Congregations are Important
Guys like me have heroes. Often times, if your family life wasn’t great you find heroes in other places–sometimes in writing. One of those heroes for me when I was in college was Donald Miller. I read Blue Like Jazz my sophomore year and it was incredibly refreshing to me. It helped me bridge these competing worlds I was living in– being a new Christian and wanting to remain relevant to the world in an attractive way.
BLJ was refreshing for many people, in particular guys my age. So, it is hard to see someone who you credit for so much of your growth, flailing around like a child. This is how I feel about Donald Miller this week.
For those of you who don’t know, this month Donald Miller wrote a series of blog posts about why he doesn’t attend a congregational church any more. His answers were classic consumer-church ideas. He says he doesn’t “get anything out of” singing, therefore doesn’t attend church. He says instead he gets community in other places but is non-specific about what those are– mentions nature and his job.
For those of you who don’t know, I am one of the founding members of a community movement called Micah 6 Community. We live in a low-income neighborhood outside of Detroit where we build friendships and invite people into greater community, including a small believing congregation.
I know my blog post will never gain the traction that anything Donald Miller writes does, but I feel it is important to engage this.
Church, Church and Church
Miller’s posts were sloppy in what he meant by church each time he said it. He blanketly used the term “Church” to describe the Sunday morning assembly, a congregation and the universal church.
This may seem unimportant, until you read a sentence like, “I don’t want to be part of church anymore…” Do you mean you don’t like the style of Sunday morning assembly, do you not like how that particular congregation is managed, or are you disavowing the Christian faith?
I don’t know if this was because he was flustered and writing a quick defense, or a deliberate attempt to drive some readership. Saying “I quit church” is much more sensational than saying, “I don’t think I want to attend this congregation anymore,” even if you’re Donald Miller.
Building community is kinesthetic. Maybe not as short-term as you’d like.
The key crux of his first post about not attending a congregation any more is that he doesn’t grow from singing, he grows and learns in a kinesthetic way and that Sunday morning church isn’t a place that allows you to grow that way.
I can only say what I’ve experienced, and that is that building community is a kinesthetic activity. Walking, talking, digging deeper, praying with, catching up, visiting, traveling together, serving together, eating together… this is activity.
I think the issue for him is that building community doesn’t deliver the instant gratification that working on a house with Habitat for Humanity gives you. Building relationships doesn’t give you the one-and-done feeling that building a house does, but I would contend that one is closer to the heart of God.
Additionally, as you will see throughout this post, I think this attitude is gaining traction because it doesn’t require anything of you length or depth-wise. Building a Habitat House is a weekend activity for 3-5 hours, you hit some nails, trade pleasantries with fellow workers, leave your tools and go home. You’ve not dug deeper, you’ve not suffered with anyone, you’ve not walked through hard times with anyone. Your community is based on the battery life of your cordless drill.
Accountability to a larger community
Living in such a way that you are sharing your life with multiple people is important. The “larger community” I am talking about here can be found in a couple of places but one of the places it can be found and SHOULD be found is in a congregational church.
One of the most amazing that audacious things that the first century congregation had going for it was its ability to bridge gaps, create relationship and community among people who would regularly have nothing to do with each other– jew and greek, widows, orphans, rich and poor, Samaritans. Everyone was in the room. They learned together and they ate together. They took communion together because the only thing stronger than their differences is what they had in common–Jesus.
This takes us to the next point…
Robbing others of the sight of true community
One of the most beautiful things about the church is this bridging of differences. You look at Jesus’ band of friends and it is clear that the only thing bringing them together, is Jesus. Priests and Prostitutes are there. People who are actively working with the Romans and actively plotting their over throw are walking side by side.
That reconciling power is still present in the universal church and should be seen in the Sunday morning gatherings of local congregations. If you give up on the local gathering of Saints or somehow think that you’ve graduated from that, then you are robbing the church of its most attractive aspects to the outside world: peacemaker, bridge builder, unifier, lover, community builder.
There is a testimony to be had about this local congregation that is being missed by his not being there. Someone could say, “My church has local politicians, some recovering drug addicts, a millionaire Christian author and me…” The universal church is full of people who are trying to figure out the Christian walk together. The local congregation is where the tired gather to remind each other that we are all in this together.
This brings me to my next point…
A self-selected group of people like you isn’t the church
Upon reading through these posts with my room mate, Dylan, he asked the question, “What if Donald Miller started a hiking church? Donald, twenty dudes on a trail, stopping for prayer and conversation, taking communion and moving on? Would that be acceptable?”
I would say that it is at least a step in the right direction, however, I still have some hang ups.
I have a friend who plants churches for a living. He thinks that the future of churches is small and highly specialized churches aimed at specific audiences. He’s helped a church that is aimed directly at the theatre department at a nearby university. That being the case it is small, self sustaining and highly effective at reaching its target market.
I love his work, but I think this isn’t what Jesus was going for. If you start a church but only invite people just like you, then you are creating a congregation in your own image. This has become particularly troublesome in recent years with suburbanization and a whole geographical economical system built around clustering together in like-minded and like-life-styled communities.
If your church is great at embracing people like you, and poor at attracting people you don’t like, then your church might be missing the point.
Jesus didn’t graduate from attending synagogue or temple, neither do you.
There seems to be a growing idea out there that the more spiritually enlightened among us can stop worshiping Jesus in churches. This is interesting to me. Someone said the other day that is like saying, “I like hanging out with Jesus’ head, but not his body.”
More than that, continually we see Jesus in synagogues and Temple. We see Paul going about the new world, visiting synagogues. If Jesus didn’t graduate from attending his local worship gathering, neither do I, neither do you, neither does Donald Miller.
Moreover, Donald Miller leverages his apparently weighty but anonymous friends who are Christian leaders and aren’t attending local congregations. However, we can all point to christian leaders who are involved in churches who I’d evaluate as more spiritually mature than this middle aged twit. People like Miroslav Volf, N.T. Wright, Erwin McManus, John Piper and Mother Teresa have all still seen value and importance in being in community at a local congregation. If your attitude is that you’ve graduated past a local congregation then your position is that you’ve not only moved past these people in spiritual maturity, but that you’ve also surpassed Jesus himself.
A good dose of duty
Another critique offered by Donald was the patronizing idea that some people only go to church because they feel a sense of duty to do so, and that by going to church they feel like they are only fulfill a need in themselves.
I would say that if there is one thing that the church and its Christians need today is a good sense of duty. We don’t feel a sense of duty or responsibility toward anything any more. Our divorce rates are just as high, we’re not the strong workers we used to be, we don’t seem to want to work through hard things.
God seems to have a different desire for his people. Over and over again in the Bible we see virtues that are to be sought after that appeal to a sense of duty: working out one marriage, being honest when it isn’t easy, long-suffering, trustworthy, wise, disciplined.
Sometimes we do hard things out of duty, sometimes its by living dutifully that we are able to do hard things. Community is hard, but living in it is a Christian duty. It isn’t about being “built for it” as if extroverts are built for community, but introverts aren’t. Community is hard, for everyone, but it is still part of the design of Christian life.
Its not even easy for extroverts. I live in a house with six other people. Right now we share a single bathroom, have one common space, share one kitchen. We have to work everything out together either in a spoken or unspoken manner; who is going to park in the better spots in the drive way, where we go when we have our significant others over, when we can play music and how loud. We get mad because people don’t wash their dishes, we get excited when other people have leftovers, we get mad when people drink our milk and get excited when someone moves our laundry from the washer to the dryer for us. Community is exhausting for everyone — introvert and extrovert– but it is part of what our calling–our duty– is as Christ followers.
I appreciate what Donald Miller does. He doesn’t appreciate what I do.
I consider myself kind of a nerd. I read Volf and Barth. I appreciate the intricacies of theology and the historical conversation surrounding Christian thought, morality and education. I work at a Christian College and have most of a degree from a Christian college. I will probably start work on a theological Master’s degree soon. I am one of the founders of an intentional community in a low-income neighborhood. Out of that work I hope we can plant a small vibrant faith community.
Donald Miller has done amazing work making faith practical, making believers more human and helping bridge some gaps that I think the media would like us to believe are larger than they are. His collected works serve as proof that there is more to the body of Christ than Bible-beating, gay-hating, charismatic, rapture-waiting, frowning followers. I love what Donald Miller does.
However, I get the profound sense that Donald Miller has little respect for what I do either as a church attender or as a person who teaches and believes in important doctrinal issues. The overall tone of his posts were patronizing at best. That may be good for you, but I have a deeper relationship with God was the take away interpretation. At its worst, he accused me of being money grubbing and only believing in the Sunday morning setting because it gives me money.
The ultimate irony of course is that 2000 years of theology and religious thought being distilled and worked out, allow Donald Miller to write his books and simplify the messages that he does. I am also sure that Donald Miller’s success lies largely in the hands of religious professionals who have recommended his books to their churches, classrooms and colleagues.
Inferior Community – Creation vs Humans
The idea that “we find God in nature and not Sunday morning community” is interesting to me. I hear it a lot and it is a growing groan from folks, especially ones that live in prettier places than me. It is easier to marvel at God under the stars, in the mountains of Colorado, in the evergreens of Oregon and on the hills around Duluth than it can be when you are in between the smelly guy, the crying baby and the off pitch grandfather at your Sunday morning gathering.
But it is important to remember one thing: nature wasn’t the point. God’s ultimate creation — the one that he created in his image, has continually sought after, consistently calls, and even died for — was not a spruce tree. It isn’t a mountain that is made in the image of God, it’s people. To say you’d rather experience God in nature than with his ultimate creation is like telling the architect who built your house that you’d rather commune with the garage.
I think we like nature for other obvious reasons: it doesn’t ask for anything back when we walk through the park, it doesn’t outright ask us to do our part when we climb a mountain, it doesn’t require anything of us, it doesn’t make us uncomfortable to look at the stars. The preference for nature over people, I feel, is a symptom of Western isolation and withdrawal. It’s not a higher form of spiritual knowledge, but maybe the exact opposite.
We’ve flipped the Example of Christ
The Bible gives us the closest thing we have to a full-blown biography of Jesus. Luckily there are four versions of his life that do their best to work in tandem to give us a well rounded picture, at least of the last three years of his life.
In those pages we see Jesus constantly surrounded by people– people he is going to see and people who are coming to see him. He seems to constantly be surrounded by thousands, have a group of twelve intimate guys, and three really deep confidants. He is constantly engaging with someone. He is always participating in community.
Every so often though, Jesus takes a break. He sits on a mountain. He goes into a garden alone. He takes a stroll on the water (because no one else could follow him there). These are verses we take special note of because they are so rare. Jesus spends most of his time in community with his friends and followers, and ever so often goes off alone.
Some people want to flip that model, live mostly isolated, then engage in community irregularly. This is not the model we were shown, or the model were left. This is recreating church in your own image.