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.”


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

  1. I think the telling remark was Miller’s comment about attending church services being not the way he “learns”. The whole notion of worship being a “teaching-learning” experience is one reason why I believe why “Protestantism” as a movement has reached it’s use-by date. People attend public worship to encounter God, not to learn information about religion. I think this cerebral approach is one reason for the rapid decline of many churches in this strand of Christian faith. (While I’m a member and a minister in a classically “Protestant” denomination, I consciously use the phrase “post-Protestant” to describe my orientation: i.e. worship is much more than mere teaching and learning; God does not reject people merely for getting their theology wrong; etc.).

  2. Great post Matt! When we, as God’s people, corporately gather together and worship Him, we are doing something very different from worshiping alone. I am just one small part of the body of Christ. Like a tuba or a viola performing alone. When a community of believers worships together, they become a complete symphony.

  3. I find it interesting that Miller, in his struggles over the years with things “churchy”, just invited me into a phrase that can only be translated by one schooled in Christianese: “My worship language”. Oh, the shoot Christians say…Bless his heart.

    I’m a fan of Donald Miller, but I think the Church is important, if not essential for Christians. If you read from Acts on, you really don’t see any context for Christianity outside of community. Also, we must remember that it holds the vital connection points between us and God…Being in communion with God through the vehicles of intimacy with Him, The Eucharist and the waters of baptism, requires at least some level of community.

    I do know some great Christian folks who live the life, but don’t often attend church, and honestly, it makes me sad for them. They’re missing out on something great, often because of past disappointments or disillusionment, or because they “aren’t being fed” (excuse me…I just threw up in my mouth a little). Anywhere there’s community, there will be flawed people, but amongst flawed people is exactly where Christ longs to be…He loved the Church, and gave Himself for her.

    I love, love the Gil Stafford quote, by the way. That one’s going in my journal.

    Here’s a thought from Flannery O’Connor:

    “…the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. ”

    I do at times spend my Sunday mornings griping about song selections and order of worship, why we don’t do the Doxology and responsive Psalms during the “contemporary” service at my church, and why in the heck the pastor won’t freakin’ vest. But I still love it. I meet God amongst all those idiots I go to church with. And they meet God sitting next to my idiot self.

  4. Thanks Matt, I found your critique of Miller right on the money. I appreciated how you welcomed him back to the church while lovingly challenging his risky dance with idolatry. Your admonition that his intimacy with God at work rang true but I also wonder (full disclosure I happen to be preaching on Romans 12 this weekend) if he wasn’t just putting into practice the spiritual discipline of worshiping God through our daily work? One commentator on the text in Romans wrote, “A man should be able to say I’m going to church to worship God but should also be able to say I’m going to the factory, the office, the school… to worship God?” I guess I’m asking you what rose the warning sign for you? I’d assume it’s Miller’s context without God’s system of check’s and balances which is the church we all fall prey to a God in our own image. Thanks for challenging me and for welcoming a brother in Christ who may consider himself post-evangelical and post-modern (self descriptions worthy of another conversation) but certainly not called to be post-ecclesia.

    • Hi Jerry,
      It sounds like a great sermon percolating up in you! With you, I fully believe that God wants us to “feel his pleasure when we run,” as Eric Liddel said in the old movie Chariots of Fire.

      I do think that the upside of evangelicalism (making sure you people get “on base” with God) is muted when it degenerates into “What am I getting?” I once wrote a post about a Mormon bishop being shocked that we do that (“Mormon Bishop to the Megachurch”). It is why it would be nice to see a blending of the historic church (worship for believers) combined with a strong call and commitment to every follower of Jesus being a relentless witness to the saving work of Christ in the world. The beauty is the we are seeing both a move toward a higher ecclesiology in many evangelical circles and a rediscovery of the joy and privilege of witness in some liturgical circles. So, I am enthusiastic about our current struggles birthing something of great beauty for the kingdom.

      Thank you for writing. Send me a link to your sermon!

  5. I am curious how it is that we seem to gravitate towards making assessments of each others experiences, processes and up-to-now deductions of what church is and isn’t. It tends to dissolve into ‘either / or’ kinds of thinking, like someone else’s experiences may lead others astray. Who decides what resonates for each of us or that a certain desirable level of maturity must be attained to avoid.. what exactly? isn’t each of our processes a small window into our personal (& private) conversations of faith, growth, discovery, reconciliation with the sensitive, challenging process of foibles, and failures, of getting knocked down and getting up again. (Sounds like repentance to me) Or that these processes lack community or fellowship, or ecclesia, or (fill in your best descriptive term)? Or perhaps I have misunderstood that this dialogue is an on-going conversation (which it is) rather than a product of ‘assessment?
    Being present in the sensitive and necessary parts of people’s process isn’t something ‘the church’ is renowned for largely because we are people. its not unique to ‘the church’; it is us being us, people. (a limited viewpoint on my part admittedly). Being present isn’t or doesn’t have to evolve into who is right or wrong; we can save this for someone else’s legal department. But being present in one another’s process, elevating our conversations, encouraging folks to think and articulate for themselves has the flavor of this ‘kingdom’ Jesus spoke of, not to the caught, gutted & cleaned crowd, but to all.
    I love this article and I believe it is an accurate reflection of the author. I look forward to reading more and want to say thank you for your gracious heart.

  6. Thanks for this thoughtful post Fr. Marino. I think it does a great job of highlighting how a Word and Sacrament approach to worship helps to keep us focused on Jesus as the object of our worship and not ourselves. Obviously, Don Miller isn’t alone in how he approaches “church;” this is why we need voices that faithfully point to a better Way, that is, to the person of Jesus and the gifts he has given us in his Gospel.

  7. The things Donald Miller has said about ‘not feeling it’ when it comes to church is something I hear occasionally from the youth (and their parents) God has brought into my life. I think most of us would be lying if we said that occasionally we don’t all feel like that. And so I would say to Mr. Miller, as I say to my ‘kids’ (and to myself as well), that it is on the days when we’re not ‘feeling it’ and desire to ‘not do church’ that it is on those very days we most need to be in and with the body of Christ through congregational community. It’s nice when we ‘feel it’ but often we must ‘choose it.’ I CHOOSE to be in community (even though some of these people are two-faced hypocrites who are just putting on their Church Face this morning — *I saw your facebook photos from Friday night, you know!*). I CHOOSE to worship and praise, (even when I don’t like the songs because that’s not the way I sing them with my ipod). I CHOOSE to be seeped into the Word through the message given (even if I’ve heard that same opening story 4 times already in the past 2 years from this pastor). And I CHOOSE to be an active participant in the biblical fellowship of communion and baptism (even though I am unworthy of the grace afforded to me at the rail). Maybe that’s what it is — as a church-society we have so watered down what it means to be in fellowship that we don’t understand that it’s more than cookies and coffee between services, or playing a round of golf with 3 other people who also happen to be believers (“hey look! we’re all church goers! We can call this ‘fellowship’!”). When we water down fellowship to being about anything other than us in Christ, and Christ in us, it won’t have the staying power needed to keep people ‘feeling it.’

    Just my random thoughts… thanks for listening 🙂

  8. While good critiques are important, I suggest you are missing several things about what he is saying. First, while culture and institutions have changes so quickly in recent decades, we continue to think of ‘church’ as an hour together once a week. Regardless if it’s individualistic or not, the means of gathering are still defined in this one way. Why can we not define church as other than the previous norms? I suggest our creativity is simply to limited to imagine beyond the historic church of the past five hundred years. Case in point, the Chinese church is alive and well, but we don’t really know what it looks like. We only know it doesn’t really operate in public, and it is mostly underground. The Chinese have found a creativity in pursuing Jesus that we fail to appreciate.

    Secondly, we fail to recognize the millions of people who leave the ‘church’ each year because our understanding of the gospel and the church limits our ability to speak into the lives of people who live in the dominant culture. So, we choose to challenge Miller because he has been a leader. What about all those who hang out elsewhere beyond church walls looking for hope?

    Perhaps Miller is saying gently, WAKE THE FREAK UP?

    • Hi Randy,

      Thank you for commenting.

      You are right: I am absolutely sure that Don Miller is telling us to wake up.

      I am pretty sure, though, that you entirely missed what I was getting at. Don’t worry – it is not your fault!

      The dominant evangelical view of church is so completely empty that those steeped in it don’t really understand the language of those who stand in the Great Tradition. For us, we don’t “go to church.” We are “part of” and yet “under the authority of” the Church. Another version of what I was saying is in my post “The Church is Christ’s bride not his baby mamma.” Another is in “Why I dropped church and joined THE CHURCH.”

      Check those out and see if they don’t poke around at a different way of viewing, not just Christ and his church, but all of life.


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  12. Hi again, Matt:
    Loved reading this again. It’s “relevant.”

    The big picture for me, however, isn’t here. The big picture is there are TWO big pictures.

    First, there is “Institutional Religion.” That’s what the church individual church does and says about itself, and what the Church does and says about itself. Rarely does it listen to anyone else unless they have been ordained or gone to Seminary. Most of these folk believe that is the only picture.

    Second, there is “Private Religion.” That is what goes on in the mind, soul, heart, and behaviors of the individual when alone with his or her God in question, dialogue, wonder, awe, or just plain puzzlement. He or she may have this organized. Or not. Or simply chaotic. But for this person this is what “real faith” is, only it seems no one seems to want to know it.

    And of course, the Private Religion and the Institutional Religion rarely if ever truly meet. Those who are not allowed to share their narrative faith just drift away. They may not be “lost,” just “lost to the Institutional Religion.”

    That’s what happened to Fr. Martin when he nailed his theses to the door of the Church and he shared his narrative. Others simply said, “Amen” and left with him.


    • Hi Raymond. The funny thing is that I remember your excellent paper on discipleship much more than that post. I would reread it except that I spent too much time today writing a post about Texans when I should have been working on Sunday’s sermon.

      The value of public worship for me is that it forces me to do and say the words and actions that form Jesus-like people. That group work just doesn’t work the same alone. The downside is the institution of the church has so often wandered from the awe and the forming of God’s people to be attentive to other things. Losing the narratives of people’s wonder and puzzlement with the divine is surely one of the casualties. The institution was and is a train wreck. As Augustine said, “the church may be a whore, but she’s my mother.”

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