Many have written about Donald Miller’s admission that he doesn’t attend local churches much. He doesn’t “learn” anything relevant when he goes to church, and he doesn’t feel intimate with God through music. He doesn’t like the lecture-style of so many evangelical sermons. So he just doesn’t go most of the time.
Miller casts his struggle as one of learning, and of the various styles of learning (kinesthetic, visual, auditory, etc.), but his conflict is much more fundamental–and pernicious–than just a learning style issue. His struggle to participate in a worshiping community (aka a local church) is baked into the (evangelical) Protestant cake. It’s nearly impossible for contemporary American evangelical Christians (and even garden-variety Protestants) to speak about worship in terms other than “what we get out of it.” Learning, edification, inspiration, intimacy with God, and ahem, even entertainment: it all seems to orbit around the Almighty I.
So kudos to Stephen Damick at Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy for his insightful response to Donald Miller.
So why bother going to church?
That’s a big question that I think is getting asked more and more by the unchurched, ex-churched, de-churched, the post-Evangelical, etc. If you don’t happen to get into the “style” of what’s going on at your church, why bother going? Certainly there are attempts to reinvent church, to make it more visual or kinesthetic, but what if you don’t connect there, either?
Damick gets to the heart of things. There is often a fundamental misunderstanding of what worship is, and our role in it, in Protestantism. Besides giving a commercial for Eastern Orthodoxy, Damick advocates for a sacramental view of life and a liturgical approach to worship.
At the most fundamental level, though, worship isn’t about learning or feeling anything at all—not according to the Bible or Church history, anyway. Rather, worship is about mystical union with God in the sacrificial unifying power of the liturgy, especially in the Holy Eucharist. There is both beauty and truth, the place where beauty and truth are authentically the same one thing. And that access to physical/spiritual communion with God is simply not available outside of the liturgical life.
Miller has hit on something that is at the very core Evangelical worship, and that is that it only really appeals to a certain piece of humanity, and not just in terms of “demographics” (as he identifies it) but in terms of the human person himself. Contemporary Evangelical worship is not only addressed to certain kinds of people, but it is also addressed only to certain parts of people.
So why bother going to church? If it’s about “what I get out of it,” then there really isn’t a compelling reason to–or at least no reason to remain faithful to a particular church, rather than jumping around attempting to suit my own desires. And if we understand “worship” as something we can do anywhere, like in nature or on the golf course, then there isn’t a compelling reason to darken the door of a church building. But if we understand worship as union with God (in community), then it is something we cannot experience apart from the gathered community.