Tim McConnell. Happy Church: Pursuing Radical Joy as the People of God. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2016. See here to buy the book.
Happy Church is about how God wants the church and the Christians in it to be happy. Tim McConnell is a pastor at a Presbyterian church and has a Ph.D. in early Christian theology from the University of Virginia.
Here are some of my thoughts about this book:
A. I liked how McConnell referred to historic Christian thinkers, such as Athanasius, Augustine, and Karl Barth. That enhanced the book and gave it a little more of a scholarly flavor.
B. McConnell discusses scholar Ellen Charry’s God and the Art of Happiness. According to McConnell, Charry argues in that book that early Christians were very interested in happiness, but that “Christianity lost this emphasis as Christians got more interested in self-sacrifice and self-denial—-ironically, after the period of persecution was over” (McConnell’s words on page 39). On another subject, McConnell states on page 33 that “the Westminster Catechism taught that ‘cheerfulness of spirit’ is a duty connected to the sixth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.'” McConnell’s book did not sweep me off my feet, and I did not find it to be particularly deep. Still, I did find these two points to be interesting. At least I learned something new from McConnell’s book! And I am encouraged to read Charry’s book!
C. In many cases, my problem with the book was me rather than the book itself. If you are struggling with Christian doctrines about, say, the afterlife, then you may not identify that much with McConnell’s argument that an eternally blissful afterlife can give people hope and happiness right now. One does have to assume Christian doctrines to have the sort of happiness that McConnell talks about. McConnell would undoubtedly agree with that.
D. Does McConnell give practical tips on how to be happy? On some level, he does. He says that having a purpose or mission in life can make one happy. Feeding on God’s word, singing praise, and prayer within a community also contribute to happiness, according to McConnell.
E. I wish there was more Good Friday in the book. The book was a bit too chipper for my taste. It was like eating too much candy. McConnell’s talk about happiness should have been balanced out with an acknowledgement of suffering. Granted, there were times when McConnell did acknowledge suffering or misfortune. He said that, when he was dating the woman who would become his wife, he was the pessimist and she was the optimist. Yet, he was the Christian one of the two! McConnell talks about how Ellen Charry wrote her scholarly work on happiness after losing her husband to cancer. He mentions a person who was cheerful after losing all of his possessions in a natural disaster. Overall, though, there was not much in the book on suffering, or on how trying to be happy can be a struggle. McConnell quoted the great preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, but McConnell should have at least mentioned that Spurgeon struggled with depression. One needs Good Friday to appreciate Easter Sunday. Plus, many wonder how to find Easter Sunday when they are experiencing Good Friday.
F. I struggle with some points that McConnell makes. McConnell states that people who believe this life is all there is may leave the moment their spouse disappoints them, since they are trying to be happy in this short life. I can envision that happening, but that is not necessarily the case. McConnell talks about churches that died and says that, while they may have prayed, they probably prayed more for the survival of the church than the mission of the church. Again, that is something to think about, but it is not necessarily the case. There are mainline Protestant churches that actively served their community, yet they closed due to lack of members and funds. McConnell says that Christians should at least try to be happy in order to witness to the watching world, and he even goes so far as to suggest (or at least imply) that the church should discipline those church members who are negative and complaining. Maybe there is something to that; but there is also something to be said for authenticity and trying to minister to those who are discontent.
G. Related to (F.), I thought that there was one occasion in which McConnell should have been more empathetic. He was talking to a couple who preferred to listen to sermons at home rather than to attend church. His response to them was to extol the glories and benefits of the church. But maybe not everyone has experienced church that way.
H. I somewhat liked what McConnell said on page 63 about praise: “…we feel joy as we fulfill our purposes as God’s creatures, which is to reflect [God’s] glory in all we do. [T]he lost in the world hear a song they are missing. Like a distant bagpipe in the mountain mist, they hear a tune they thought they knew once—-a siren song drawing them toward something they have always longed for. The lost hear the song of home.”
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.