What would happen if a pastor and an atheist decided to visit some of America’s largest churches together? That simple question led to a book called Jim and Casper Go to Church. Over a period of several months in 2006, Jim Henderson (the pastor) and Matt Casper (the atheist) dropped in unannounced on Willowcreek, Saddleback, the Potter’s House, Lakewood Church, some emerging churches, a house church, and several other congregations.
This easy, breezy book records their thoughts, observations, questions, arguments, agreements, likes and dislikes regarding all the churches they visited. Along the way the two men become genuine friends, discovering lots of common ground even though they disagree on some very fundamental issues, such as the existence of God. When I say that this is an “easy, breezy” book, I mean only that it is fun to read and not meant to be a deep analysis of any of the congregations they visited. In the nature of the case, we learn as much about Jim and Casper as we do about the churches they visited.
Some people won’t like this book. The idea of being a stealth visitor will bother some readers. Along the way Jim and Casper both reveal their own viewpoints regarding what the church should be doing in the world today. It happens that I don’t share Jim’s viewpoint in some areas but that is a matter of no importance. If I found a Hindu and we toured ten or twelve churches and then wrote a book about it, our viewpoints would come through also. So that’s no big deal.
I enjoyed the book because it offers a fascinating glimpse into some of America’s most famous megachurches and it introduces us to the good work being done in places like Lawndale Community Church in Chicago plus we get a quick snapshot of some of the better-known emerging churches.
As I read the book, I kept thinking that the Sunday worship experience of most churchgoers is entirely unlike the huge productions that Jim and Casper dislike so much. The authors chose the larger churches precisely because they draw so much attention. I wonder what they would have thought about Eggville Free Will Baptist Church. I don’t mean that ironically but simply to point out that for millions of Americans, church on Sunday means gathering with a hundred or two hundred people for a worship service that has no smoke machine. It also hit me that, except for their visit to the First Presbyterian Church of River Forest, they had no exposure to congregations in the mainline denominations. In some ways that chapter was the most fascinating of the book because they seemed almost bemused by what they experienced. Yet that service is more typical of most churches than the high-powered extravaganza at Lakewood Church in Houston. Of course I doubt that any publisher would have cared for “Jim and Casper Visit Ten Typical Churches Including a Few Small Churches You Never Heard Of.”
That aside, it is fascinating to ponder a larger question, one that the book is not intended to answer. To what degree should worship services be aimed at nonmembers? As Jim points out, the public worship service remains the number-one point of entry for the unchurched in our culture. How far should we go in making our services intelligible to the unchurched? I regard that as an enduring and unanswerable question. The Christian church has grappled with this issue in various ways for twenty centuries, with responses all the way from the Amish and the Primitive Baptists to the “seeker-driven” services that aim everything at “Unchurched Joe and Mary.” No one is surprised that Haitian churches reflect Haitian culture or that Chinese churches offer services in Mandarin and Cantonese. Those are the easy ones to figure out. But the larger question remains. How far should we go, and how much should our Sunday programming (not a biblical term, by the way) be shaped by the people we want to reach? Every church answers that question in its own way, and if we say it doesn’t matter what outsiders think, well, that too is an answer.