Controversy is an interesting beast isn’t it? All it takes is one post from a fairly well known writer to cause it and even then all that is needed is a sentence or two of that post. There is lots of knee jerk and attacks and defenses, but if you can get past all of that it usually provides the opportunity to think about important realities that need to be thought about.
Donald Miller is at the center of the controversy this week (and yes it does seem like there is about one a week somewhere on the internet, probably even more than that if we’re honest). The reason? He admitted in this post that he doesn’t go to church that often. This didn’t go over well with some and he posted a follow up to it later for further clarification and defense.
To be honest while I like Donald’s blog, I hadn’t read the posts until an article from The Gospel Coalition by Jonathan Leeman was shared by some friends on Facebook. Even then I didn’t really read them too much until Kristen asked me what I thought about the whole thing.
Now in all this I’m not really going to add to the criticism of Miller or rush to his defense. Rather I’m wanting to explore what do we think church is supposed to look like anyway?
Miller presents the typical church service as pretty much singing and a sermon and to be honest he’s not far off. Maybe add in an offering, a time for prayer, some additional reading of the Scriptures and maybe the Lord’s Supper once a month and we’ve pretty much described a number of churches on a Sunday morning. At least the five churches I’ve attended in my life.
Does not attending a gathering of believers of this model mean that you are somehow forsaking the church? That seems to be part of what the push back to Miller is saying. If you aren’t part of a traditional church model (which is probably a little different depending on your tradition) then we’re like defective Christians or something. This kind of argument just doesn’t really set well with me.
The main reason is that some traditions look a bit different for various reasons. One of the blogs I read and enjoy tends to promote more liturgical and sacramental church traditions and looks down on the evangelical way of church. So which tradition is the “way” to do church? Is there even a set way or does it look different for different people?
How about those who use discussion about Scripture instead of a typical sermon, but maintain a building? What about house churches? Is there some kind of Christian hierarchy where you are a stronger or weaker Christian depending on your model of church?
I guess I’m just uncertain if there is a perfect “way” to go about church. There are strengths and weaknesses to about any make or model of church out there. Even Acts, which was referenced in Donald’s follow-up post and the P.S. on Jonathan’s post, is not much help for traditional church supporters, since well there wasn’t really such an institution like we have it today.
If you look at one of the first passages about believers getting together in Acts, found in Acts 2:42-47, it paints a little portrait of what believers did when they met together. However the details are rather meager. It says that believers dedicated themselves to the apostle’s teaching, to fellowship, to breaking bread, and to prayer. Now I think many churches do all of these, but the question is do you need a traditional church service to do this?
If you go on past Acts 2:42 though, the life of the early church is very different. Even if I’m not sure what is meant by having everything in common, they sold possessions and gave freely to each other, which I don’t think I’ve seen. They met together in the temple courts everyday and they ate together in each others homes, and it would seem that they did so regularly. Now going to the temple courts everyday would be something only the believers in Jerusalem would be able to do, but beyond that most of what was “church” was done in the homes of believers. It probably looked a lot different than most of our church services today.
What about the end of Acts? Well it’s hard to say since so much of the end of Acts is more about Paul than the focusing in on the structure of the church. The latest we get a little window into some church structure is Acts 20, but it’s not much. In Acts 20 Paul calls for some elders from Ephesus to come to him. So this shows that we have elders, but Paul also talks about how he preached to them both in public and from house to house. So again quite a significant chunk seems focused in houses rather than a dedicated spot of worship like we have. Over those gatherings were elders to oversee the fellowship for that area.
Now I’m not trying to make a case for house churches, but the point I’m trying to make is that church can look very different. However, it would seem that some from today’s church would look down on those who do things in a more informal setting rather than our current institutional, go to a church building model.
So that brings me back to Donald Miller. I think he brings some good thoughts about the church to light. I think the church service is very catered to those who learn by hearing. My wife is very much not one to learn by listening to a lecture and learns more visually or by doing. So I do think his words have some weight and the church might do well to listen to them.
However, while I think that Donald makes some good points, I’m not sure about the path he’s taken either. Don’t take that as I’m worried about Donald’s spiritual walk or anything like that. I just wonder how he integrates the corporate elements of faith into his life. I don’t think you need to be in a church building to do that, but it also isn’t something that would automatically happen even if you did have interactions with a community of believers on a regular basis.
How does his community talk about God and the Bible regularly? Do they pray together? Do the sacraments fit into that community and way of doing faith? I have no reason to necessarily answer these questions in a negative way, but they are the questions I would ask if I had the chance. I also think they are questions worthy to be asked of any church model out there, and not just of Donald Miller’s way of interacting with a community of believers.
I’m a little wary of those who come out and say their way is the only way to do church and anyone who doesn’t do church that way is walking on dangerous ground, has an anemic faith, or similar sentiment. It seems to me that the church has looked and continues to look a lot of different ways and to say there is this one magical model of church just seems misguided.
Does that reality mean there is no room for questioning or discussion? No, but I do think it needs to be done in the arena of grace. Where we are more interested in trying to see from another point of view rather than just challenge and correct anyone who isn’t doing it like us. We may still not agree in the end, but maybe we might learn something from another part of the body of Christ, the church that can’t simply be reduced to what we do on a Sunday morning or some other set period of time during the week.