Donald Miller and the Myth of Isolated Worship

Donald Miller and the Myth of Isolated Worship February 4, 2014

So, Donald Miller wrote an article about why he doesn’t go to church much. You can read it here. I was surprised by how much I didn’t agree with it, given the way his earlier works blessed me when I was in college (especially some of the moving things he has written about needing community).

In essence, for this article Miller took some of the worst cliches and cultural trends of American life that contribute to our consumeristic view of church and handily bundled them all together in one article. I guess he’s performed us a service, though, because they’re kind of all there, ready to be dissected in one sitting.

Dem Feels, Bro.
The first thing that stands out is how emotive the article is; the language of “feel,” “feelings,” and “connecting” dominate Miller’s musings. This is pretty typical of the modern American church-going ethos—experience is everything: If I’m not having an emotional experience, then it’s not working for me. Eugene Peterson talked about this in The Jesus Way—Israel looked to other gods like the Baals because their worship was a lot more “experiential.” He’s worth quoting at length:

The one place in the biblical world where we know that “worship experience” is encouraged is in Baalism. When you are terror-stricken you offer a sacrifice; when you are anxious about the crops you make a visit to the Temple prostitute; when you are joyful you ingest the wine god. You do what you feel like doing when you feel like doing it. In between, you get on with your ordinary life. Feelings call the tune, feelings of panic, of terror, of desire, of enthusiasm. Baalism offered, then in Canaan and now in North America, a rich array of “worship experiences.” (pg. 112)

Now, of course, Miller is not suggesting we visit Temple Prostitutes, but the air of the article still smacks of the Baalistic deification of feeling we find everywhere in contemporary American life. It’s basically a more nuanced version of one of my students saying, “Man, I just wasn’t feeling it, so I slept in, you know?”

Peterson goes on to clarify what’s wrong with that:

In Yahwism worship is defined and shaped by God’s authoritative and clear word. Nothing is dependent on feelings or weather. All is determined by Scripture and Jesus. No person is left to do what he or she simply feels like doing. God has revealed who he is and demands obedience. Worship is the act of attending to that revelation and being obedient to it.

Claiming that you connect to God at work, or on the golf course, or in a field sniffing a daisy, doesn’t mean much. God has commanded us to observe the Sabbath, gather together, break bread, and worship Him corporately.

Of course, none of this rules out the fact that Miller connects to God at work. That’s great. We’re all supposed to worship Him in all that we do. But worshiping God at work doesn’t preclude me from worshiping Him at church. In fact, worshiping at church through song, communion, and so forth, is actually a training ground, a practice session that shapes my emotions and motivations for the rest of my worship time throughout the week. If my feelings get tickled, awesome. If not, I’ll try again next week.

It’s All about Me.
The next thing that stands out is that the entire article is basically about how church doesn’t do it for him. Church might do it for some people, but it doesn’t really do it for him because he is different and he connects differently. Since church is there to minister to his felt spiritual needs, and the “traditional church model” doesn’t, then why go?

Here’s the thing, (and this feels so cliche, but Donald Miller is making me say it): Church is not just about you. There are a half-dozen passages in the New Testament that I could refer to, but just take a gander over at 1 Corinthians 12:

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

In other words, the rest of the Body needs you, and you need the Body. So, let’s just say you don’t connect to lectures (more on that in a minute). That doesn’t change the fact that God has told us in Scripture to:

Consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24–25)

Just because you might not need the lecture, doesn’t mean that your local church body doesn’t need you to show up, stick it out, stir up, and encourage your brothers and sisters. We can’t be like Cain who says, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” because, yes, actually, you are. And you can’t ‘keep’ them very well if you neglect meeting with them. The Body doesn’t function well when it’s missing pieces.

I’m sure Miller knows this, but you couldn’t tell on the basis of his stated reasoning for regularly ditching out on church. That’s why I can’t help but be suspicious when Miller says he believes “the church is all around us, not to be confined by a specific tribe.” True enough, I guess—but set in the context of his confession that he doesn’t really attend much, it sounds like a cheap dodge to get out of loving and caring for the specific people of one church–a much harder proposition than loving the “Church” in general.

Let’s follow up on the earlier point on sermons—sure, not everybody connects with lectures. Assuming that sermons are lectures (a dubious assumption made by Miller, but whatever), that doesn’t mean we don’t still need them. I mean, honestly, I really don’t know how you can learn about the Trinity, or God becoming man in Christ, without a little cognitive lecturing. Is there some jigsaw puzzle, or a special hand-craft Miller recommends? Maybe macaroni shell art?

The Gospel has an irreducibly communicative component: “faith comes by hearing” the Word about Christ. What’s more, according to Paul (and really the sweep of the canon), God places such a premium on the proper instruction of the Body, that he specifically gave us “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11–12).

Hands need heads, just as much as heads need hands. Hands without heads—”doers,” if you will—don’t know what to do without solid teaching. If you don’t know, and are not constantly reminded and shaped by the teaching of the Gospel, you’ll be tempted to do the work of the Gospel and “connect with God” in ways that are inconsistent with it.

That’s Not What Worship Is.
Finally, Miller exhibits a stunted understanding of the shape of Christian worship. Christian worship isn’t just about going to feel things in tune with special music or listen to an informative lecture about Christian truth that you hopefully connect to. Nor is it simply a place to go “learn” in a straight-forward cognitive sense. The regular gathering of worship is a place where we gather to be formed into the image of Christ, individually and corporately.

We gather to be reminded, week by week, of the Gospel we are so tempted to forget. We gather to receive the Lord’s supper in communion with the broader Body of which we are a part. We gather to encourage and support each other in prayer and acts of mercy. We gather to confess our faith publicly before the world as a community.

Most important, Miller seems to forget that worship is not about me, my feelings, my learning needs, or even those around me: It’s about God. Am I worshiping God in the way that He has commanded me to? Am I glorifying Him by praising His name even when I don’t “connect,” just because He deserves it? Do I go to be reminded of the truth of His Gospel, even if I have to strain a bit to pay attention? Is He worth it?

I could go into a dozen more reasons participation in the local Body matters, but you get the picture. Let me be clear, I don’t go into all of this because I think Donald Miller is a bad person, or a false teacher, or something like that. He’s a good guy. As a pastor to young people, though, this article breaks my heart, because this is exactly the kind of logic that people latch on to and use as an excuse to separate themselves from the Body to the desolation of their spiritual lives. This is why pastors, preachers, and teachers in the Church can no longer avoid deep, biblical teaching on the Church. If she is to be healthy and functioning, our people must know what the Church is and why it exists beyond our own need to “connect” once a week.

The idea that a Christian can experience healthy, Christian worship and community outside of the context of church is an American myth that Miller seems to have played right into. A healthy, functioning Church is about putting Christ on display for the world to see, not our individualism. 

photo credit: VinothChandar via photopin cc

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