-95, 100, 164, 167-168). Jim quotes with approval, “I realized that ‘get saved’ evangelism was designed for suburban folk. It had little meaning in an urban context…People in the city are not encumbered primarily with feelings of guilt. Their deepest feelings are of hopelessness” (p. 65).
Jim is not interested in eternal life. He is interested in what he calls “bringing the kingdom of God to earth” (pp. 19, 65, 95, 157, 159, 167-168). In response to a question about our eternal destiny being the crux of Christianity he writes,
Not for Casper and not for me. My life with Christ is now. I want to make this world a better place. I want to see Jesus’ prayer answered that his Kingdom would come on Earth as it is in heaven. I want to see kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our God and his Christ. I want the incarnate Jesus to express himself through me to the poor in spirit. I want to give a cup of cold water to a little child in Jesus’ name…. Going to heaven is icing on the cake and I expect Jesus’ first words to me upon arrival to simply be “Nice Try” (p. 168).
To Jim, the kingdom of God looks more like “Habitat for Humanity or Alcoholics Anonymous” (p. xvi). What Jim is missing is that, while all believers recognize their role in improving society, such is not the priority of the church. We are to tell the world that those who trust in Christ the Lord has “rescued out of the domain of darkness, and transferred to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col 1:13). We are to proclaim the gospel of redemption, not just clean up the planet. Jesus was pretty clear that His kingdom was not of this world (John 19:36).
Even more disturbing and indicative of Jim’s emergent bent is his message of uncertainty (pp. 110, 145, 166-167, 169). He summarizes his thoughts:
There is a difference between certainty, and confidence or hope. As followers of Jesus, we put our faith in a set of beliefs that we choose to think of as real. We cannot prove any of them – that is why it is called faith. What bothers nonbelievers is when we assert that we “know” something, when they know that none of us can know anything until we die. I am very comfortable asserting my faith and my hope and my confidence that Jesus is God, but I will not say that I know he is God in the way I say I know there is gravity. I hope the story I have bet my life on is true, but neither Casper nor I will know for sure until both of us are dead.
How does one proclaim this kind of gospel? Jim is confused about the content of faith, but he is sure about uncertainty.
Jim and Casper Go to Church ends up being of virtually no value. Casper’s observations, as an unbeliever, are purely the subjective opinions of one man who is totally out of the mainstream with the masses. Jim’s comments are not based in Scripture and do not represent biblical Christianity. The book is a thinly veiled attempt to promote the emergent church agenda, and in my opinion does a poor job of even doing that. – Gary Gilley, Christian Book Previews.com
This was from an unpublished manuscript and pages in the actual book may be different.
“Is this what Jesus told you guys to do?”
Light shows, fog machines, worship bands, and offering plates—is this what Jesus intended? Atheist Matt Casper wants to know.
In 2006, Jim Henderson, veteran Christian and director of Off The Map, hired Casper to join him in visiting twelve of America’s best- and least-known churches, including Rick Warren’s Saddleback and Joel Osteen’s Lakewood. Week after week, this spiritual odd couple attended services at churches all over the country and documented their experiences at and reactions to each one. Along the way, they found the real value of their journey in the open and authentic friendship that developed as they talked, questioned, joked, and—most importantly—listened.
Follow along with Jim and Casper on their visits, and eavesdrop as they discuss what they found. Jim and Casper’s articulate, sometimes humorous, and always insightful dialogue offers Christians a new view of an environment in which we’ve become overly comfortable: the church. And it models an important transition from “defending the faith” to “defending the space”—relational space for authentic, respectful dialogue and friendship with nonbelievers