John Grisham wrote a book called Skipping Christmas, which was later made into the movie, Christmas with the Kranks. It tells the tale of a couple, Luther and Nora Krank, who decided to go against the established traditions of their suburban community and forgo celebrating the Christmas holiday. The decision got them into all kinds of trouble with their neighbors and friends. No amount of explaining could avail. They were members of the community and that meant decorating their house per neighborhood protocol, supporting the local merchants, and holding their annual party just like they did every year. No room for nonconformists.
You can’t be part of this community and skip Christmas. It just isn’t done.
- I Don’t Worship God by Singing. I Connect With Him Elsewhere
- Why I Don’t Go to Church Very Often, a Follow Up Blog
In the first article, Miller confessed:
I used to feel guilty about this but to be honest, I experience an intimacy with God I consider strong and healthy.
It’s just that I don’t experience that intimacy in a traditional worship service. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of sermons I actually remember. So to be brutally honest, I don’t learn much about God hearing a sermon and I don’t connect with him by singing songs to him. So, like most men, a traditional church service can be somewhat long and difficult to get through.
He went on to talk about how people have different learning styles, different ways they engage best with the world around them. He thinks himself to be a kinesthetic learner: he learns best by doing.
How do I find intimacy with God if not through a traditional church model?
The answer came to me recently and it was a freeing revelation. I connect with God by working. I literally feel an intimacy with God when I build my company. I know it sounds crazy, but I believe God gave me my mission and my team and I feel closest to him when I’ve got my hand on the plow. It’s thrilling and I couldn’t be more grateful he’s given me an outlet through which I can both serve and connect with him.
Miller also said, “the church is all around us, not to be confined by a specific tribe,” and thus doing his work is a way of being part of the church even though he doesn’t see the need to gather with a congregation in traditional ways.
Not so fast, Mr. Krank.
Miller received significant backlash to his post and felt it necessary to do a follow up piece. Noting that “most of the influential Christian leaders I know (who are not pastors) do not attend church,” he suggested that “perhaps it’s something we should talk about in an open, safe environment.”
In response to his critics, he made several points, some of which I will summarize here in bullet points:
- I have left evangelicalism. My understanding of God and church have evolved and I think people can worship God just as well with family or friends, at work or in daily life.
- It is not my duty to suffer through services I don’t enjoy when I can find pleasure in worshiping God in other ways.
- I don’t need a home church to have an impact for God in the world. Many of the most effective people serving God in the world don’t attend church regularly. The church is bigger than that.
- Not going to church doesn’t leave me bereft of community. Church is a created community, and I can create or join a rich, meaningful community anywhere.
- Just because I don’t belong to a church doesn’t mean I’m against the church; there’s no need for that kind of tribal thinking.
- Your church doesn’t look like the church in the book of Acts, either. God allows us to be creative in forming our faith communities, so we shouldn’t go throwing the word “biblical” around to keep people inside a certain form.
- Jesus is at work both within and outside our churches, doing great things.
- If the church is ever going to evolve, it will come from those outside the system who are free from traditional models and limitations, who try new things and challenge the status quo.
Miller ends by saying: “The final issue for me is control. I can’t control you, you can’t control me, and none of us are going to control Jesus. He’s going to do what He wants, and what He wants is to love the world through us, both inside and outside the church.”
I am not going to call Donald Miller a Krank today. I’m actually glad he wrote these words, because I think ecclesiology is a primary issue for the Church today, and especially for evangelicals here in the U.S. We need to talk about this!
I have both critique and commendation for what Miller says in these articles. His words are both problematic and promising.
I have argued for a long time that, for those in the revivalistic, non-liturgical, free church tradition, church is ultimately optional. This grows out of an individualistic theology. Salvation is an individual choice, through the Spirit Jesus indwells individual Christians, God’s primary work in Christians is to make them better, more holy individuals, and the purpose of the church is to provide a setting in which individual believers may grow spiritually. But, as Donald Miller argues, churches may not be able to provide what each individual needs in order to “connect to God.” In that case, the natural priority is to find something else that does.
When Miller writes about church, he describes it as a place where individuals “learn,” where they “engage with God,” and “experience intimacy with God.” Church as he describes it is for auditory learners and for people who experience God through music. In other words, this is a specific church he is writing about — the church of modern evangelicalism, church as a purveyor of spiritual goods and services. But if I can get the goods elsewhere, at a better price and with finer quality, more personally tailored to my needs as an individual, I don’t need church.
In essence, Donald Miller simply found a better way to shop. In the evangelical mind, “church” is never the point. “I” am the point — that is, me in terms of my “relationship with God.” Church is a pragmatic organization that exists to provide spiritual experiences and knowledge for me. Church is valid when it helps me. Reflecting this common evangelical perception, Miller simply explains over and over again that, since it doesn’t help him he sees no need to participate.
If church is optional, his choice makes perfect sense.
The Unrecognized Church
On the other hand, Donald Miller points out something most of us would do well to recognize: “church” is not limited to a certain form or institution.
From its earliest days, when apostolic bands traveled from place to place, and throughout the church’s long history of monastic orders, societies, denominations, missions, and parachurch groups, believers have been bound together, worshiped together, and served together in communities that were not what we might identify as “the local church.” Jesus himself promised his presence wherever only two or three gather together in his name. Miller’s posts reflect this broader understanding of “church” when he writes, “I believe God gave me my mission and my team and I feel closest to him when I’ve got my hand on the plow.”
I have watched missionaries and other folks who’ve lived overseas move home over the years and have difficulty fitting back in to U.S. congregations. Their experiences in different cultures broadened their perspectives on church forms and practices. Doctrine may have been compatible, but ways of preaching, coming together for fellowship, sharing the Gospel, and loving their neighbors bore few of the western cultural accretions they knew in their home churches. Coming home, they could discern that much of what their U.S. brethren called “biblical” was not, in fact, sourced in Scripture. So these returnees remained uncomfortable, never quite fitting in. They often found that they had to go beyond the church program and make their own way to feel that they were truly involved in sound ecclesial life and practice.
The closest Donald Miller comes to expressing an alternative ecclesiology in these articles is when he writes:
In fact, I’d argue that by making the church smaller, less formal, less organized, less institutionalized and more like the chaos of a family structure, the church would be moving MORE toward the historical church in Acts and less like a culture-formed institution by deconstructing itself. Though I hardly consider that a God-given decree. Again, I believe we can make it what we want (within God-given parameters) and share agency with God in positively impacting the world.
Given the first point I made about Miller’s evangelical perspective, I am not convinced that he forgoes participation in church because he has a higher view of the church. He just doesn’t see that it is as useful as it could be for his own spiritual vitality and his engagement in mission.
The Family of God, Gathered and Scattered, Immersed in Sacramental Realities
Though I respect Donald Miller’s thoughtful posts, in the end they only represent to me one common result of the revivalistic, evangelical, free church tradition.
People outgrow it.
Evangelicalism is designed to work best at attracting people, not engaging them in a lifelong journey of spiritual formation, vocation, contemplation and community. It is, by and large, about breadth rather than depth and activity rather than reflection. In the more scholastic parts of the tradition, it is about learning and proper doctrine. In the more charismatic parts, the emphasis falls on experiencing God through the Spirit. Every version stresses evangelism and outreach. Church “services” tend to be rallies for whipping up spiritual feeling and learning about how to live from the Bible, with various degrees of emphasis. There is little historical memory and a great distrust of tradition.
These and other aspects of evangelicalism have been discussed here on Internet Monk for years. Donald Miller’s most recent thoughts are merely confirmation of our own post-evangelical perspective. It’s not Miller we should be criticizing. He’s expressing post-evangelical thinking well. He’s been on a journey, and one day he looked up and found that the church as he knew it wasn’t there at his side.
They define themselves as members of the family of God, organically related to God and one another in Christ. They see themselves as part of the one people of God in all its manifold expressions across time and geography.
They see gathering together as something entirely ordinary and right — it is what families do out of natural affection and loyalty, to encourage one another and express their love.
They also exist in scattered form, throughout their neighborhoods, communities, and world, as each member goes about his or her vocation. They sometimes join together in special efforts that go beyond individual ability to do good in the world around them. When they are apart, they keep each other in their hearts and prayers.
Whether gathered or scattered, the Church lives in union with Christ, as part of one family of believers united in baptism and the Spirit, and participants in the reality of God’s Kingdom which has broken in to the present. These are the sacramental realities in which we live live and move and have our being. They are the focus of our worship, as we gather around Christ through the Gospel and Table. They provide the energy for our daily life in the world as God leads us into his mission.
This is a broader vision of “church” than the one Donald Miller has rejected.
Many have left what he has left.
Let’s hope he and all who are seeking find something that many others have found.