Why do people care about Donald Miller’s church attendance?
In the last few days this post from Donald Miller has received an incredible amount of attention. In it he shares that he doesn’t connect with God through the form of worship that usually includes some songs and a sermon. For that reason, he doesn’t find himself in church services too often. That sentiment has spurred quite a backlash. The responses ranged from civil and well thought out to accusatory and mean. Apparently this is a topic that strikes a nerve.
Before I saw this post from Miller (I don’t know what to call him–I don’t know him enough to call him Donald or Don and Mr. Miller just sounds so formal!), I wrote this in response to a video that dismissed church attendance, devotions, and “lists of rules” in favor of learning to live all of life like Jesus. (Which sounds great! If you think I’m crazy for having any problem with that please read what I wrote first.) Then someone sent me the link to Miller’s post thinking I was writing in response to that.
Yesterday, Miller wrote another post entitled “Why I don’t go to church very often, a follow up blog.” This is much more lengthy and explores a variety of angles on the topic. So what I’d like to do today is briefly respond to the initial blog post, then engage the various points Miller raises in his second post, and finally offer some overall observations. So that means this is going to get a little longer than normal, but I’ve labeled each section to make it easier to look through. (By the way–don’t assume this is all going to be negative. There is A LOT of good in what he wrote, as usual. And even where I disagree I hope this is a friendly dialogue, not a diatribe.)
A Response to the Original Post
Since he explained much of this post in the second one I won’t spend too much time here, but there are a few things I wanted to note.
First, when he describes the community he is a part of, I think there’s a good chance he’s describing a church (and every “local church” is really a part of the one big Church of Jesus). A community of people who intentionally pursue God together, support and challenge each other, and participate somehow in God’s big, all-encompassing, holistic mission of restoration is a church. It doesn’t matter if that group gets together in a home, a warehouse, or the kind of building traditionally called a church. And we shouldn’t be exclusively defined by our “official” gatherings either. At times we fight about this topic because our definition of what a church looks like is limited by form rather than values and behaviors.
Second, there does seem to be a tint of individualism in his approach to experiencing God. I hesitate to say this one only because many others have said it in such a mean and attacking fashion. But I think it’s important enough to at least raise the concern. In reading about the history of the people of God, especially in the Bible, it seems there is more importance placed on the whole than the individual parts. This does not mean the individual parts have no value–as image bearers of God we all have immense and undeniable value. We should pursue connection with God in the ways that fit best with how he has made us. We don’t need to pretend to connect with God in ways we don’t. At the same time, as we place the community above self, we should also consider how we might be called to engage things that don’t fit us perfectly for the sake of declaring our identity in Christ together with others. This point should not be limited to the form of what normally constitutes a worship service, I mean for this to include a wide variety of things. Whether or not I experience God from some specific practice should not be the full measure of whether it is worthwhile in my formation as an individual in a community.
Finally, I wonder if we put too much emphasis on learning styles. One thing Miller points to for whether we should engage the components of worship services is whether or not they fit our learning style. I am not denying that learning styles are a real thing! I’m admittedly not an expert in the area of education. Just thinking about my own family, there is no denying we learn best in different ways. But does having a preferred learning style preclude learning through other formats if we work to engage them? For instance, sometimes in the worship gatherings at our church we have stations set up to journal, paint, or do something tactile. I don’t learn through these as well as some other forms. But when I intentionally engage it I do benefit from it. I also greatly benefit from seeing the creation of others in our community. I don’t want to deny my learning style, nor do I want to be a prisoner of it.
Interacting with the Follow Up Post
Here I will just digest each of his points in order–with more to say about some than others.
I was moved by reader sensitivity.
I appreciate his humble response to the outcry over the first post. It is good to be passionate about things that are important, but I hope we can do it in a way that indicates an understanding that we are brothers and sisters of the same Father.
I do hope that we can also do this in ways that don’t assume moving past traditional church forms is necessarily a form of progression in spiritual maturity and understanding. “My faith and intimacy with God has grown as I’ve evolved in my understanding of church, and as I said, many find that threatening.” I think it’s good that our faith and intimacy with God grow and we wrestle with how to engage Christ’s Church. I had a season where I thought the gathered church was unnecessary, and even harmful. On the other side of that I have come to a place (for now) where I find it more important than ever. Leaving more traditional forms of church doesn’t automatically mean greater spiritual maturity.
Feelings are not valid?
If you haven’t read Miller’s post, especially this part, you should. I also cannot understand the dismissal of emotions. I have experienced it, but to marginalize emotions seems like marginalizing an essential component of how God has crafted humanity. It would be great if we stopped doing this.
Church isn’t about you, it’s about God?
“…if we don’t enjoy a specific kind of worship experience, He could care less whether we go choose one we enjoy more.” As I stated earlier, I do think pursuing God in the ways we experience him best is great. Yet I can’t help feeling like this sounds more like how we choose a restaurant for lunch than how we interact with our Creator and his Church. I am not trying to prescribe a church form here, I’m only saying that life in community and relationship (with God and others) always includes things that are easy and enjoyable and things that take work and are a struggle. Miller says this line of thinking leads to the assumption that God wants us to suffer for him (which I agree should be differentiated from whether we do suffer for him). My perspective is that relationships require sacrifice for the other–whether this is with God or other people. Do I enjoy doing the dishes? Not really. Am I okay with doing them because it’s part of my life with my family? Absolutely.
We must attend a church service to be impactful for God?
“The point, though, is this: Jesus engages people inside and outside the church. It’s almost as though He sees the church as one, without walls, denominations or tribes. I’m starting to see the church that way, too.” Yes! I hope we all come to see the church more this way. There is no doubt we have a limited understanding of God’s work.
On this one I would only add that this seems like another instance of siphoning off one thing that can be a beneficial part of following Jesus in order to make it appear inconsequential. I wrote more about that here.
No church means no community?
This is a great section. I love his point that creating community takes work–whether you’d call it a church or something else. And as I said earlier, if this community is loving God, each other, and the world in the name of Jesus, I think it’s a part of the big Church whether we call it a church or not.
You are either with us or against us.
Due to variance in belief or practice we unnecessarily set ourselves up against each other–absolutely! There should be room inside and outside our communities (or churches?) for doubt, wondering, and disagreeing. We do lose out on opportunities to grow and learn to love each other when we decide people are either “with us or against us.”
I’m not sure why Miller went on to say this, “People are either kind or mean. I choose kind ones, I don’t care what they believe. This is part of why I feel like my community is so healthy.” I want my community to include people who believe all kinds of things too. We intentionally pursue relationships with people who don’t believe what we do. I also think there is sufficient biblical reason to think connection to a group of people following Jesus is important–even when they’re unkind at times (because we are too).
Do you attend a traditional biblical church?
There are many points Miller makes under this heading. One primary one is that our churches today don’t look like the church in Acts. I think that’s largely right. However, I see significant movement in the church toward community that moves beyond meeting once or twice a week to figuring out how to live life together in a way that makes the kingdom of God more visible. I’m sure it will still be very different from the church in Acts, but hopefully it moves in that direction.
“That said, lets stop using the word “Biblical” as some sort of ace card when it comes to how church should be done.” I think here he means our modern church forms wouldn’t fit well in Acts. I agree. I think that’s okay. The point is to be communities connected to Jesus, living in the kingdom of God, and trying (imperfectly) to make it visible to others. I am with Miller in pushing back against a view that says you can’t be a biblical church if you don’t have a big worship service.
Jesus doesn’t have power outside the Church?
Man, I hope there aren’t to many people who think this. God is at work in every nook and cranny of our world. If we limit God’s power and work to our capabilities we are making God our servant. God’s power is at work on Monday at the factory, Tuesday on the streets, and even Sunday in a worship service (and simultaneously outside the worship service)!
The church can’t adapt beyond a worship/lecture system?
I would suggest in many circles this is already happening. Miller says it will have to come from outside the existing leadership. I understand his point about radical reform, but I also see churches all around my city engaging people, community, and faith in ways that move far beyond music and lecture. I just don’t see the need here to say that we must reform music and lecture out of our shared life. As humans it seems like we always think adjusting for deficiencies or shortcomings means completely abolishing what currently exists. More often than not we trade one unhealthy extreme for another.
In this section Miller also says the church cannot adapt beyond its current form because pastors need to get paid (he does say this is not why most pastors do what they do but that it inhibits adaptation to another form). He’s right. This is true in the same way that writers need people to buy books, contractors need people to buy houses, and rescue missions need people to invest financially in their vision. Here again though, many pastors (not all) are finding their role to be something other than just preaching sermons and running worship services. I think there is a place for paid pastors, but it is not wrong to consider if at times pastors are paid to prop up a system rather than pursue a mission.
A Few Observations
This is a great conversation and I’m thankful Donald Miller is willing to engage it even when some don’t do it civilly. It is helping me think through why I think what I think. And out of that there are a few other thoughts I want to briefly share.
We need to love each other, even on blogs. Communication from behind a keyboard can be so destructive. It can be very beneficial as well, but too many of us use the anonymity of the computer to attack, discourage, and degrade others. When people are courageous enough to process things like Miller has in a public way we should approach the ensuing dialogue as family who want the best for each other, not competitors who want to destroy each other.
Sometimes we ask the wrong question. I continue to be convinced that rather than asking if something is necessary we should ask if it is beneficial. And not only if it is beneficial to me, but if it is beneficial to the church as a whole, and the mission of God in the world. I wrote more about that here, and I really believe this is an important shift we need to make in the conversation. (And here is a post applying this specifically to the life of the church.)
Rhythm is important. If we are to experience deep relationships with God and other people we need consistency. This doesn’t need to be a worship service in the traditional sense, but what is it? And beyond this, I think the components of worship services can be a good rhythm (not the only one or maybe even the best, but good). Even if you don’t like to sing, there is goodness in the music and lyrics that are sung. Even if you don’t learn best through lectures, it is good to hear teaching from Scripture. And in the midst of all this we are also drawn together with others trying to follow Jesus. Growth in any area of life requires consistency.
We need to keep considering the power of the gathered church and not assume we have considered every angle. Being together with other followers of Jesus is not only about whether I like music or get something out of a specific sermon. The rituals, practices, and messages aggregated over time help to shape our identity and desires. James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom has been a helpful challenge to me on this. My background has been to dismiss gathering for worship because I viewed it primarily through a lens of what I got out of it on a specific week. But the potential of these times together is much greater than that. What I get out of it on one specific day is not the point. My love for the gathered worship of the church has evolved beyond what I could have imagined because of books like Smith’s and the challenge of fellow followers of Jesus who are thinking deeply about this.
One aspect of this is that we may most clearly proclaim our identity as the body of Christ when we join together in proclaiming it. There is certainly more than one way to achieve this, we’re not limited to three songs and a sermon. Whatever the specifics of what we do when we come together, there is power in proclaiming that we have a King and in worshipping him.