This week, on his Storyline blog, Donald Miller announced that he doesn't attend church these days. Almost immediately, folks began to respond, citing the many Biblical, cultural, and historical reasons why Miller's post is problematic. Miller responded to these today, but his response doesn't add much to the conversation; he simply doubles down. I don't want to pile on to these criticisms, but instead wanted to come alongside them with a couple of additional observations.
First off, it's no small irony that Miller, a paragon of the "me" culture of memoir, has essentially said he left church because it didn't work for him. I fear that Miller doesn't have the self-awareness to see how narcissistic and condescending his posts are, and how consumeristic his critiques of church are.
I wonder, though, if Miller's thoughts don't say as much about our contemporary worship culture as they do about Miller himself. His description of a church gathering is two-dimensional: we listen to a lecture and sing songs that connect us to God. Miller says he stopped attending because he doesn't learn from lectures and doesn't feel like he connects to God through singing.
This description of the gathered church is anemic and shabby, but it's also the description that many American evangelicals would use to describe Sunday mornings. Rather than a robust engagement with God's people, God's word, and God's Spirit through interactions with one another, songs, prayers, scripture readings, and the Lord's Supper, we think of Sundays as merely preaching and music. Rather than an immersive, formational environment shaped by the physical architecture of space and the spiritual architecture of a Gospel-shaped liturgy, Sunday Morning is a platform driven spectacle, led by mega-celebrities at mega-churches and would-be-celebrities and smaller churches. Rather than a challenging and diverse diet of milk and meat, celebration and lament, confession and assurance, we're fed a pump-up-the-jams hype fest that culminates in a "You can do it!" sermon and a marketing pitch for membership. It's an environment that feels hostile to doubt and suffering, unless your goal is to overwhelm them both with enthusiasm.
I realize I'm guilty of caricature here, as there are many, many churches that break this mold. But I think it's fair to say this much: in the past, corporate worship was seen as an immersive formational experience, wherein the church calendar and liturgy slowly shapes Christians to live Kingdom-oriented lives in a fallen world; today, the gathering (shaped by revivalist sentiments and revolutionized by new technology) is meant to be a catalytic, emotional experience. We aim to be spectacular, rather than regular. We aim for instant gratification rather than slow, steady change.
As James K.A. Smith argues in Desiring the Kingdom, all of our gatherings are formational – even the gatherings that aim at spectacle. Where a more traditional approach aims at an orientation towards hope in the coming kingdom and patience in affliction, the contemporary model often aims our hope in the institutions, leaders, and experiences of Church. Our hope is built on the coming sermon series, or the upcoming evangelistic push, or the ability of the pastor to inspire us, or the ability of the worship leader to "usher in the Spirit of God." Practiced regularly, week-in and week-out, these efforts shape us to love and hope in a particular way, and like any idol, it will ultimately disappoint us.
To this, Miller, like so many others, has said, "No thanks. Doesn't work for me." And in this sense, I don't blame him. But his solution is no less tragic. His new liturgy will orient his life around himself or around his work, and these masters will be as cruel and disappointing as any mega-church or celebrity pastor has ever been.
So yes, I think Miller needs to be challenged and corrected. But I also think his comments reveal the tragic lack of spiritual formation in many of our churches today. They remind us that many Christians have no meaningful vision for why the church gathers; for why we sing, preach, and pray.
The solution isn't trying harder to please religious consumers and church shoppers. Instead, we need to look to the old paths, where the good way is, and keep telling the only Story that gives us a sense of ultimate hope in this tragic and broken world.