Skipping Church: Donald Miller and Disconnecting

One of my favorite childhood books was called If Everybody Did (Jo Ann Stover).  The plot was simple:  the left side of the page featured a questionable ethical decision while the right side showed what society would look like “if everybody did” that same thing.  These offenses ranged from littering to squeezing a cat too hard.  For example:

Jo Ann Stover, 1989

I’ll admit that I still think of this book and its simple lessons in ethics whenever a prominent writer offers unorthodox visions of what Christianity should look like.  If Everybody Did provides a helpful grid to think through the logical implications of Christians acting en masse.

This week Donald Miller wrote an admittedly ill-advised piece on how he prefers to skip out on his local church.  After significant backlash from the internet world, including The Gospel Coalition, Miller attempted to clarify his statements and diffuse some of the frustration.  Best known for his 2002 book Blue Like Jazz:  non-religious thoughts on Christian spirituality, Miller captured the non-committal heart of millennial Christians who liked Jesus and spirituality but either resented or ignored the traditional church experiences.   He is no stranger to controversy when it comes to church doctrine.

This particular piece focused on Miller’s dissatisfaction with local expressions of church and worship.  He confesses that he doesn’t “feel connected to God through singing” and doesn’t “learn much about God hearing a sermon.”  He adds that he’s just like “most men” in his frustrations with traditional church services.  Miller also finds fault with the way the message is given, citing his studies of psychology to demonstrate that lecturing only appeals to a small portion of the audience.  Lastly, he admits that he rarely attends church, choosing instead to connect with God most intimately and most often through his work, since “church is all around, not to be confined to a specific tribe.”

These latest musings prompted my familiar childhood grid again:  what would a world full of Christians patterned after Donald Miller’s choices about God and church look like?  If Christians collectively took his advice and followed his lead, what kind of future would the church have?  What would happen If Everybody Did?

First and foremost, Christianity would lose its sense of local church:  congregations of multi-generational Christians worshiping together through decades.  Forget for a moment that the author of Hebrews commands the new churches not to stop meeting together.  The church, says Paul, is a fragrance offered to humanity that is often wonderfully offensive to outsiders until they become part of it.  Beyond its “in-house” functions of worship and reordering our loves and desires, the church is the most prominent evangelistic reality to a watching world.

The difficulty here is that Miller wants to view the church in terms of receiving rather than in terms of its contribution to the world or in terms of his contribution to it.  Miller takes an unreasonable and fantastical position when he imagines that his personal efforts outside the church could contribute more to God’s kingdom than his faithful presence inside a local congregation.

Leslie Newbigin, in his book Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, lauds the power of the institutional church, saying:

I have come to feel that the primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation. How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross?

I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel– evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, conferences, and even books such as this one.

But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.

What is the lasting power of Christian influence in a watching world without the church?  It is only a disjointed army of individual spiritual preferences.  G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy laid these alternatives out clearly when he said:

It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own…It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands…The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once [you] let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer… The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.

What is truly fascinating is that Donald Miller is currently receiving one of the benefits of the church:  accurate and loving correction by members of the church.  The fact that he does not recognize these corrections as coming from a long line of faithful church members only makes the situation more ironic.  How can any of us say that Donald Miller is encouraging incorrect and dangerous actions for young Christians?  We cannot – unless we are connected and committed both to a long line of Christian orthodoxy and to a local congregation that reveres God’s Word.  By practicing and championing a “lone wolf” brand of Christian spirituality, Miller invites danger as he cuts himself off from any voices inside the institutional church that may disagree with him.  I am not excited about a future of “Miller-ites.”

Second, for a man who is so afraid of “tribal” versions of Christian fellowship, taking Miller’s advice on Christian intimacy with God will only lead to the worst versions of tribalism.  The local church allows and encourages worship with God and fellowship with His people across all racial, generational, economic, and cultural lines.  Suffering and rejoicing are shared between young and old and across cultures.  This is the truest form of fellowship and diversity for which the rest of the world’s institutions yearns.  While each individual church doesn’t always express this perfectly, to jettison the entire institution for these reasons is foolish.  After abandoning the structure and support of the diverse local church, with whom will Donald Miller suffer, rejoice, receive instruction, and share in the sacraments?  Surely his circuit of speaking engagements will provide some “fellowship,” but we tend to seek out people who look and act like ourselves.  I would venture to guess that unless Mr. Miller significantly bucks the trend of human interaction, his appointment book is filled with people inside his own “tribe.”  The local church may be the one place in our week where we are obligated to welcome people who look differently.  In his rebuttal, Miller counters his critics by saying that he had worked hard to create his own community – one that is sacrificial, sound, and gracious.  Somehow he doesn’t see a community constructed by his own choices as tribal.  Isn’t this is exactly what the gospel, working in tandem with the local church, warns us against?  We do not get to decide, apart from heresy, which people are allowed to be part of our Christian communities, because we are marred by our own sin and preferences.  Again, it must be stated that generations of “Miller-ites” would likely lead to empty churches and far more tribalism than he currently imagines existing in local churches.

Third, what Miller dismisses as “traditional lecture style learning” would be discarded in favor of something less helpful, less public, and less historic.  A spoken message has been the communication style of choice for a few millennia now, and I suspect that the God who created our diverse learning styles knows more about the subject than Miller does.  When God commands church leaders not to neglect the public reading of the Scripture and to preach to the people to testify about Christ, He does so with timely instructions as well as timeless insight into the hearts of men.  Notice too Paul’s argument in First Corinthians 15 and the order of events:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you…

Miller descends further when he suggests that his lack of connection with God due to long sermons is a male problem.  To fully illustrate how unreasonable this thesis is, I would have to list every preacher, ancient and modern, who disagreed with him.  Suffice it to say Donald Miller’s corner is lonely on this point.  He does, however, offer an alternative to connecting with God through long lecture-style sermons when he suggests that visual learners should learn through seeing and that kinetic learners should learn through doing things with their hands.  I can only assume that this means video clips and crafting, respectively, since he offers no details except that he “puts his hand to the plow.”   I’m not discouraging further options for other learning styles at all.  But Miller’s attitude appears to be that of a “consumer” rather than a worshipper.  If worship is not catered to his own preferences, he will simply not show up.  Again, “if everybody did,” churches would be empty, as there is always something that confronts in public worship and preaching that we would prefer differently.

Further, nobody is criticizing what Miller does with the other 166.5 hours in his week.  If he connects in a more intimate way with God through hiking, meditation, or ice skating, we would rightly commend him for doing these things intentionally.  However, for that 90 minutes of corporate, public worship on Sunday morning, some of the individual preferences of every church are bound to be disrupted.  The proclamation of the gospel, the reading of Scripture, the worship of God through music, and the sacraments all bring some offense to our hearts and our tendencies because we all enter with some amount of sin and selfishness.  At certain points, introverts are challenged to live out the gospel in a dynamic and public way.  At others, extroverts are challenged to be still.  Rock musicians are asked to play traditional hymns and gray-haired saints are asked to sing over guitar amps.  Barren women are encouraged to rejoice over baptisms and divorcees joyfully attend weddings.  The church is a tuning fork that is vitally struck during Sunday worship and then rings throughout the week.  Miller is quite correct in saying that a church building is not the church, but incorrect in neglecting Sunday worship altogether.

Finally, at the heart of my difficulty with Donald Miller’s ideas and tactics is his strong belief that Christ accomplishes His work “just as much outside of the church as inside the church.”  Miller insists that we cannot know exactly what Christ is doing; we must admit the mystery and allow God to work outside of the institutional church. I’ll let his rebuttal speak for itself:

I’d say half of the most impactful people I know, who love Jesus and tear up at the mention of His name, who reach out to the poor and lonely and are fundamentally sound in their theology, who create institutions that feed hundreds of thousands, do not attend a traditional church service. Many of them even speak at churches, but they have no home church and don’t long for one. They aren’t wired to be intimate with God by attending a lecture and hearing singing…I assure you, [God is] alive and well and happy and working both inside and outside the traditional church. He’s going places many of us are unwilling to go, or perhaps scared to go. He exists outside our worldly tribes, even if those worldly tribes are labeled as a local church.

This is intriguing, provocative, and a bit vague – the logical conclusion of lines of thought that sell many thousands of books.  But the devil here is in the details.  By not parsing out exactly what he means by “inside the church,” Miller has given young readers license to participate in God’s work in the world while not participating in a local expression of structured worship.  It is one thing to fear boredom in liturgy; it is quite another thing abandon the liturgy altogether.  The fact remains that we do know exactly what Christ is doing inside and through His church, at least in broad strokes.  He is preparing for Himself a pure bride of worshippers, calling to Himself (and implicitly to the church) those whom the Father has given Him, and, ensuring that the gates of Hell will not prevail against her, eventually presenting this church to the Father.  If Miller chooses not to participate in the divine process that exists in the institutional church, perhaps he should exit quietly.  But for him to defend his decisions by saying that God’s plans and actions inside the church are unknowably mysterious is either intellectually dishonest or naively simple.

Throughout his career as a writer, Miller has seemed to focus myopically on cultural feelings while offering non-religious thoughts on Christian doctrine.  How, then, should we receive his advice?  As a historic Christian or as something else?  When he makes dramatic statements about the life and practice of the church, he expects to be taken seriously as a theologian.  Yet when he is criticized for championing extra-Biblical habits, he shrinks back and assures us he is not.  In either case, I do not think it’s wise to follow this advice, whether he is a lonely, questionable theologian or a cultural critic.

For further reading:
Desiring the Kingdom – James K.A. Smith
The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society – Leslie Newbigin
Orthodoxy – G.K. Chesterton
If Everybody Did – Jo Ann Stover
The New Testament

This post was written by Ryan Mayo, Director of Programming at the Oread Center. Please contact him at ryan@oreadcenter.com. 

4 thoughts on “Skipping Church: Donald Miller and Disconnecting

  1. Adam Krestan

    “At certain points, introverts are challenged to live out the gospel in a dynamic and public way. At others, extroverts are challenged to be still. Rock musicians are asked to play traditional hymns and gray-haired saints are asked to sing over guitar amps. Barren women are encouraged to rejoice over baptisms and divorcees joyfully attend weddings. The church is a tuning fork that is vitally struck during Sunday worship and then rings throughout the week.”
    Reminds me of G.K. Chesterton:
    “The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce variety and uncompromising divergences of men…In a large community, we can choose our companions. In a small community, our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized society groups come into existence founded upon sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique.”

    I think Miller is among those modern types who would like to hail the effects of doctrine while forgetting the doctrine. He wants to be close to God, but he wants to find closeness to God through experience rather than teaching. He forgets that the only way to grow closer to God through experience is by applying the teaching.

    Reply
  2. Mark Jarboe

    Many evangelicals find comfort in Chesterton’s ideas. But I am plagued by what to do with his writings. His vilification of the Reformation leads me to wonder about the underpinnings for his ideas to which we are drawn. Even though many Chesterton quotes support ideas evangelicals hold dear, I just wonder if we can’t find support elsewhere.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Millennials in search of a better church | Oread Center Funnel

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