Do not forsake the assembly

church3.jpgI was saddened but not at all surprised to read Donald Miller's recent disclosure that he does not attend a church. 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.

There are several things that came to mind as I read Miller's post:

1. Worship is not about finding a way of personally "connecting to God."
Miller writes, "I attended a church service that had, perhaps, the most talented worship team I've ever heard. I loved the music. But I loved it more for the music than the worship. As far as connecting with God goes, I wasn't feeling much of anything." Miller has gained a large following critiquing the church. But here he displays a juvenile understanding of the nature and purpose of worship. It is ironic that Miller embraces the same sorts of expectations that led to the rise of the consumer church which the emergent movement so strongly critiques. Worship is not about my "connecting with God." Worship is about my giving God his due in the ways that he has prescribed in his Word.

What is more, in Christ we do not have to find ways to connect with God. God has connected to us through Christ! The work has been done. Atonement has been made. Justice has been satisfied and now we are united to Christ through faith. "Connecting to God" is a less than helpful part of the lexicon of the new evangelicalism. It has as many definitions as there are people to use it.

2. I, Me, My
Miller's reflections are all about his personal preferences and experiences. Certainly there is a place for this to a certain extent. We want to be appropriately introspective. I am a bit of an introvert so I understand this. But nowhere does Miller attempt to talk back to his "me-centeredness." Indeed, he seems to indulge it. Personal preferences and learning styles seem to be the chief concern in determining whether or not he will be a part of the church or participate in worship with God's people.

3. The church can be identified.
The church is not an atmosphere. It is not some sort of universal principle. The church is a concrete and identifiable reality. However, Miller writes, "But I also believe the church is all around us, not to be confined by a specific tribe" (He invites us to tweet this). Why does he believe this? It is not taught in the Bible. So I can only guess that Miller has developed this theology of the church from his own personal preferences. It is true that the church is universal, consisting of all those throughout the world who profess faith in Jesus Christ. But we worship with, serve with, and grow with brothers and sisters in a local church. The epistles were written to local congregations. Most of the instructions to the church in the New Testament are applied to the church as she is known in local congregations. At the risk of sounding like a rube, I don't know what Miller means when he writes that "the church is all around us." I wonder if he even knows what he means.

4. The church is not primarily about my learning.
Throughout the post Miller assumes that Sunday gatherings are primarily about him learning something. And while we certainly assemble to hear the Word of God proclaimed, this is not simply to learn something. It is about worship. It is about building up our brothers and sisters. And it is about having our hearts shaped by the means God has ordained for this purpose. God uses the proclamation of the Word to produce faith in the unbelieving and holiness in his people.

The fact is, people have always preferred more kinesthetic ways of learning. The prophets were routinely ignored. Preaching was considered foolish in Paul's day. When man invents a religion it is generally weighted toward sense experiences and mysticism. But one of the distinguishing facets of biblical faith has always been its heavy reliance on words. God's exodus people hated this. They called on Aaron to make a God they could experience kinesthetically while Moses was on the mountain getting more words. When God creates, he speaks. When God reveals himself, he speaks. God has made his people to be an auditory lot. And he did this without consulting education theorists.

5. False choices
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.

6. What we believe about Scripture matters.
The issues Miller discusses are addressed in Scripture. The Bible tells us what worship is, what the church is, and what it means to be a part of the body of Christ. But Miller seems to give more weight to educational theory than he does to the Scriptures. In fact, at no point does he reflect on what God's Word teaches. Instead he makes reference to unspecified research about learning styles. Of course, there is really no surprise here. What happened in the now unhip emergent movement was simply rehashed, though less intelligent, Protestant Liberalism. When the doctrines of the Scripture's inerrancy and authority are discarded so too, in time, will everything else.

Miller suggests that God's people gathered together for praise, prayer and the proclamation of the Word is merely "the traditional church model." It's easy to dismiss something that is "traditional." It's even easier to dismiss a "model." What Miller does not seem to understand is that God has prescribed for his people to gather on the Lord's Day to sing, pray, give, receive the sacraments, and hear God's Word proclaimed. It is not mere model. Miller dismisses the revealed will of God for his church with a very simple wave of the hand.

I am not trying to pick on Donald Miller. I am concerned because he is an influencer. And what he is teaching about the church, the Scriptures, and obedience to God is dangerous. It is a prescription for spiritual demise. I am concerned because Donald's story will not end well if he continues to starve himself of the ways God has determined to feed his flock.

"Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 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 10:23-25 ESV)

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God."  (Colossians 3:16 ESV)

"And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love." (Ephesians 4:11-16 ESV)

"And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved." (Acts 2:42-47 ESV)

Suggested Reading:
The Church by Edmund Clowney
The Glorious Body of Christ by R.B. Kuiper
The Enduring Community by Habig & Newsome
The Church by Mark Dever
On Being Presbyterian by Sean Michael Lucas
A Better Way by Michael Horton
Rhythms of Grace by Mike Cosper