Thoughts on Church Inspired by Donald Miller

Donald Miller Header

I read an article today and was flooded with thoughts.   I have no where else to off load them, so they are going here.   

Donald Miller is the author of Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What, and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  He and a small team blog daily at storylineblog.com.   He is also the creator/founder of the Storyline Conference – an event I hope to attend some day when I have vast piles of money I can use  whisk me away to the West Coast.

Side note: From this point forward, even though I’ve never met him, I’m going to call him by his first name because I’ve been reading his work for a long time and feel deep affection toward him.

This week Donald has written two blog posts I think are fantastic, two posts I hope people will take seriously and ponder.

The first came out on Monday.  In it Don shares how he doesn’t connect with God through singing – the primary vehicle of intamacy offered by the American church.  He went on to explain that also doesn’t learn about God through lectures – the primary mode of teaching offered by the American church.  He briefly looks at learning styles, reveals he learns through doing, and then concludes by confessing he does not attend church often.

Full disclosure: this first blog didn’t strike me.  I also don’t connect with God through music (something I’ve written about before).  I like music.  I enjoy singing.  But if I want to get down-and-deep intimate with God I need to go on a prayer walk.  That’s where he and I connect and hash stuff out with him.

Also like Don, I rarely learn from lectures.  Reading followed by group discussion, that’s how I learn.  If you want to teach me something, give me a great, challenging, meaty book and then sit down with me and lets work it out.  The follow up discussion is key.  I grow through debate and conversation with others.

So, as I said, I read the post on Monday and thought, “That’s cool.”  It didn’t strike me as revolutionary.  I’ve been ranting here about how churches need to engage other learning styles for years – and if I’m ranting about it, you know there are tons of people ranting about it because I am not a fountain of original thought.  My take was, “Good for Don.  Way to speak up and poke the status quo a little.  Now, what’s next and where did I put my coffee?”

Others did not have the same reaction.  Evidently the idea that Donald Miller, a voice in the Christian world, doesn’t attend a church made some people upset.

To be blunt, I thought more of Don’s readers.  When Wendy and I started making our views on church public five years ago we also got push back.  Many loving people came to us with concern in their eyes.  They would ask with sincere hearts, “But how are you going to follow Jesus without a church?”  (When I’d explain we were working to build a different model of church, their eyes would glaze over – usually around the time I used the poorly chosen words “neo-monastic-community.”)  A few pastor-friends even held interventions.  I was invited to coffee to hang out, but then found myself in the middle of a well-meaning ambush.   All of this I understood and have come to expect from traditional church goers: especially those from the Baby-Boom, Silent, and Greatest Generation.

But I thought Don’s tribe of readers were different.  Don speaks to hip, cool, trendy millennials.  I assumed they knew the American church was on the cusp of a massive paradigm shift.  Surely they are aware our understanding of “church” is evolving.  They are the i-pad generation for Pete’s-sake.  They are connected and cool and think out-side the box.  I was shocked this morning to read that The Don got push back from his people.  Shocked.

He wrote a brilliant follow up piece today called “Why I Don’t Go to Church Very Often, a follow up blog“.  It was in this post that I felt things really got interesting.  Don answers questions with nine points.  Here are some of my favorite thoughts for the piece:

“God has no problem with you having pleasure enjoying Him, and when we don’t through a specific methodology, He has no problem with us switching things around so we do. He’s not calling us to be sanctified through dutiful boredom.”

“The point, though, is this: Jesus engages people inside and outside the church. It’s almost as though He sees the church as one, without walls, denominations or tribes. I’m starting to see the church that way, too.”

“Tribal thinking often causes a great deal of harm. We think people who don’t agree with us are likely lesser people because what is foreign often feels threatening. But that’s hardly true. People are people. Some of them do bad things both inside and outside the church. I’m convinced the distrust we feel at the foreign is a divisive and deceptive thought pattern meant to cause harm.”

“Imagine the relationships people lose out on, the incredible life memories, the healing and community they aren’t involved in because they can’t engage or have community with people who do not agree with them theologically. I’ve no interest. People are either kind or mean. I choose kind ones, I don’t care what they believe. This is part of why I feel like my community is so healthy.”

And possibly the one that really hit home for me:

“I do think church can evolve beyond a lecture/worship/performance institution, but the current leadership is unlikely to make that happen. When and if the church evolves, it will evolve from outside the current leadership and that evolution will pose a threat to existing tribal values as well as financial systems that are sustained by the current model. In other words, the church will be reluctant to change because things that are foreign are perceived as bad and we’ve got to keep doing it this way for job security.”

I loved both articles and I think you should go read them.

Now for a few after thoughts.

My fear is that readers will take Don’s articles in the wrong way.

We trend toward selfishness.  It’s part of the consumer culture we live in.  I hope church people don’t read Donald’s work and say, “Great.  My church doesn’t feed me and I’ve really wanted to sleep in on Sunday.”  I could be wrong, but I don’t believe that is at all what Donald is talking about.  He isn’t saying, “Stop attending church if it bores you.  Sleep in on Sunday.  Do whatever makes you feel good.  Make it up as you go along.”

If you plan to leave the existing structures because you think they are broken, you take on the mantel of “innovator.”  It is not cool to leave and do nothing.  The question you, innovators, are responsible to answer is “Now what?”  You think the church is broken?  You don’t get anything out of its popular expression?   Me too.  So what are you going to do about it?

For me, walking away from traditional models of church did not make things easier.  It made them harder.  Because as a Christ follower I’ve been commissioned to love my neighbor, bring shalom/peace to the world around me, and (scariest of all) to “make disciples”.  These commissions don’t stop because I decided not to attend a worship service on Sunday morning.  As a father this gets even harder.  Without Sunday school, Wednesday night programming, and Youth group, how am I discipling my kids?

This whole conversation reminds me a lot of homeschooling conversations.  It isn’t enough to simply declare that you don’t like traditional schools and then pull your kids out of them.  You have to replace your children’s educational experience with something.  You can’t simply not teach them.

(Breaths big sigh of relief.)  Wow.  Feels great to get all that out.  I could continue, but I think that is probably enough of a rant for one morning.  I will say, Valley has made some strides in the direction The Don described.  They are good, but just the beginning.

I don’t write as much about church stuff as I use to.  Mostly because I thought all of this had already been said and people were tired of talking about it.  Guess I was wrong.

Good job Don for speaking out.

What are your thoughts?   I’d love to hear where you are at on all of this.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Thoughts on Church Inspired by Donald Miller

  1. I already wrote this on your Facebook page, but I’ll repeat here:
    I really struggled with this post of Don Millers. There are so many straw man arguments in here that he sets up and then destroys. There also seems to be a lot of selfishness inherent in his thinking. I heard nothing of sacrifice or getting beyond oneself for the sake of others. A community that he gets to hand-pick is just as self-serving as what he calls “theological tribes.” His belittling description of the church as a lecture/performance institution is insulting. We could use equally disparaging words to describe how he wants to be the Church.

    I wish he would have been more honest and just said “I’m an introvert and I have a hard time being in one location on Sundays because my fame takes me to different cities around the country to speak. So this combination of introversion and travel makes me want to avoid a community I can’t hand-pick myself.” That, I believe, would be more honest than this post. This post was just him defending himself from Facebook attacks.

    Don is a leader in the Christian community. I think we can be sure many young people will read his words and then feel justified in selfishly leaving their church, never having grasped the ability to form community or serve others. Then they’ll just drop off the radar. They won’t build community, they’ll float into the next community that is easy for them. And this won’t be Christian community, it will be their buddies at work or friends from college. And while they may make good friends, it won’t be the kind of formational Christian community that makes disciples.

    These two posts from Don Miller strike me as ones he will want to take-back/redo in a few years. He’ll admit he got it wrong. He’ll admit he was short-sighted about church community. But by then the damage will be done.

    • jeffandwendy

      Hey Mark. I love your response. You always bring a great perspective to stuff. A few thoughts:

      I think it is funny you see his arguements as “straw men”. I agree, now that you’ve said that, they do feel that way. Unfortunately they are almost exactly, word for word, what was said to me when I left traditional church structures. At the time they were very painful. It’s comical now, with five years of perspective, how “straw man” they seem.

      I agree that his post opens a dangerous door to selfishness (which I tried to gently allude to in my final thoughts). My hope is that he will write more. I agree it is not enough to say, “If you don’t connect with church, then don’t go.” It has to be followed by “Now you need how to figure out where you are finding accountable community, how you are strategically living on mission, and how you are making disciples”, because as you say, that stuff doesn’t just happen. If we are not intentional about it, if we don’t discipline ourselves toward, it will not simply occur magically.

      If Don doesn’t follow up and speak more about what follow Christ outside of the institution looks like, I think you are right. I think he’ll regret these posts.

      But I think if anyone is capable of challenging those leaving traditional church structures to live as disciplined church innovators, it’s Donald Miller. I hope he rises to the challenge.

      It’s hard though, man. And painful. I know first hand, innovation comes with a lot of disappointment and failure. The wild frontier is no place for the lazy or the faint of heart. They are safer behind the walls of traditional systems.

      Good comments! Thanks!

  2. Charlene Reinke

    Jeff: Interesting reflection. About music…Maryland Presbyterian Church is an older congregation but the median age is now lowering :-). Of course the older folks love the traditional hymns. Me too, especially the tunes. But the words contained in the hymns we sing from “Sing the Faith” published by Geneva Press, Louisville, KY, are phenomenal and bring Valley’s “Living Like Jesus” to my mind. You could check this out if/when you have a free Sunday at 11. Also have you ever read any of Mary Gaut’s sermons on our Web MPChurch.org? Or do you know Mary at all? I’m curious. We treasure her. Charlene

  3. Jeff, as I’ve been contemplating Miller’s post throughout the day, I’ve been trying to find the right words to describe it. And as I’ve gone back and forth, I think “unintentional arrogance” is the right descriptor.

    His comments about not going to church would be like a monk saying, “Yeah, I don’t really go to the monastery much these days…all that kneeling and working and praying just doesn’t do it for me. I find my monastery out in the world.” And if a young monk ever said such a thing, I’m sure his spiritual father would slap him in the face (metaphorically speaking).

  4. Here is one of the more thoughtful responses to Don Miller’s posts on not going to church much. http://careynieuwhof.com/2014/02/9-thoughts-on-exiting-the-local-church-a-response-to-donald-miller/

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