What Is Church? A Dialogue with Donald Miller

What Is Church? A Dialogue with Donald Miller September 22, 2014

I read through Donald Miller’s reflection on church and his follow up response, and I must say that I had thoughts of both resonance and dissonance.

In short, Miller confessed that he doesn’t connect with God through a traditional church service since he’s more of a kinetic learner than an audible one. Also he doesn’t experience God through singing. Therefore, he only sporadically attends a church service, yet still finds God and community in other places.

I want to reflect on Miller’s points because in many ways I feel the same way. I too am a kinetic learner and I also don’t “feel” God (whatever that means) through singing. At least, not very often. So when I was reading Don’s (can I call you Don?) confession, I very much resonated with him.

But as I reflected on his confession, I felt some dissonance, more than I did in my first reading. Such is common when you take time to sip on a blog and swish it around a bit. So take my bloggical “dialogue” with Donald not as a critique or response; it’s more of a conversation with a brother whom I consider to be a vital asset to the kingdom.

The first point that stuck out was that Don seemed to view a church service through the lens of a teaching and learning rather than revelation. That is, for Don, a sermon is designed to impart biblical information to the listeners sitting in the pew. And Don, being a kinetic learner, doesn’t learn much from such note-taking monologues.

Again, I resonate with Don. I don’t think I “learn” a whole lot of new information through sermons. But I believe that sermons (whether monological or dialogical) are a means by which God reveals Himself to His followers. Sermons should impact, not just inform; compel and confront, not just convey information. The sermon—performed rightly—should touch every facet of our humanity, our imagination as much as our intellect. I don’t listen to sermons to gain information. I listen to feel the voice of God dance on my soul. Through sermons, God compels our obedience and cradles our affections.

It also seemed like Miller reduced “church” to a service. Granted, many churches are all about the service. Much of their money and most of their staff are singularly focused on pulling off a killer show. Many churches are all about the service. But other churches are all about service. Serving others and serving the world around them. My church, for instance, cancels its “service” every few weeks for “Serve Sunday,” where we scatter throughout the community to pull weeds at a halfway house, put fresh paint on the homeless shelter, or embody the love of Christ in some other tangible way toward our community. We learn by doing—Don Miller style! Biblically, we are church. We don’t just go to church; we are the church and we do church. Don, if you’re reading this blog, please come visit our church. I think you’d become a regular.

Now, I’m pretty sure that there are many churches like mine scattered throughout the nation. So when Don says that he’s not really into “church,” I have to interpret this as: “I’m not really into a specific type of service-driven, traditional church services that center their existence around learning information about God—audibly—and experiencing Him through singing.” And that’s fine. In many ways, I’m not into this kind of event either. But while agree with Don here, I still confess—with passion—that I absolutely love the church! I love the corporate gathering that comes together to celebrate the risen Christ through preaching, teaching, serving, eating, confessing, loving, forgiving, and drinking the wine of Jesus. Church services are more of a huddle than an end zone. They prepare us for a mission; they’re not the mission. Church services are both a party and a funeral where we celebrate the risen Christ and grieve the sin-stained world we’re living in. When churches don’t capture this, I agree with Don. There are other ways to encounter God.

Lastly, much of what Don said about his disenchantment with church services seemed to be reduced to an emotional experience—or lack thereof. And once again, if “church” equals a service where worshipers experience God through emotions set ablaze by a band, then I feel Don’s disinterest. But I actually do experience God through church. Not just sermons or singing, but through people—that is, through the church. Through the widow who rejoices in tragedy, the newly weds who celebrate new life, and through the homeless woman who wandered into the services and brightened the room as she bore the image of Christ. Church is so much more than a service, and it (therefore) transcends experiencing God through a faux-hawked band.

Experiencing God is more than revved up emotions. Experiencing God can sometimes bring joy, but it can also bring pain, fear, discouragement, and, of course, suffering. A divine encounter can produce an ecstatic experience; it could also nearly kill you—just ask Isaiah (Isa 6).

Church can be a messy place because people are messy and people are church. But church is the fullness of God on earth, the very presence of the risen Lamb, according to Ephesians 1:22-23, 3:10, and 4:11-15. The fullness of God. And for Paul, this fullness, this church, includes both the organism and organization of church. Whatever you call it (I don’t love the word “tribe” since it feels inherently negative and sectarian), Paul calls it—the church—the presence of God on earth.

Browse Our Archives