Donald Miller is just plain wrong about church. But it’s not his fault.


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Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, started a little kerfuffle last week when he wrote about how he doesn’t really go to church any more. He doesn’t learn much about God through sermons, and he doesn’t connect with God through songs. Church just doesn’t connect with him in any way and doesn’t fit within his own learning style, which is far more participatory. He says the Church is all around us and in believers so he feels free to “have church” in the way(s) that most connect him to God and others.

Well, this caused quite the backlash. He wrote again a couple of days ago in response, but it seems that most people still really disagree with him.

But here’s the problem: Donald Miller is absolutely right in everything he says if he still insists on calling himself an “Evangelical”, or at least using that as his frame of reference.

If you consider yourself an Evangelical in any traditional sense, and you’re looking at Donald Miller’s church practices with dismay, well then welcome to your future–the logical conclusion of your theology and how you’ve practiced church for a few generations now.

This is the logical endpoint of Evangelicalism’s Dualistic view of reality.

This shows up in Miller’s posts in several places, but no more clearly than when it comes to “meeting God”. In a dualistic view of the world, something is either sacred or not sacred, which means (in their view) that a church service is no more “sacred” than wherever it is you end up meeting God. Nature? Work? Family? Home? Doesn’t matter. If you can meet God there, then that can be church for you, supposedly.

But reality isn’t structured that way. There are degrees of sacredness. Yes, everything can be sacred, but at least biblically-speaking, some places are sacred-er. There are, as N.T. Wright puts it, “thin places” between us and the divine.

But what determines those “sacred-er” places? Contrary to Evangelicalism (and Miller), it’s not where you experience God. It’s where he has promised to be. Sacredness is a result of covenant, not experience. There’s a difference between Sacrament and sacrament.

This is also the ultimate manifestation of Evangelicalism’s individualistic view of everything.

Evangelicalism’s purely individualistic and experience-based approach to faith empowers people to leave once they’ve “checked off all the boxes” of spirituality. Prayed the prayer? Got a quiet time? Hang out with believers? Tell non-believers about your faith? No major sins weighing you down? Is your doctrine right? Do you believe in the authority of Scripture? Do you feel like you experience God? Then you’re good to go.

If that’s all Christianity really is, then congratulations, Evangelicalism: in Donald Miller you have a man that may be able to check off all those boxes–and still feel free to stay home on Sunday. If he’s able to hold on to all those things, then what’s the harm in him not going to church?

Evangelicalism has treated Sunday morning as the time for individuals to cultivate all of those checkboxes–getting your personal doctrine, behavior, and experience in order–and that’s it.

But these things are pretty surface-y to the human person. There’s so much more that needs to be cultivated in us–liturgized, if you will–for us to learn all the more what it means to be human–together. Sunday is just as much about what is done to us by the Spirit as a corporate Body than it is about how we take it upon ourselves to accomplish personal “spiritual maturity”.

So why do we go to church (and why should Donald Miller)?

We go to church to commune with believers in the present (not just “fellowship”). To find our place within the rhythm and flow of a Body of Believers that has preceded for millennia past. To bring many voices together to offer one voice in praise and adoration of God. To confess our sins as a corporate entity and not just as a mass of individuals. To lament together that things are not now what they will be. To live out the vocal unity in those final words of the Bible: The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.”

We go to church to watch others baptized and join this Body and join them in celebration and invitation. To stare each other in the face and speak a blessing over them: the body of Christ, broken for you; the blood of Christ, shed for you.

We go to church to participate in the worship of the entire company of heaven, which is done in unison, and not in individual passion. We go to declare our corporate identity as citizens of heaven and in so doing flood the Present with the World to Come. We then get sent out to flood heaven itself into the streets around us.

We go to church not just for ourselves, not just for believers, but for the entire world.

Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.

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6 thoughts on “Donald Miller is just plain wrong about church. But it’s not his fault.

    • Well, I know that with my experience and cultural context, I’m too close to it all to be a totally clear-headed thinker on this (also, I’m still really young), but I really think that the self-centeredness of the worship is a natural by-product of Evangelical Theology (as it is today). Stressing so much one’s fidelity to secondary doctrinal matters; the idea that imputation and the work of the Cross were mainly to save a bunch of individuals rather than the cosmos; a loss of sacrament, covenant, and liturgy as a focal point of church life; the focus on conversionism and religious experience over and above acculturating someone to the mundane rhythms of Christian life; services centered around preaching more than Communion. All these things lend themselves to self-centeredness and are hallmarks of Evangelicalism.

      Well, now that I think about it. A better response would have been to ask how you would define Evangelicalism. There is an older form of it, and a way of articulating it, that I’m all for. Whatever’s been around for the past forty or fifty years or so, though, I want no part of. So, what are you thinking of when you think of Evangelicalism?

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      • I often wonder at how to respond to the “Evangelical” label, and what people meant by it. In its older sense, as a theological movement that occupies a middle space between fundamentalism and liberalism, I say “yes!” “Evangelical” in the theological sense- i.e. I’m someone who believes in historic Christian faith, is centered on the Gospel, cares about Scripture- in that sense I’m a card-carrying evangelical.

        In lots of the other senses… hating science, women, “social causes,” and then all the middle-America megachurch silliness, the evacuationist eschatology… in all those senses, I am happy to not check those boxes. But, those are too often the things that people think of when they hear “evangelical”.

        I think that, in many ways, the Achilles heel of (especially non-denominational) “evangelicalism” is that there’s not formal, “thick” connection to a tradition- i.e. the Creeds, the liturgy, etc. So, instead, “what the Bible says” is the final source of authority. I of course want to adhere to “what the Bible says,” but there’s of course no such thing as an objective, uninterpreted reading of the totality of what Scripture says- thus all the fracturing, splitting, and individualism that you see within the evangelical stream of Christianity…

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  1. Pingback: Babe In Christ » Church Hurt Part 1.

  2. I heartily agree with your concluding section, “So why do we go to church (and why should Donald Miller)?”

    But I disagree with your generalization that puts Donald Miller’s attitude about church at the feet of Evangelicalism, when you say “the logical conclusion of your theology and how you’ve practiced church for a few generations now.” It’s more properly laid at the feet of William James and his sense of what he referred to as “personal religion” as opposed to “institutional religion.”

    In “The Varieties of Religious Experience” William James made a distinction between spiritual (personal religion) and religious that continues today. James said religion involved worship, sacrifice, ritual, theology, ceremony, and ecclesiastical organization. Spirituality, broadly conceived, was a belief that there is an unseen order to existence and supreme good lay in harmoniously adjusting to that order. According to William James, this sense of spirituality lacked theological content. Other than an encounter of the individual with whatever he or she may consider divine, with whatever understanding of God they may have, there was no further appeal to transcendence. For James, the attempt to experience this transcendence through the trappings of ecclesiastical organization was religious; the bare encounter of the individual with his or her understanding of God or the divine was spiritual. Implicit in a Jamesean understanding of spirituality is its transcendental inclusiveness; that there are many pathways to God.

    Consistent with what you said about a dualistic world view, where “something is either sacred or not sacred”, is Emile Durkhiem’s distinction between the sacred and the profane: “Sacred things are simply collective ideals that have fixed themselves on material objects.” Profane things were everything else in the world that did not have a religious function or hold a religious meaning. Again, Durkhiem’s thinking is consistent with James. There has been a dramatic influence by this thought on how American evangelicalism is now done; but it is not inherent in evangelicalism. Also look at “Habits of the Heart,” by Robert Bellah and others; or “Democracy in America,” by De Tocqueville, for that matter.

    Additionally, look at some of what George Marsden has to say in: “Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism.” He said a fundamentalist was an evangelical who was in militant opposition to liberal theology in the churches or to changes in cultural mores and values. The cultural changes from the 1870s to the 1920s created a crisis in what had been a broad coalition of evangelicalism in America. The modern fundamentalist grew out of that crisis.

    Your “check list” critique could equally be applied to some Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, etc.

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  3. Pingback: The Privilege of Church-lessness: a Donald Miller post-script | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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