July 30, 2014

Sunday Morning with the Kranks

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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.

20110128-DonMiller-2Donald Miller received a similar response recently when he wrote two posts about skipping church.

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.

worshipatmpcThe Optional Church
Donald Miller claims to have left evangelicalism, but in terms of ecclesiology he is its perfect representative.

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.

tableHowever, there are forms of the Church with a higher understanding and more depth of practice.

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.

Comments

  1. Outstanding post, Mike. You really nailed it.

    You may already have seen it, but Nate Pyle also has a really good post in response to Miller: http://natepyle.com/maybe-church-is-about-more-than-what-we-see/

    • Chaplain Mike–Nate Pyle is in Fishers. I talk with him often at the Y.

    • I see (and like) Donald Miller’s point. I see (and like) Nate Pyle’s point.

      My take-away from all this is this: We (members of Christ’s body) just need to let go of getting offended at people whose spiritual journey is different than ours.

  2. Seneca Griggs says:

    I’m kind of A.D.H.D. Church has never been easy to sit thru. Never. And yet I am encouraged by the singing of worship to God; at time I feel His presence. And then I am often encouraged as our pastor presents the Word. Sometimes I’ve simply been relieved when it’s over but other times I have been encouraged and renewed ready to take on the coming week.
    *
    Finally, 15 minutes with old friends catching up on their happenings and family can be satisfying. When you’re A.D.H.D., 15 minutes is about all you need.

  3. If what you’re saying about evangelicalism is true, then it seems to me that you would need to view the Reformation, when being theologically right was made primary over being related to the historic church, as an unmitigated disaster. Because doesn’t the Reformation demand that, where our own understanding of the truth, as conveyed by Scripture, contradicts what we see to be the erroneous understanding of the historic church, we are obliged to move away from that earlier historic church and into new forms, which is exactly what Martin Luther did, despite his protestations that it was not his intention to separate from the historic catholic church? And isn’t it just a matter of applying the same logic that ineluctably separated Luther from Rome that results in the multiplicity of denominational, and then non-denominational, churches that we see now? Isn’t Luther, in this interpretation, really a gnostic, concerned with getting theology right and then building church around it, rather than being organically related in “family” to the historic church, and finding salvation as church in sacrament and shared corporeality? The only thing is, like many others after him, Luther thought he should be the last such interpreter, and it seemed to enrage him when he saw that he wouldn’t be. Given this, shouldn’t you be Roman Catholic, Chaplain Mike, rather than Lutheran?

    • Luther never saw himself as starting a separate church. IMO true Lutheran theology understands itself as reformed Catholicism.

      • CM – exactly.

      • Yup. It’s not about the institutional organization: it’s about faithfulness to Christ’s institution. Which the Bishop of Rome isn’t.

        • I have no fundamental objection to the Bishop of Rome’s position. One might wish that he were balanced by other regional Bishops of one apostolic Church as it was in earlier times, and that we all saw ourselves as members of that Church.

          • Same. It’s ok for a church body to have an executive figurehead. But it’s not on par with the Eucharist, it is the institution of man. For potentially good, right, and salutary purposes, of course. …and it does seem to help with the organizational unity within their own institution.

      • I’m reminded of Bonhoeffer, who never viewed the confessing church as breaking away from the German state church, but rather the remnant faithful to the faith once received. In his very well publicized opinion, it was the state church that had broken away. I think Luther had similar views. However, that could easily be a cloak that any charlatan or false teacher uses justify schism, so I think some skepticism is healthy.

    • Protestantism isn’t the cause of schism in Christendom anymore than the Papacy is the cure. False teaching divides. The church had schism enough long before Protestantism. Using your line of reasoning, it would be more rational for Lutherans to seek reconciliation with Eastern Orthodoxy than with Rome. Indeed, I do believe Luther at least tried on this front. But I see no reason why Roman Catholicism must be the default church unity. In fact, wasn’t it the insistence that the church catholic must be consolidated under one centralize power the impetus behind it’s fracture in the first place?

    • Joe Heschmeyer at “Shameless Popery” addressed the question of whether Luther was trying to start another church. He calls the claim meaningless or false, Luther basically saying, “I’ll stay in your religion if you replace your religious teachings with my own.” It was not reformation but revolution, said Eugene F. Rice Jr. in “The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559.” See “Sameless Popery”: “Did Luther Want to Start His Own Church” (Feb. 6, 2014) : catholicdefense.blogspot.com

  4. ” 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. ”

    When Martin Luther made the psychological experience of his own assurance of God’s love for him, and of his redemption, central in his reconstruction of theology, didn’t he do exactly what you are describing in the above quote?

    • I think you’re confusion his personal experience with his views on the church itself. His focus truly was sacramental, not at all the kind of thinking you’re ascribing to him. In no way is there any demand (implicit or explicit) that “experience” be the central, defining point of church.

      Suggestion: check out the Small and Large cathechisms, if you haven’t already done so. (Full text is available online, in several different translations.)

    • I doubt if Luther could have thought of himself as a Christian individual apart from organic connection to the Church.

      However, I hear what you are saying, Robert. The Reformation was one of the key contributors to the rise of an individualistic spirit in Christian religion.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Until now we’re seeing the end state of that in a lot of American Evangelicalism — a Gospel of Personal Salvation and Only Personal Salvation. Nobody else needed or wanted. Millions of Churches, each with only one member and no connection to any other.

      • I dunno re. visions/experiences, since so many medieval Catholics had visions and all the rest. Luther’s critiques of the papacy are, imo, more to the point here.

        But I do acknowledge the power of what he experienced – keeping in mind that a very frightening experience drove him to monasticism, long before the experience we’re talking about here.

        Hmm.

      • Also, Luther was all about the “external Word,” not the subjective experience of it. In the sacraments we have objective justification delivered to us personally, from outside of us. None of this “me and my personal relationship with Jesus” stuff, importing that into his theology must be a bit anachronistic. The point of Lutheran theology is that even if you don’t have the psychological experience of assurance, as long as you can be sure of having received the bread and wine, you can know that you are forgiven.

        • *reply go Robert F.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Also, Luther was all about the “external Word,” not the subjective experience of it. In the sacraments we have objective justification delivered to us personally, from outside of us.

          What you’re saying is that the Sacraments provide a Reality Check for us?

          And the non-liturgical churches (whether charismatic or not) have released their hold on that Reality Check and can drift off in weird directions?

          • I wouldn’t go so far as to say non-liturgical churches have a monopoly on weird directions, but the Sacraments do kind of help guard against the circus! I’m musing on your phrase, though. Perhaps the Sacraments are the reality check of grace? “Your sins are forgiven. Believe it.” Whether you feel like it or not.

      • Chaplain Mike et al.,

        I don’t ask the questions regarding Luther and Lutheranism in my comments above to be provocative. In fact, in recent months, I’ve felt powerfully drawn to and compelled by the little bit of Lutheran theology I’ve been able to find in the library of the Lutheran church my wife serves as musician.

        I appreciate the replies to my question given here.

        Miguel, I especially appreciate your comment regarding how it is not necessary to accept Roman Catholicism as the default position of church unity, and that it was the insistence on consolidating the church under one centralized power that provided the impetus, I might say the centrifugal force, that resulted in its fracturing.

        • Your original comment here was not too far off, honestly. But the trouble is that what is often done with Luther’s teaching is not remotely what me meant or intended by it. If you consider his experience of assurance in the context of his whole body of work (especially that which made it into the confessions), he is really objectivity uber alles. But then again, if you just take little snippets of Luther here and there, you could make him sound like a Pietist, a Calvinist, or heck, even a Nazi. The ironic thing is that most people quoting Luther as a poster boy for their views would be deeply offended by the majority of his teaching.

    • I would read Luther’s psychological experience as him learning of God’s assurance of salvation, not receiving it. Luther always stressed that we knew we were forgiven because God had forgiven our sins in Christ at baptism, not because we felt that we were forgiven. Better-read theologians, feel free to jump in.

    • I think Luther would have agreed with Bonhoeffer, re: Baptism apart from church membership is cheap grace.

    • i believe one could probably argue that Luther’s emphasis on assurance, or at least what the following generations did with it, is why we have such individualism today. Nothing is ever quite a straight line like that, because there were many other twists and turns along the way. And it’s not that I don’t appreciate that emphasis. But we have, in most of evangelicalism, a phenomenon where soteriology of the individual takes the place of the Gospel. Personal assurance is, no matter how you slice it, Lutheran or Calvinist or whatever, a subjective conviction. Over-prioritize subjective convictions and, no matter how well-parsed your theology is, you imbalance the Gospel.

  5. Freedom is not static but dynamic so there is a flow and an evolution in each life. What I mean is there is no ‘right’ answer. ‘It’s not for everyone’ could be said about either side of this. A mass exodus from church simply will not happen. Some may be encouraged to escape an unnatural duty based on their spiritual development and that’s a big positive but most who go to church sense a fundamental need and will continue on.

  6. And what if one looks for this “broader vision of church” but finds nothing. What then?

  7. The older I get the more I realize that my spiritual growth must spring from the tilth of sacramentality.

    • Same here, Tom. When I miss Mass (and the Eucharist) I feel like I have cheated God and myself….it is a strength I badly need to face the rest of the days. It is a bonus that our pastor is an EXCELLENT “preacher” during the homily, but the space and flow of the Mass are there, even from rotten speakers and those I can barely understand through accents. Of course, if going to church meant a combination of a one-hour long TED talk, plus singing, I am not sure I would be there, either.

      I think it comes down to whether or not the time on Sunday is spent worshipping God or focusing on ourselves and the guy with the microphone up front….JMHO!

      • ” Of course, if going to church meant a combination of a one-hour long TED talk, plus singing, I am not sure I would be there, either….”

        Right on Pattie!

        Sorry… Mr. Miller’s piece speaks to the ‘what’s in it for me crowd”. I go to church to worship God and be with others in community doing so. That we are not all one big close happy family is irrelevant. That I do not remember the homily is irrelevant. That someone on the pulpit did not do something, say something to me or entertain me is irrelevant. That the songs did not entertain me or lift me is irrelevant. That I have a better way among friends or listening to uplifting Christian music or having all the answers is irrelevant. I am not there for me, I am there for God. And that I am fed by the Eucharist, and infused by the Gospel are added bonuses.

        So… this piece just pisses me off… more of the same American individualism its not good enough for me schlock….more of the “how can the church reach me better” attitude… with all this attitude of individualism the Church as we know it will be dead within a generation… at least among us “intellectuals and enlightened ones”….

        K… I’m done…

        • But I’m not sure an attitude of you’ll eat what your given is going to drive people to your restaurant either.

          And the Catholic church is pretty well set to survive being a faith without a lot of “intellectuals and enlightened ones”, it did it before just fine. Besides, you’ll still have the Jesuits so it’s hard to argue a lack of intellectuals when you have them! (educated at Loyola University of Chicago, at times by actual Jesuits).

        • >”Mr. Miller’s piece speaks to the ‘what’s in it for me crowd’…”

          Perhaps. But to me he’s just saying, “Here’s why it doesn’t work for me.” I think there’s a difference. I see his article as trying to communicate where he’s at in his spiritual journey and perhaps connect with others who might feel the same way.

          Personally, I think church community is important, but if it’s not working for someone, I can’t get all offended at that.

          • Patricia Stewart says:

            Rick, this begs the question, WHO is doing the work? Last I looked it is Christ at work in us, HIS BODY. If we refuse to assemble ourselves together, how does the body function? Could we agree that perhaps it doesn’t or at least it doesn’t function with the fullness that God intends?

            I can see both sides, but Mr. Miller’s stance, (?I don’t need a home church to have an impact for God in the world ?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.) imo, is sadly self absorbed rather than God glorifying.

            If something “isn’t working” for you, there’s a good chance that it is you and not God.

            As one who has been in this place, I chose to ask the LORD to make me fit – and He did. Eph 2:10. I have come to realize that I am the pen in God’s Hand and He is the ink. Whether I am in the a pen/pencil holder or pressed to the paper, I am where God intends for me to be.

            To be fair, perhaps for Mr. Miller, God has given him an assignment outside of the “local church.” I’d be wary of counseling others to walk a similar path without a clear call from the LORD to follow Him there.

            Trish

          • Trish…you made my point more eloquently than I… + 1

    • There are times my fundi upbringing begs the question of sacrament and then God shows me an aspect of his grace or mercy through one of the sacraments that I would never have known.

      I am ever grateful for the symbolism, the simple things, and the Spirit’s sanctifying power through the sacraments.

  8. Excellent piece. So many points to ponder and comment on. I particularly like the comment of making church more like the chaos of a family structure. More intimate, more real.
    I am just like Donald in that I learn by doing. I too can’t remember most sermons, but unlike him I am still part of a “traditional” church. I connect best with God when I am with others and those at church are my family (a big crazy one, thank God)!
    God cannot be contained, so why do we keep trying to do it with our theology and “church”? Control. Jesus gave it up an so should we!

  9. Chaplain Mike:
    Did you write the four paragraphs of the broader image of “church”?

  10. Richard Hershberger says:

    Pastor Mike’s commentary is spot on. It immediately caught my attention that Miller’s description of a “traditional” worship service was to sing some songs and listen to a sermon. The problem is that he has actually described half of a traditional worship service: the service of the word. He likely has never experienced the other half: of the eucharist. Indeed, even the first half likely never included more than a snippet of Bible reading. The first time I attended an Evangelical service as an adult I remember my reaction was to be startled when it was over, because I was trying to figure out when they were going to begin.

    The other bit from Miller that caught my attention was this: “I connect with God by working. I literally feel an intimacy with God when I build my company.” This reminded me of my college roommate, who professed to be a believer, but not a fanatic. His working definition of “fanatic” was someone who would get up for a 9:00 service on Sunday morning. By declaring one’s everyday activities to be experiences of intimacy with God, one is freed to go about doing what one wanted to do anyway. Miller feels intimate with God when he is building his company. The next guy will feel it while playing in his bowling league, and the guy after that while watching football on TV. Bonhoeffer wrote about cheap grace. This is cheap worship.

    • Yeah, the irony is, Miller seems completely oblivious to what a “traditional worship service” actually is, rather referring to the product of the Church growth movement as the height of Christian tradition. If the TED talk and pop-concert don’t do it for you, heaven forbid we connect to God through bread and wine. That will just NOT do!

      • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

        And his “home church,” I’m told is a 100-year-old Lutheran church… so, how is he missing this? All I can think of is that he’s seeing it through his old big-box, revivalistic Evangelical glasses.

        • I had seen that elsewhere and wondering if that was true. I assume then he left Imago Dei some time ago.

        • I haven’t followed him much since I read “Blue Like Jazz” back when I was an Evangelical. In that book, he was involved with “Imago Dei,” in Portland I imagine, which is definitely Baptist when it comes to the sacraments. He may recently have been attending a church that is technically within a Lutheran denomination, but if you’ve listened to any of us in the LCMS bitch about our problems, Lutheranism can be somewhat difficult to find in the Lutheran church these days. There’s too many LCMS congregations that look, function, and act identical to Calvary Chapels who just so happen to baptize infants. Too many view their own sacramental theology as a nice idea they put away on the shelf and bring out for special occasions only. The rest of the time, it’s “felt needs” addressing, pop music regurgitating, and inspiring messages all targeted at a positive experience that makes more people want to come back for more. Many Lutheran churches with long history have fallen prey to this trendy methodology and gone down this path from which it is incredibly difficult to return. If Miller views Sunday morning as a Bible lecture with a few songs, assuming his local congregational context reinforced this impression, then the church he was attending simply isn’t Lutheran, period, no matter what denomination it belongs to.

          …It’s be like claiming to be Anglican and having no idea what the Book of Common Prayer even is, if you get my drift.

  11. Oh goodie: yet another denomination. Millerism is already taken, however. I weep for Mr. Miller.
    His holy trinity of me, myself, and I is a sad conceit of his self realized “evolution” beyond church. Holy martyrs pray for us.

    • Go have a Snickers and try again.

      • Stuart – Regrets that my comment brought about the stinging response. I was voicing my dismay and sadness about the choice by someone I have enjoyed learning from who is opting for a more isolated path of faith. I see that as a loss for him and to us, and yes, not something I believe our faith forebears lived and died for. Maybe if I’d said it that way, the reaction would have been more generous and I would have learned your perspective. I probably could have done a better job.

        Tom

  12. Amen to what others have said here.

    We have an EXTERNAL Word of promise. One that is not dependent upon how we feel about it.

    I often don’t sing the hymns. I am often ticked off at God (I’m talking about while I am at worship).

    But I can know that I am saved…totally apart from anything that I do, say, feel, or think. Because of His Word…and sacraments…free gifts (emphasis on ‘free’ – nothing required from my end)…to me.

  13. Ronald Avra says:

    Very good discussion; will have to think about it and revisit it.

  14. I like what he said about control. To too many religious people, religion comes down to a desire to control other people in the pews. But the truth is, just as Mr. Miller said, “…I can’t control you, you can’t control me.” I know it’s against Pauline Scripture, but Christianity could do with some autonomy both expected to be had and expected to be given.

    As for individualism, sure it’s baked into the American apple pie. Note that our Constitution has a Bill of Individual Rights…not a Bill of Individual Responsibilities to the Common Good. Other than broad based laws that have to be based on a state having a rational interest in the law in question, we’re free to work toward whatever our conception of the common good is.

    But if religion is so weak that individualism can kill it in a generation, then the question to ask is, what changed? American individualism has always been a factor in the US, yet religion has prospered here, with ebbs and flows along the way.

    • I agree with Miguel, that part of the problem is the Church Growth Movement. I would like to be part of a loving congregation, but so far I have ended up at “Christian Factories”.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        “Christian Factory!
        Where fears and horrors come true!
        Christian Factory!
        Where not a single soul gets through!”
        – Filk of the grimdark Brony song “Rainbow Factory”

  15. I went to Don’s second post and wrote a reply, one of over 500 and counting. You have to join Facebook to post, sort of like saying Caesar is Lord. What I said is as relevant here:

    Don, thanks for taking all this intense heat when you could have avoided it and left me feeling just as isolated. I’ve spent an enjoyable Sunday morning in my pajamas reading and thinking about God and getting as close as I can. If you were to show up knocking on my door, I’d let you in and be glad. Not many I could say that about. You mention in passing being an introvert and I think that is what most of all this is actually about. If you have not read Quiet by Susan Cain, I highly recommend it as a life changing book, especially for those on the introvert side of the scale. The subtitle is The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Almost no one has addressed your original and main point. I too regard most church singing as torture, tho there have been exceptions along the way, the most recent in Rob Bell’s former church. Someday I’ll find a place where they sing the Psalms, not hymns. Hang in there, guy. Maybe we’ll run into each other some day and you and Jesus and I can find somewhere to sit and do church together.

  16. I haven’t read the original articles (so I might be reading the wrong things into this), just CM’s summary but what is described makes me worried for Mr. Miller. The individualism described can easily lead us away from community and fellowship that God wants from us – especially if we’ve been hurt by church or it is not 100% perfect. Miller may well be able to join other rich, meaningful communities elsewhere but I would caution him to be aware how easy it is to deceive ourselves on the quality of those communities and of our worship when it is completely separated from church.

  17. “He’s expressing post-evangelical thinking well.”

    CM, with your broader version of the church: are you calling people towards it, and out of the post-evangelical wilderness?

    If so, quite a prophetic move. If not, I need to better understand what you are driving at.

    • Sean, the wilderness is not a place where I’d like to see anyone stay permanently. Using Lewis’s illustration, I would hope that each one of us would find respectful conversation partners in the Great Hall of mere Christianity and a specific room where we can find a home with one branch of the family.

    • Sean’s is a good question. I am also interested in your reply, CM.

  18. “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.”

    That is the final issue for entrepreneurial consumer targeted-religion. For CHRISTianitny, however, it is the words of Christ which are the final issue. Regardless of how you feel or what you experience, we return to Him who alone has the words of eternal life. And his words are, “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me. Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”

    Miller’s sentiments are the end game of a Christianity which exists apart from Christ’s words, the Jesus of our own imagination and creation rather than the one of the Christian scriptures.

    How many formerly religious have I encountered which have relinquished any ownership over traditional Christian doctrine and practice, but were nonetheless staunchly resolved against the liturgy and sacraments. Funny this is. I propose there is a connection. If faith comes by hearing, then religion built around hearing the words of Christ strengthens faith. Conversely, religion build around denying these words must certainly destroy it.

    • Miguel – I may not be understanding your reply here, but are you saying or implying that Miller does not take communion? I didn’t read that in his posts, but I may have missed it or not parsed it out. Or it may just be an assumption on your part. I feel your reply here is so over the top that I am not seeing what in Miller’s blog would lead you to this conclusion about him (that his sentiments are the “end game of Christianity”).

      • Sorry if that was unclear. My comment was meant to be about the practical result of typical Evangelical doctrine, with Miller’s conclusion being just an example. The only thing I accuse Miller of was calling church attendance optional (which, apparently, he owns).

        I believe at least one church Miller has been involved with in the past actually does celebrate weekly communion. They do, however, view it strictly as a symbolic ritual. So rather than an actual encounter with Christ, it becomes reduced to worship of Jesus as if he isn’t actually there. But seriously, if you really believed Jesus was going to be actually at your church on Sunday, do you think you’d be a bit more excited to show up? Because that’s what sacramental churches teach. You see, there’s a significant difference between the “ordinance of communion” and a sacrament.

  19. A church that I currently attend places a lot of emphasis on encountering the holy spirit, and on listening to his prompting, during organised worship. To play devil’s advocate, one could argue that churches that do not do this,or something similar, are not giving time to listen to the spirit, and to what he wants to say to the church. My limited experience with liturgical forms of christianity seems to suggest that most liturgical churches do not make time to listen to the spirit…

    What have I got wrong here? Where’s my misunderstanding of how the holy spirit works, and how believers encounter him? And whilst I’m here, is hearing a prompting from God to do or say something an ordinary part of Christian experience? How can we distinguish between that and random, self-created noise?

    • The Holy Spirit works through the Sacraments to shape and form both the church as the people of God, and the individual believer. Where do you look for the Spirits presence in liturgical churches? You look to the Sacraments.

      • Robert,

        I hate to read into your comment, but it seems perilously close to saying the Spirit works primarily, or perhaps only, through the sacraments.

        Ben,

        Liturgical churches can and do listen to the Spirit, who can work through planned services/liturgies just the same as spontaneous opportunities to respond. No matter the venue, it is the believers responsibility to cultivate authentic discernment concerning what He is up to, and I do think that opportunities for listening prayer/reflection are beneficial to this. I’d agree that liturgical churches have to be much more intentional about this (especially in empowering the laity to do this for and among themselves), but I’ve seen it done very well, so I encourage you to practice generosity and give the benefit of the doubt!

        • Thanks Sean,

          I may end up giving a liturgical church a try in the next place I live, and will be thrilled to find one that does this. It may have the advantage of not confusing the spirit with a solely emotional response, which seems to be common occurence.

  20. How can you tell if it’s the Holy Spirit, or the hubbub of the moment, or last night’s pizza…or the devil himself…who, as St. Paul said, “can come all dressed up as an angel of light.” ?

    • “My sheep hear my voice and they know me…” If Word and Spirit agree that it sounds like Christ, looks like Christ, smells like Christ, than Christ is probably behind it.

    • Steve, is this a legitimate question?

      I hear the “last night’s pizza” comment often. It seems the church is broadly lacking the practice of discernment, both corporate and individual.

      There is also the reactionary cynicism which is pawned off as discernment.

  21. If church is not optional, then it must be required. If required, then this raises the question of what “church” must minimally consist of, in order to meet this requirement. (Apostolic succession? Orthodoxy of belief? Details of liturgy? Some criteria may be invisible or spiritual in nature, although this presents problems of detection.) Presumably not all institutions which are called “churches” would fulfull these criteria, whatever they are. On the other hand, relatively open standards might allow the substitution of fly-fishing or what have you.

    To look at the issue another way, the churches we have now are human institutions which try to justify their continued existence however they can. Their partisans are willing to appeal to specious arguments, guilt, or whatever else seems useful in order to make unaffiliation seem wicked, immature, or what have you. This article is more of the same. It is a bit like the lament that bowling alleys and fraternal lodges are disappearing. But spirituality, community etc. are not limited to a particular social structure. In fact, new forms may be necessary in order to transcend the serious drawbacks of the old.

    • Church is not so much required as it is a given. Babies are born into families. Christians are born into the Church. Forms of course change, but God is forming a people and making a new creation, not just saving individuals.

      • So you think people have a duty to keep the church or religion, if any, that they were born into…?

        Maybe “God” is calling people to abandon their churches. We can imagine him saying whatever we want, since he’s not really available to confirm it.

        • No, you miss my meaning. I’m speaking of new birth and I’m speaking of the Church as the family of God.

          • Oh, some kind of metaphysical thing. You can’t really consider your co-religionists as family, there just isn’t this kind of commitment. They’re no closer than co-workers or members of the same club. And “new birth” sounds more symbolic / rhetorical than actual.

          • I know your naturalistic perspective, Wexel, and won’t argue it now. You know we have a different point of view here.

    • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

      Our tradition’s official definition:

      “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.”

      And, of course, this is broad enough to permit quite a lot of other Christian traditions to meet the requirement!

  22. Perhaps (no certainly) I’m naive but isn’t the purpose of the church to continue the kingdom work in anticipation of/preparation for the return of Jesus? And so where believers join together for that purpose, you have the church? What I’m unclear/undecided about is where the admonition for corporate worship comes in. Worship certainly. But why corporate worship? And why do those of you who are liturgical find the right practice of worship so…central?

    • Because the primary purpose of the church, along with all the rest of creation, is worship. In fact, continuing “kingdom work in anticipation of/preparation for the return of Jesus” is inseparable from joining the heavenly host of saints and angels in worship of the Living God. The “kingdom work” will one day fall away, but the worship never will, when the church militant becomes the church triumphant in the eschaton.

    • he’s not coming back

      you’re living in a fantasy world

      • Perhaps.

      • Wexel, you fiend, you remind me of the devil who plagued Dostoevsky’s Ivan during his delirium in “The Brothers Karamazov,” with this difference: while he claimed that, though he intended nothing but good, he did nothing but evil, I suspect that, despite your fits of gleeful malice, you do a great deal of good.

    • There is no “one right practice” of worship. The liturgy is organic and evolves and changes over time. The important thing is that Word and Sacrament are the heart of our assembly. This will ALWAYS take a plethora of forms, which largely influenced by culture and denomination.

      It’s not about a specific worship practice being central. It’s about Christ being the center. The liturgy protects this tenaciously. Where you have the mass/divine service/holy eucharist/divine liturgy, you have the Gospel being proclaimed consistently, week in and week out.

      …oh, and then of course there are a few little rituals Jesus actually suggested we do. Perhaps we take him too seriously. :P

    • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

      The admonition comes from Hebrews 10:

      Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (ESV, emphasis added)

      To most of us liturgical/sacramental folks, the allusions to sacramental theology, as well as corporate worship are pretty obvious. I know that some will dismiss it as metaphorical or interpret it as any sort of gathering with other Christians, but that’s not how the earliest Christians saw it (cf. various writings of the Church fathers). And while I’m not going to call missing church a “mortal sin” or anything like that, the admonition in this section is pretty alarming.

      Plus, I gotta say, I love the incense, the chanting, the organ, the vestments, the sprinkling of holy water, the Sacrament itself, the proclamation of the Scriptures, the musty old books, the stained glass and all that. I wouldn’t WANT to miss church!

      I’m not suggesting, of course, that if one doesn’t like these things or if one’s church doesn’t look like mine that one has a deficient faith or church or worship. But the passage quoted is where we get the admonition for corporate worship.

  23. The church is a corporeal reality, not just a spiritual one. By over-emphasizing the spiritual aspect of the church, and neglecting its physical aspect as an institution distinct from other institutions, Miller essentially makes it a gnostic phenomenon. In this, he emulates the privatizing and subjectivizing direction of modernism, which is antithetical to the incarnational nature of the church.

  24. Best post I’ve read yet Mike on this topic at hand, and I’ve read a few of them this week. I appreciate you taking the time to tackle this.

  25. I read both of the original pieces. I actually sympathize with Miller. He’s being honest about his longings, his understanding of community – many things. I think that, rather than slipping into some kind of gnostic split, it sounds like he is actually looking for a way to be a Christian that unites everything in his life so that everything is “spiritual.” Those who think he’s in danger somehow because of not being a part of a church don’t seem to see that he has thought about this quite thoroughly and cares very deeply about his relationship with God.

    Yes, since what he has known has been (presumably) Evangelicalism only, he is expressing the logical end of a lack of ecclesiology. I don’t find this surprising. Ten or so years ago, the kind of outlook he describes was very attractive to me. Over time, I found that this led to a kind of dead end that wasn’t much different than what I (and Miller, I would guess) was turning away from.

    In terms of sacraments, I find the notion of their “objectivity” unappealing. There is no relationship in objectivity, no participation. Expressed this way, the sacramental life sounds mechanistic and/or dualistic. Relationship and participation happen between subjects. The sacraments are about participation in the life of God because of Christ and through the Spirit; in this union, the Church *is* a sacrament for the world. The Church has institutions, but it is not an Institution. I am not a member of the Body of Christ in some sort of mechanistic way, because of my actions vis-a-vis others in church – and/or only conceptually and invisibly (“spiritually”), or from having a relationship that comes from belonging to the same institution. The Orthodox understanding of “sacrament” is at once broader and more intense than that. I am part of the Body of Christ because I have been baptized into his Body, and I have partaken of his Body in the Eucharist, which unites me with all the others who have partaken his Body as well; it is an organic union between Christ and me, Christ and others, and me and others in Christ, all at once.

    I don’t know if I’m expressing myself very well. There are Big Theological Reasons why I found myself at the doors of the Orthodox Church. One of them was the holistic, seamless nature of its theology; everything echoes off everything else, and everything is both centered in and looks out from Pascha, and the Eucharist. Reality really is One Thing, and all things are summed up in Christ.

    For better explanations than I can give, see Schmemann, “For the Life of the World,” Zizioulas, “Being as Communion,” and Sherrard, “Church, Papacy and Schism” (3rd ed.).

    Dana

    • The only thing I want to address that Dana says is this:

      >”I read both of the original pieces. I actually sympathize with Miller. He’s being honest about his longings, his understanding of community – many things.”

      Yes. And this is what bothers me most about the criticism Miller is receiving both at his posts and here. We talk over and over about how we, as Christians and members of the same Body, must take off our masks and be honest and share our hopes and fears, then when someone DOES do that, we blast them. Even from some of the most gracious people amongst the Internet Monk community, I’ve been surprised at the reaction. We can be such hypocrites at times! Lord have mercy.

  26. Jesse Reese says:

    Dana,

    I understand what you want to say on relationships being between “subjects” and not “objects,” but that is not what “objectivity” is about. All that the language of “objectivitiy” means is that Christ’s presence in the sacraments does not depend on my personal feelings or state of mind. Put another way, Christ the personal “subject” is “objectively” present and at work through the gifts that he has given us, and doesn’t skip town on them because I worry about the purity of my intentions or can’t focus because my coffee gave me a headache this morning. The language is simply there to oppose the radical Reformation and certain more radical streams of the Reformed tradition that would place the locus of Christ’s presence on the HUMAN “subject” rather than Christ’s own gifts.

    Jesse