Donald Miller’s Worship Critique & Subsequent Rant

Donald Miller wrote a post on his blog talking about why he doesn’t go to church. He began with a somewhat vulnerable moment:

“I’ve a confession. I don’t connect with God by singing to Him. Not at all. I know I’m nearly alone in this but it’s true. I was finally able to admit this recently when I attended a church service that had, perhaps, the most talented worship team I’ve ever heard. I loved the music. But I loved it more for the music than the worship. As far as connecting with God goes, I wasn’t feeling much of anything.”

Miller goes on to say that this is part of why he rarely goes to church. Apparently he got a bunch of crap for what he wrote, because he followed up with an uncharacteristically hasty and defensive rant.

David Fitch wrote a response that’s worth reading. As a pastor this subject means a lot to me, I think more so given that I spent so many years as a Christian musician & worship leader. I resonate with Fitch’s characterization of submission as critical to worship; and that the lack of any good sense of the importance of eucharist as formative is a key deficiency for most evangelicals. Fitch says most of what I would want to say, however I wanted to add my two cents.

I am not surprised that the sort of critique Miller makes should come from someone who isn’t committed to weekly worship, especially not to worship with those who live on the margins of our culture. One would have to disconnect themselves from the church in order to think like that. Not that participation in most American churches would constitute a guarantee against this sort of individualistic, self-referential critique of worship, but if there any place left in our culture where a human can be formed in a different story – one that is resistant to the narcissism of American life – it would have to be a church. Nowhere else in Western society does that kind of soul-formation happen.

When we evaluate worship with ourselves at the center, making our decision as to whether or not we should participate based upon personal cost/benefit analysis, we have lost the thread. My enduring love for all things Donald Miller notwithstanding, the bit about learning styles is just silly. Something this trivial shouldn’t factor in in terms of whether or not we live in fidelity to the church; maybe in term of which church, but not whether church… I don’t see any way to identify with Christ without identifying with the church, without living in fidelity to the church for our entire lives. Except in cases of abusive churches or church leadership, those who distance themselves from the church on the grounds that it doesn’t do anything for them are plagued by the pervasive egotism of our culture. The self-absorbed, “I don’t do the church thing every week, but I’m fine… really my soul’s good,” is becoming such a tired script.

The hard work of slogging to church every single Sunday morning so that we can worship with people who are different from us, is at least in part, necessary so that we don’t fall into the egocentric patterns of our society. We need to worship with people, preferably with those who are vulnerable and marginalized, because the hard work of learning how to worship together will teach us what it means to be human. Worship isn’t about my finding meaning in worship, it’s about learning how to glorify God alongside people who tend to drive me crazy, and vice versa. That’s worship. How I feel about it, or even worse, what I get out of worship is really beside the point. Those are questions we only ask if we have been more fully formed by a consumerist individualist culture than by the gospel. If we must talk about what I get out of worship, then we need to know that its impact is only measured in decades, not by what happened today, and in regard to an emotional response (or lack thereof), to the current song or teaching.

Style & content? That’s still a good conversation. What we sing about is a great conversation to have. What our songs say about who we are and who God is, that’s a good conversation; one of my favorite Hauerwas line ever frames the reason why:

“One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.”

We all have to worship something, or we’ll simply worship ourselves. We need to submit ourselves to people who bother us, see the world differently, come from a different socio-economic class than we do, or we’ll start to think we qualified to live without submitting ourselves to other people altogether – especially the poor.

The most disturbing thing about Miller’s post, to me, is that Miller makes his living off the church. He owes the church. Miller, and by extension all of us, myself included… we need worship (and I would say we need to serve the church, offering ourselves, our gifts, our resources, our imagination and energy to her), because the church is our mother. Everything we know about God we received from the church, and for that we owe her our allegiance, our time, our efforts, our very best in all things. When we set ourselves apart from the church, judging the church guilty of some malady or shortcoming (as though we should be surprised by a church beset with enduring imperfections), we have shown ourselves to be the center of our own universe.

The long hard look in the mirror that a post like Miller’s inspires in me, ends with the realization that so much worship music (and preaching, if I’m being completely honest), is just an insidious form of narcissism. There’s so much “I” and “my” in our worship. Our failings in terms of worship leading, songwriting, teaching, and leadership have made the sort of critique Miller makes possible, maybe even inevitable. That our worship has become individualist, narcissistic, and self-referential, however, is not a good reason to leave the church. It is, however, a great reason to stay with the church and help lead her toward a more faithful life.

About Tim Suttle

Find out more about Tim at TimSuttle.com

Tim Suttle is the senior pastor of RedemptionChurchkc.com. He is the author of several books including his most recent - Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), & An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals.

Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. The band's most recent album is "Straight Back to Kansas." He helped to plant three thriving churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.

  • scott stone

    “The hard work of slogging to church every single Sunday morning so that we can worship with people who are different from us, is at least in part, necessary so that we don’t fall into the egocentric patterns of our society. We need to worship with people, preferably with those who are vulnerable and marginalized, because the hard work of learning how to worship together will teach us what it means to be human. ” I completely agree with this statement but underneath it is something far more important. Whether people like it or not, this is a condemnation of the western mega-church trend. We can “slog to church every Sunday” but still worship with only like minded individuals. We end up sitting in our church cliques, never venturing outside of our comfort zone. The church experience becomes all about us.
    As a side note, the first thing I thought of while reading the post by Miller was something from Moltmann. Using a musical metaphor, “We are trying to resonate with God’s tune.”

  • RustbeltRick

    I think Miller is touching on something very contemporary, and that is, worship has become synonymous with music in our church services. I suppose the trained musicians on stage get more out of the “worship service” than I do, since they are in their element, and I, a non-musician, am not; I’m singing off-key, I’m self-conscious, I can’t keep a beat when I’m encouraged to clap, and the simplistic lyrics aren’t really doing much for me, either. I think we should more accurately refer to it as the “song service,” and whether those songs are being used as worship or not is dependent on the attitude of the individual.

  • k_Lutz

    The Church is the Body of Christians, those Christians committed and absorbed in the Love of Jesus. It is NOT an organisation. It is NOT a building. It is NOT a sunday meeting where affiliated persons come to affirm each other in their affiliation.

    Worship is the adoration of God, for all and what He is and does. It is a lifestyle, not some moment in the week where we rehearse the liturgy of trite mantras with the help of some accomplished (or not) musicians.

    When the music is your objective it is neither Church nor Worship. It is not even Gospel. When Jesus concluded His final earthly ministration to His disciples before His arrest they sang a song, probably a Psalm as that was their Hymnbook which most had memorized. Parading the words across the screen gets them to the vocal chords, not the heart. It is about respect of your audience.

    Trust God.

  • mykalwebs

    I think Fitch misunderstands or misrepresents Don’s statement. Rather than saying there is no need to go to church, he says “if you want to attend a ‘service’ every Sunday, you’d best be an auditory learner. There’s not much out there for kinesthetic or visual learners.”

    Rather than being a rationalization for skipping church, I see Don’s confession as a challenge to church leadership to examine how various aspects of its services and programs either engage or alienate different personalities. The specific activities he names are probably more glaring in a evangelical consumer context, but the underlying challenge is relevant to all churches.

    I can rant for hours (and have) on the contemporary worship industry, but that isn’t the point of Don’s confession. This isn’t a question about the value of singing, or which is the proper role of music in worship, it is a question of communication.

    Decrying the self-absorption of 21st western culture isn’t really valuable either.

    What initially struck me about Don’s confession was looking at how various learning styles are or are not engaged by church services. I passed it on to my wife, an extreme introvert who connects with God in contemplation and (ironically) signing sacred classical music in choral setting. She replied asking if I, like Don, found connection to God in working (an aspect of the article that I missed initially.

    As a teenager, I was fascinated with the variety of things that Jesus did when healing people. Over the years this fascination became a meditation on God’s ability to relate intimately with everyone (athletes, brains, basket cases, criminal or princess – to borrow John Hughes demographic taxonomy). Having heard and read hundreds of stories about different people walking with God, I am convinced
    that God is not only willing and able to, but does meet people where they are. We cannot ascend to God; God descends to us and does so without condescension.

    There is a duality in discussions of church. There is the “body of Christ” commissioned to make disciples and there are the various (liturgical, evangelical, charismatic, missional, etc) institutions that men set up to fulfill that commission.
    Miller’s confession is provocative because it focuses our attention on questions of what is the context of the “institution of man” and what is core to the “body of Christ”.

    If Miller had confessed to not connecting to God through fellowship with other Christians, prayer or study of scripture, I think there would be justification for deep concern. These practices seem to be core to “the body of Christ”, even being present in Jesus’ life.

    I think an absence of connection in to God in listening to sermons or singing songs (or my personal bane, announcements) lies clearly in the realm of “the
    institution of man”.

    That being said, this song always connects me to God http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZI0zO2TS1Y

    • Tim_Suttle

      mykalwebs – thanks for the comment… part of what I’m trying to challenge is the assumption that worship is about learning. Worship isn’t about learning, so learning style shouldn’t really enter in – especially not when we are deciding whether of not to be a part of the worship of the church (which is the work of the people). Worship is about submitting to Christ and to the body.

      That being said, I think that multiple learning styles are important, and this should especially challenge those of us who preach to try to engage people in ever more imaginative ways. I’m reticent to sign on to the “institution of man” characterization of contemporary worship. Although I think we are talking about the same thing, I would call it the tradition of the church. The dialectic, then, is between tradition that is alive and adaptive and changing and growing, and traditionalism that is the worship of the dead.


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