Worth it for the heavenly celebration alone

There is not much more to be said about Don Miller-gate, but some deep reflection is certainly due.  While I am saddened by the depth of their roots into the Church, I am thankful for Miller’s words so they may be engaged and corrected with the truth of Scripture.  If even one sheep is called back into the flock of the faith, it will be worth it for the heavenly celebration alone.

On his blog, Mike Cosper offers great analysis and suggests the solution is not a new way to do church, but the old.

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.

While this audio from a past White Horse Inn episode centers on other types of false teaching, specifically the prosperity Gospel, the connection to the Miller kerfuffle is not hard to make.  Pay specific attention to the 3:30 to the 7:15 mark.  It is not the orthodox calling out false teaching who are being divisive, but the false teaching. The entire audio is worth taking the time to listen through.  Two lines from Kim Riddlebarger stand out:

“Smooth talk and flattery, in Paul’s mind, would be words that avoid the truth.”
“It is the crucified Christ who is so offensive.”
See you in church, Sunday. We both need it.

What Don Miller gets right

Maybe I should have led with these before critiquing the Emergent Industrial Complex.  Don Miller’s post was not a complete strike out.  He may not have earned a hit, but he did put some contact to the bat in two areas below.

Pastor Todd Pruitt on Reformation 21:

Miller writes some very helpful comments about the goodness of work as a means of enjoying God. Unfortunately he sees this as an alternative to worshiping with the body of Christ on the Lord’s Day. The Reformed faith would be a great benefit for Miller in this for its robust doctrines of creation and vocation. It is the Reformers who reasserted the goodness of work as a means by which we glorify and enjoy God. But this is never to be seen as a replacement to our responsibility to gather with God’s people.”

Frank Turk’s comment on the Pyromaniac blog:

“You know what I like about Donald Miller? I like his certainty. I like the fact that, in spite of his book after book after book after movie about how much [sic] one can doubt what one is taught, he is certain he’s right. 

The reason? At least you can engage someone like that by what he actually believes rather than always swirling down the toilet of PostModernity and their so-called epistemic humility.”

Housewife Theologian Aimee Byrd in an additional article on Reformation 21 has some great thoughts on why it is important that we connect with God according to the way He has willed.  She reasons from Scripture, the authoritative source of truth for faith and practice:

“Interestingly, God has determined that all of us share in a particular so-called learning style when it comes to spiritual growth. He has prescribed a means to bless his people in Christ, the preached Word and the sacraments. And so we have Jesus declaring in the Great Commission how he will grow his kingdom: 

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20) 

And we see this very thing in Acts 2:42: 

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 

You see, learning my own way isn’t good enough. I need to be changed. And it is the power of God’s Word that does that in the means that he has prescribed. To echo Todd again, “What is more, in Christ we do not have to find ways to connect with God. God has connected to us through Christ!” Let us not refuse the Father’s generosity to bless us in the Son, who is much more than a learning style. He is worthy of our corporate worship, which is an eschatological event. It is a privilege to partake in the covenantal renewal ceremony, where we get a taste of the future breaking into the present. Like Miller, we all get caught up in our week of accomplishing and we slip into our default mode of thinking we are the ones who create meaning. But we are summoned to gather on Sunday, to be interrupted by our own thinking, stripped by the law of God, and clothed by his gospel grace. Only after this receiving Christ through his preached Word and the sacraments are we then sent out as salt and light. 

Miller reasons that he connects with God elsewhere through his own means. God has condescended to connect with his people. I would say that it is imperative that we connect with God the way he has called us to in Christ”

Reading Miller’s post produced a range of emotions to be worked through before hitting “publish”.  Ultimately, I wrote from sadness and deep grief.

Again, Pastor Todd Pruitt:

“I was sad because one cannot be a Christian and reject Christ’s body, his bride, his building. Christians are made and grown in the body of Christ. I was not, however, surprised because this is an all too predictable trajectory for those within the emergent/neo-liberal wing of Protestantism.  

I also admit to feeling sorry for Miller as I read his post. I am not trying to be condescending. He certainly does not need my pity. But pity him I do for his impoverishment of understanding of Christ and his church. As a result he is robbing himself of the very ways that God has promised to nourish him.” 

One final word from Derek Rishmawy of Christ and Pop Culture:

this article breaks my heart, because this is exactly the kind of logic that people latch on to and use as an excuse to separate themselves from the Body to the desolation of their spiritual lives. This is why pastors, preachers, and teachers in the Church can no longer avoid deep, biblical teaching on the Church. If she [the church] is to be healthy and functioning, our people must know what the Church is and why it exists beyond our own need to “connect” once a week.”

Sola Scriptura, Solus Christus, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Soli Deo Gloria!

Bold font denotes my personal emphasis to any quotation. 
I’m happy to clarify and answer any questions in the comments. I reserve the right to delete and moderate as I see fit.

What Don Miller gets wrong

Author Donald Miller admits that he doesn’t worship God by singing and that he connects with God elsewhere. At best, this is an uphelpful go-ahead for substance starved millennials to disregard gathered-worship.  At worst, it its unbiblical and dangerous.  It is my feeling it leans towards the latter.

Denny Burk has written everything I’d hope to say on this, complete with many of the same verses (and many more) than I’d planned to cite.  Please take the time to read what he has to say.  Denny calls Miller’s method a “recipe for spiritual suicide,” and I agree.

Miller’s words reveal what happens when the subjective experience of the individual is made the climax of Christianity.  Paul wrote the epistles in order to rebuke and exhort believers not to forsake the Christian faith and makes it clear that the center of Christian worship is the gathering of believers in a local church, the physical bride of Christ.  Where the Gospel is preached, the sacraments tasted and poured, and hymns and Psalms sung — there we find the Christ who follows us into our vocation and lives outside of corporate worship. Christ died for this church, that she would be redeemed and made beautiful.

There is no mention of small group Bible studies or “quasi-intentional spiritual communities” in the New Testament.  When a gathering is mentioned, it is the Church.

My good friend Scott put it better than I ever could:

I would be remiss if I did not quote Machen in Christianity & Liberalism, whose words could not ring more true:

“Christian experience is rightly used when it helps to convince us that the events narrated in the New Testament actually did occur; but it can never enable us to be Christians whether the events occurred or not. It is a fair flower, and should be prized as a gift of God. But cut it from its root in the blessed Book, and it soon withers away and dies.”  

 I’m happy to clarify and answer any questions in the comments. I reserve the right to delete and moderate as I see fit.

Please excuse my broad strokes

Richard Dawkins is rightfully receiving some heat for his comments on “mild pedophilia,” if there is such a thing, and the blog sharks are coming from all directions for some freshly chopped chum.

Rachel Held Evans (hereafter “RHE”) responds to Richard Dawkins through CNN here.  Please read it first so I don’t have to use extra energy typing backstory.

It is important for me to start out by saying I believe RHE has good intentions and is right to suggest that respectful dialogue between anti-theists and Christians is needed in a very big way.  The apostle Peter admonishes believers to always be ready to provide a defense for the faith we hold.  She uses the relevant Christian example of Pat Robertson, who can be as “What the hell did he just say?” as Richard Dawkins.

RHE continues that Dawkins’ remarks are easy to use as “an excuse to paint one another with broad brushes.”  She is right that it is tempting to do so, but I can’t help but wonder if Dawkins’ quote is but another aspect of the New Atheists’ favorite tactic: saying something that causes an opponent to take his eye off the argument and focus instead solely on what Dawkins said.

Pedophilia is in fact reprehensible and does damage children long into their adult lives if they do not receive counseling and support throughout; however, focusing just on the “He’s an idiot if he thinks that” aspect is to neglect the fact that Dawkins has just conceded defeat to a major argument for morality.  Hear me out.

If we are the results of an unguided, blind evolutionary process, the inclination towards pedophilia is just a chemical reaction in certain adults that is no different from the man who prefers pepperoni on his pizza when his best friend wants Canadian bacon.  Without a moral order created by a Creator, molesting a child is no worse than rain falling on a summer afternoon or a lioness chasing down a young antelope on the Serengeti so she can feed her cubs.  It is not bad nor good, it simply “is not” anything, or so the atheist argument goes.

Back to the article at hand, RHE begins by citing examples of people who have reached across the theo-philosophical aisle to attempt the respectful dialogue she prizes so highly.  The only thing is, any confessing Christian has strong reason to believe the reason her examples are so well-known are because the Christian side of the aisle is the one who conceded in each respective interaction.

Her first example is to point to an article about the Pope responding to a letter from an atheist.  The Papal-pupil dialogue is respectful in that the reader never gets the idea the participants are seething in malice towards one another.  But I fail to see how the Pope denying the central (read: foundation of all biblical Christian belief) doctrine of Jesus Christ as sole Savior and Propitiation for the sins of the world is in any way engaging with the opponents’ viewpoint.  To me it just sounds like heresy and a tail tucked between its legs.

The additional examples of Christians she provides have all, in some fashion, amended a portion of Christian doctrine in such a way that makes it sound no different than a secular version of each topic.  Of the examples, I am more familiar with two of them, Francis Collins and Barack Obama.  Francis Collins has made one of his life’s works the quest to show how macro-evolution is compatible with the Bible’s description of creation.  President Obama is on camera attempting to use Scripture to back up same sex unions, but fails to see how “Thou shalt not kill” applies to children in the womb just like it does to children in Syria.
My point in writing this post is not to decipher the salvation of the above individuals, nor that of Rachel Held Evans.  I am guilty many times over of the same attempts to water down the truths of God contained in the Bible to avoid being declared on the “wrong side of history.”  But even in my sin, the truth of Christ does not falter in my failure. As Christians redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, the sin nature in us causes us all to attempt to use Scripture for our personal justification.  In repentance, we return to the grace of Jesus, who alone forgives our sins and renews us.  His mercies are new each morning, as Lamentations so eloquently declares:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:22-24, ESV)

To close, RHE offers this plea, with my emphasis in italics:

Still, in the end, it’s not about who has the most charismatic or generous personalities in their roster, nor about who has the most “crazies.” It’s about the truth.
So let’s talk about the truth, and with the people who most consistently and graciously point us toward it.

If I am reading her correctly, she is pointing us to a truth she does not actually believe.  Please excuse my broad strokes.