Life Together in the Land of Lewis and Clark: Reflections on Donald Miller and the Northwest Church

This piece was originally published at Christ & Cascadia on 2/18/14.

The Pacific Northwest is known in many circles as the land of Lewis and Clark. These two men were rugged trailblazers, progenitors of rugged individuals, and risk-taking entrepreneurs. Their spirit is in the air and in the variety of scents and tastes in cafes and bistros, tea rooms, and microbrew pubs. We even find their entrepreneurial spirit alive in our churches. Moreover, the same individual and entrepreneurial creativity that leads to scores of church plants in our cities and towns throughout the region also surfaces in those who leave churches for other forms of community or individual explorations in faith.

The challenge of deep individualism and anti-institutionalism is something pastors wrestle with in the Pacific Northwest. Several friends commented on how former Portlander Donald Miller’s recent blogging on why he no longer attends church regularly raised once again their concerns over such individualism and anti-institutionalism. Don’s thought-provoking musings certainly stoked the fires of conversation and led down various trails of discourse.

I have always appreciated Don’s willingness to speak out on subjects, where others might be less willing to risk. In fact, in his reflections on church attendance he references anonymous conversations with those he calls well-known Christian leaders who no longer attend church regularly but who won’t say so publicly.  By no means intending to harm the local church, I am sure Don would be pleased to know that his reflections have helped others, including myself, take more seriously the visible church and its significance for life together in the land of Lewis and Clark.

Don’s initial reflections on why he no longer attends church regularly read like church does not fit his learning style—he is far more kinesthetic in learning. Don does not fault churches on Sunday mornings for lacking in robust kinesthetic activities—how else will they reach scores of people for short periods of time on a given day? Just not individuals like Don.

One might respond by saying church is not about one’s individual preference for a particular learning style (or attention to one’s personality type). It is about interpersonal communion with Christ’s family. Very true, but how truly interpersonal are we in our churches? And how participatory are we? While Don applauds how churches work hard within America’s free market system (which promotes competition between churches given the separation of church and state), it is the consumer preference framework bound up with that free market system that leads many people not to attend church and choose more appealing options. Moreover, the free market system and consumer preference framework also tend to turn church services into productions that separate us into performers and spectators. What we often lack is full participation. The lack of full participation can easily fuel the individualism churches so often dread.

Speaking of learning and teaching styles, Jesus was very kinesthetic. His catechism for his school of discipleship involved “Come and see,” “Take up your cross and follow me,” and “Love one another.” It also involved communal readings of the Word. Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) never suggested solitary confinement Bible reading. Moreover, it always involved obedience in such a way that it put others above one’s personality type and learning style. It was and is a truly costly kinesthetic learning to which Jesus calls us. I fear that I do so little to master his curriculum.

Just as Scripture is intended for mass consumption or communal reading, Jesus calls us to take communion together, not alone. Such communion was bound up with the agape feast. Jesus could not get more kinesthetic. Communion with God’s family created by faith in God’s Word and nourished at the Table involves confessing our sins to one another, holding one another accountable, and building one another up through our spiritual gifts as persons. We lose out on the relational gifting of those who leave us. After all, severed members of a body make an impact on the whole. I am not the body. We are. I am not the bride. We are. I am not the family. We are. If one of my family members were to leave home, we would all grieve, for we are no longer whole.

I would never advocate for the church catering to this or that personality type. However, we do need to concern ourselves with life-on-life discipleship that accounts for people’s vocational callings, not simply getting them to warm pews or engage in generic, faceless Christianity. Otherwise, why should we be surprised when they leave church? Regrettably, we may never have made it clear how needed they as gifted persons with particular callings were in the first place, especially when we often silo groups like youth and singles and elderly off into self-contained spheres. We need to move beyond assembly line Christianity and return to the Christian guild with its attention to apprenticeship and discipleship.

Not everyone was made to be an explorer like Lewis and Clark. But if we don’t attend to how God has shaped and called them, our young people might think their only option left is to set out on a Lewis and Clark-like expedition and never return home. If and when that happens, everyone loses. No matter how great the expedition’s gain, the relational risks to Christ’s family are not worth it. With this point in mind, I close with the immortal words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian of the church and mentor of costly discipleship. His words in Life Together on the significance of the local, visible church should sober even the most care-free of entrepreneurial, adventuresome souls and hopefully lead them to travel safely home:

Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you… (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together {New York: Harper & Row, 1954}, 77)

 

 

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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