I agree with Miller. Well, not on everything. Actually just on a couple things. I don’t agree that it’s ok not to be connected to a local church as a professing Christian. I think it’s dangerous to assume that God can be experienced in the same way (or better) apart from the preaching of the Word and the sacraments rightly practiced. I am also not sure that Scripture is lacking in prescriptive forms of worship and gathering, as Miller suggests. Lastly, I’m not sure its valid to allow learning styles to dictate church attendance and preference. But I do agree with Miller on one thing—lectures and entertainment are not church. However, I do believe he’s equivocating here. Someone speaking from a pulpit in front of an audience does not necessarily qualify as a lecture. Nevertheless, sermons do take the form of lectures far too often. Sunday morning can sometimes be little more than information transmission from the pulpit to the people.

I don’t discredit Miller on this observation.

In fact, I think he’s right.

Many people show up to church for what qualifies as little more than a lecture on what the pastor knows and maybe what you should do after you hear it. It’s filling up the empty tank, to use an often repeated metaphor. While a sermon should communicate information, its ultimate purpose is to invite transformation. With the Word as the vehicle and the Spirit as the fuel, the sermon moves into the hearts and minds of the gathered body of Christ to incite renewal and refreshment. It’s also the mode of exhortation, warning people of God’s judgement yet warming their hearts to the profound grace of God in Christ. Sermons are meant to arouse affections for Christ, not merely convey facts about Christ. The seventeenth century puritan pastor Richard Sibbes knew this well. Of his sermons Mark Dever says, “[W]hat strikes the reader of his sermons is his affectionate language. For Sibbes, Christianity was love story….God is the affectionate, loving sovereign, with every ‘sincere Christian…a favourite.'” (Dever, Richard Sibbes: Puritanism and Calvinism in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England, 143). Drawing people to reflect on depravity and grace Sibbes exclaims, “Therefore the more clear knowledge we have of the mystery of corruption—how prone our hearts are to deceive us—and of the great misery we are in by nature, the more we shall wonder at the boundless and bottomless goodness of God in the mystery of our salvation. The one will sharpen the appetite of the other.” (Sibbes, “The Fountain Opened” in Works 5:474). Such affectionate language was meant to engage the full faculties of man. The mind reflecting on the state of man’s depravity and the heart rejoicing at man’s rescue through the mercies of God and Christ’s atonement. Sibbes’s sermons engaged the heart and roused the affections, not simply communicated information.

Likewise the worship was centered on the biblical sacraments. Speaking of the Lord’s supper Sibbes says, “So that this communion, take the bread and wine, it seals our communion and fellowship with Christ, and thereupon our freedom from sin and from the law, and sets us in a blessed and happy state” (Sibbes, “The Spiritual Jubilee” in Works 5:246). Its the act of communion and the profound truth represented in it taken with fellow members in the body which “sets us in a blessed and happy state.” Such a statement communicates deeply to the heart of one’s of faith as well as the intellectual ascent of it’s truth claims. This is the object of worship: receiving joy in the knowledge of what Christ has done on your behalf and praising God for his beauty and goodness among the fellowship of believers. Sermon, sacrament and song should seek to proclaim this reality. Any worship and preaching that strays from this core inevitably becomes mere entertainment. And when members of a church come to see the show rather than the Savior then the church has failed to fulfill its mandate. The writer of Hebrews says, “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” (Hebrews 13:15 ESV). Indeed the context of this passage is an ecclesiological one, written to a church to remind them how to be a church.

I hope the leaders and people Donald Miller has mentioned who feel the same way as him will see the beautiful necessity of abiding in Christ through the local church. I  hope Miller, as a Christian public figure, will come to understand the essential nature of the local church gathering. This is not about tribal disputes; this is about the essence of Christian growth and practice. This is about God’s glory being displayed and the witness of the church to his marvelous grace. This is about demonstrating a life of true community that is more beautiful than the paltry and often self-serving options available in society. But I agree with him, and I don’t fault him for making some valid and necessary observations. When sermons become lectures, they bypass the affective purpose of the message. When worship moves away from the once-for-all atonement in Christ Jesus beautifully displayed through the sacraments and in gospel-saturated song, entertainment is the inevitable outcome. I think pastors and church leaders need to listen to what Miller says on this point. Their churches may be the ones he’s rightfully rejecting.

*This post is written in response to Miller’s response of his original post. Does that make sense?


10 thoughts on “

  1. Your description of “local church,” is what George Hunsberger, in his book “The Church Between Gospel and Culture,” calls the “Reformation Heritage View.” It emphasizes the right preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline. This view has primarily has left us with an understanding of the church as “a place where certain things happen.” This, in my opinion, is NOT what the local church is.

    • Miguel,

      Thank you for your comment. What I wrote certainly reflects a standard Reformed view of the church. While I agree that this is not everything that a local church is, it is certainly not less than that. The preaching of the word, the administration of the sacraments and church discipline are the “certain things” that do happen in a local church. But the key element of those things is the unity of Spirit-indwelled believers. While certain things do happen in a local church, they are meaningless without the Spirit, therefore church is more than a place where certain things happen—it is a place were certain people gather. I believe this is how to best read Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 11.

  2. There seems to be an underlying assessment that Miller is ‘disconnected’ from the local church altogether simply because he doesn’t go to the same building, at the same time, with the same people. The local body of believers can be a varied number of groups of people we can interact with and fellowship with, and share sacraments with, at any given time, anywhere. We are members of One Body, not one place, unless we are talking “Kingdom” place.

    It seems that Don Miller is being broad-brushed into some kind of image as being a “rogue Christian”, doing church without the Holy Spirit. That couldn’t be farther from the Truth.

    • Claudia,

      Thank you for your comment. Regrettably, it’s not an underlying assessment, its what he actually says. He does not attend a local church regularly, therefore he is disconnected from it. I think you might be confusing the difference between the local church and the universal church. The local church is a specific location of gathered believers in the name of Christ, indwelt by the Spirit, to hear the teaching of the apostles and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. There are other elements included there, but those are basic. Not attending a local church necessarily means you are disconnected from it. This doesn’t mean you are not part of the church universal, but it does mean you are not demonstrating that through connection to a local expression of the church. We may be one body, but Christians have ALWAYS expressed this by meeting together regularly on the Lord’s Day. I’m not sure what you mean by “Kingdom” place. Are you talking about the eschaton?

      I’m not trying to say here that Miller is a “rogue Christian” without the indwelling of the Spirit. My article is actually highlighting some of the positive observations that he has made that church leaders should listen to. I can relate to the fact that some Christians despair about the church being just a lecture hall or entertainment arena. His observations are valid and leaders need to hear this and access their own ministry to this affect. I do think, however, that his faith (or anyone else’s for that matter) suffers because he chooses not to be regularly connected to a local church. Local churches are not perfect (Paul’s writings to the churches in the NT demonstrate this), but the next option is not removing oneself from the church. I think the writer of Hebrews was serious when he says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 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 10:23–25 ESV). I don’t know how to do this effectively with other Christians apart from a local gathering of the saints and I’m not sure how others can either.

  3. I really am not confused by what a local church is or isn’t. I don’t believe Miller is saying he is disconnected from a local body of believers. He does confess to being an introvert, thus experiencing community (church or secular) can be exhausting. But he definitely is not excluding himself from community. His expression of church is with various groups of believers and even unbelievers, just not at the same place, same time, same people, in a routine. And we dare not say that every person that attends church regularly is a true believer, as many have come to faith over a time of attending church, so we do host unbelievers in our midst, unaware at times perhaps.

    The bible is clear about not forsaking the gathering, as you note, but doesn’t offer a one-size fits all mold as to what kind of routine as to the when and where. I agree that certain components make up the acts we partake in while gathering that make it special and fit for the Lord’s glory. But, if we choose to reserve the Lord’s Day for smaller, intimate gatherings of believers–even if it’s just our family–if our heart is poured out in reverence to the Lord in recognition that it is His day, we are not forsaking the Lord’s Day. How we gather on the Lord’s Day may be intimate, but how we gather daily or multiple times weekly, or a couple of times a month may be in larger scope with the believing community, thus equal to not forsaking the gathering. I don’t believe the Bible is connecting gathering and Lord’s Day exclusively to one model, which is essentially what you are promoting. I ‘get it’, that this is the model most promoted to seminary attendees and such, but it isn’t carved in stone within the New Covenant that we hold to only one expression.

    Specifically you say, “I do think, however, that his faith (or anyone else’s for that matter) suffers because he chooses not to be regularly connected to a local church.” Again, here, you aren’t coming right out and saying it, but it seems you are saying if his model expression isn’t matching your ideal of what church is, he isn’t growing. But the reality is that he has grown in godly wisdom and fruit bearing far that totally dismisses the remaining stagnant theory. All one has to do is look at what he has shared publicly, written, and done with his life in the time that he admits to “doing it differently”. To deny there is growth or Spirit movement in his life is a blindness that isn’t rooted in any sort of Agape. I think that is a divisive stance. Indeed, all models of church are not without their problems, but judging someone to be outside of community with other believers–no matter how often, where or in what manner they gather–because you don’t recognize their “style” of community in fellowship with other believers, does not mean they are forsaking gathering, or without Spirit, or are not maturing in the faith. It may be the case for some people, but broad-brushing and saying it’s impossible is absurd.

    You assert in closing, “I don’t know how to do this effectively with other Christians apart from a local gathering of the saints and I’m not sure how others can either.” All believers understand there is a certain mystery to God and how He moves. Can it be possible that you are missing an understanding of how God moves in varied ways outside of the limits of what you personally know in your own traditions or what you are currently being taught? After all, the Bible does say ALL things are possible through Christ Jesus, who strengthens me. Don’s life is not one without Christ…

    • Claudia,

      Thanks for the response. You have some great thoughts here. I completely agree that church attendance does not equate true faith. I also agree that the Bible does not have the “one-size fits all mold” in regards to specific style and culture. That’s what makes the faith so amazing! A church can be a small intimate gathering or a larger assembly. A church in Africa is going to look much different to one in Alabama. The churches in the NT definitely had different styles and cultures represented within. Jews were definitely not the same culturally as Gentiles, yet they were all one in Christ. And, they all met together on a weekly basis to celebrate the unity wrought by the blood of Christ (Eph. 2:11-22). What the Scripture does have as a “mold” is a basic understanding of a weekly gathering of saints to hear the apostles teaching and break bread as the norm for believers, not the exception. Paul also instructs that biblically qualified leaders should be appointed to lead these churches. This should be a part of the basic mold as well, whether there are 10 people in a living room or 1000 people in a sanctuary. Certainly believers can gather in other ways for other occasions as an expression of the church, but that does not necessarily make that gathering a church.

      I’m really not expressing my personal model of church, as you say, but merely reflecting the foundational biblical principles of what a local church should look like. I don’t expect every Christian to align with my personal ecclesiological convictions, but I do hope every Christian affirms the basic structure of local church gathering found in the New Testament. I am also not saying that Miller doesn’t grow in his faith, but I do believe that those who are disconnected from the local church do lack a certain element of necessary growth. I don’t think I’m reflecting anything different than what Paul or any of the apostles are saying the New Testament. I do not deny growth or the fact that someone like Donald Miller (or anyone who affirms what he has said in this regard) is without the indwelling of the Spirit. But I do wholeheartedly believe that growth or experience of the Spirit is not complete apart from a local body. This is not about “style” of church, this about the basic idea of church as reflected in the NT. Once again, I am not arguing for a certain brand of Christianity as you assert—I am arguing for the necessity of the local church.

      I also agree that there is a mystery to how God works and moves. But I don’t think that means I can willfully neglect what Scripture says. It’s actually in the local church where the mystery of God is most explicitly proclaimed—that is the coming of Christ for our salvation. This is what Paul’s hymn in 1 Timothy 3:16 is all about. And the context for that passage is specifically local church-focused. I can’t deny that God’s ways or above my ways, but I also can’t deny what he established in Scripture as the norm for believers. This is not a burden, this is a joy. A joy to meet and worship and hear the word of God preached. A joy of hearing the gospel proclaimed every week in word and sacrament. A joy of fellowship where believers pray for one another and love one another. All things surely are possible, but that does not give me a license to deny the clear and plain things that God says in his word. Again, the purpose of this post was to draw attention to some of the positive things Miller says for leaders to consider. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything he says.

      • Can you unpack how you came to the conclusion that Ephesians 2:11-22 mandates a “weekly” gathering with the same people, at the same place? In these verses is mention …”abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances…”, which draws to thinking on when Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of the day for demanding that in order for those who want to follow the faith to be holy, they must adhere to rules/ordinances of their traditions…

      • Claudia,

        Great question. The reason I drew attention to that passage was that these people were gathering to celebrate the mystery of what Christ had done on their behalf by making two peoples one. Despite cultural differences they are now a part of one body, the church. The law of commandments here is the Mosaic law and its requirements which Christ fulfilled. This is what was being celebrated in a weekly gathering as described in Acts 2 and 4. I was not citing that passage to illustrate a mandate, but regardless that’s what these early Christians were doing, and have continued to do since. Jesus rebuked leaders not for adhering to religious celebrations (of which he most certainly practiced), but for missing the intention of it and overburdening people with excessive ceremonial laws. A local church gathering is a celebration of what Christ has done on our behalf, which includes freeing us from the curse of the law in order that all may come freely to Christ for salvation. Early Christians were gathering to hear the Scripture read and taught and to celebrate this wonderful gift of salvation through the supper and fellowship. This is the overall picture of the local church within the NT. Again, weekly gathering is not a mandate, its a joyful celebration. There is no other picture of the essentials of what a church does outside what we have here in the NT.

  4. Thank you, Coleman, for engaging me in discussion. I really do understand all the points you make, and don’t disagree with the celebratory quality of church as you describe. There are, in fact, many of us out here who experience expressions of church gathering with much less pomp, architecture, and unnecessary rituals, who do hold to Scripture, bringing together the Spiritual gifts for the purpose of God’s mission, for His glory, sharing in edifying one another, equipping, encouraging, and partaking in the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup, rejoicing at the salvation of those coming in, and the like. We are growing in the fruit of the spirit, maturing in faith, and making disciples who are being the church as we are going simultaneously. We even have a truly magnificent, mission-minded, Christ-centerd, Holy-Spirit driven seminary in the middle of nowhere, free, that teaches the poor how to be missionaries in a world that has essentially dismissed them because they otherwise wouldn’t be accepted into such a program without the means to pay for it. We may not be with the same people weekly, but we are with a lot of the same groups of people from time to time. I know it can be scary for those who are convinced a more regimented approach is necessary, to think that Christ might offer such freedom to move about, be about the Father’s business, and come together as He directs, not by the hours set on a calendar or clock. It really is a beautiful thing to be a part of, and is no less holy or blessed than your model is. I know it’s hard to believe, since it’s clear that you’ve not experienced it in this way. It seems in today’s Christianity, we spend more time filtering the Scriptures through our experiences rather than filtering our experiences through the Scriptures, thus as a whole we are prone to making up all sorts of dichotomies that seem to divide the church rather than unify it. One of my favorite apologists, Ravi Zacharias commonly speaks about unity in diversity. There is much to be said about keeping an open mind to differing viewpoints which are not unbiblical at all, but merely different from one’s own interpretation. The interpretations for church models vastly differ, thus we have all of these disturbing denominations that mimic what they believe is the right way, which I’m certain Christ never intended. So, I don’t think anyone really has it all sewn up as to how to do the perfect model, because frankly it isn’t about the model at all. It’s about our worship and service to the Lord, of which some who walk as Miller and many others do, and as you and many other believers do as well. That said, I bid you peace, and much blessing in the celebrations of our Lord and all He has done to set us free. ~Claudia

    • Thanks for your interaction and challenging thoughts. I pray the work of your seminary there would continue to build up the kingdom and make disciples.

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