A couple of months ago, right after Donald Miller had written a blog admitting he wasn’t a regular church attender, I wrote a blog here disagreeing with him. Now it has started to dawn on me that I was wrong. Not about church, but about Donald Miller going to church, and specifically not understanding first the way he experienced church. I have been getting paid to go to church for so long, sometimes I wonder if I would go for free anymore. I think I would, but I’m not sure I would if I were Donald Miller.
A few days after his blog, in an interview with Relevant magazine, Miller explained that going to church for him was really difficult, because kind, good-willed people were constantly coming up to him asking him to help with their different projects, or for book-writing advice, or they just flooded him with requests to get together to talk. Donald Miller’s problem is that he is a celebrity.
The church’s problem is that we saw him that way too.
Last year, I was in California to hear Rob Bell in the Viper Room after his falling out with Evangelical Christianity. There were only 100 or so people there and after he spoke a person asked Bell, “Do you still go to church?”
He said yes, but he sneaks in late and leaves early. That is when it hit me: “How would Rob Bell go to church like a normal person?”
Part of the problem that I think American Christianity has to own up to is that we have made churches where the people who are influential in other fields, or have achieved a certain level of success, can no longer fully belong to the “we” of church.
In his book, “When the Church Was a Family” Joseph Hellerman writes about something that happened in 250 AD in a small town in North Africa. There was a famous actor who converted to Christianity. We don’t know his name, but his conversion created an uproar.
Today when people in the entertainment industry convert to Christianity, Christians often respond as if they won a trophy for some victory in a culture war. We like having Christian values represented by a celebrity in the public arena.
But the early church approached it differently. In the ancient world, the theater was known to publicly celebrate things that Christians thought were immoral.
So when this famous actor started following Jesus in the 2nd-century, the first thing the church asked him was to quit his job. Like many of us, they believed a Christian could be a real testimony to the entertainment industry…They just believed his best witness would come by walking away from the whole thing.
When I say words like values and immoral, I assume certain things come to mind, maybe gratuitous sexuality or violence, but the value that I think is most at odds between Christianity and popular culture is the temptation for fame.
Church is a place where we go to feel appropriately small, not to reinforce the way things are everywhere else. And if Miller’s experience with Church is one where he is viewed as a means to someone else’s ends, can we really even call it church?
I am a middle class, white male, I am deeply aware of my privilege. But my greatest privilege in life is the little church that raised me. I will always remember the people of that church who took out loans for me to go to college. My greatest privilege is the men and women who quietly sacrificed for each other, to be able to remember how God sees them, that no matter how poor we were, or how obscure our church was, God was paying attention.
Since I have left that church, she has closed her doors, and no one has missed her.
But for me she will always be a parable about what it looks like when a Christian community is on. She reminds me of the price of real community and the fierce need of honoring God without trying to get the church to honor you. She taught me that the real gift of the church is the fruit of obscurity.
In the earliest church orders, bishops were instructed not to interrupt a service to welcome a wealthy person who was entering late. But if a poor man or woman entered the assembly, the bishop was to do whatever was needed to welcome them in, even if it meant the bishop ended up sitting on the floor. This is the main point of passages like James 2. It is saying all the ways the world labels and categorizes people, to diminish some and exalt others, just shouldn’t work in church.
The challenge for today’s church is how do we treat the person who has achieved any measure of success but stands before God a sinner and a saint just like everyone else? If the Gospel means anything, it has to address this almost universal way we have of looking at people.
I am haunted by this new notion we have that someone can be a “Celebrity Christian.” I am haunted by the desire to become one and the conviction that such a thing shouldn’t even exist. Behind it, I think is fame’s temptation to help us escape death. We believe we will cheat death if we create enough of a legacy.
Think about the thief dying on the cross. It is what the story of the Prodigal Son looks like when it is not a parable. The question of the thief is a question that Christians have been asking ever since, “Will you remember me?”
But Jesus doesn’t answer his question directly, because it wasn’t the answer he really needed. We ask the question, Will I be remembered? And the Gospel responds…”No, you will be resurrected.”
I believe every Christian needs the Church, but we need a different church than the American-idol version Miller and others may need to leave. So I am sorry Donald Miller, this is a real and sincere apology for a disproportionate response that we wouldn’t give other people who had decided to leave church, and for giving you such a good reason to leave in the first place.
It’s not you, it’s us. But we are working on it.