In the past week I have been exposed to two remarkably different perspectives on the importance of being an active and regular part of the local church. As I’m sure many of my readers have heard Donald Miller recently published a post to his blog detailing why he doesn’t regularly attend a local congregation. Someone much more insightful than I has already covered the general problem with this, so I’m going to go at it from it at a bit of a different angle.
Miller posted a few days later a follow-up to his post, in which he commented:
…most of the influential Christian leaders I know (who are not pastors) do not attend church.
Now, this is not the main point of this article, but I think it needs to be at least briefly addressed. Miller runs in a particular circle of Christian leaders. Broadly speaking, he is an archetypal Emergent type who as a matter of philosophical presupposition rejects structure, definition, and form. It is a straw man to say that everything is relative, or that there is no absolute truth, but not much of one. It should be unsurprising that people with this perspective, including Miller’s Christian leader friends, do not view regular church attendance as important. I would be extremely surprised if his observation held to be true if you step outside of this remarkably small slice of Christianity and looked at the broad Christian tradition as a whole. Even if it were, it says more about the nature of who we consider to be leaders in the church than it does about the importance of church attendance itself.
One more thought before I get to my actual purpose in writing this post. In his follow-up he also says:
This blog will likely be misquoted, mischaracterized and parsed in an effort to demonize. This happens when anybody puts their thoughts out there on any subject. It’s expected.
This is a pretty typical way that Emergent types head off any sort of criticism. It allows them to say whatever they want, and preemptively demonize their critics. It really is unfair dialog, because those who already agree with him will read a post like mine and say “SEE, ALL YOU WANT TO DO IS HATE!”
I will say explicitly that this is not the intention of my post, I don’t hate Donald Miller, I am concerned about both his walk as a Christian and the message he sends. I read Searching for God Knows What at a vital time in my spiritual development, and it was immensely helpful. Miller was, for a long time, the last Emergent thinker who had any sort of influence on me.
Church isn’t FOR You
We don’t attend church on Sunday morning to learn about God, to be fed, to fellowship with other Christians, or anything like that. Those things ought to happen, they are good things to happen, but that is not what the purpose of church is. We gather on Sunday mornings (or whenever your regular gathering is, I’m not dogmatic about Sundays) to glorify God and bring honor to his name. Sometimes this means that we have to do something that is difficult for us. Taking up your cross is not intended to be easy.
We also attend church because we are a part of a body. Christ did not form a loosely associated gathering of individuals. Christ founded a body. Does this mean that I am saying that Miller is not part of the body of Christ? No. I don’t know if he is or isn’t, from everything I’ve read or seen of him he seems to genuinely love and trust Jesus, so I count him as a brother in Christ. However, a person who intentionally abstracts themselves from a visible and public gathering of Christians is saying something to the world. They are saying “That isn’t necessary or vital for the Christian life.” They are saying “I don’t want to associate with that.” They are saying “I’m different from them.” In Christ we are one, why someone would want to intentionally remove themselves from the visual representation of that is confusing to say the least.
Ultimately I think that a local church ought to be providing teaching that is edifying, musical worship that is compelling, fellowship that is warm and welcoming, and programs that are effective and engaging. However, none of those things are central to the purpose of the local church. The absence of any of those things is not sufficient reason to leave a local church. The Church exists for God, and local churches exist to gather Christ’s body regularly to serve and glorify their Head. It isn’t ultimately about you and what type of learner you are. If you don’t learn just from hearing… pick up your cross and take some notes. If you don’t learn from singing… pick up your cross and spend that time meditating on the theological content behind the songs that are being sung (Warning: This may cause you to become extremely dissatisfied with the songs your church is singing… everything I’m saying about this not being about you applies to you in that case as well). If you learn by doing… pick up your cross and get to work, I’m sure that the local congregation where Miller occasionally attends could use Sunday School teachers, parking lot attendants, ushers, nursery workers, or any other number of things… but rather than doing any of those things, which is what Miller says he needs in order to learn, he simply does not attend regularly. Take up your cross.
My wife and I are new at our local church. My wife is the youth director, and we have been there for just under a month. She obviously is very plugged into the life and rhythm of the congregation, I’m still figuring out my place. However, something happened on this past Sunday that literally brought tears to my eyes. It was new member’s Sunday, where the congregation welcomes new members into fellowship. With membership comes little or no change. I think the only substantial difference is the ability to vote on certain church decisions. The pastor even said that he hopes that on one level, the experience of these new members isn’t really all that different. However, as we moved on to worship and the pastor shook the hands of each person and congratulated them, one woman burst into tears. I don’t know anything about this woman or her history, but she was moved to tears at being a formal part of the local visible part of Christ’s body.
THAT is the view of the local church that we ought to have. It should move us to tears of joy that we can be a part of Christ’s body on earth, and we should run to be a part of the visible representation of that. We ought to look at the local gathering of Christians on Sunday under the leadership of a plurality of elders as an opportunity to take up our cross and serve that local body, not as somewhere we go to be fed.
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 10:24-25, ESV)