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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Do We Have to Choose Church or Not? A Response to Donald Miller

Almost every Sunday I wake up seeing daylight filter through my blinds and I immediately panic. I'm used to it being dark when I open my eyes, and I get worried that I slept through my alarm. I'll roll over, check the clock, and (usually) find instant relief: not even 8:00 AM yet. Plenty of time.

I get worried because in almost seven years, I haven't missed a single Sunday at church.

Sure, there has been the occasional sickness or other force out of my control that kept me from attending. But if I'm able to go, I do. And have since college.

I don't miss church because I'm too tired or don't feel like it, even though both have been the case plenty of times, believe you me. I think I feel that sleeping in or choosing something else - even something nice to reading the Bible - is choosing myself over God. Or maybe choosing God on my own terms and what's convenient for how I feel on that particular morning.

I wish I could say that commitment comes entirely from within but that wouldn't be the full truth. Attending church every Sunday is a requirement for Catholics. It used to be seen as a requirement for all Christians.

Should it still be? That question has gotten a lot of attention in the last week thanks to Donald Miller's blog post, "I Don't Worship God by Singing. I Connect with Him Elsewhere." In it, he basically argues that attending church, for various reasons, really just isn't that important. Naturally this has invited a lot of Christian responses, so many, in fact, that it prompted a second post by Miller clarifying and defending the first.

Miller was attacked for his arguments, which, in truth, weren't initially explained very well and seem to ignore a lot of shared Christian experience. I do admire Miller. He slams "tribal" and "binary" thinking, both being rampant within modern Christianity. He tends to be thoughtful, open, sincere, and unafraid to question the status quo. When I met and helped interview him in 2008, I liked him immediately for these reasons. But I think Miller and prominent Christian responses to him (links at the end of this post) seem to miss some important ideas in the conversation.

Miller doesn't claim to offer a model for other Christians to follow but given his prominence and popularity, for better or worse, he really can't escape that role. People read him in hopes of learning how to be better Christians and human beings. So when he reduces local churches to places "where people find spiritual security through communion with both God and a local tribe" and attending church to "attending a lecture and hearing a singing," he's bound to ruffle some feathers.

Miller expressed that he simply doesn't get anything out of attending church: the "lectures" are boring and the "singing" doesn't connect with him emotionally.  Of course this fueled responses of "church isn't about you, it's about God." Miller responds by saying that sentiment is "a nice cliche," though he does admit it has "some basis in Scripture."

Perhaps the biggest critique was against Miller's argument-from-feelings. He says that he just connects with God much better outside of traditional church services, through writing and through running his business. It would be easy to write this off (and I initially did) but I think there's actually something to it. Why can't people connect with God outside of church? Why can't God's way of speaking to you be through your dancing, writing, business acumen, parenting, running, - the things God has gifted you to do? The answer of course is that God can speak to you through these things, and perhaps even primarily does. The essential matter that Miller misses is that that fact does not preclude the necessity of participation in a real, physical church.

A lot of responses have tried to shame Miller into attending church out of a sense of duty. There's something to be said for duty when it comes to church but if being part of the Body of Christ comes down to duty, our faith must be a a very poor one, and Miller, to his credit, easily recognizes this.

The Larger Questions

The larger questions that are touched on but not explicitly stated in the conversation are about how "church," the Body of Christ, God's dwelling place, and sabbath are all defined and what they actually mean. These are difficult questions, too large to fully dive into here. But it's probably worth noting that for many Christians, the physical building and the actual people constitute a visible and immediate "church" in which we are indeed called to participate. For Miller and many others, "church" has a much more mystical definition where the Body and God's presence is recognized everywhere, sometimes more fully. Miller uses the language of an 'evolving faith' to describe how he no longer has to connect with God or a traditional church community. Again, I do like Miller, but this is a little insulting. He fails to see that we are called to see God first and foremost in the people right before us and in the present moment. Once you see God's presence in your fellow Christians and in your local church, then you can see and understand that God's presence indeed goes beyond them. To Miller's credit he seems to have reached a point of growth where God is not confined within the church walls. Yes - good! But contrary to Miller's view, there are plenty of Christians who have reached those higher levels who still choose to attend church. Throughout history they almost always have. Why?

I think it's because the Christian faith and our salvation are communal by nature. This is what it means to be a part of an indivisible Body. Of course one can have Christian community outside of attending church. Of course God can't be contained in a box. Of course you can connect with God in ways that are unique to you. But if our Triune God is ultimately loving relationship in the Trinity, then we must live that way as well. And unfortunately for Miller, I think God's view of church involves living that relationship with people who sometimes bore you, who sing off key, who try your patience, and may be at different levels of spiritual understanding than you. I think a physical church is not only instituted by God and encouraged by St. Paul but actually healthy for us. By insisting he can opt out of a community that doesn't seem to fit, Miller exposes a very American way of viewing church as something primarily to be consumed. Miller doesn't ask what affect his non-attendance has on others. He doesn't think about the ways in which he's called to bless others in that building.

The Way Out?

I don't mean to pick on Miller; he's just a momentary representative of sentiments a lot of us feel. I sympathize with a lot of his thoughts (the preaching at masses is notoriously terrible nationwide), and a lot of his critiques are true.

But I think it's a close relationship with the Body that Miller forgets, not only the Body we choose for ourselves among our friends and colleagues who share our interests but especially the Body we don't choose for ourselves (something I've written about before). Regular participation in a physical church community is the surest way to get us out of what C. S. Lewis calls our "solitary conceit" that we can have the good Christian life exactly as we'd design it for ourselves.

Such a view leaves no room for community. If we're honest, we wouldn't choose to be in relationship with most of the people we encounter at our local church. And that's the point. It images God's choice for relationship with us, imperfect and bumbling as we are. This relationship to our local church community - like any familial relationship - will involve emotions and feelings but in addition to a commitment that transcends our subjective feelings. Our faith gives us relationship in community designed around the needs of community AND relationship to God on our own designed around our own needs. Being a Christian isn't about choosing one or the other. We can choose both/and. And we should choose both, as often as we should choose love.

Other Perspectives on This Subject:

Donald Miller (original post) | I Don't Worship God by Singing. I Connect with Him Elsewhere
Sarah Bessey | In which I think community is worth intention :: or, why I still 'go to' church
Ed Stetzer | Should I Stay or Should I Go Now? Why We Should Choose Church Anyway

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