By T.R. Robertson
This past February, Donald Miller, best known as the author of the book Blue Like Jazz, confessed on his Storyline blog that he doesn’t go to church very often.1 I’m not sure why this surprised anyone who has read his books, but his comments kicked off a hurricane of commentary in the blogosphere and on social media.
Among the reactions were a blog entry titled, “Donald Miller’s prescription for spiritual suicide” (dennyburk.com2), and this tweet, “I’m scared for the next gen of young people who will read @DonaldMiller & think they don’t even need to go to church” (@justinjdean).
Reading all the responses and Miller’s follow-up explanations made me feel like the degenerate sitting on the back pew of a church; it was as if I were watching a fellow infidel confess in public while the faithful flock boils a cauldron of tar and shakes all the feathers out of their pillows.
Actually, I’m something like Miller. There is much about the 21st-century American church that doesn’t resonate with me, not the least of which is that it tends to be too much American and not enough church.
There’s a pervasive sentiment in many churches that equates American-style success with being a good Christian, alongside a presumption that a faithful believer will also subscribe to a particular brand of politics. Newcomers who don’t fit into the same social stratum can feel out of place. Many are scared off from reconciling with Jesus because they can’t reconcile themselves to the red vs. blue rhetoric they encounter in his church.
Other aspects of the modern institutionalized church don’t seem all that biblical to me, either.
I read in the New Testament about the church going out into public places and sharing the gospel with unbelievers. Their mission was to win people to Christ and add them to the church. The assembly of the saints was an opportunity to ground believers in their faith and train them to go out and do works of service (Ephesians 4:11-16).
Instead of that model, I more often see the 21st-century church advertising the cultural attractions of a “church brand,” with the aim of getting seekers to come to the “church store” and sample the wares. While the final goal is still to win them to Christ, it’s done by first winning them to the lifestyle of the congregation.
I also identify with Miller’s description of himself and his friends as people who don’t connect with God primarily through the church they attend. He wrote, “They aren’t wired to be intimate with God by attending a lecture and hearing singing (which there is NOTHING wrong with) they are wired to experience God by working with him.”3
Over the years, my wife and I have increasingly found our worship, community, and service opportunities in places that aren’t inside the walls of a traditional church. We’ve discovered an invigorating level of fellowship and accountability within our weekly small group. That group is currently made up of members from two different local congregations, but began as an outgrowth of a campus ministry.
The congregation that challenges, inspires, and sharpens our faith the most is our irregular band of believers in the chapel of a women’s state prison every Monday night.
I’ve always felt a bit guilty for my attitudes about the institutional church. I tend to share my feelings about it only with those closest to me (and now the entire readership of Christian Standard).
The first time I realized I was not alone in my disenchantment with “church as usual” was when I read George Barna’s 2006 book, The Revolution.4 In it, the pollster describes a growing movement of committed Christians exiting the established church. He provided not only the statistics, but numerous examples of people who have found other ways of being the “organic” church.
A quick search of the Internet finds many ways faithful and active Christians have found to “be the church” outside a traditional congregation. I found one group that gathers weekly at a chosen location in their city and goes for a casual walk, talking, singing, and having spirited discussions as they go.
Reading about nontraditional “un-church” practices is refreshing to me, full of possibilities.
And yet, I still “go to church.” I’m still a member of a fairly traditional congregation with roots in the Restoration Movement. Ironically, the very ideals that contribute to my frustrations with the institutional church are the reasons I remain committed to a traditional congregation.
THE CHURCH, the body and bride of Christ, is still important. In spite of its shortcomings, the Scriptures tell us the church is God’s chosen medium for accomplishing his purposes in the post-Pentecost era. As Christian rapper Lecrae says in his song “The Bride,”
You might see her acting crazy, be patient with her tho’ ‘cause she still God’s baby—She the Church;
Before you dis her get to know her, Jesus got a thing fo’ her and died just to show her—She the church;
She ain’t bricks and building, She all of God’s people, Men women and children.
(“The Bride,” from the album Rebel; Reach Records, 2008)
Unchurched Christians say the church is the people, and we’d all be better off if we’d stick to that definition and stop thinking of the church as an organization or institution. While the church would definitely benefit from every “church member” seeing himself or herself as the bride of Christ, sometimes the church really does work better in an organized, if not institutionalized, setting.
For example, it’s great when Christian couples decide to be the church by being foster parents. It’s also fantastic when an entire congregation—or several congregations—work together to set up a children’s home or ranch. By cooperating in an organized way, the church is able to meet the needs of more children. Even a single foster parenting couple benefits by the circle of support they can get from an organized congregation.
MISSION is what it’s all about for me. My deep-seated sense of Christ’s mission is the primary ideal that keeps me focused and drives my decisions.
For decades much of the American church has been promoting the idea that being a Christian is primarily about having a personal relationship with Christ. If that’s true, then what does it really matter if I decide to go it on my own or with a few like-minded free thinkers?
If God’s mission is the priority, though, it matters a great deal.
Many unchurched believers are indeed committed to mission. They’re actively reaching out to help people and to reconcile them to Christ and to one another.
What happens, though, when they lead someone to make a decision for Christ?
Some of those new believers might be independent free thinkers like the freelance Christians who introduced them to Jesus. For them, being discipled in the same unchurched way might work.
Frankly, though, most new Christians are going to prefer a more organized church setting to help them put down roots and grow in their faith. The looser connections provided by the unchurched Christian community can be nourishing for mature Christians of a certain mind-set, but they can actually be dangerous for a lot of new converts.
This is the main reason I belong to a traditional congregation. It’s more traditional than meets my needs, but overall it’s a place I can confidently send seekers and new believers, knowing the body of Christ is functioning there.
GRACE AND MERCY are the fundamentals of my worldview. Without them, where would I be? My tendency toward being the church curmudgeon would have dragged me down into a pit of bitterness years ago if a merciful God wasn’t patiently nurturing my heart and healing the wounds inflicted by the church.
Prison ministry has taught me to see the ruined lives of murderers, drug dealers, and con artists in the same circle of grace as my own judgmentalism and lusts. Loving those incarcerated children of God has taught me to see the people in the church back home in the same light.
Do you want to learn not only to tolerate but love people as God loves, even those who are unlikeable? Get involved in a congregation full of saved sinners.
One thing I love most about the congregation we call home is that I can look around the room each Sunday morning and see a crowd of people who know they’re broken. We’re a motley bunch, struggling to deal with the difficulties of life and relying on God to love us in spite of ourselves.
We are the church.
4Revolution, by George Barna (Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 2006).
T. R. Robertson is a business technology analyst with the University of Missouri in Columbia.