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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Spiritual Baseball: the unlikely path to intimacy with Jesus

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Snark MeterrealMID.003Every once in a while you meet someone and immediately sense they are wise and grounded. One of those for me was a Roman Catholic youth pastor. We met some fifteen years ago at an outdoor cafe. While the coffee cooled he made small talk by mentioning the Protestant activities his children were involved in: Awana, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Young Life, and attending a Christian high school. I laughed and probed just a bit: Was he a wanna be Protestant? He laughed back and said, “Absolutely not. It’s just that it is pretty hard to come to faith in my Church.” His answer baffled me. Why, I asked, would he choose to be involved in a church in which it was hard for his children to come to faith? How, I wondered, did he not see himself as making my point for me? The jovial youth minister grinned again, handed me a pen, pushed a napkin toward me and said, with the hint of a smirk, “Make a list of your ten favorite authors.”

I scratched names on the napkin until he reached over and grabbed the pen, and said, “Ok, I’m stopping you at fifteen. I notice that of your fifteen favorite authors, thirteen of them are liturgical Christians.” I had never heard the word ‘liturgical’ and didn’t want to admit it, so I glossed over that detail and asked him what his point was.

He asked, “Why do you like those authors: Nouwen, Lewis, Temple, Wesley, Chesterton, Wright, Manning, Stott?”

“I guess because they write as if they have intimacy with Jesus,” I said.

He answered without hesitating, “Exactly,” he said, “I’m in my Church because it is how you become intimate with Jesus.”

“O, come on!” I objected.

He pointed at the napkin and reminded me it was my list. He then said something that took me a decade to understand, “If you want true intimacy with Jesus, it will probably happen in a liturgical church: Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopalian, old-school Lutheran.”

We sat there another half hour and I decided that what he was saying is that if the spiritual life were a game of baseball, then first base is a relationship with Jesus. If one does not get on base, nothing else matters. That was why his kids were in evangelical activities. Second base might be knowing the Bible. Third, giving your life away in service for God and the Kingdom. But a “home run,” in the Christian life, is intimacy with Christ…what the Orthodox masters call “theosis” – a fulfillment of the image of God. I left that meeting wanting to “make it home,” but without the least awareness that, for millions over the last 2,000 years, the “home run” I longed to experience has been a common one in liturgical traditions.

And yes, I do realize that statement sounds arrogant and just plain incorrect to evangelical ears. After all, every evangelical church in America has a healthy collection of members who left the liturgical world precisely because they hadn’t gotten “on base” in a liturgical church.

What you may not realize is how non-normative the American 4 song/sermon worship format is in the scope of things. For 3/4 of Christian history, the liturgy was the only form of Christian worship. Even today, nearly 3/4 of the Christians on the planet worship God in the ancient pattern of Word and Sacrament. That doesn’t make the liturgy better, worse or more or less biblical, it does say that what most Christians know as “worship” is a bit of an outlier.

I am not saying that liturgical churches are perfect or have more holy people or that there are not dead liturgical churches…I’m fairly sure that dead liturgy might be the worst sort of dead. Just that for the lion’s share of Christians who have ever lived, worship was not song and sermon but Scripture and Supper.

…for the lion’s share of Christians who have ever lived, worship was not song and sermon but Scripture and Supper.

I didn’t understand what my Catholic friend was talking about precisely because I had been to a liturgical church a few times and found it repetitive and, frankly, numbing. What I discovered was that the power is precisely in the repetition…that, as a rough rock in a stream becomes a smooth stone from years of water flowing over it, the Christian is formed into the image of God when we surrender ourselves to the three-fold pattern of daily immersion in the Scriptures, weekly feeding in the Eucharist, and the annual cycle of the Christian year, combined with contemplative practices like those of the desert fathers. I have found that these are re-orienting my perception of reality, the way I view time, life, and the world around me, in ways that words on a page cannot fully capture. It is freeing me to love those who oppose me and work for the good of those who seek my harm.

You may not be interested in walking the path to the ancient Church, known in Anglicanism as “the Canterbury trail.” I was not either. Ironically it is a journey that has given a depth to my walk with Christ that I never imagined. Like someone who has never tasted ice-cream, I didn’t know what I was missing.

What about you? If you have walked with Jesus for several decades, is intimacy/spiritual union something the church you worship in is nurturing in you? In what ways, corporately and individually are you finding intimacy with Jesus? Or have you, like many, given up on intimacy with God as having a corporate expression? If so, I invite you to the sandlot to play ball.

Batter up.