Do Christians Need the Church? A Response to Donald Miller

In the ongoing discussion between the “traditional” church and the “emerging” church, Donald Miller is a guy who falls somewhere in between. I read his book “Blue Like Jazz” many years ago and found it engaging and endearing in a lot of ways. The book was popular enough to be turned into a movie in 2012.

Now Miller has emerged as the latest person disillusioned with the church. In a recent blog, Miller admits he doesn’t like traditional worship. He doesn’t like singing songs to God, because he doesn’t feel anything when he does, and he doesn’t like listening to sermons, because he doesn’t learn anything. As a result, Miller says he doesn’t “attend church” very often. In a follow-up blog, Miller clarified that he is not saying people should not go to church, but he did write that “most of the influential Christian leaders I know (who are not pastors) do not attend church.”

There have been a number of responses to Miller’s comments. To be honest, I haven’t read any of them. I’m sure many people are pointing Miller to Heb. 10:25, which tells us to regularly gather together. There are all those psalms (30:447:668:495:1) that command us to sing songs of praise to God (many in a corporate context, like Ps. 84), whether we feel like it or not. When David pleads with God to restore to him the “joy of his salvation” in Ps. 51:12, it would suggest that even the man after God’s own heart struggled to always feel good about God. But it keep him out of the sanctuary.

We all want to learn from the sermons we hear, but we should not equate a sermon with a lecture, as Miller does. A lecture is designed primarily to convey information; a sermon is designed primarily to build faith (Rom. 10:14-17). A lecture is designed to make people smarter; a sermon is designed to make people holier. A lecture is a man-made tool for instruction; a sermon is a God-given means of grace.

But there is another reason to be concerned about Miller’s comments, and it is not often discussed in these dialogues about the church. The church is not just a place to sing songs and hear sermons; it is not just a place where we find community; the church is also God’s appointed custodian of the truth. Paul says in I Tim. 3:15 that the church is the “pillar and buttress of the truth.” To cut oneself off from the church is like diving into shark-infested waters without a cage or a life preserver. The chances of survival are not good.

Sometimes I wish there was a law that required all Christian bloggers and authors to take a class in ecclesiology before they started writing. But that won’t happen, so I’ll just leave you with the comments of Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck:

…the church has been appointed and given the promise of the Spirit’s guidance into all truth. Whoever isolates himself from the church, i.e., from Christianity as a whole, from the history of dogma in its entirety, loses the truth of the Christian faith. That person becomes a branch that is torn from the tree and shrivels, an organ that is separated from the body and therefore doomed to die. Only within the communion of saints can the length and the breadth, the depth and the height, of the love of Christ be comprehended.”