Far be it from me to theorize about a person, or make that person a type…but I’m going to for the sake of trying to process a couple things that appear to be endemic to evangelicalism as a church culture. I should say that while I haven’t read much of his work, I like Donald Miller and this post is more about trying to see a process, a natural nearly unavoidable process as I see it, inherent to the evangelical style that makes for Donald Millers, that is, an eventual “meh” response to going to church on Sunday. Don might not even agree with my analysis and I’m not even really analyzing him so much as a loose type. So, I won’t even really be address the particulars of the recent hubbub over his statements. To be honest, some guy not going to church anymore shouldn’t really be news, but as a phenomena, there’s something culturally telling here.
Put simply, I think the individualistic, consumptive, experiential model of evangelical church, a style I would argue that is as the heart of American evangelicalism, is the root of it’s own eventual irrelevance in the lives of someone like Don Miller.
Whether staunchly Calvinistic or vibrantly charismatic, while the material of the experiential reality may be radical different (say between an awareness of ones depravity/enmity with god/chosenness and a spirit-filled encounter), there is a profoundly “believer and God” shaped core to evangelicalism. It’s commemorated (testimony), memorialized (in ‘what God has done for me’ worship songs), rigorously offered (evangelism and alter calling). It’s very much you and God. Whether warm and fuzzy or austere and penal, the foundation seems to be a kind of intimacy of experience or acknowledgment–both of which happen within me, in an honest encounter with God.
With such an experiential ground and motivation for going to church on Sunday, experience of God (again, widely conceived and measured by widely divergent conditions for sure), the vivacity or consumptive value of that time spent, is the subtle but ever present measure of a church’s value. As a Donald Miller matures, experiences the world and life in a more and more world-affirming way, that is, evangelicalism appropriates the NT Wrights (etc.) of the scholarly world, they have these experiences well apart from Sunday, in the fabric of newly affirmed aspects of life. God is met elsewhere. Sunday services, however well-crafted, become trite by comparison. A Christian “On the Road” kind of experience becomes a much richer representation of the former experience.
So, the consumer experience model has a timeline which leads towards it’s own irrelevance. Hire creative directors and evolve with all their might, the very aim of the service engenders the roots of it’s eventual shortcoming in the life of a Donald Miller as they become Donald Miller.
No doubt, the root of the problem, the heart of why american evangelicalism has long been shaped like this (but might be changing?), is the the white privileged ethos at the core. Church culture is founded the community’s needs. With nearly every other material need in order (to varying degree’s of course), the only thing many evangelicals need(ed) out of church is (was?) to feel something. Everything else is in order. We come to church to inculcate a feeling, get right with God (deal with individualized guilt), or any number of others things–the things that consume those who’ve got all their material needs sorted based on their cultural and economic affluence.
So the experiential drive, sadly still roped into the consumptive model, is the foundational individual need church practice swirls around. And keeping attendees feeling church is worthwhile calls for a dizzying mechanism of constant stylistic evolution (e.g. creative directors). But how can the most in touch creative director, keep pace with the world? Even singing the world’s songs within church walls paradoxically makes God seem less there than when they’re sung in rejection of, or sheer ambivalence toward, God.
In this way, I think this process is inevitable, a natural progression rooted in the soil of privileged evangelical culture itself. A culture I myself continue to find myself bathed in, much to my chagrin.
There are of course all kinds of great theological and ecclessial discussions to help ask what church is, and what it really should be, but I even want to simply it a bit more. What if church was actually more about the material needs of those attending? What is church participation and commitment like among communities all over the world that go because they have many more needs than to feel something? Where church works more like labor organizing, or banding together to make ends meet as a collective? Experientially rich or not, this body of Christ is forced to think about the health of it’s stomach, spleen, lungs, even before it’s “heart.” I bet these churches don’t worry about the somewhat progressive writer types that they birth leaving, because what they are offering is not an experience, but a solidarity with the felt needs of others. Sunday, whether you come or not, is a means to and end for these bodies, just as the Sabbath seemed for Jesus.