To Donald Miller and anyone else considering dumping church: The church works best when you like it least

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I do not know Donald Miller. He writes great books though…books I read, recommend, and give away. Miller made a big splash in the blogosphere this week when he posted, “I don’t worship by singing.” In it he confesses that singing is “not his worship language” (I’m with him, it isn’t mine either).  He goes on to admit, “So, do I attend church? Not often, to be honest.” His reasons boil down to: 1) It is not how he learns. 2) It is not how he finds “intimacy with God.”

A Christian thought leader saying that he has “dropped church,” naturally creates a stir. Those ripples became waves yesterday with the followup he posted to clear things up. In that one he goes on to tell everyone why he was right. He said, and I am paraphrasing here, “The church is a mess,” “your reasons for wanting me to attend are rooted in fear,” “there are other ways to connect with God,” and, my personal favorite, “I’m just not feelin’ it.” As someone who disliked church intensely for my first twenty-five years in Christ, I am willing to stipulate that Miller is correct on all of his critiques. I am just not willing to embrace his conclusion.

The interesting part is that, even though Don calls himself a “post-evangelical,” he still thinks of church through the individualistic lens of the modern American turnstile church (not that other views of the church don’t have flaws, they do, just different ones). Basically Miller defines down the purpose of the public gathering for worship as “how I feel” and “what I get out of this?” Every Christian has had those two thoughts, whether spoken aloud or not.

If you have not articulated those thoughts it was because your next thought was, “Gee, that sounds a bit narcissistic.” Creeping narcissism is pretty difficult to avoid in the big-box church. It is, after all, the fruit of the preference based, target audience specific, focus group tested, “Just you and Jesus” message that modern mega-evangelicalism produces (See “What’s so uncool about cool churches“). If church is about “feelings of intimacy” and “getting something out of it,” then Christians would have given up on church 2000 years ago.

I understand the frustration: Constantly reinventing “relevance” leaves us captive to our own experience. It  becomes like a dog chasing its tail. The reason the church has been clung to for 2000 years is that, unlike the much imitated “seeker model” of the last thirty years, Word and Sacrament are not about “getting” or “feeling” but about being conformed to a Jesus-centered pattern set long ago. As Episcopal priest and former baseball coach, Gil Stafford, once said to me, “The liturgy is like a rock falling into a stream. It rubs the rough edges off of us week after week, year after year. It is an infinitely slow and quiet transformation that is about being with other rocks in the stream as the Spirit works through the years, the prayers, the Sacraments and the community of faith.” It is a long obedience in the same direction. It is about consuming Jesus and being consumed by him. And, I am convinced, the church works specifically best when we do not like it! When we choose to engage and to cooperate with the prayers, and surrender to the Lord of the prayers, and come, kneel, reach out our hands and receive, and “taste and see that the Lord is good,” then we truly worship.

Don Miller is a fantastic writer. He has and will continue to produce works that are well worth the investment of our time and money. And everyone with a keyboard writes things we later regret. The most regrettable line in his post was this one, “I literally feel an intimacy with God when I build my company.” Which was literally when I decided to comment. Of course, all men feel a sense of purpose when they are engaged in meaningful labor. It is an inherent part of maleness given in creation (Genesis 2). That an author with as much wisdom as Don Miller has shown in his books doesn’t see the idolatrous leanings in that statement, is a big yellow warning sign that he has been out of church just a little too long.

Our relationship with the Church should not be about feelings (even if we are feeling creatures), or learning (although learning is nice), or other people, or avoiding spiritual shipwreck. It should be because the Redeeming Lord of all Creation has used the pattern of Word and Sacrament to call out and shape a remnant into his image to participate with him in the redemption of the world.

It is an odd thing we Christians of the Great Tradition (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, many Lutherans) do on Sundays. Oddly dressed people stand before us in garments that seem to say, “I have so lashed my life to the mast of word and sacrament that I am willing to dress like an idiot and drape myself with even more foolishness.” One of these awkwardly attired souls stands up and joyfully announces a message out of place and thoroughly irrelevant to a culture obsessed with its own relevance: “Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” This opening acclamation declares that we have entered another realm, one in which our culture and our preferences are not the measure of our meaning. The congregation responds hopefully, “And blessed be God’s kingdom, now and for ever.” It is a bit of wisdom that we might never come to on our own…that we get through the collective wisdom of the Church, the body of Christ, across space and back through time.

Like Don Miller, I too would like the church to be something I might find meaningful.  The liturgy, developed over two thousand years, and assembled by worshippers who did not fit within their own cultures, makes no such attempt. It is simply about God. And not about the God-who-fulfills-all-my-desires, but about the one who is God-as-he-is-not-as-I-would-like-him-to-be. Every word of the liturgy is about God’s blessedness, not ours. In the words of Mark Galli, “The liturgy immediately signals that our needs are not as relevant as we imagine. There is something infinitely more worthy of our attention-something, someone who lies outside the self.”

The ancient prayers go deep into our pre-rational selves, into our subconscious and mythic selves and transforms our all. As we learn to cooperate with God, the prayers honor and respect and take us. They lift us beyond ourselves to, as friend and priest Jim Clark says, “The Ultimate Mystery who is more than my experience, but who is also in my experience.” As we cooperate, God lifts and transforms our beings, imparting the Gracegiver until every aspect of our being is transformed. In the end, church isn’t about feeling differently or learning stuff. It is about being changed through Sacramental rhythm. And that only happens through time and repetition. Which is why you can’t get it at your company, while hiking, or in Starbucks.

All of which is to say, “Donald, Please come back.”

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Young Adults and the Church: Will the Mainline benefit from Evangelical Dissatisfaction?

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Are you following the hubbub in the blogosphere of the growing disaffection among young adults with all things Evangelical? First Andrea Dilley, who left Neo-Calvinism for an Anglican church, posted Change wisely, dude. She posited that young adults are looking for liturgy. Three days ago Rachel Held Evans posted “Why millennials are leaving the church.” She pegged the issue as young adults outgrowing narrow, simplistic Evangelical answers and desiring greater social engagement. Yesterday Pastor Keith Anderson posted “Millennials, Consumerism and the Idolatry of God in which he suggested that millennials have been over-marketed to and are cynical of a “God about you.”

Will the Mainline see a resurgence from this growing discontentment with Evangelicalism? After all the Mainline is everything all three authors are advocating: We have always done liturgy. We have always been engaged in combating social ills. And, lets face it, we have never been very good at packaging and marketing. Even more, our churches are often strategically located in inner-cities, the very place that upwardly mobile, educated young adults are flocking. Our churches even have the sense of space and permanence they crave. We should be what Millennials flock to!

Will we be?

Don’t bet on it.

Here are three reasons:

1) We don’t have money. Most of our churches are theologically progressive. Progressives tend not to tithe. According to Barna 24% of Evangelicals tithe. Less than 1% of Progressives do. (Here) As a result, we tend to have far less money than evangelicals, for whom eternity is at stake. Related to this (as it takes money to fund leaders) is a second issue:
 
2) We don’t produce leaders. Evangelicals hire people who a) Have a lifetime of leadership (student body president, captain of the baseball and volleyball team), and b) Have succeeded in a smaller church roles first. Then they c) Train them by mentoring them on the job in their own system of leadership development. We usually find someone who is young and nice and has the desired theology, and, whether or not they have ever led anything before, send them to three years of expensive seminary. They graduate and we put them in a college ministry or small church alone and then wonder why they flounder.
 
3) We don’t have momentum. In Phoenix alone I can think of 7 Evangelical young adult groups with an attendance of greater than 100 (including 2 more than 500). I cannot think of a Progressive young adult group with more than 30. I have actually heard our people say, “They have 500? What are they doing wrong?” Young adults are not nearly as numero-phobic as Progressives. In fact, since they tend to be dating and looking for social connections, larger events attract them. Unfortunately, we tend to fear large.
 
Until we solve these three hurdles, most of the crowd will run past us…probably back to Evangelical churches, who are pretty resilient and entrepreneurial. Not surprisingly, Evangelicals have begun to regularly ring my phone to talk about liturgy.
 
One thing we do have going for us: Some of those disaffected Evangelicals are leaders and some of them join us. When they do, they bring the leadership skills they developed elsewhere to bear in our world. In the Episcopal Church, two incredibly gifted Evangelical crossovers come to mind: Gil Stafford, former national champion baseball coach and college President and Julia McCray-Goldsmith, a former missionary. In our diocesan office, of the five clergy mission-staff, NONE of them was raised in the Episcopal Church. Each came to the church in adulthood from other traditions.
 
Let me say what non-Episcopalians regularly point out: We have a leadership identification and development issue. And until we address that issue many of those running from Evangelicalism will run right past our door.