On Wednesday of last week Donald Miller posted an article on his website entitled “I Don’t Worship God by Singing. I Connect With Him Elsewhere.” In it, he explains that he rarely attends church anymore because it doesn’t fit with his learning style. He doesn’t learn much about God through sermons or connect with God through singing. Instead he connects with God by working on his company. So he doesn’t go to church anymore. Later, after the internet exploded, he posted a follow-up, in which he basically doubles down and defends his first article.
I’m not writing to pile it on Donald Miller. His honesty is to be commended. He’s a great writer and I remember reading and appreciating Blue Like Jazz all those years ago. This isn’t about Donald Miller. But I do think that beneath his comments about learning style and singing is a misconception about what a church even is and why we gather. It seems to me that many or most Christians have the same misconceptions.
It seems that most of us think that the purpose of the local church is to learn about God through sermons and to connect with God through music. And so we shop around and find the church that best fits our style of teaching and music. Choosing a church becomes all about me, and what I can get out of it. The church provides a product and individuals are consumers.
If this view of the church is right, I get Donald Miller. There are many Sundays when I’m at a church and don’t feel an emotional connection to God through the music. And with such a diversity of styles and preferences, this seems like an impossible task. The downside of being a preacher is that when I hear other people preach sometimes I don’t learn anything new about God or the scriptures. The text might be one I know well or have studied extensively. Worse than that sometimes all I do notice are the homiletical mistakes that are made. Bad illustration. Awkward transition. Missed opportunity. So I’m sure a writer and international speaker like Donald Miller would experience the same things, but to a much greater degree. If you are going to church to learn from a sermon and connect with God through music, you can easily be disappointed.
Being the Church
The New Testament seems to paint a different picture of the church. It seems far less interested in what we get out of a church gathering, and much more focused on who we are as a church. We don’t gather as a church to get something, but to be something.
If gathering as a church is simply about what an individual can get, it can easily be replaced elsewhere. I have worship music on my iPhone that fit my personal style choices perfectly and are a quality that would be hard to match by any team of volunteers. I can listen to podcasts of world class preachers and get better teaching than most churches can offer. Additionally there are books, seminars, blogs, and conferences available for personal growth. These are all great gifts of God to us to learn and grow and worship God as an individual. We should make use of these things. But that’s not primarily why we gather.
The New Testament uses a number of images for the church, all of them are corporate in nature. We are a building, a temple, being built up by God with each individual a brick in that building. We are a family, God’s household, each an adopted family member in God’s big family. We are a body, with Christ as the head, and each person a different body part. In each of these images we see that we are something together that we cannot be on our own.
When Paul speaks of Christians singing it is not simply a vertical relationship, an individual singing to God, but contains horizontal elements as well. We sing together to God as a corporate response to the gospel. Paul says, “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5.18-21). You can’t ignore the corporate elements here. A church is a thankful community, singing together to build each other up and respond rightly to the gospel. Singing on your own may cultivate a spiritual connection between you and God, but when we gather and sing together we build each other up, proclaim the gospel and express corporate thankfulness to God for making us his people through Christ. There is much, much more going on as we sing together than creating space for an individual to connect with God.
The Purpose of the Church
In I Timothy 3:14-15 Paul gives his purpose statement for this letter to Timothy that focuses so much on the structures and behaviours in a local church. Paul says “I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” Our behaviour in the church matters because it’s not our house, but the household of God. The church isn’t a business or a show, but a family. And the church is called to be a pillar and buttress of the truth. As the pillar and buttress holds up the roof, so the church is to hold up the truth of the gospel for the watching world to see. How we behave in a church family will either help or hinder in the church’s upholding of the gospel.
Our call is not simply to distribute the gospel message through preaching and outreach events, as if only exist to distribute information about Jesus. If that were true, I could see why people check out of church. If you have the information already, what’s the point? It’s as if the church is a bakery, but Donald Miller was given a new breadmaker for Christmas, so he’s not sure he needs to keep getting bread from the same place when he’s getting stuff just as good at home.
Instead, the church is called to make Jesus known through our life together. We uphold the truth of the gospel as we live as a community on mission together, as we experience transformed lives and demonstrate the counter-cultural nature of the gospel. We make Jesus known through celebrating Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We make Jesus known through biblical church discipline, covenant membership, praying and serving together, and submitting ourselves to biblical leadership. We make Jesus known as diverse family gather together to sing God’s praises from transformed hearts, and to sit together under the teaching of God’s word with reverence and submission. This is radical.
I hope that you connect with God as you gather with your church. But I hope that my church and yours is about far more than individuals connecting with God. God is calling us to something far more glorious which cannot possibly be recreated by an individual connecting with God through their work, or private worship.
This post was originally published at Grounded in the Gospel.