Donald Miller’s Questions Are More Important Than His Conclusions

This week Donald Miller made waves within the bubble of the Christian blogosphere with a post about why he doesn’t attend a local church. Controversy erupted in the comments section (proving the truth of this statement by my friend Phil Owen), and Miller responded a couple days later with a follow-up post that offered little new insight but emphatically doubled down on his decision.

As a pastor I was disappointed when I read Don’s posts for a few reasons. First I was disappointed, because once again an important conversation within the Family of God devolved into people picking sides, entrenching and speaking past one another. It’s a well-known limitation of online dialogue, but one we continue to trip over. I can’t even bear to read online comments anymore. Second, I was disappointed because I think that the sincerity of Don’s heart in expressing real tensions and frustrations was quickly lost. Also a limitation of online communication. I don’t know him well, but I have met Don on a couple occasions and always found him to be sincere, honest, and thoughtful – all the things that have made him so popular as a writer. Finally, I was disappointed, because I’m not sure Don thought through the ramifications of his post before writing it. I’m not sure he considered how hurtful it would be to many Christians committed to the local church and to Christian pastors and leaders in particular.

Many comments have been made and many posts have been written in response to Don. All of them sharing their differing conclusions on the issues he presented. For me, I’ve been more intrigued by the questions beneath the conclusions and opinions. I think these questions are important, because Donald Miller isn’t the only one asking and wrestling with them.

What is “the Church” and what does it mean to be part of it?

This seems to be the heart of what everyone’s wrestling with. In particular, what connection is there between “the building on the corner” and the Body of Christ? Don seems to have concluded that engaging in the local expression of church, the “enterprise” is unnecessary, and that it’s possible to remain a part of the Body of Christ through intentional relationships and connections with other believers. This is a popular notion, but it raises questions for me. When people choose the church of personal relationships over engaging in the “enterprise” church are they picking and choosing their community? Henri Nouwen once said that “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” In the church of personal relationships, is there practice of the sacraments? Is baptism celebrated? Do you regularly share communion? Is there submission to authority within the community – to elders or overseers entrusted to lead the community? Are worship of God, community with other believers, and mission to the world valued and practiced?

What is the role of personal preference in determining when and how we participate in a church?

Let’s face it, as Americans, we’re all consumers. We evaluate almost everything through the lens of our personal preferences.  For many Christians, that includes when and where they go to church. In Miller’s post he seems to both condemn a consumeristic approach to church (church isn’t the box on the corner or singing and preaching) and affirm it (“I don’t like to sing. I don’t connect to God that way.”). I hear many church leaders decry consumerism in the church, but I see as many or more engage in practices that play on the consumer mindset to grow their church. We are blessed to live in a country of religious freedom and choice, but are we thoughtful about how we exercise that choice?

Is the local church in America today mostly about an efficient economic model?

This is at the heart of Miller’s criticism of the church on the corner – that moving large numbers of people through corporate worship gatherings is the best economic model. As a pastor I struggle with this question. Miller acknowledged that most church leaders don’t choose the pastorate for monetary gain, but he still seemed to feel that the “enterprise” church operates based at least in part on an economic motivation. Should local churches reorient themselves toward alternate economic models other than giving from attendees? Should leaders and teachers (not just pastors) derive their financial income from alternative methods as well? I find it a little ironic that Miller criticizes the economic model of the local church when he derives substantial income from speaking at said churches and selling books and small-group resources for use in church programs.

What do we lose if we can’t keep people like Donald Miller engaged in local churches?

This is the question that haunts me the most. As a pastor I want to believe that a local church can create a place to engage people wherever they are in their spiritual journey and help them take steps of growth. Don claims that he has many friends who are bright and influential Christian leaders who have likewise chosen to disengage from participating in local churches. I don’t doubt that, because I’ve seen it myself in church communities where I’ve led, both as a staff member and a volunteer. The Apostle Paul talked about the importance of every member in the Body to contribute, and I don’t doubt that Miller and his friends have contributed substantially to the global Body. But whatever church Don used to attend lost something significant when he left – his presence. I wonder what needs to change to keep people like Don engaged in the local church. A shift in approach for local churches and church leaders? A shift in perspective for people like Don? Or something else?

What do our practices say about what we value, and how do they form us?

Don’s gripe seemed to be mostly with his experience in corporate worship gatherings. While it’s easy to dismiss his critiques as selfish, I think it’s worth asking about why we do what we do when we gather together. Why do we sing songs (which Don dislikes)? Why do we teach or preach (which Don also dislikes) the way that we do? What is the role of participation in services? In all of these decisions, have we considered how these practices form us? In James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom he talks about how we as humans are shaped by our practices. Before simply labeling people who leave the church as “selfish” perhaps it’s appropriate to ask how they were formed that way.