Don Miller and the Institutional Church

The pastoral task has all the ingredients for abstractness. After all, we are constantly engaging dead people and throwing around foreign terms to most in the pew. In fact, many of the concerns I have heard over the years from parishioners of different traditions has been the concern that sermons and pastoral work do not reach the laity. Donald Miller manifested this sentiment in his now controversial blog post I don’t connect with God by singing. I connect with him elsewhere. The article received abundant criticism. Miller asserted elsewhere that he simply intended to start a conversation–and what a conversation he started. In another interview, Miller summarized his post:

And so I talked about the reality that I don’t get a lot out of church when I go. I don’t connect with God very well there, and I wondered if it wasn’t more of a learning style issue because it is a lecture format, and it’s not how everybody learns. a

Miller’s concern was not unique. Many have expressed this frustration with the intellectualization of worship. Rev. Jeff Meyers’ wonderful book “The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship answers Miller’s concern with clarity and with classic historical categories. Meyers argues that worship ought to have a wholistic vision prioritizing every detail as opposed to over-emphasizing merely the word preached.

Don Miller asserts that one of his struggles is that the worship service does not appeal to his style of learning. The worship service has as its emphasis a lecture model. Since Miller does not learn through lecture models, therefore Miller no longer finds appeal in the institutional church. b In his interview with The RELEVANT he asserts that he did not qualify things well in his blog post and that looking back he wished he would have not written it. But as the interview continued, Miller affirms the same sorts of things his critics condemned in the original blog post.

I actually believe Miller is on to something. The lecture model of doing church is not the one I advocate. In many ways, the Church–especially in the Reformed tradition, which naturally claims a more intellectual history–has become a magnified classroom with lengthy biblical expositions at its center. Whatever precedes the sermon is only pre-game information. And whatever comes after it is not as significant as the sermon either. But as Randy Booth rightly noted–quoting a portion of James Jordan’s work Theses on Worship– in his booklet A Guide to Worship, “the entire service is sermonic, not just the sermon.” c “The sermon itself,” he writes,” is very important, but it is not the all-important event. It is one important part of the many other important parts of worship.”

But if this is the case and any historical/liturgical tradition will attest, and since I am convinced Miller is aware of this historical precedent, then why not work to change this paradigm in the institutional church instead of generalizing it and bidding the historical ecclesiastical traditional adieu? With Miller’s book and lecture platform he could affect thousands of pastors who see worship as a lecture hall. That’s the reformer Don Miller the Church needs, not the one who throws away everything for a literal walk in the park on Sunday morning.

What is Miller trying to get rid of?

According to the author of best-seller, Blue Like Jazz, we have turned over the Acts church to the hands of professionals, known as the pastoral staff. Instead of doing that, we should simply hand out sheriff badges to everyone and say to them that they are all pastors. They are all in control. Sunday serves only to prepare these pastors–male and female–to go forth and be the church wherever they are. First Peter two does affirm our royal priesthood. We are all priests in the sense that we are no longer bound by bloody sacrifices. Christ’s redemption is accomplished, thus transforming us into agents of redemption in the world. However, what Miller fails to see is that Paul does not flatten the priesthood, he sees the priesthood operating differently in different spheres (I Tim. 3, Eph. 4:11-13). There is an office of priest (overseer) that is distinct from the general priesthood that we all inherit united to Messiah, Jesus.

Miller also wants to get rid of the institutional Church as center of community life.

I frequent a coffee shop weekly where one of the baristas is the leader of a church. When I asked him about the church, he told me that they meet at the same coffee shop on Sunday mornings to drink coffee and discuss the Bible. When I asked him to define a bit further what they do, he was quick to point to the flaws of the modern church. “We don’t need structure. We need to return to simplicity.” Since I have lectured on this topic before a few years ago, d. I can probably summarize this general view point as the “Romanticized Acts Church” movement. I am no opponent of coffee and Bible studies; in fact, I encourage them. But the idea that a return to the first century Church–as privately interpreted–is the solution to today’s ecclesiastical woes is overly caffeinated.

Why can’t I simply find community on my dinner table? or a pub? –because community life is complex. There is nothing wrong with finding community in these places, but they are all incomplete pictures of community life. They may be fine extensions of the community life, which the creeds refer to as “the communion of saints,” but to assert that that is a legitimate replacement for Word, Sacrament, and Discipline in the context of the gathered community is simplistic and dangerous. What then do we do with the adulterer? or the rich folks who are arriving at the Lord’s Supper and the agape meal and eating and drinking everything before the poor arrive? or the sexual abuse situations that are unfortunately prevalent in our churches? Miller has no answer. “I can maybe set up a board or something like that,” he said casually. But wouldn’t a board indicate some type of structure; the very same type you are attempting to eliminate?

Miller also says that he doesn’t find intimacy with God by singing songs to him.

As one deeply involved in ecclesiastical music, this concerns me. Miller is suffering from the psalmic-less nature of modern church music. What some of us treasure each Sunday through hymns and psalms of lament, imprecation, and overwhelming joy has been largely forgotten. The robustness of masculine voices and the beauty and nuance of female singing has become a forgotten history. All of it replaced by praise bands, and the few songs intended for congregational singing are quickly swallowed by the voluminous instrumentation.

If Miller is saying he simply does not like to sing, then he needs to re-adjust his biblical priorities. A quick search for the words “singing” and “music” will reveal their prevalence, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. Because I don’t like to do something does not mean I should simply replace or eliminate it from the life of the church.

How Miller finds intimacy with God.

The answer is another example of a faulty ability to differentiate. Miller writes:

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.

I find his response a wonderful example of missing the point. We all find intimacy with God by working. We were created to work for six days, which means there is a great priority that God places on that. We all find hobbies and passions that fulfill us as men. We all agree with Eric Liddel’s wonderful attestation of the presence of God when he says in Chariots of Fire, “When I run I feel his pleasure.” When Miller works with his crew he feels God’s pleasure. But his intimacy ought to be the outworking of an intimacy that begins when by the Spirit we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6).

Miller’s entire paradigm could be easily dealt with by reading an introduction to ecclesiology. e Don Miller is the product of modern individualism. And though he flees from that language with his post-modern categories, ultimately, he falls in his own trap. Miller believes that church is all around us. Yes, we go as church to the world. We carry the name of God. f But we go as church because we have already been fed by the head of the Church as we gathered as one body.

Conclusion

Miller’s platform is huge. His simple blog post, which he indicated took him about three minutes to write, led to a firestorm on the web. His attempt to start a conversation actually hinders us from having a more necessary conversation. The question should not be whether we worship in the traditional sense or simply find intimacy with God through other means, the question is “How has God called us to worship?” Further, whether you worship in a more lecture-style congregation or otherwise because of your learning style, what does your personal style of learning have to do with worship? What if God’s way of sanctifying you is by killing your learning style and causing you to appreciate God’s way of learning? What if the institutional church is God’s way of killing your wants so you may conform to his? What if attending church regularly is the way God intended to prepare you to understand intimacy?

I am not one to deny Miller’s connection with God via his work and habits, but I do reject his premise that abandoning the institutional church is the path to a deeper connection. The institutional church, I argue, is the deepest means of finding intimacy with God.

  1. Read more at http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/donald-miller-church#KDZHerDkw3EuWr6q.99  (back)
  2. If you do not have this book, please purchase Kevin DeYoung’s wonderful work found here: http://www.amazon.com/Why-Love-Church-Institutions-Organized/dp/0802458378  (back)
  3. see Covenant Media Foundation for copies  (back)
  4. My lecture at the Family Advance Conference in 2012; e-mail for a PDF copy  (back)
  5. Maybe R.B. Kuiper’s work “The Glorious Body of Christ  (back)
  6. This is the heart of the third commandment  (back)
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