If you’re giving this title a second and then a third glance, chances are that you’re a member of the book’s target audience: one of many churchgoers disaffected by their experiences with organized, corporate church life and hungrily seeking a new, fresh experience of God in their lives. If, on the other hand, you love the routine of “going to church” once a week and slamming the car door on religion as you leave your place of worship, then this book may shake you up and leave you feeling mildly, uncomfortably seditious after reading more than a few pages. Either way, you won’t stop thinking about this book’s message for a while.
Authors Jacobsen and Coleman are, according to their biographies, former pastors who have left organized religion behind on their journey toward living ever more fully in God. They tell what seems to be an autobiographical tale through the device of a first-person narrator - a pastor named Jake Colsen (an amalgamation of the authors’ names?) - who encounters a mysterious fellow named John. (Yes, possibly that John.) John appears as Jake is undergoing a time of deep personal tribulation, having been blamed unfairly for problems at the church he helps pastor. The seemingly unorthodox wisdom shared by the itinerant man shakes Jake’s notions of what it means to live as a Christian in today’s North American church - including whether it’s necessary for observant Christians to “go to church” every Sunday.
Each chapter deals with the arguments Jake brings up in response to John’s suggestions of why things seem to be going from bad to worse in Jake’s own experiences of the corporate Christian life. (The word “corporate,” it should be noted, refers not to the sense of being related to commerce or business but to the idea of the Christian corpus - the body of Jesus Christ made up of those who call themselves Christians.) For example, when Jake asks John if believers aren’t called together in order to hold each other accountable for their actions and their walk of faith, John replies that
“real body life isn’t built on accountability. It’s built on love. We’re to encourage one another in the journey without conforming people to the standard we think they need.” Holding others accountable to our own standards, says John, results in rewarding “those who are better at putting on a front” while we “miss those who are in the real struggle of learning to live in Jesus.”
As Jake begins to embrace John’s counsel, he finds himself talking more and more with others like himself who have been wounded and disillusioned by corporate Christian life - including other pastors who sometimes count the minutes until Sunday morning worship will be finished before they even step out of their cars in the church parking lot. The experience is eye-opening for this man of faith, as it will be for many readers who will find themselves thinking, “I didn’t know other people felt this way.”
Although the authors’ decision to tell this story through the device of the stranger who appears at crucial moments and whose origins are shrouded in mystery feels clichéd and almost like cheating at times, it’s difficult to think of another way the message could have been shared in fictional form. The prose is direct and readable and the profluence fine. The reader is pulled along with Jake to learn more from John. Jacobsen and Coleman’s authority to raise such questions of faith and to offer alternatives to “church life” as it is conducted in North America today seem unassailable, given their pastoral roles and experiences. Finally, even if the reader does not ultimately agree with John’s answers to Jake’s questions, he or she will be captivated by the very raising of difficult questions about God, Jesus Christ, faith, and what it means to live life as a Christian.
A question-and-answer section with Wayne Jacobsen at the end of the story reveals that his ideas about spiritual formation outside of organized congregations don’t necessarily lead to an easier path - but it is an adventure. And, while there may be strength in numbers, there isn’t always truth in numbers, Jacobsen contends. Asked whether being part of an institution helps preserve Christians from error, he answers that “every major heresy that has been inflicted on God’s people for the last two thousand years has come from organized groups with ‘leaders’ who thought they knew God’s mind better than anyone around them.” On the other hand, he says, “virtually every move of God among people hungering for him was rejected by the ‘church’ of that day.”