(I wrote the following post for PARSE at Christianity Today)
Recently, Christian author, blogger and conference speaker Donald Miller posted a pair of troubling blogs on why he rarely attends church. Miller expressed that he doesn’t find intimacy with God through singing or preaching of a traditional worship service. Consequently, he has abandoned the notion of regular church attendance to pursue a more spiritually fulfilling life … running his own company. Miller points out (I’m summarizing here) that many of his famous, world-changing friends don’t attend church on a regular basis.
Throughout the two posts, he shares many interesting thoughts on the weaknesses of traditional church and the strengths of abandoning a traditional church expression. Although Miller presents his convictions in a “this is just my preference” kind of manner, his writing (to me at least) still comes across as condescending. He uses words like “graduated,” and “evolved,” implying that his opinion is not just different, but more enlightened. It is especially clear in Miller’s follow up blog that he is unable or unwilling to truly understand why his demeaning of regular church attendance has caused a fair amount of backlash from supporters of his previous work.
I’ve been a fan of Donald Miller for years. I even went so far as to donate money to help with the production of his book turned movie, Blue Like Jazz. For the most part, I’ve appreciated his critique of the absurdities that often hamper the witness of the gospel. As a general rule, I enjoy engaging individuals who call into question unhealthy Christianized cultural behaviors and norms. As a Christian, I’d far rather spend my time looking at the plank in my own eye than ranting against the speck in my neighbor’s vision. Donald Miller’s attempt to honestly examine the hypocrisies of the modern church and his willingness to see beauty wherever it may be found has had a strong positive impression on my life.
It is within this context of admiration that I find his recent writing and responses so troubling. While I read and reread his disregarding words concerning church attendance, I realized that Donald Miller has chosen a path of church indifference and abandonment over a path of church reform and renewal. His personal choice to abandon the regular assembly of the body of Christ is particularly troubling because of Miller’s exalted status in the blogosphere.
In recent years, there has been profound growth in the celebrity Christian blogger, author, conference speaking guru category. This group of Christian experts has increased in audience and influence. Although their influence in shaping the dialogue has expanded, their accountability to the local church has waned. It is almost as if the blogosphere and Christian publishing, media industry has created a new crop of loosely accountable Protestant popes: men and women writing and conferencing their church edicts unencumbered by the accountability of experiencing the effects of those edicts on the local church. In other words, they write in seclusion, publish to the masses, conference those they convert and avoid the relational consequences of their teaching at a local church level.
This is why Donald Miller’s indifference to gathering with a local body of believers is so
troubling. Miller has become a leader within the church without truly valuing the church he is leading. He has unintentionally become an unaccountable evangelist, leading congregants within church expressions he does not value. Although he does not value the traditional church expression, he makes his living because of the traditional church’s existence.
The greater problem with Donald Miller’s view of the church is his “evolved” thinking concerning the purpose of the church. At a fundamental level, Miller seems to assume that the only church worth regularly attending is the one that focuses on his personal fulfillment. Sadly, there is nothing in this perspective that connects with the “servant of all” example of our Savior. Although the Christian walk is full of peace and inexpressible joy, it is also marked by increased service and sacrifice. As one matures in Christ, they begin to attend gatherings to serve, rather than be served. If we are to grow in our calling, it is crucial that we intentionally involve ourselves in Christian communities that are bigger than our own selfishness.
I have no doubt that Donald Miller has been able to find a more pleasurable way of living out his faith. It is certainly easier to give your best efforts and time to your own dreams, visions, and financial endeavors. Even so, maturity is found in the surrender of self to the larger expression of Christ. The local church is uniquely positioned to help in this process of maturation. It is certainly easier to take a hike with close friends on a Sunday than go to church, but it is not necessarily beneficial for the advancement of the gospel. Every Sunday my church is full of broken people who desperately need someone to care about their existence. Donald Miller may be able to find God outside the local church, but I wonder if these broken people will be able to find Donald Miller without buying his books or commenting on his blog or attending his conferences. There are countless church expressions that need Christians willing to show up and disciple those who are in need of consistent love. Sadly, many healthy Christians have taken their health and abandoned the church.
Honestly, I’m not that much of a traditionalist. I don’t really care how you regularly gather with the body of Christ. You can meet in a house, in a field, in a barn or in a cathedral. I believe every second of the day and every relationship is sacred. I believe the presence of God abides in people and not in temples or buildings. Even so, I am well aware of this simple biblical truth. If you are a Christian, you will gather with the body of Christ on a regular basis. You will gather because Christ is in you and Christ desires to gather with the full expression of his body. I don’t quite know what size your church expression should look like, but I assume it should be small enough to know some people and big enough to be annoyed by others. It should be a room with believers and nonbelievers, friends and strangers who will eventually be friends. It should be a place that receives precedence in our lives, even when we don’t feel like attending.
Reform from the inside
I have no problem with people who want to reform the church. If Donald Miller and his friends decided to start a new church or a new denomination, I would be nothing but pleased. The great Christian reformers in history often had to confront or tear down corrupt expressions to make room for better spiritual expressions. Even so, they did not abandon the mandate to love the Bride of Christ.
Many idealistic reformers have slipped into the grips of a Pharisaical spirit. Frustrated with stagnation and the absence of change, they abandon the transformation of institutions for the pursuit of more fruitful endeavors. There are many areas of the modern church that are in desperate need of reformation. Sadly, there is a growing trend of celebrity bloggers, writers, authors and conference gurus who are more concerned with critiquing the modern church than with working towards solutions that actively help the church thrive. These celebrity Christian communicators have become experts in cataloging the flaws of the church. Their perpetual critiques and criticisms of the church are feeding a growing spectator culture of discontent and disengagement.
Reformers critique the institutions they love; Pharisees critique the institutions they’ve abandoned. Their message might be the same, but their goals for communication are very different. Reformers communicate to fix what is broken; Pharisees communicate to defend their rejection of what’s broken. With this in mind, I sincerely ask Donald Miller and others like him to not abandon the gathering, but to reform, renew or even rebuild the church in a way that glorifies God and honors his word.