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!

38 thoughts on “Donald Miller and the Anti-Church

  1. If we are to follow the NT model, then wouldn’t it be strictly house churches. And if Miller shares a meal, reads scripture, serves the community, feeds the poor, and prays in a community setting of a smaller group of friends, wouldn’t that be sufficient as what we deem church to be?

    What constitutes a local church when most people drive 20 min to another town to gather with people they probably only see once a week? I have to be honest… I didn’t read Miller’s posts so this isn’t intended to be specific to Miller. I am just questioning what we in the modern world regard as a local church gathering.

    • Paul,

      Thanks so much for writing. All your questions and statements are valid, and more people need to ponder them.

      The early Church wasn’t just house churches. They met in larger venues too (the Temple being one, until it was destroyed). History is also showing us that the early Church had a larger percentage of rich followers than most think. Some of them had homes that verged on the ancient equivalent of a hotel!

      Still, too many people have a limited “institutional” view of church that aligns more with a business meeting than actually being the Body of Christ.

      We can do better. Wherever you are, do as much better personally as you can do. Be a positive change agent for a healthier, truly NT, Church.

  2. Wow, Dan.

    Don’t get me started about the church music, but I’ll bit my lip and restrain myself and just share a few observations:

    (1) The CCM we have in church today is bad everywhere. It doesn’t matter where I go. It’s bad everywhere. I mean it. It can get so awful that it has induced migraines in me.

    (2) I can’t really blame the church musicians for this. I am convinced that nowadays they simply don’t know how to play anything else.

    (3) It might sound good on the CCM radio, but what you hear on the radio is this highly processed and studio mixed stuff. When you try to take it into a congregational setting, it becomes virtually unsingable for most people, besides sounding horrible.

    (4) Although many years ago CCM had hopeful beginnings, the commercial CCM industry we have today has utterly destroyed hymnody in this country.

    (5) Sometimes I wonder if CCM in church was put there to afflict us so we all can learn to patiently bear it without complaining.

    (6) Some church musicians have the mistaken notion that they are up there because this is trying out for American Idol. They insist on “sexing up” everything they do.

    • Oengus,

      I don’t mind when I go from one church to another and sing the same old hymns. I do mind when I visit another church and the same BAD songs are being sung.

      When I was on the worship team (I’ve stepped down for now), I never saw a need to “sex up” anything, nor did anyone else on our team. I think that’s peculiar to some higher profile churches, especially those with satellite churches and video feeds.

      • To clarify #6 above, let me give an example.

        Imagine a male vocalist trying to sing high notes outside his range, and doing it loudly, and with that being amplified by the sound system. Furthermore, he does this all the time in order to sprinkle “emotiveness” here and there into the music.

        Now add to that, his consistently being off key, and I mean horribly off key.

        You wonder if there is no one in the whole church who has the charity to explain to him, “brother, you really don’t sing very well when you do that. Please stop.”

        • Oengus,

          Say something to the worship leader. If it IS the worship leader singing badly, then say something to the pastor. I’ve never seen a problem like that last long, but YMMV.

          • Dan: “…say something to the pastor…I’ve never seen a problem like that last long, but YMMV.”

            That is the conventional wisdom. But let us add to the equation the supposition that the male vocalist in this case is the pastor’s son.

            You can see that it can get complicated. I often wonder if point #5 pretty much holds: it’s all a test of our endurance.

  3. This:

    “Every Sunday, Americans flock to giant, hangar-like theaters…”

    And what follows it, is some of the best prose describing church in America I have ever read. Your post needs to be read far and wide!

  4. Don Costello

    I believe Hillsong, Jesus Culture and Bethel Music is very anointed music. There are times while at church, at home and at work that I am surrounded by the presence of God. I praise God for them. Now I hardly ever listen to 93.3, when I do listen to Christian radio it is 93.7 out of Dayton, Ohio, WFCJ.

    • Don,

      That’s interesting because I have not heard WFCJ playing much Hillsong, unless something has changed in the last year or so. I guess I have a different take on Hillsong and the others, having played their music myself. But that’s not something I want to get into here because a lot of it comes down to preferences, and that’s not a battle worth fighting.

      • Don Costello

        Because of my work schedule and their programing schedule, most of the time I only listen to them during the 4-5 PM slot when it is music. I have heard Hillsong and Bethel’s Jeremy Riddle. They even play old Hosanna and Maranatha. Yes it is only peppered in with the others but at least it is better than 93.3. Thursdays are my favorite when I drive a car that has a CD player and I can bring my own CD’s.

        • Don,

          If this is the same Bethel Church that is pastored by Bill Johnson, I would suggest checking into some of that church’s very strange theology and praxis, such as soaking up anointing from notable dead believers by lying on their gravestones.

            • Don,

              I say this with the utmost sadness, but if the ministry is charismatic and has a national presence or is run by a recognizable leader with a national stage, I am immediately wary. It doesn’t take much to discover all sorts of oddities—for which these folks are almost always proud. You can trust so few.

              Anymore, the people most trustable are those who labor in obscurity and resist the national stage and all that comes with it.

  5. Don Costello

    As for Donald Miller, most of what comes out of his mouth, is garbage, especially when he is speaking about the things of God. There is no way a believer who loves the word of God could stomach much of his stuff.

    • Don,

      I’m not a fan of the stream Donald Miller comes from, but his confession is symptomatic of many men. Many godly men don’t connect to God through music, and when all of our worship gets distilled down to music, that leaves them adrift. The American Church does not get this. I think our dependence on music to connect to God is symptomatic of our spending more time singing on Sundays at the expense of prayer, and that’s a HUGE error.

    • Bob,

      Though my response pokes your domain name, I think Donald Miller is one of those acolytes of doubt that seems so prevalent in the Emerging/Emergent stream. I can’t get behind that mentality, though, because it comes at the expense of good ol’-fashioned faith.

  6. Heartspeak

    I’m not overly familiar with Don Miller beyond Blue Like Jazz, but I confess that to a large degree, I agree with him on this subject. What totally appalls me is the response of the so called ‘christian’ community!

    The venom, the self-righteousness and ‘our-way-or-the highway’ (to hell) voices serve only to remind me of the Pharisees own response to something that God was doing. He sure didn’t have much good to say about them or their convictions.

    While I also believe that local churches can serve many good purposes, even God’s purposes, the defense is weak and narrow and reeks of legalism, though possibly for well intended reasons.

    Even more, I am certain that were my neighbor to fall on his face confessing his sins and repenting to God for them, I am loathe to encourage his attendance at most local churches in our society–not really even to the one I attend though it would do less harm than many.

    • Heartspeak,

      So many people make the confession that they would not want a non-Christian or new Christian to attend their church. Such a sad confession, but so prevalent. I hear that all the time.

      • Heartspeak

        I was reviewing Mal 1:10 tonight. This season is not the first one where the so-called people of God fail to worship in spirit and in truth. When it becomes noxious to God, He would rather that the doors of the temple were shut and locked.

        I think what we’re seeing here is that some folks believe that until and unless we return to a true and genuine worship of God, we might be better off with locked temple doors. What I see so much, is that folks have accepted a form of seeking God because they do not know anything else any longer.

        There are those who would say that the Emperor has no clothes. That’s not to say that he shouldn’t wear any! Yet, such a messenger is viewed as the problem rather than the fact that the Emperor isn’t wearing clothes. “Yes, he is so!” they cry and we all must marvel at them!

  7. Jeff

    I recently decided to start showing up to my church 30 minutes late to avoid the music (out of frustration)…it’s really helped.

  8. Excellent post. It says a lot when guys who have pretty shaky theology seem to understand what is wrong with the church more than guys who know their theology inside and out but can’t seem to look at the church without wearing institutionalized glasses.

    • Arthur,


      And that’s the problem. The guys who can see the problems and who note them are dismissed by the “perfect doctrine” guys because the perfect doctrine guys can’t rouse from their reverie long enough to see that the house is falling down. I have seen this going on for more than a decade with the Emerging/Emergent Church “reformers” getting 80% of Evangelicalism’s praxis errors right, yet Evangelicals automatically dismiss every contention, because, hey, it’s those Emerging/Emergent Church heretics pointing out the problems.

      No one listens. The fingers go in the ears and that’s all she wrote.

      I’ll say this too: Burk seems always to note the speck in the other guy’s eye, yet never asks if traditional Evangelicalism has the root of that same speck in its own eye, though on a much larger, log-like scale. Whenever he has waded into a big controversy, there doesn’t appear to have been any reflection on possible problems in the Evangelical position in that same issue. His reply to the “secular” Prozac Nation gal about singleness and disappointment made it seem as if he had never once talked to a Christian single adult about disappointments Christian singles might have ( For an academic, he seems awfully disconnected from what is going on outside the ivory tower.

      • Dan: “…the Emerging/Emergent Church “reformers” getting 80% of Evangelicalism’s praxis errors right…”

        Dan, maybe now and then they’re lucky at spotting some evangelicon “praxis errors”, yet it seems to me that the Emergey People don’t have any solutions either. What they offer always ends up sounding like more warmed over sociology or marketing studies.

        Hey, by the way, speaking of rectified praxis, did you ever find any of Frank Viola’s legendary “organic churches”? I mean the ones that seem rarer than rainbow unicorns, or Sasquatches, and that are perpetually hidden out of sight behind some tree somewhere.

        • Oengus,

          You’ve read me long enough to know that a LOT of folks are getting the problems right but their solutions are terrible. Too many “solutions” are just sanctified fads. I mean, how long will it finally take us to purge the Church in America of the Corporate/Business model? George Barna is the poster child for this “get the problem right and the solution wrong,” as he was full-bore business model until he switched to a house church model.

        • Oengus,

          This is true. We can always do better.

          In almost every defense of Burk I’ve seen, the supporter is arguing from a position that imagines a truly biblically operated church. The problem seems to be one of “how low can you go before you bail.” Some people seem to be willing to make do with the very low. One of my earliest blog posts was on lowest common denominator and how we are always settling for it anymore. Nothing has changed.

  9. ccinnova

    I preferred more contemporary worship music when I was a younger Christian because the old hymns reminded me too much of the fashionably liberal but spiritually dead Episcopal parish in which I grew up. I began to appreciate traditional hymns as I grew older, yet I still find myself drawn to a more contemporary style of worship these days. However, I can also see that some of the contemporary songs have their drawbacks.

    As far as the topic of church attendance, I’ve got to be honest and say that it’s sometimes difficult to get motivated for attending Sunday services on those Sundays when I don’t have to fill in on first shift at the hospital where I work. I belong to a large church where it’s far too easy to get lost in the crowd. When I arrive late like I did this morning I’m often stuck in the balcony with young families and their newborn children. I’m grateful for the children being born, but it’s also a stark reminder of how I stand out as a never-married, childless middle-aged man in a family-centric congregation. My predominantly second shift work schedule precludes attendance at small group Bible studies or other fellowship activities outside the Sunday services.

    I was out of church for several years in the 1990’s after leaving a nondenominational congregation which began embracing both legalism and some of the charismatic movement’s worst excesses. So I can easily understand why some folks walk out the back door never to return, although I chose to return to fellowship about 14 years ago.

    Hopefully this topic will open the eyes of both Donald Miller and Denny Burk, along with a lot of other folks as well. Thanks, Dan.

    • ccinnova,

      I have nothing against contemporary worship music! My problems are that many of the songs have moved out of early praise & worship music forms that were more in line with folk-rock and light rock and moved into these more challenging forms, which are great for musicians who want a playing challenge but terrible for people trying to sing them, especially white, suburban men over 35. And while those earlier praise & worship songs had a sort of sanctified innocence about them, I find too many newer songs today are cutesy in their lyrics or are even less theologically deep.

      I think what the Vineyard was doing back in the late ’80s and early ’90s was both needed as a “counter” AND right on the mark for singability.

      • ccinnova

        Dan, I didn’t think you had anything against contemporary worship music in and of itself, and I apologize if I said or implied otherwise.

        I’ve never attended a Vineyard church, so I can’t speak to their music.

        My church’s contemporary worship repertoire includes a few songs that are well-known as well as a few songs written by the contemporary worship leader. The overall quality and depth of the worship at my church has grown in recent years as the congregation has faced some serious trials, including the loss of the church property. At the same time, there is the occasional song with lyrics which seem shallow.

        • Sorry, ccinnova, I didn’t mean to come off as if I were blaming you for anything. I just wanted to set that record straight before the thread took off into a battle over the value of contemporary worship music vs. old hymns. I could have phrased it better.

          The old Vineyard stuff was rich. It was simple (though some of the chords were unusual if played as written), easy to sing and remember. But what was most different about them is that they were sung directly to the Lord rather than being about Him. Today, some might think them too simple, but I don’t. They had that life and sweet innocence in them that I wish we could recover. They really ministered to people, and the production values were high. (Some still available, see, though I don’t see the very earliest albums from the late 1980s, which were the ones I liked most.)

          Here’s one of my favorites from that era, one written by John Wimber, “Praise Song”:

          Again, almost simplistic, but sung in a group, the chorus was stunningly powerful. (And yes, this one of those songs with unusual chords, lots of 9ths and major 7ths, which defined the Vineyard sound at the time.)

  10. Chuck

    I think for some of us who are dissatisfied with contemporary Evangelicalism the problems seem so intractable and so numerous that it’s impossible to know were to begin or where to end without seeming like a whiner. The problems are real but what does one say about them? And ultimately, is anything going to change? That’s the real kicker for me. I can’t see it getting better without the whole edifice collapsing first. That’s sad.

    Lately I’ve begun to visit my town’s Anglican church for midweek Evening Prayer. Yes, it’s liturgical and therefore, to some people, “dead ritual” but I really enjoy it and it gives me something my Sunday morning church service doesn’t, at least for now. I’m not saying that it’s perfect or that it’s ushering me into Anglicanism (it’s not — the church is too Anglo-Catholic for this Wesleyan) but it satisfies me somehow. There is almost never music — horrors! — but it is reverent and peaceful. And the one time we did sing three hymns I was able to pick up the melody of the two I didn’t know because hymns are written to be singable.

    I think music is more a symptom than a disease. But I wonder if the issue for many people, especially men, is not necessarily the style of the music but the amount of it. I might be less critical of the contemporary music at my church if there were less music period. Would I be wrong in saying that for many people the typical church service breaks down to about 45% music, 50% sermon, and 5% announcements, offering, and prayer?

    I’m not looking for exciting church but excitement seems to be what we’re pushing and I’m tired of it. I’m starting to feel very rootless in my church but I don’t know what to do about it. Just going somewhere else isn’t the answer.

    • Chuck,

      I think we all need to pick and choose our whining. Anymore in America 2014, it seems we’re so inured to the victim culture we live in that we either ignore it or we react too strongly to any kind of complaint, even when those complaints are valid. Neither reaction is right. People need to be discerning, pure and simple.

      Most of all, we need to have answers now and then, not just complaints. People need to think deeply about tough subjects, And people need to get toegther with other people who think deeply about tough subjects to hash them out together. Maybe then something changes for the better.

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