I couldn’t read Matt Johnson’s book without associating him with my time at Mars Hill church in Seattle, Washington. Although it’s been several years since our church fell apart due to sinful leadership, I’m a slow processor and many of my feelings remain unresolved about Mars Hill.
I attended Mars Hill with Matt for the last 5 years of the church, though he had been part of Mars Hill for over 17 years. We ran into each other a few times, but after Mars Hill broke up, we hadn’t really been in contact. When I saw that he was publishing a new book, I jumped at the chance to read and review it, knowing full well that we both would be struggling through some of the emotional pain of our church disintegrating.
The Book is Not: A different way to view Christianity
When Mars Hill dissolved, a good portion of 15,000 members went through a period of re-evaluation about their spirituality and religion, leaving some members Atheists, Catholics, or just struggling Christians searching for answers. With a title like Getting Jesus Wrong, I figured there was a good chance that this was the culmination of Matt’s post Mars Hill thoughts, but it was so much more.
The Book Is: Biblical Theology in Personal, Imperfect, Practice
In the first half of the book Matt tells about his interactions with Christianity growing up, and how they all tied into four different common portrayals of Jesus: the Life Coach Jesus, Checklist Jesus, Movement Leader Jesus, and Visionary Jesus. Empty one sided pictures of Jesus that don’t help anyone, but rather lead to bondage,
“The advice-oriented teaching I received in churches was meant to be helpful. Nobody was knowingly trying to deceive me or the congregation. I’m sure that many of the popular Christian books on the shelves steeped in Christian-y advice come from well-intentioned authors. I believe the speaker on the tape series that got passed around at that little Pentecostal church I attended was well-intentioned too. The problem is that a message that hinges on what I must do can never be a good news message.”
In the second half of the book, Matt pivots to the basic tenants of Law and Grace, Biblically backed, solid, beautiful teaching,
“The Law shuts everyone’s mouth and makes every single soul accountable to God. No human being is justified in themselves. Notice the glorious word but. BUT now God is doing something new in Jesus Christ. And this, dear Christian, is your glorious hope. Hang on to Jesus. Believe him. Trust him. He is the resurrection and the life.”
The Book Could Be: Confessions of a Mars Hill Pastor
I remember Matt at Mars Hill, standing up front after service, praying for people and answering questions, but really we never had much interaction past his pastoral role in the church. I almost wanted this to be a tell-all about Mars Hill, but reading through it, he wasn’t focused on pointing fingers, unless he was pointing the fingers at his own pride and arrogance during that time. In fact, the focus of the book was really more about misperceptions of Jesus than solely about Matt’s personal church life. Matt even says early in the book,
“I’m tempted to bash the preacher who championed this particular brand of gender roles pride. I’m pretty confident there’s plenty to bash, but I’ll leave that to professional bloggers. They’re good at it. But he had followers (like me) for a reason. The congregation liked pride-filled messages because we were prideful ourselves.”
While Matt never specifically names any church in the book, his critiques are pointed and his words are exactly how I felt, as our church fell apart:
“Certain leaders assured us that there were big, happy surprises ahead. I was told a very important meeting was upcoming where ongoing issues and concerns would be addressed. We’d held out hope that the downward spiral would self-correct somehow. It was exciting to anticipate that maybe we’d get our church back. It was like Santa coming to town. But Santa never came with presents. Instead, Santa burnt the house down. Instead of goodies, he left a flaming brown paper bag on the front porch full of dog crap. Merry Christmas, church!”
Watch Out For Self Righteousness
In Chapter 5, Matt started talking about looking back over his previous views as a pastor, and how he see things differently now,
“After a nice, concise gospel presentation, a strong prescription for what the new life looked like got tacked on to the end of the sermon on a regular basis. It was a one-dimensional script: ‘Now that you belong to Jesus, it’s time to live a transformed life. Get married, have children (lots of them), buy a house, make lots of money, live up to traditional gender roles. Dads, be a hero to your wife and kids. Moms, stay home with the children and be a domestic acrobat with baked goods skills.’ […] Our community had become so bent on secondary, non-salvation issues it was like Jesus stopped short of being our Savior. Instead, he’d become the champion of our own American Dream.”
One of the most difficult things about the message of Law and Grace is that it feels so easy, when in fact, it’s really difficult for us to grasp. One of the dangers that we can face in embracing this message is self righteousness: Yeah that’s right! Tell those fundamentalists exactly what they’re doing wrong, they’re so closed minded they can’t be holy, acting out of their traditional values!
I think Matt recognizes that tendency and pushes back. There isn’t a better note that I can end on:
“We do need to play by the rules of the ‘Owner’s Manual for Life.’ Of course you should be making more of an impact in the world. You should feel really excited and energized in your faith. We all should. All God’s demands are good, but the problem is, all the demanding isn’t helping any of our doing. I don’t know about you, but the exhortation to live a transformed life doesn’t have an ounce of power to get me out of bed each morning.
If you’ve been told that the core of the Christian faith is your ongoing transformation by making good on all the Jesus-y advice, you’re getting ripped off. Save yourself the heartache and peruse the self-help aisle instead. But if you have an inkling that the Christian life has something deeper to offer, you’re onto something.
The fact is—and this has to be received in faith—God is making all things new despite whether you are willing or able to cooperate with him. Those who are in Christ, those who belong to Jesus possess a glorious already-not-yet present. Yes, we are called to express our faith in love, but don’t forget that faith is God’s gift. That good gift is not based on your ability to perform for him. You’re in the family. You’re adopted, loved, and secure.”
Find the Book
Matt Johnson is a husband, father to two little girls, and is an armchair student of theology living in Seattle. He is also a freelance writer and editor. Until recently, Matt spent 7 years as an associate volunteer pastor in counseling and recovery ministry. Grab his book at therealmattjohnson.com