Answering Donald Miller on the Local Church
Discussing whether or not we should be part of a local church is similar to deciding whether you should call yourself a Christian or not. It’s complicated. Every word depends on what that word means to you, and to everyone reading the word. Descriptors, clauses, parenthesis, disclaimers and every other form of nuance are required, and misunderstanding is still likely.
Donald Miller is one of my all time favorite writers. He often writes what I think. I’ve met him a couple times, spent a day with him in Portland, and have tons of mutual friends with him. I feel like I know him. The dark side in me (and there are plenty) smiled when I saw his recent blog. When he wrote a long multi-page follow up (Why I Don’t Go to Church Very Often) a couple of days later “explaining himself” I thought – “Yep, feels like my world.” But “explaining myself” seldom works. if you haven’t read those two blogs yet, I suggest you do. The first of the two is here.
Here’s the issue as I see it, and even Donald in all his brilliance misses this. It’s in clearly defining that pesky word, “Church.”
Don says he doesn’t go to church, or at least not very often. Fair enough. I have tons of friends in that boat. But…it depends on what you’re talking about, as to whether or not this makes any sense.
Here’s how I do this. There is The Church. Universal. Anyone who has submitted themselves to God through Jesus Christ is part of the world-wide church. Not all who call themselves Christians are in this Church. And some who claim other religions, or none at all, may be. It’s the spiritual Church and Jesus is the Pastor, Priest, and Great Shepherd. One Church. One Leader. We’ll call this C1. Most of us loosely agree on this definition of The Church.
Where it gets fuzzy is the local expression. I’ll divide that into two parts. C2 will be the local expression of the C1 (Big C church) in a building with a structure and systems and earthly local leaders. We ask questions like “Where do you go to church?” And they answer by saying “First Baptist down the road.” Or we say as we drive home from C2, “Church was good today.” That’s C2.
C3 is what Don and many other “leaders” (according to Don – and it’s also true in my experience) have opted for. It’s wherever we are. We are the church. Whenever we meet for any reason. Particularly if we bring Jesus into the discussion and have some kind of community exercise – then we’re the church. That’s C3. It’s valid.
Because if we are referring to C1 (the Big C Church) as the definition, then wherever we go, of course “we are the church.” Both C2 and C3 are valid “members” of C1. The fact that Don and others don’t connect with God in this or that style of worship, or singing, or whatever, really isn’t that important. It might be important for them, but it’s really not part of the same discussion. Don quotes Bob Goff as saying “When we study someone without getting to know them it’s like stalking.” I totally agree. And some who go to C2 local churches that meet in buildings are doing that. But do we think that some of the ones who have opted out of C2 for C3 don’t do the same?
Here’s why Chris and I try to practice both C2 and C3 regularly.
C2. Local Church in a building down the street (ours is called Mountain View Community Church).:
1. Habit and discipline are good things. Going every Sunday is a good discipline. The rebellion against “I don’t want to go just to go” is understandable, but can easily lead to a further disintegration of community and an increased individualism that only hurts us.
2. If you add up everyone who comes to our local C2 church – we have about a 1000 folks. They are people God loves. Because church (C2 or C3) is not about me, we go there for them. To say hi. To hopefully, at times, be a blessing. Whether I “like” it or not seems irrelevant to me.
3. There’s a lot in the Epistles about C2 church. Instructions are fairly specific. Ours surely doesn’t look that much like the one in Acts, but probably more like the one in Corinthians – a mess, but still loved by God and full of wonderful people who are wanting desperately to love God and follow Jesus.
4. These local C2 congregations can cluster together and do a ton of good in a city. It’s not the only way to be a blessing to a city – but it can work wonders when C2 churches bind together to serve a specific locale. They have more resources than C3 communities have. The Art of Neighboring stuff from my friends Dave Runyon and Jay Pathak are good examples of this.
5. It’s helpful to point our friends and neighbors who are beginning to follow Jesus to a specific place for worship, teaching and fellowship. This can happen in C3 as well, as long as it’s specific enough to clearly connect your friends there.
C3: Local church being wherever you are.
1. We have community in our cul-de-sac. We have it on our street. We meet together and read the scriptures. We pray for each other. We love each other. That’s C3.
2. We just had some of the best and most intensely focused C3 church last week in DC at the National Prayer Breakfast. It’s like a big family reunion of like-minded people. About 70 of our best friends from the Middle East came. And probably the same number of our closest American friends (amongst the total 3500 people). We prayed, laughed, cried. We sang. We listened. We counseled. And then listened some more. We hugged. Some got mad. Others called their friends to join last minute cause it was so good. But others won’t come back (they didn’t like such and such). Doesn’t that sound a lot like “church?”
3. We have moments at coffee shops. Times with our friends at a barbecue. That’s also church. Because Don is right – we are the church. And Bob is correct – we don’t want to be bystanders. The question though is this – do we need to leave C2 to be part of C3? I say NO WAY. We need both. Both are vital. If I don’t connect with God during the singing of my C2 church down the street – who cares? Maybe God wants to connect with me! And finally, we should hope and strive for C3 happening within C2. I don’t know any local pastor of a C2 church who doesn’t want more real “life on life” community. Of course they do. And if you don’t find much C3 community at your C2 church, well guess what you can do…..