Donald Miller on the Church

The author clarifies his thoughts on the Church and community.

There are several topics that are known to ignite controversy in many Christian circles, and one of those is church attendance.

A few weeks ago, author and Storyline founder Donald Miller found this out the hard way. His blog post confessing that he doesn't feel that he connects very well to God in the setting of a Sunday morning church service quickly went viral, drawing criticism, some rebuttals and plenty of questions.

We recently hosted a live Q&A with Miller to talk about the controversy, his views on the Church, what he thinks community should look like and more. You can listen to the full interview here.

Q: I’m just going to start ... what’s your problem with the Church, man?

A: Well, here’s what happened. Here’s what always happens. I write a blog that I think is going to be really controversial and you just hear crickets, right?

And the blog is where I just practice thinking, I mean I’ll spend a year on a book and I’ll spend three minutes on a blog.

So this was about thinking about Sir Ken Robinson and education reform, the fact that the Church is born out of this scholarly legacy post printing press, reformation, all that stuff. Scholars kind of took over the Church—it looks like a school in many ways. And so I talked about the reality that I don’t get a lot out of church when I go. I don’t connect with God very well there, and I wondered if it wasn’t more of a learning style issue because it is a lecture format, and it’s not how everybody learns.

So, probably about five years ago I stopped attending with any regularity. It’s really funny because for a couple of years I didn’t go, but I would still tithe. I would still send my money because I love the people—my pastor and I were good friends.

So I wrote about that literally thinking I would just get crickets. I thought everyone would go “Ah, of course, different kinds of learners.” But I think where I was naive was to not realize that this is an issue that is very close to people’s hearts. If you think there’s a problem with it, a lot of people sort of take it as a blanket aggressive statement, which was not intended from my heart at all.

I hope I’m not walking to church saying “please me.” And I also hope that none of us have to go to church because we hate it and it’s our obligation.

The push back I kept getting online was “you’re being really selfish,” “this is narcissism,” “the Church isn’t about you” and these kinds of things. So that part of it kind of hurt because I hope I’m not a narcissist. I hope I’m not walking to church saying “please me.” And I also hope that none of us have to go to church because we hate it and it’s our obligation.

The blog was really intended to start a conversation about the millions of people who are like me who simply don’t learn that way. I don’t experience community sitting with 200 other people facing forward and hearing a lecture—that’s not community to me. So, there was a little bit of a sensitivity on the part of the readers that I wasn’t remotely prepared for and didn’t realize I was stepping on toes.

In hindsight, I probably wouldn’t have posted that blog. Some things are better left unsaid when the chances of you being understood are very slim because they’re such a sensitive issue.

Q: I’ve been seeing all of these rebuttals ...

A: I’ve read some of the rebuttals and it just felt like they were rebutting things I didn’t say. I didn’t say “I don’t like the Church.”

The other thing that was amazing to me was the “he’s not going to church so he’s choosing to be isolated.” And I just though “what in the world?”

That kind of made me sad because I felt like “oh, people don’t know how to create community for themselves.” They go to a place where community is created for them.

It felt to me like this: If I said “You guys, I’m no longer eating at Arby’s” and the response was “you’ll starve.” Wait a second, there’s a thousand restaurants, there’s grocery stores, there’s farms, there’s a million ways to do this, but we have literally trained ourselves to think there’s one way and this is what it is.

Even that idea is absurd because there’s 360,000 different Christian denominations. So it’s not like this is a unified being. This is a very divisive and divided culture.

So, I don’t know, I think the topic deserved a lot more nuanced thought then what it was getting with some people.

Q: What would be a model of gathering together in a church context that would connect with people who don’t learn the way you learn? A big part of your argument is the learning style thing. But there’s a lot of people who are there with you saying, “I don’t learn that way, but I don’t want to lose the Church.”

A: Yeah, I would fault myself for that in the blog, too. It was unwise of me to write a blog like that without saying “here’s what my life looks like ... and it’s just my life. It’s not me teaching anybody how to do anything differently.”

My way of doing church, my way of doing community is far from perfect. It is probably missing elements of the biblical church that I think that we are instructed to partake in. I mean that as a confession to everybody.

What I love about Jesus is that He just works within this mess. He’s not waiting for us to get it perfect in order to do something.

And yet, my intimacy with Jesus is there. My intimacy with God is there, my tracking as a disciple is there. So there are some of these hoops that I haven’t jumped through, but as I confess that I think we also have to look at the way we’re doing church over here in some of these more traditional structures. There’s a heck of a lot missing there too.

What I love about Jesus is that He just works within this mess. He’s not waiting for us to get it perfect in order to do something.

I think one of the problems with the current model of evangelical traditional whatever-you-call-it that we’re doing is a lot of people walk into a church and they feel the agency to be an apostle, to be a disciple of Jesus is given to one person in the room, or maybe five or six—and that’s the pastoral staff. And I would love to see a model of church where the pastor stands up and says “you are all pastors.” Just buy a box of sheriff badges and give it out and read Hebrews and say, “you are a pastor, and this Sunday meeting is time to equip the thousands of little churches that will leave here and take place in your homes around your dinner table.”

That, I think, would terrify most evangelical audiences. We don’t want that kind of agency because it gives us responsibility. If I’m a disciple of Jesus, a real disciple of Jesus, I can’t give my pastor the agency for me. I have to take it in my relationships with my neighbors and the way I do communion.

So I guess what I’m saying is I’m willing to consider other models—as messy as they might be and as flawed as they might be. Not only am I willing, the reason I feel so confident about that is because Jesus is there. So as much as people are mad at me I’m like “ Well as long as that guy is still in the room, I feel OK, I really do.”

39 Comments

Kevin Leggett

29

Kevin Leggett commented…

I appreciate Don's view on the Church and found it refreshing. Current evangelical culture (at least for the last 30 years of my life) has held fast to the idea that our present liturgy and administration are untouchable.

Two weeks ago I found myself at a men's Bible study. One of the gentlemen there voiced a concern about a friend's church who was talking about removing the pastor. They came to him for advice and he responded with, "God put your pastor there. You can't ask him to leave." This in turn lead to a discussion within our group.

The man, with good intent, was surprised by the overall consensus of our group when we did not support his decision. Pastors are filled by the same Holy Spirit as the lay men, empowered to be "all pastors" as Don described it. There may come a time or season when a local congregation wishes to go in a different direction...even one that seems counter to the tradition of the last 30 years.

The Gospel of Christ transcends culture, tradition and our established ideologies about how we think Church should be run. The fact that I am a Christian some 2,000 years after Christ on Earth indicates to me that the apostles took their mission seriously to be counter-cultural in order to deliver the message to the uttermost ends of the earth.

Joon Park

4

Joon Park commented…

I very much agree with Donald Miller's sentiments. I also think it's easy to find criticism with the way things are done instead of finding a solution moving forward, and as Donald states here in the interview, he could've offered or outlined some alternatives.
And internet-Christians definitely eat their own whenever possible. I wrote a little on it here:
http://jspark3000.tumblr.com/post/75917875284/popular-discontent

Russell McMullen

1

Russell McMullen commented…

Fortunately, the first Christians, apostles, etc. agreed with Don. Read 1 Corinthians 14, verses 26-33. There you will see a glimpse into how an early Christian worship gathering (not really a service) functioned.

It was rowdy, chaotic even! So much so, that Paul said, "Woah guys, if you're going to prophecy, share a revelation, or speak in tongues (crazy!), you should do it in an orderly fashion." (This sounds like more than a Bible study/cell group meeting, and different than a Sunday service)

But note that he did not tell them to stop having every member share their portion of what the Lord had given them "for the edification of the body". All this to say - there are other (and I would submit - more biblical) ways of experiencing God's ecclesia than the traditional, Enlightenment, lecture model that has been passed down to us from Western tradition. (This alternative way also helps building family-like community too, if that's something you're interested in, wondering about, etc.)

The interesting thing is - this is not the first time that these ideas have been put out there. This conversation has been going on for many years now, and there are expressions of the church that are meeting in Christ-centered, God-glorifying, ways outside the institutional religious system, with not clergy-laity divide.

I know because I'm a part of one - not a pastor (we don't have one - at least not in the clergy-sense of the word), not an elder (we have those), just a young brother among many brethren in Christ. I'm going to link to a pair of books (not written by me), for anyone interested in digging deeper into Don's questions.

http://www.amazon.com/Pagan-Christianity-Exploring-Church-Practices/dp/1...

http://www.amazon.com/Reimagining-Church-Pursuing-Organic-Christianity/d...

This is not promoting a new movement, or a new denomination. It's just information and experience...do what you want with it! God bless you all, brothers and sisters. Keep pursuing the Lord Jesus and everything else will fall into place!

Brett

114

Brett replied to Russell McMullen's comment

i totally hear you on this Don and think in a similiar way i think [altho currently part of a local church congregation and working there as youth leadery guy part time] in terms of our definition of church being way too small - bride and body right? wrote some of my own stuff on the topic: http://brettfish.wordpress.com/2014/02/11/why-you-should-stop-going-to-c... and http://brettfish.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/if-you-had-to-choose-between-l...

once we get to the point of realising that we are the church and it is not a place we go to [your box of sheriff badge analogy] we will be a lot closer i believe to what Jesus was hoping for.

keep on
love brett fish

Bob Sweet

1

Bob Sweet commented…

Donald Miller was spot on in his original stream of consciousness in his blog. The push back is simply the machine responding to a hit on its survival. I am at war with that machine...but not overtly. I refuse to participate in it. The hyper ventilating of the self righteous defenders of the faith is disgusting. Donald Miller hold steady. You got the Spirit.

Joel Hubbard

1

Joel Hubbard commented…

I love change and innovation. However, it's a bit strange to my ears that Donald refers to the sermon as a lecture. Is the sermon for passing on information, for moral reorientation, for reaffirming Christian doctrine? To my mind, and in my practice, it is prophetic (forthtelling kind). It seems thats how my folks here it too based upon the feedback. This follows the biblical tradition for the one who communicates to the whole, whatever designation we give it. In terms of community, if this is the purpose for the Sunday service, well then it fails. It isn't for us, never has been. This is why we have small groups and spiritual guidance and the feedback is outstanding. Still, we have a lot more to do to mobilize believers as followers of Jesus.

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