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.