Much of the social media buzz this week related to the infamous “Ham on Nye” debate. It seems like almost everyone agreed it was a really silly exercise, and yet no one could resist watching and commenting. It was like a huge train wreck that was announced far enough in advance to give everyone a chance to gawk at it.
The problem with the debate, of course, was that – while it appeared to be a dispute about Earth’s history – it was really a clash of two different approaches to the process of knowing. Ham thinks knowledge is best acquired through his preferred approach to interpreting scripture (i.e., fundamentalist readings). Nye thinks knowledge is better acquired through the scientific process of observation, testing, peer review, etc. They were never going to agree, because they never got around to talking about the underlying philosophical issue in sufficient detail.
It was largely a misadventure in which the real issues were never discussed. Much like most political debates.
But there was another social media debate last week that also missed the point in its entirety; this time, a debate over the importance of “church attendance” that took place between Blue Like Jazz author Don Miller and a myriad of others.
It all started with this post by Miller, in which he stated that singing church songs doesn’t really inspire him, that he doesn’t really get any other benefit out of regular church attendance, and that he feels more connectedness with God in his day-to-day work. Miller explained by talking about his learning style. He learns by doing, not by sitting and listening. Since most churches offer experiences that require facing forward toward a stage, listening intently for a long time, and then leaving, he doesn’t really benefit that much from the traditional church service.
The response was swift and strong. One post by Jonathan Leeman on the Gospel Coalition website disagreed, comparing Sunday morning activities to the skeleton and food that support and make the life of Jesus possible. You can’t love the church without belonging to a church, he argued. He also inferred that if you aren’t willing to come and listen to a Sunday morning sermon, that it must mean you refuse to “listen to God’s word.”
On and on the responses went – many of them deploying the theological language of “participating in the body of Christ” and “spiritual community” as a way of suggesting that one cannot be a follower of Jesus without attending church. Most of those responses never put the “attending church” part so bluntly, but it was not difficult to discern that implication behind the statements.
Miller was so overwhelmed by the responses that he wrote an extensive second post. In this one, he doesn’t retreat from his point at all. In fact, he admits he doesn’t really go to church very much. Furthermore, he was able to dismiss almost all of the suggestions that there was something “unique” to be found in traditional church, talking about how he was finding them elsewhere. He even suggests that he is surrounded by a strong spiritual community with which he shares his journey. (I think Miller is right insofar as he makes his point, but also missing something; more on that below).
I think this debate also features two or three perspectives that are largely missing each other’s points. A few observations:
First, this disagreement is largely about what the word “church” means. Some participants are thinking about church as a longstanding Western institution, or series of institutions. The institutional church has buildings, pastors, worship services, budgets, committees, and various programs. Membership is primarily comprised of attendance at the weekly service, giving, and participating in some of the church’s planned programs. Others are thinking about church as a much more abstract and universal concept – those who are Jesus followers and who, by extension, can share a certain identity and purpose. The people who share my faith walk with me, both in person and (in more recent years) in other ways, such as through social media – are my church. The remainder is seen as unnecessary. In particular, attending a Sunday morning worship at an institutional church is no longer necessary.
Second, there is a lot at stake in this argument. The institutional church is in decline. Pews are emptying. Budgets are getting tight. Churches are closing down. Anxiety levels among those who support (or depend on) church-as-institution are at all-time highs. If people no longer think of participation in institutional churches as a component of a life that follows Jesus, then these institutions are going to vanish. No wonder Miller stirred up a hornet’s nest.
Third, most institutional churches are in survival mode. Butts and bucks are what drives them. Success is measured by how many people attend and by how much giving takes place. Large staffs and overhead must be justified as being useful to people. A 50,000 square foot church facility, which requires heating, cooling, maintenance, etc., together with a 10 member staff, doesn’t look like a very efficient use of resources if only a handful of aging members attend a single Sunday service each week. Likewise, all of those costs for staffing and overhead – not to mention the demands for staffing and overhead for the larger denominational structure – have to be paid. Every time another well-to-do member dies, with no one to replace them, the situation becomes more and more dire.
But this issue isn’t limited to the classic, neighborhood church. The big megachurches, which meet in giant facilities and often have huge staff with a handful of well-paid CEOs at the top, have the same problems. If they don’t keep their attendance and giving levels up, they are bound to fall into crisis just as quickly as they came together. The pressure for fundraising is enormous.
To make matters worse, as crisis escalates, financial resources are increasingly internalized. That is, they are used to serve the members of the institution, rather than to benefit the community or world at large. It becomes increasingly true that they only thing the church can do is pay its bills and provide a salary to a staff which plans and implements its weekly service, together with a few other programs.
Fourth, at their worst, some institutional churches enable abusive behavior by their leaders. One of the problems with large structures that accommodate people with significant authority and celebrity is that the wrong people can end up in those positions. Those people then use their power as a means of accommodating abusive behavior, and then shielding it from visibility. This surely does not take place in all churches (or even most of them). But it has probably been the case with some institutional churches for a very long time, and in the media age, it is almost impossible to hide. The existence and harm caused by sexual and spiritual abuse by those in positions of church authority is more apparent than ever.
Fifth, I think People Like Don Miller Can Easily Discern These Issues. I don’t think it takes long for most people to quickly understand the survival dynamic or the internalization of resources dynamic. Nor do I think it takes very long to pick out churches where spiritually abusive behavior, whether it be moderate guilt control or more severe varieties, is lurking in the background.
Don Miller does not say this, and it may not be what is lurking in the back of his mind. However, I think there are many people who will say what Don Miller is saying, while in actuality they are consciously or unconsciously trying to get away from an unhealthy institutional culture.
Sixth, defenders of institutional church should stop using guilt and shame strategies in efforts to win people back. Messages which state or imply that those who reject institutional churches are either insincere or that they don’t care about [pick your favorite theological concept here " the Gospel," "the Body of Christ," "the family of God," "spiritual community," "being accountable," etc.] are disingenuous at best. Yes, people often can and do experience those things without institutional church structures/services, and you often don’t find them in institutional churches. Such statements are patronizing at their worst. Pastoral experience and theological education do not necessarily qualify someone to better discern and explain how “spiritual community” ought to look in a context that is different from their own. And, even where there is a point to be made, such strategies suffer from the classic problem of mote and beam.
Seventh, I think there is still great value within institutional churches. Here is the central problem. I am not sure that institutional protestant churches will or even can survive in their current form. (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches are a different story – for another time). They have simply been deconstructed/exposed too extensively, largely by X-ers and Millennials – and even by their “own” – theologians and scholars. The model of building/pastor/services/members/programs that I talked about at the top seems to me to be increasingly dysfunctional, both financially and – by ripple effect – in many other ways.
Yet these churches, for their mountains of problems, also carry something that – to me – is extremely important. For lack of a better phrase, I am going to borrow from the Apostle’s Creed and call it the “communion of saints.” Here, I am not talking about an immediate spiritual community in the here and now. As I have said above, I think you can have that without institutional structures. Rather, I am talking about a means of living out one’s faith in the context of the history that has gone before it. I find it impossible to develop a healthy perspective on the timelessness of my faith, and of my connection to believers throughout history, without participating in the traditions of the church. That means: liturgy, Eucharist, witnessing baptism, blessing marriage, Lenten ashes, singing the same songs, hearing the same Psalms and scriptures. I can have spiritual community, and even improve my spiritual walk, in conversation with my friends over a Coke. But if I want to appreciate my connection with Isaiah, Paul, Augustine, Francis, Luther, Terese, my Grandparents, etc., if I want to know that I have deep, ancient roots, I need this thing – this “communion” that, for better or worse, is carried along in its current form by the institutional church.
Eighth, I think the debate over “church attendance” ignores the real dilemma, which is this – how to preserve the communion of saints even as the institutional church, in its protestant form, vanishes. I completely sympathize with the Don Millers of the world. Really, I do. I don’t think the answer is always to recommend a return to institutional church. But I also think that, despite all of the toxicity and pointlessness to much of it, there is something that is of value to future generations within institutional churches. Something that needs preservation. What I think is needed more than anything else at this stage is a conversation which (a) acknowledges the decline of church-as-institution and (b) seeks a creative means for preserving the communion of saints, as carried by institutional church, for future generations.
I don’t know exactly what that looks like. I am a part of a project that – in some ways – is trying to do that through an alternative conception of church, even now. But I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, and I don’t think we have arrived at the be-all-and-end-all solution. We are just one of many trying to work out a practical solution to a difficult problem.
And there, in almost 2000 words, is my reaction to the Don Miller/church attendance debate from this last week: the Don Millers of the world have a point, and guilt and shame counter-strategies should be abandoned, yet I find it important to preserve some of the the traditions that are carried by institutional churches.
I conclude with a statement that is consciously liturgical.
Lord, have mercy.