Donald Miller Hates Going to Church and I Do Too

I have few influences greater than Donald Miller, both inside my “real life” and out. His works have certainly impacted me as a writer; you could’ve played a drinking game with all my Donald Miller references in Struggle Central (drinking milk, of course).

Beyond the mere sphere of writing, though, Donald Miller has impacted my very life. I owe much of my California journey to Through Painted Deserts, and meeting him at Storyline last fall was such a thrill.

Donald Miller is not new to controversy, and lately his blogs have taken some heat. The snowball started when he said he doesn’t connect with God through singing, further confessing that he doesn’t even attend church regularly. Connects with God and others elsewhere.

Needless to say, evangelical America pounced on him. A so-called “Christian” who doesn’t go to church? And an influential one at that?

I also probably would’ve blasted Donald Miller a decade ago, good little Christian though miserable little church-goer I was.

But now?

Well, I think I’m kinda with Donald Miller on this. I think I hate going to church, too.

Going to Church

Photo courtesy Vik Nanda, Creative Commons

Before delving any further, here are the three Donald Miller posts in question. He also did a fantastic Relevant Magazine video-interview to clear the mess:

“I Don’t Worship God by Singing. I Connect With Him Elsewhere.”

“Why I Don’t Go to Church Very Often, a Follow Up Blog”

“Church Anywhere and Everywhere?”

I love the interview’s sarcastic start: “Don … what’s your problem with the Church, man?”

Y’all should definitely watch the entire interview. It’s worth it. As for this post, I’m going to focus on his three lovely blogs.

Going to Church: Are We Stalking Jesus?

For over twenty years, I went to church because my parents made me or because I felt I “should” even though my relationship with Jesus went nowhere. Forget that I also attended church disconnected and alone for most of those years.

Donald Miller described the endless tedium of going to church as such:

My friend Bob Goff says when we study somebody without getting to know them, it’s called stalking. Bob says Jesus is getting creeped out that we keep stalking him. He’d like us to bond with him in the doing.

 

I think Bob Goff needs to write a book called Stalking Jesus and sell a bazillion copies. I’d never thought about going to church as Jesus-stalking, but gosh, that fits.

It doesn’t fit for everyone, I realize. But for some, it does. That stalking image certainly fit me all through high school.

Isn’t it inane and borderline sad to attend church week after week only to see and hear of Jesus without actually seeing Him, knowing Him, doing stuff with Him?

So, let’s start there: stalking Jesus is not good. I would not recommend that sort of church for anyone.

Going to Church: Do You Like Singing?

Unlike Donald Miller, I certainly do connect with God through song. I’ve always thought this odd, considering I’m not musical. However, I once spoke with a musical person who said he connects more with God through sermons than singing. So, maybe I’m not that odd.

After high school, I branched away from my parents and found a church with awesome worship music. I loved it. After years of mindless ritual, I finally started connecting with God at church.

I just didn’t connect with God’s people at church.

Going to Church: More Than a Building?

Two years ago, I almost gave up on church. I’d moved to California and had been church-hopping for over a year. I was weary. I couldn’t do it anymore. I decided to give one more place a try. Turns out that was the magical place destined for me all along.

I loved the music.

I found a life group.

I got baptized with my life group.

I came out to my life group.

I hung out with my life group beyond our weekly meetings.

I loved my life group.

This was church, I realized. Not a building. Not an offering basket or rows of candles. Not even a message and amazing music.

People. Church was people.

I suppose I’ve “known” this simple truth my whole life. But I’ve always followed the “truth” with: “Yeah, butttt every Christian should still go to church.”

Yeah, butttt why?

Why do we “have” to go to church if that’s not even what church is? What does Jesus even have to say about going to church? Anything?

Going to Church: Are We Powerful?

In writing about church, Donald Miller also spoke about power and agency and how Jesus wants to work with us to “do stuff,” as Bob Goff would say. But are pastors and priests and popes the only ones who hold spiritual “authority”? Is that why we “need” church? Because we need them?

Is it sacrilegious that Donald Miller and his friends held communion with hot chocolate and cookies in a barn? What about the story where he baptized his friend under a waterfall despite not being any sort of “important church person”?

Two years ago, I received some unexpected reactions to my own unconventional baptism. “Oh…” read one text upon learning of my water park baptismal. When I told another that my un-ordained 24-year-old life group leader would be dunking me, I received an in-person eyebrow-raise.

But why? Why are we all so unsettled by the thought of church beyond a Sunday steeple?

Can’t baptisms and communion and singing and community happen outside Sunday, outside a building, outside Americanized rituals?

Why can’t “church” be people singing or not singing, inside or outside? Or painting together? Or watching Breaking Bad? Or serving the homeless? Or dancing? Or taking communion? Or baptizing one of their own at a water park on a Tuesday night without a pastor in sight?

Like Donald Miller explains, I don’t doubt that many find genuine community by going to church. It is how I originally found my life group, after all. I realize going to church can be a solid “starting point” for Christian community.

As circumstances have devolved in my life, though, I just don’t like going to church anymore. Maybe I’m not supposed to; maybe I was never supposed to. Maybe I’m also a kinesthetic learner like my hero.

Maybe it’s better to live church than attend it.

What are your thoughts on going to church? Do you feel obligated, or do you enjoy going to church? How do you experience “church” outside of church?

  • Marshall R

    The Bible is clear that we all need to share in fellowship and experience real community with other Christians. It does NOT say that this must be inside the walls of an official church building. Some of my most encouraging and helpful Christian fellowship has taken place in kitchens, basements, restaurants, woods, and river banks. I have also gladly participated when people who have only been Christians for two years baptized new believers outdoors. Although, I would prefer to use actual grape juice or wine in Communion since that is the example set by Jesus Himself.

    • I’m certainly fine with juice/wine and some form of bread as the “go-to” for communion. I don’t get the sense that Jesus would be furious though if we substituted these elements with other available options, assuming our hearts are inclined toward Him. To me, Donald Miller’s barn story sounds like such a powerful communion/community moment.

  • Andy

    I’m hitting a time right now where I hate going to church. In a place that’s supposed to be a community and talks about community, I certainly don’t see it or feel it. I’m left feeling like I’m meandering. Sure there are people at church I know and there are friends but there’s a disconnect. Besides the fact that I assume God wants me to keep going to my church, the only other reason that I keep going is that I’ve been going there for 20 years. But hey this is my cynicism that I’m working through with God right now.

    • I’m with ya. I know there are amazing churches out there. But I’m just now starting to wonder if this traditional American church model is for everyone? Perhaps there’s another way, a better way, to do community and connection? I’m curious to find it.

  • You know how things have been for me the past few months, what with a lot of frustration, anger, cynicism, depression and whatnot. Don’t have to bore you through that story again.

    What I’ve found during this time is that I desperately needed to be allowed to feel broken. I felt it for sure, and I felt it hard, but always felt like I was so wrong to feel that way. I needed a place or a relationship or SOMETHING where I was could be broken and be told “Hey, it’s all good”.

    I found that on Sunday mornings in a pew. I really did. I feel my best mentally when I am in church, and a lot of it is because I feel the most broken while I’m there. Through that, I can feel the most redeemed. I feel safely destroyed in my church, just where I need to be.

    I dunno, man. Maybe it’s because I have a close group of friends who are there with me. Maybe it’s cause we have a choir that claps and sways and sings with all the soul of Otis Redding and I just love that. Maybe it’s because my pastor just gets fired UP to the point of tears often. Or maybe it’s because the place was founded to be very purposefully multi-cultural. Whatever it may be, I know that it’s where I need to be, even when I don’t want to be there.

    Maybe we’ve lost something these days. I feel like our generation doesn’t understand sexuality and doesn’t understand the church, and because of that, we’re uninterested in keeping the integrity of either thing. Maybe our churches have tried too hard to become interesting that we’ve left behind the magnitude of God that we can easily see if we just wander out into nature. Maybe we hide too much to make it feel like we’re allowed to be broken, and our churches suffer. There’s probably a million reasons, but I feel like a lot of people who don’t like church have also not had opportunities to see a truly Christ-focused church at work.

    Or maybe I’m just too old fashioned and not as much of an existentialist as I thought, haha.

    Either way, that’s just me. And you know you’re always welcome to ask me about it or tell me you think I’m dumb or to just come visit Jackson and my church and crash on my couch.

    • I want to visit your church in Jackson. Also sleep on your couch. Can we make that a thing soon??

      • You just tell me when and you know I’ll roll out the red carpet.

  • Cheryl Chen

    An alternate opinion: http://thewell.intervarsity.org/blog/my-institutional-relationship-jesus

    I think the issue should be whether we go to church for the right reasons rather than not going at all. I think that there is a lot of value in church, the body of believers coming together for one goal, but the reasons why most people go to church now is off. That causes others to not want to go to church (altogether) for the same poor reasons.

    I would personally encourage people to go to church, still, for the right reasons. What those are, we could debate, but don’t give up on church altogether. Yes, church is more than a building, but the “institution” exists, flaws and all, for the glory of God. And if we tap into that, we can really bring glory to our Creator together.

    • Yeah, we should definitely go to church for the right reasons. Right now, I feel like the only reason I go is because it’s the good Christian thing to do, and I hate that. I mean, I still connect with God through singing, but ultimately I just feel like I’m sitting there wasting time and space. I’m ready to experience how church “works” everywhere.

      To be continued…

  • Good thoughts to continue the conversation, Tom. I could write forever about this topic, but I’ll try to be brief.

    I respect Don a lot, too, and though I disagree with him from time to time, I think the biggest problem with his first post was lack of clarity. I didn’t come away from it with the knowledge that though he doesn’t attend a church regularly, he still engages in regular, gospel-centered community. I’m glad that he brought that out in his other posts and the video. Whether or not you call it “church,” I think the Bible makes a pretty good case that community is essential for our faith. The sermon from my church this Sunday actually covered a lot about community: http://blueprintchurch.org/sermons/genuine-faith-love-world/

    A lot of what Don talks about in these posts and this video is “church,” as in a traditional church service. I’m a fan of that kind of church, but I also see it as having much room for improvement and deviation. For me, and I think for you and Don, the actual Church– as in the worldwide population of believers who make up the body of Christ– is so much bigger and so much more important than “church.” The Church is what I get really passionate about, but I also believe that “church” should be part of a Christian’s life– but it could (and should) look different for different people.

    As Don described what he envisions “church” should be– pastors creating pastors, metaphorically handing out deputy badges– I just smiled. That sounds a lot like my church here in Atlanta. One of our mantras is “making disciples who make disciples.” But churches like mine are extremely rare. I say this not to boast, but to say there is room for this kind of creativity and agency Don desires even in the “traditional” church model. Certainly, my church is far from perfect. There are plenty of things that frustrate me and plenty of times I don’t really enjoy “church.” This week alone, I found myself enjoying and taking great value away from the Sunday service, but I found my small group time this week extremely uncomfortable and not beneficial (which is not usually the case). But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop going to our small group gatherings.

    What I would say someone like Don who doesn’t connect to God well in “church,” is to use the very gifts he says DO allow him to connect him to God in the context of a local church– whatever that looks like. Teach a class. Lead a small group. Take the youth group on nature hikes. I think once you start to engage with the people who make up a “church” in ways that allow you to connect with both them and God, then engaging in a traditional service or whatever WITH them will be much different– and probably much more enjoyable and beneficial. It’s less of an entertainment or education experience as Don sees it and more of a family gathering.

    Wow. That was not brief. Sorry. Could keep going, though 😉

    • Thanks for the blog in a comment! Definitely happy for you and your church. That’s awesome. It’s good to be reminded that there ARE solid churches out there. Keep plugging into that place and with those people. So precious.

      Appreciate all your thoughts! Solid.

  • Ashley

    Amen. While I attend church regularly, I agree that church is people, not a building. I attend for the community, not for the building or the songs or even the sermon. I attend to encounter God through people or sometimes through worship (I do sometimes connect with God through song). The sermons are sometimes very encouraging, etc. but I go more for the community. I think I’ve been frustrated lately with the small groups I’ve been to because they don’t seem to have this mindset – they’re a “Bible study” first, a community second… I recently moved and I really miss my community I had built in my other town. I’m slowly, I think, finding it, but…it’s hard.

    This is a good question “How do you experience ‘church’ outside of church”? I suppose through building community with other believers and spending time with them doing various things: living life. But…to find this, you pretty much have to attend a church…kinda… That’s where you find most Christians. Easily anyway? I guess.

  • MLYaksh

    The Joseph Craven had a great point- the purpose of the church has been lost. And because of that, Sunday morning services feel more like a desperate attempt to convince others why they should come back next week rather than do what they’re supposed to do.

    The early church had one purpose with two tactics to accomplish it. The purpose- glorify God. The tactics- fellowship with each other and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. That was it. It was that simple. Good news is that the church’s intended purpose has not changed- we just keep missing it, being distracted by comparisons, insecurities, and pride. Aka, human nature.

    Every church has its failures and struggles. If a church seems perfect to you, then you’re not seeing everything. I work for a church- it’s my God-given calling. I see my church work from the inside out- trust me, it isn’t always perfect.

    I agree that church is found outside Sunday mornings too- but it is still found on Sunday mornings inside a building with a steeple. Don’t neglect a gathering of Christians because they’ll be singing a praise song. Rather, find ways to connect with them. Because, as I stated earlier, fellowship is one way we glorify God and will connect with Him.

    • The Joseph Craven is a wise fellow indeed. I’m convinced that many American churches ARE doing it “right.” Doesn’t mean they’re perfect or struggle-free, but I think genuine places of community and outreach are happening, both inside church steeples and out.

      I want to find these places.

  • Kate

    I am so glad I read this, I had been having some similar issues and questions earlier this week. I had complated whether or not to email you about them, but I brushed it off. And then I stumbled upon this, and most of my questions were answered. And it’s nice to know that someone shares my feelings and concerns, that I am not alone, or that there is something wrong with me for thinking the way I do. We the body, are the Church and that has been hiting so close to home with me right now. Its why I need to stay connected and plugged into and fellowship with my fellow believers around me. Thank you friend, I needed this!
    Kate

    • Aw, well I’m glad you found this post then. Feel free to email me anytime though, Kate! Be blessed.

  • Gabriel Martino

    This all makes sense and stuff I’m just curious about what you think. What about keeping the Sabbath a holy day, and going to church to be as a community, being fed by called pastors and leaders? If you don’t go to church anymore, what’s the point of having pastors?

    • Hey Gabriel, thanks for the comment. As to the Sabbath point, it’s the only one of the ten commandments that Jesus seemed to “buck” while He was walking the earth. I think a day of rest is still good, certainly, but Jesus had no problem “working” on the Sabbath as long as it benefited others. I think this whole “go to church on Sunday” thing has become such an Americanized ritual (around the entire world, too). I don’t doubt that there are plenty of fantastic churches out there having fantastic services and fantastic community on Sundays. I’m completely open to finding that in my life again, but I’m getting more and more open to other possibilities for connection and community beyond the steeples and pews each week.

      • Gabriel Martino

        Completely understand. Thank you for commenting!

        • For sure. Thanks again for your comment and the other social media follows! Hope to see more of you in these parts! Travel well out there.

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  • Tyler Mase

    It’s really difficult for me to understand why this is an issue for anyone. Did you not make full surrender of your life when you came to Christ, or is he only allowed to have parts and pieces of you? (not you personally, i’m speaking to everyone who struggles with church) The bible is just very clear about this issue. So what doesn’t add up for the church forsakers? Hebrews 10:25 Don’t forsake the assembling of yourselves together. I think there is widespread biblical ignorance on the subject. I would hate to think it’s just widespread rebellion against God’s Word to us… There is another area of confusion about church and the whole assembling thing. Seems like lots of folks think that if I find a life group at church that maybe a couple of us can skip church on Sunday and go to the ball game or something else. The problem is the failure to understand the corporate (body) structure of a local assembly. When God place you in a particular group of believers you can’t just peel off a few people and still call it church or worship at the park. What you do when you skip out is you weaken the body. Paul also described local assemblies as spiritual buildings. When you skip out, it’s like a few beams or pieces of framework missing. Paul talks about the body in a collective gathering as something that cannot reduplicated any other way. You are either strengthening the church by your presence or weakening it by your absence. There is no such thing as a middle ground.
    Ephesians 2:21–22 (NKJV) 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

    Here he is indicating that something supernatural occurs in a gathering of the local assembly that invites the presence of the Holy Spirit to indwell you in a way that you are not indwell at a personal dimension. You really are missing out on something valuable and powerful by your indifference and self-indulgent attitude. Either you belong to HIM, or you don’t.