Donald Miller and the Anti-Church


Donald Miller is known for one thing: writing Blue Like Jazz. That book captured the zeitgeist of many younger believers. Heck, it got a movie treatment. Seriously.

I thought the book was a self-indulgent mess that reeked of everything that’s off-kilter with a younger generation of Christians that isn’t satisfied with eschewing the Evangelical subculture but wants to toy with established doctrine too.

In other words, I’m not an apologist for Donald Miller.

Miller stepped in it this week when he wrote a blog post saying he doesn’t attend church often because he finds he doesn’t connect to God there. You can read that confession: “I Don’t Worship God by Singing. I Connect With Him Elsewhere.

I think a lot of men were nodding their heads after reading that post. I guess they did it in secret, too, because Miller certainly raised the hackles of a LOT of people. So much so he had to a write a retraction. Or maybe it’s a clarification. Probably the latter: “Why I Don’t Go to Church Very Often, a Follow Up Blog.”

In between, some notable Evangelical voices had to show their superiority to the obviously backslidden Miller by schooling him on how REAL Christians should think and act. Of course, they quoted the go-to passage whenever someone appears not to be “into” church all that much:

And let us 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 ESV

Denny Burk had one of the most brutal rebuttals: “Donald Miller’s prescription for spiritual suicide.”

Burk writes:

It is very clear that Miller’s view of the church differs markedly from what we find in scripture.

After reading Burk’s rebuttal, it seemed clear to me that Burk’s view of church differs markedly from what we find in Scripture too.

In fact, I’d love to see a modern Evangelical church that even gets close to resembling anything I see in the New Testament.

Church as entertainmentEvery Sunday, Americans flock to giant, hangar-like theaters, where rock music with shallow lyrics that most people can’t sing along with well blares out of $200,000 sound systems for a scientifically prescribed number of minutes before some attractive woman gets up and makes an appeal for money. Then a goateed guy in a Hawaiian or bowling shirt talks for a half hour about how we can all enjoy our best life now by doing something that tangentially has to do with the Bible. And maybe Jesus. Maybe. There’s another song, and then everyone goes to IHOP for all-you-can-eat pancakes.

That’s what Church in America has become. That’s what Denny Burk says we must all attend every Sunday lest we commit spiritual suicide.

Excuse me, but it seems to me that attending something like that is the real spiritual suicide. And Evangelicals are committing it weekly.

Donald Miller says he connects better to God when he’s working than when he’s attending something like I just described.

Can anyone blame him?

I suspect there are many Donald Millers out there who went to a pale imitation of New Testament church and didn’t find God there. And when Denny Burk plays apologist for such an Ichabod “church,” how can he be taken seriously?

I’m sure Burk would probably endorse a more serious church, one that wouldn’t be a dog and pony show. But when all is written, is his version any better?

Are the people in Burk’s idea of church selling their possessions and dropping them at the feet of the apostles?

Does his church maintain a common purse so that no one in the church ever suffers need?

Does his church allow a few prophets to speak revelatory words from the Lord through the Holy Spirit and then have other wise people weigh those words?

Does his church encourage tongues and people who can interpret those tongues?

Does his church celebrate communion as a full meal and not just a thimble of grape juice and a stale cracker?

Does his church encourage others to bring their prayer requests and then prays over them all?

Does his church meet together daily in each other’s homes?

Does his church worship in such a way that the meeting place is shaken by God?


Just what is Burk defending that he chastises Miller for eschewing it? Why aren’t the leaders of those off churches faulted instead for delivering such a wan imitation of a genuine New Testament church that spiritually astute people find a whole bunch of smoke and mirrors and not a whole lot of God?

In the end, Miller may be edging toward a bad position, but in his edging is a stinging indictment. If our churches today are connecting people with cultural entertainment and not with a risen Lord, then what person in his right mind would want that? And what right-minded person would defend it?

Anymore, I don’t encounter much of God in a traditional Evangelical church setting. I have a hard time with the music, and I’m a musician. I wish the words were more meaningful and the tunes more melodic. I wish there were more quiet, contemplative songs. I wish we worshiped God in ways that didn’t always come down to something that emanated from Hillsong or the pen of Chris Tomlin. I keep hoping for a bright, airy space filled with people who minister to each other. I want to see the assembly of the people of God filled with prayers, and not just for a couple minutes. We need to use our individual gifts on a Sunday, and not just stare dully at a stage from whence the show pours forth. We each need to practice our spiritual gifts with each other in the assembly, because that’s what God gave them to us for. We need to eat a real meal together and bear each other’s burdens so that people leave encouraged and strengthened and not burdened by yet one more thing the pastor said they’re doing half-heartedly or altogether wrong. And we need to know that someone at that church has our back if the going gets rough. And we need to know whose back we’ve got when he or she stumbles.

Donald Miller needs that too.

And Denny Burk needs to open the Bible he teaches professionally and get a real vision for what the Church in America must be. He needs his definition of what the Church is altered so that it’s not a building and not an activity done once a week, but a living, vital people filled by the Holy Spirit and sealed for the Kingdom, who are the Church wherever any single Spirit-filled believer goes, regardless of how many go with him or her.

God help us that we have these national voices, who supposedly speak truth about the Christian life, and yet they can’t even get the basics right!

The truly sad part is that the person who asks if we’re doing it right is the one who receives the beat-down. Confess in all honestly that such a church as Miller avoids doesn’t personally provide a solid connection to God and it’s the questioner who is on the receiving end of the resulting indignation. The questioner is wrong. The questioner is spiritually immature or deficient. The questioner is the one committing spiritual suicide.

I have one word: Maranatha!

Are Scholars and Teachers Truly Leading the Church? And Should They?

Don Miller

Donald Miller

Many of my Christian friends have noted Donald Miller’s recent post about rescuing the Christian Church from leadership dominated by scholars. Miller, the firebrand behind the famous (or infamous, depending on your view) Blue Like Jazz, sells his perspective hard. As always, I recommend you read the whole thing.

But is he right?

The Internet is a screwy place. If one were to view the whole of American Christendom by what one reads on the Internet, Miller’s contention might seem accurate. What’s written on the Internet does skew toward academic discussions, and yes, people fight like cats and dogs over doctrines (both macro and micro) on Web sites of all sizes.

But the Internet is skewed toward odd demographic leanings, and as a result, I don’t believe what is discussed on the Internet mirrors the discussion of the average church. Plus, those of us who write about church-related issues should not believe our own press. Fact is, the average Christian could care less about the Godblogosphere.

Or their nearest Christian seminary, for that matter. “Normal” people just don’t have the wherewithal to care about the background machinations of American Christendom. They leave such ponderings for eggheads who write blogs they don’t read or brainiacs who inhabit seminary classrooms they’ll never darken.

Hey, let’s get real, OK?

By some counts, we have 300,000 churches in the United States. In my wanderings through the Church over the course of 35 years, I’ve met perhaps two dozen people I would deem genuine scholars, and not a single one of them was running a church. I’m not sure from where Miller is getting his academic oligarchy, but if even a tenth of those 300,000 churches are pastored by someone who can translate a chapter of John from Greek to English, I’ll volunteer to shine Miller’s shoes for a year.

So much for the scholars. If anything, churches are hurting for a good scholar or two, leaders or laymen. I once attended a church that had a genuine scholar in its midst, and the church leaders would trot him out from time to time to give his academic imprimatur on some supposedly weighty theological matter, and then they would usher him back into his hermetically sealed container to await his next rethawing. If anything, when true scholars do exist in our pews, we tend to treat them as something of a sideshow act. Shame on us, but there it is. In addition, some local church leaders see scholars as a threat, not as a resource. Human nature being what it is, when you’re trying to prepare a sermon on a text and you’ve got someone sitting in the seats who held that passage in Dead Sea Scroll-version in his hands and read the Hebrew right off it, well, it’s a tad unnerving to most guys who barely made it through seminary, if they even made it to seminary at all.

Teachers are another issue, though. And on this, Miller may have a bit of a point. But, as we’ll see, only a bit, because perception and reality are not the same thing.

We have a fundamental problem in the American Christian Church regarding roles and gifts. Somehow, and more and more books are appearing that look at this problem, we’ve developed a way of doing church that focuses all the responsibility and leadership initiative on one soul: the pastor.

Yet even a casual reading of the New Testament tears down our idolmaking for that calling. The pastor simply cannot be the focal point of all ministry within a given church. The Bible makes this clear:

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?
—1 Corinthians 12:27-30

Fact is, pastor isn’t even mentioned in that passage. The closest we get is apostle, and plenty of folks out there who get all worked up about things don’t believe apostles exist anymore, so where does that leave us?

Well, back at pastor, because our societal and cultural constructs have made pastor the be all and end all of ministry.

I’ve talked to many pastors over the years. Most of them didn’t receive a call to teach others. Most received a calling to help the Church and the people in it however best they could with whatever gifts they had. Though Miller would have us believe that church leadership at the local level is crawling with teachers, it’s really only crawling with those people who have had teaching thrust upon them. And that’s a massive distinction.

For years George Barna has polled the American Church to get a sense of where we’re at. A few years back, he polled pastors and asked them how well they thought they were teaching their charges. The mutual pastoral backslapping commenced, as pastors uniformly believed they were doing a great job teaching. But when Barna polled the congregations of those same pastors, ignorance of even basic doctrine was rampant. The disconnect was startling.

And why shouldn’t it be when we keep expecting pastors to be the primary teachers in a church? They simply aren’t in most cases. They weren’t trained to teach, don’t know how to teach well, and were cast into the role of teacher with the facts, but not the skills.

Scratch the surface of the average church pastor, and you are most likely to find someone who excels at creating vision, connecting to people relationally, or has gifts for administration and management. Some are gifted teachers, but not most, yet they are expected to teach at all times.

Miller is wrong if he believes that scholars and teachers are leading the Church for the simple reasons that genuine scholars are rarities (and even rarer in leadership within a local church) and the average teaching pastor has been ill-equipped to teach. Tossing labels around is one thing, but let’s be honest about the true state of the Church.

The better question is whether we value teaching too highly. I don’t believe that can ever be the case. Barna’s polling not only revealed the overconfidence of pastors in their teaching, but it also exposed the general ignorance about the Faith that wreaks havoc everywhere ignorant Christians go. People ARE destroyed for lack of knowledge. Christians who don’t know what they believe cannot transmit what they believe to others who do not understand. End of argument.

So, where is the balance in all this?

Ideally, the Church should…

Teach its people the Faith.

Encourage the giftings of each person within the local church for service to that church and the greater whole of Christendom.

We’re not doing either of those well.

If you’ve read me long enough, you know I have a beef about our lack of a cradle-to-grave educational plan in our churches. We must have one. Each church must determine theirs.

AND we need to identify the gifts and talents of people in the seats so that they are released to minister as God would have them. Sadly, the “pastor as church emperor” stifles that potential. If anything, the pastoral role should be just one of several. Many pastors don’t preach well. Then who is the best preacher in the church?  Many pastors are less-than-ideal comforters of the bereaved and hurting. Then who are the best comforters? Many pastors don’t listen well, either to their people or to the Lord. Then who are the best listeners and the best prophets? Many pastors don’t teach well. Then who does? Let’s get the right people in the right roles and start doing this right. And if that means the pastor reads the Scriptures on Sunday and someone else preaches or teaches, then fine. If that means that no one is paid staff, then fine. If that means the staff is huge and paid, fine. If that means that the whole church lives in one large apartment complex and does a kibbutz-type thing, fine. But let’s stop whatever we’re doing with the current model because it just doesn’t work all that well.

In short, does the Church function as a body with Christ as the head or with the pastor as the head? We know the answer. Now what are we doing to rethink how we do church so that everyone in the church is operating in their genuine giftings and receives the honor due them?

Ultimately, this is what Miller is aiming for. Taking a potshot at scholars and teachers isn’t the way to get there, though. We know the Church is a body, so let’s stop shooting that body in the foot.

Miscellaneous Thoughts on a Labor Day Weekend


Spent most of the week “riding the chair” as I like to say. Misunderstood a timetable point on a project I was working on, so I had to kick it into overdrive. Cerulean Sanctum went on the backburner. Apologies if I felt a bit distant and uninvolved this week.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking:

  • I hated Blue Like Jazz and didn’t even bother to finish it—something I never do, even with the worst books—but I thought Don Miller’s prayer at the Democratic National Convention was worthy in light of the venue. Yes, it did have a liberal feel to it and, yes,  he did absolve others from believing in Jesus by using himself as a proxy for their belief in his comments at the end, and, yes, he could have been more of a burning witness for Christ, but he did one thing that I admired: He touched on all the social aspects of the Gospel that never get one hint of mention during a typical prayer at a GOP/Evangelical-dominated event. We can say what we will about how we live out the Gospel, but Miller’s prayer highlights one very sad truth about American Christians: Each of us has a half-empty cup when it comes to understanding what it means to live out the full Gospel of Jesus Christ on a practical, daily basis.

  • As for Obama, for someone who keeps talking about change and pushing past old paradigms, he could not have chosen a bigger old paradigm ball-and-chain than Joe “Tony Blair Said It and So Will I” Biden. I mean, seriously. Talk about “old boy networks” and “this is my time” privilege! Joe Biden? Some DNC bigwigs took Obama into a back room and said, “If you have any party loyalty at all, you WILL be choosing the biggest character we owe now that Ted Kennedy’s out of the picture.” Seriously. That conversation happened. I’ll bet good money on it.

  • This just in: John McCain shows he’s got the mojo Obama lacks in picking veeps: It’s Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska, and a darned good choice, too. She’s the closest thing to Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher that we’ve seen in American politics since Elizabeth Dole ( whom I thought was a more viable presidential candidate than her husband, Bob).

  • The more I think about it, the more I realize that one of the most important and influential figures of the 20th century was not a politician, but an explorer, filmmaker, inventor, scientist, firebrand, and intellect: Jacques-Yves Cousteau. He’s one of the most underestimated and overlooked figure of our day. To say he’s the greatest person to come out of 20th century France takes no effort. His global influence even after his death is extraordinary. Do the research and you’ll see what I mean.

  • Doesn’t it bother you that we have to go back more than fifty years to begin to find great Americans that commanded the world’s stage? I think nothing speaks louder about the shriveled figures we thrust into the global spotlight today than that sad truth.

  • In other news, The Wall Street Journal now claims that there are more ultra-rich than ever before in this country. On the other hand, in the same edition, it claims the middle class are getting killed. Hmm. Two Americas? Where have we heard that before?

  • Irony of the Day: I got my renewal for The Wall Street Journal two weeks ago. One year? $349. Ouch! Six years ago when I started reading it, I paid $149 for a year. Then $179. Then $199. Then $219. Then they offered me $299 for 18 months and I thought I was actually getting a deal. Now it looks like the newspaper of record in the Edelen household is going bye-bye. I guess this is why Rupert Murdoch, the new owner, is one of the world’s richest men. If we need any further commentary on the decline of newspaper readership in the United States, I can post the renewal notice online so we can all cringe.

  • By far, the most read post on Cerulean Sanctum is this one. It’s also the most Googled post. Every day of the year I get about a dozen search engine hits on that post and hundreds at the start of a new year. What does that say about churches that so many people are Googling to find the direction they need on this issue?

  • The runner-up in Googling and reading? This post. I’ll leave you to guess why.

  • Is there any weirder holiday than Labor Day? Honestly, I sometimes get Labor Day and Memorial Day mixed up.

Anyway, have a wonderful, relaxing weekend, no matter what holiday it is.