Donald Miller doesn’t need to go to church

Photo of Donald Miller (source: Twitter)
Christian author Donald Miller

I really like Donald Miller. He has a knack for encouraging people to follow their unique gifts. He understands how to talk about being a Christian without making people feel guilty. That’s why I appreciated his recent post: “I don’t worship God by singing. I connect with him elsewhere.”

The average church service, Miller says, doesn’t help him find a personal connection with God. For one thing, the average church service doesn’t do much for people who have more “visual” and “kinesthetic” learning styles, like Miller. It’s all mostly about hearing things—the worship band, the preacher.

Then Miller admitted that he doesn’t attend church often. That raised a lot of objections from people on Twitter: What about Christian community? What about fellowship and accountability with other believers? What about serving others?

The thing is, Miller already does those things. He has close Christian friends who hold him accountable. Isn’t that “Christian community?” He exercises his spiritual gifts by writing and teaching others and helping people develop their own callings. He has a blog and a Twitter feed where he communicates grace to people on a daily basis. Maybe Miller’s spirituality is just the postmodern, internet-enabled evolution of what we used to need church for. After all, cultural Christianity is dead.

Denny Burk (Image credit: Twitter)
Denny Burk

But maybe we shouldn’t let Don off the hook so easily. Bible professor Denny Burk writes:

Miller’s view of the church differs markedly from what we find in scripture. For him, the church is not defined by the preaching of the word and the right administration of the ordinances (e.g., Acts 2:42). Instead, the church is amorphous, “all around us, not to be confined by a specific tribe.” How different this is from the way that the Bible speaks of the church as local bodies of believers “who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). God is omnipresent, but the church is not. If you are not with a gathered community, you are not at church—despite Miller’s claim that the church is “all around us.” . . .

The New Testament pattern for gathered worship . . . involves the people of God coming together to enjoy the apostle’s [sic] teaching, fellowship, prayer, and the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42). Gathering with God’s people like this isn’t an optional add-on to following Christ. It is part and parcel of being a disciple. To neglect this is to deny the faith altogether. In fact, John describes apostates as those who stop gathering with God’s people.

Burk also has a point. Christians shouldn’t neglect to meet together for “the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship . . . the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The Bible is pretty clear about that. At the same time, who says that this has to happen within the institutional church setting?

I ask for the sake of argument, because I think Donald Miller’s critics are blind to what evangelical churches, the kind of churches Don is thinking of, have become. Many of them are almost entirely marginal to the Christian life, and in some cases worse than useless to the Christian who wants to grow in faith.

If church is about community, you can find community elsewhere.

In fact, you can create a community of your own. Reach out to lonely people who need love, and healthy people who have something to give.

If church is for learning about Jesus, you may learn better from books and podcasts.

The pastor of your local church is probably not John Stott, or Alistair Begg, or John MacArthur, or Tim Keller. He’s probably a man of slightly-above-average intelligence trying to balance his teaching responsibility with all of the other ministry he’s called to do. Not every Sunday is going to be an inspiring, enlightening experience.

If church is for fellowship with other Christians, you can do that in your home or at the coffee shop.

Even if your church has a fellowship meal after the service, a noisy room with your kids running around and climbing over the tables is not necessarily the best place for deep fellowship. Find or make places to meet with other Christians. You can do it anywhere, and you should!

If church is about experiencing God emotionally, it may not deliver the goods.

Even the amped-up, professional quality worship band of a megachurch may completely fail at inspiring people like Don, or me, who just don’t operate on that level. It’s more annoying and distracting than anything else. And by the way, the septuagenarian choir of the local UMC church singing “In the Garden” may be even more vexing. We may very well not experience God emotionally at any church.

If church is about listening to the Holy Spirit, you may do that better in a quiet room at home.

Maybe the amped-up worship band is drowning out God’s still, small voice. Maybe the chatter of toddlers in the back seat is harshing your prayerful mellow.

If church is about an aesthetic experience, you can go to an art gallery or a rock concert.

And they’ll do a better job.

If church is about discipling other Christians, you can start a small group or a teaching ministry.

Don Miller did this and has blessed a lot of people.

If church is for worshipping and praising God, you can do that anywhere.

Christian radio! Singing hymns with your family! Hiking in nature! Telling a friend about Jesus!

If church is for networking, you can do that somewhere else.

People used to join a church for the business connections, because it was the social hub of the community. Now, any given local church is peripheral to the community. There are dozens of other, more effective ways to network.

If church is for serving other Christians, you don’t need to go on Sunday.

Most of the serving that happens in a church community doesn’t happen on Sunday morning.

If church is for accountability and spiritual growth, you don’t need to go on Sunday.

In fact, you need to join a small group or find a group of friends for mutual encouragement, because Sunday morning is, again, not the best time to do that.

If church is for evangelizing the lost, it’s possibly the least efficient way to do that.

Maybe some of the church members or their children need to be converted, but most of you are sitting there because you already believe in Jesus.

If church is for submitting to the church elders, where do those elders derive their authority?

One tweeter mentioned that church is about “learning from elders” who are “shepherds for our souls.” But this raises the question: who are the elders? Is Donald Miller an elder? A lot of people feel more “shepherded” through his gracious ministry than by their local pastor.

What Donald Miller—and his critics—are missing about church

Ed Underwood tweets: “The point of preaching is difficult to define, but the point of churches [is] to build redemptive communities.” Going to church isn’t about whether you learn about God, it’s about being part of a community that is being redeemed and transformed by Jesus Christ. But “redemptive communities” are not absent from Donald Miller’s life. Indeed, his ministry is about fostering and nurturing gracious communities where people use their spiritual gifts to build each other up in love.

What Miller, and his critics, are missing about church—and what many of their churches are missing about church—is the central thing that ties all of these activities and concerns together.

Church isn’t about individuals being educated or obtaining an emotional experience. It’s also not about a social support network. It’s about a body—it is a Body. And as much as we should care about “the local church,” any particular local congregation is not that Body. All Christians, everywhere, who are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are members of that Body (1 Cor. 12, Rom. 12).

So why should we care about the local, individual church congregation?

When a local church congregation meets together as a visible manifestation of the universal Body of the church, Jesus Christ is present. He becomes present in a special way, not in the way that He is always present for each of us through the Holy Spirit, but in a communal and sacramental way. Heaven is coming down to earth.

The way that Jesus makes Himself present to the gathered church congregation is through the sacraments. The Lord’s Supper is not just something we do “because Jesus said so,” or to “remember” what He did for us. It is a “feast that makes his guest,” as George Herbert wrote. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is literally feeding us with the spiritual food of his body and blood, in the elements of the bread and wine.  In the liturgical prayers, we are participating in the eternal liturgy that is already going on in Heaven. In the reading and preaching of the Word, we are becoming participants in the story of God, and being taught by the apostles and prophets.

Painting by Nicholas Poussin: Institution of the Eucharist (1637)
Nicholas Poussin: Institution of the Eucharist (1637)

Churches that don’t believe these things, or don’t practice them regularly, need to think about whether their way of doing church is relevant or necessary in today’s world. All of those other priorities I described can be done outside of the gathered church community, and in some cases they can be done better.

A church community should be about all of those values and activities. But without the direct, connection to Jesus Christ feeding us through the liturgy of the Word and Sacraments, I agree with Donald Miller. Those things are peripheral to what is supposed to happen in church.

A thought about learning styles

Traditional liturgical worship is a lot more “visual” and “kinesthetic.” In fact, it engages pretty much every sense. We sing psalms and hymns with our voices. We listen to the Scriptures (and read along, if that helps). If our mind wanders during the sermon, we look around and see images that tell us about God in other ways. We move our bodies, taking a break from sitting to stand, kneel, or walk up the aisle to receive. We exchange greetings with others to remember that we are all part of one Body. We make symbolic gestures, such as the sign of the cross, or a reverential bow. We taste bread and wine and remember that Jesus is feeding us with his flesh and blood. We repeat some of the same prayers every week, so that they have a chance to really sink into our souls and transform the way we relate to God. Miller might appreciate stepping into a traditional Lutheran or Anglican church sometime and see whether our whole-body approach to worship suits his learning style better.

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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

8 thoughts on “Donald Miller doesn’t need to go to church”

  1. If he’s looking for a whole body experience of worship he might want to visit an Orthodox Church. We stand for the service, we cross ourselves frequently, we make bows and prostrations. Add to this icons and services that are almost entirely in conducted in theologically rich hymns and you’ve got a service that engages all the senses.

  2. Ah, Millennials… always in search of some justification for sleeping in on Sundays. Yes, the ancient liturgical church is more consistent on the nature of the church and why it can’t be replaced with thin, flattened out definitions of church “all around us.” What I want to hear from Millennials is how they intend to be part of the solution. We’ve heard your criticisms, and many of them are needed. But, don’t become part of the problem by turning your back on the church and tying to re-invent the wheel with some thin, flattened out “do-it-my-way-when-ever-I-want-however-I-want” redefinition of church. I know it’s hard for you, but try to love the church as she is, and not as you think she ought to be.

    1. Hi Ryan—thanks for your comment! Donald Miller isn’t a “Millennial,” whereas we are . . . and speaking for myself, I’m a member of my local Episcopal church and very involved in church life and community. And here’s the thing. I don’t like or agree with everything my church does, or how they do it. But I know that I need to be there, both for my own benefit, and to serve God and others.

      1. You’re right, HOLGRAVE, Don isn’t a Millennial, he’s a gen x’er like me. I liked Jonathan Leeman’s response to Don at TGC

        Glad you are a millennial engaged with the local church. I can understand why you might not agree with your church (TEC) on some things. If I were in your shoes, I’d be looking to AMiA or ACNA. But, I’m not in your shoes and you must do what you believe is right. I’m glad you see the need for the institutional church for yourself and others. My experience with Millennials, and the research about them I’ve consulted, suggests that church attendance is not a high priority. So, that would make you the exception. In the final analysis, generational categories are not that helpful. The problem with those who take Don’s attitude toward the church is that they really are missing the point of Christian worship and community. Yes, I would argue that all the talk about small groups and accountability with a select chosen group of friends is by and large just talk. How many people who say they don’t need church because they can find community and worship God elsewhere actually do that? Maybe, Don does it. But, I suspect a lot of people who read after him are going to take his cues about ditching church and that will be that…. Like Leeman says, we need to go deep, not cut and run. Thanks for the discussion! blessings

  3. Great post, I think I am battling through these issues right now. I grew up baptist and theologically they can’t make the case for the church service for all the reasons you listed. My choices seem to be then either give up on being part of a church or become part of a very liturgical one where the Eucharist is something that can only be done in a certain place and in a certain way. I’m still not sure which way I will go. I find it very hard to biblically support such a view of the Eucharist but the weight I give to tradition is growing everyday. I’m on an interesting journey.

    1. Chad — you’re on a challenging journey, but it can lead some interesting places — by God’s grace, it can lead you to walk more closely with Jesus. May I recommend some extended close reading (aloud, for preference) and meditation on 1 Corinthians 10 and John 6?

      ~ Jonathan
      (Millennial, Anglican, and pretty sure that the best way to show love for Jesus is probably not hatin’ on His Bride)

  4. I appreciate how you acknowledged all the peripheral things you can do outside of church and often better. I commonly use these as excuses myself. This article was great for helping me re-consider what church is really about at it’s core.

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