Popular Discontent: There’s Something Wrong With Everything

February 25, 2014 — 16 Comments

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The internet shouted down Donald Miller the other day after he admitted he doesn’t regularly attend a church, and once more when he wrote a follow-up.

I absolutely love Donald Miller and I sincerely believe he loves Jesus.  There’s no but and this isn’t leading up to a negative critique — I really do think he’s great.  His books re-energized my faith during a particularly bad slump, and like Lewis or Keller, he will always be one of my biggest influences in my personal faith journey.

I attend church.  Donald doesn’t.  We can still be bros.

I agree with just about everything that Donald Miller wrote about church. How could I disagree? When we’re really honest about it, the state of the entertainment model of the evangelical church is downright horrifying. We’ve managed to package the eternal saving power of God into a 1-800-number enterprise. We’re mostly tickled one hour a week to compensate for the guilt of our secret second lives, which only enables us into the spiral.


But the thing is: I can find discontent in just about anything. It’s hard to disagree with most criticism because as soon as you find something wrong, it’ll be wrong for life.  Look hard enough and you will see flaws. A critic-filter will always taint how you enjoy a movie or a book or a friend or the church.  It’s inevitable that imperfection will rear its ugly head.

I was talking with my friend recently about Timothy Keller.  I love Keller’s work, but my friend was less impressed.  I asked why, and he said, “I think he’s great, it’s true he does good work for the city, he has solid theology … but just, you know, I don’t get him. Just something about him.”

I really couldn’t understand this.  Something about him?  Couldn’t we say that about anyone? Isn’t it enough that he does good work for the city and has solid theology?  What more could we ask for?

Not to demonize my friend here: But if you dig deep enough, you will always find a reason to dislike someone or something.  That’s easy.  And we can write off an entire group or culture or work because of it.  For most people, they will never be pleased no matter how good they have it.



There’s the rub.  You can never be fully satisfied with anything on this earth, because complete satisfaction in transitory things is an impossible standard.  To look for it is futile.  There will always be something missing.  And if you hold people or systems or churches to that curve: you have already damned yourself on the same curve.  When I try to be satisfied by any manmade system, no matter how good its intent, I will always come up short. I will always be restless on this earth. I think it’s unfair to squeeze the burden of my satisfaction from any one sermon, preacher, or church building.

I can find something wrong with anything.  That’s how a lot of bloggers appeal to their readers.  It’s how pastors build churches.  It’s how politicians build platforms.  They throw around a ton of complaints, talk about those “other people across the street,” and their whole agenda is born of a reactionary whiplash. The battle cry is, “I’m not like them.”

It’s easy to criticize.  It’s easy to sit in a room and go on about why the church has failed us, why those “other Christians” lost it, why those tribes and camps are so wrong.

Think of every successful blog or author or speaker.  They appeal to you because they pick apart things like crazy, and this presses our critic-button.  Their posts begin with a snarky smug deconstruction of “what’s wrong with the world today.”  “Oh your pastor is wrong.  Oh your church screwed that up.  Oh you’ve been right the whole time.  We feel the same way about your problems with church.”  Maybe they’re right on every point.  But in the end, it’s a cheap direct appeal to your right-ness, which is the same as permissively enabling your flesh, which is the same as Pharisee-like self-righteousness — and there are still zero offered solutions.  There’s no grace.


Anyone can do that.  People get rich from it.  I’m probably doing the same exact thing in this post.

The hard part is looking forward to constructive restoration.

None of the comments on Donald Miller’s blog really offered anything except “My way actually works, you should come to my church.”  There was really nothing inclusive that attempted to bridge the disunity.  Most of it was banner-waving triumphalist horn-tooting.  I can understand that, because we believe my way works.

But I wanted to see someone say, “I agree.  So what next?  What can we do about the church today?  What do you propose?  What can we do together?  How can we pray for us?  What can we repent of?  How can we extract the poisonous elements?  How can we go to God on this one?”

I wanted to see dialogue.  Because going at this side-by-side is how we arrive to a better place.  Christians are called adopted for a reason.  We have a Father and we’re family.  We can disagree — but we can rise above those disagreements to something better than the world.  We can even use something impulsive like the internet and flip that for the better good — or so I can hope.

And you know, there’s plenty the church has done right.  We don’t celebrate that enough.  Any ounce of true-to-God goodness in our churches is a God-given miracle.  Can we maybe thank God for that?  Can we cheer when we actually see grace?  Because as much as Jesus is probably grieving over our craziness, I’m sure there’s a lot he’s happy with.  It’s overly romantic to be so negative on things, but it’s really not as bleak as we want it to be.

I’m still a fan of the church.  I love my church, in all her flaws and everything.  I apologize for the church a lot, but I still love her, and Jesus died for her.  I agree that she needs work — but that means I myself need work, that I need Jesus.  It means we need each other.

I will probably always be dissatisfied with the church somewhere: but that doesn’t compel me to give up on her.  It only compels me to take care of her while I still have days left on this earth.  I will only be satisfied when I’m face to face with our Lord.  Until then, I’m serving hard.

— J

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16 responses to Popular Discontent: There’s Something Wrong With Everything

  1. 

    Donald Miller had an interview with Relevant Magazine here about all the fuss. Very much worth reading.
    http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/donald-miller-church

  2. 

    Good stuff! I’ve been led back to my childhood church recently after three years gone (Been attending another body). I didn’t originally leave on great grounds, and much of it had to do with my own pride. I also left behind a group of good friends and godly men behind that I’ve found I desperately need as iron sharpening encouragers. So it’s good to be back.

    I’ve found the modern church model is ripe with messiness, trite politics, hypocrites, and wayward leaders. Or as you say, full of people a lot like me. Or, biblically speaking, people a lot like the early Corinth church. It’s a blow to our independent American Spirit to express that we actually NEED others in this life. Even “others” who we believe we can outrun in knowledge, or obedience, or authenticity, or strangely enough: humility.

    The earliest church (Acts 2) was a place that people met regularly to pray together, break bread in fellowship and communion together, serve one another together, be taught the word together, and even submit to leadership together. I’m sure this doesn’t HAVE to only be done within the modern walls of a traditional church body, but I believe almost everywhere has a local church body where all of this is being done; albeit imperfectly.

    So I’m with you, let’s love the church with it’s manifoldly messy expressions. Especially when we don’t want to or she doesn’t deserve it, cause that’s the way Christ loves us every second of the day.

    • 

      Thanks for sharing that. I’ve found more and more that when people say the church is “full of hypocrites,” it’s really just exposing a laziness to work with them. No one wants to love on unlikeable people — even though the people we “like” are probably putting up an act to maintain a good standing with us. On a long enough timeline, we find out everyone is just as capable of scum-baggish thievery, and we can either completely avoid people or jump into the deep end. God means for us to jump in like a cannonball.

      While I do get frustrated with the modern church model, whether it’s the consumerist church attendee or the counter-intuitive learning style, I still think there is value in being forced to enter into proximity with people you normally wouldn’t hang out with. Without it, none of us could be whole well-rounded people. The church is really a rock tumbler full of unpolished gems waiting to collide.

      There’s a growth that happens when we patiently love on hypocrites who eventually grow up — and most of them grow up because we were so patient.

      Most churchgoers I know leave a church at the first sign of conflict. They cut off the work that God could do in them. And while I can’t judge those decisions, I think that generally people are too hasty to do this. It reminds me of when TV shows are cancelled abruptly before finding their footing. Certainly there are churches that are heretical or downright unfriendly, but I would hope we can celebrate the good that’s happening instead of always seeing the bad. And maybe we can hang with people for the long-term to see who they could be in Christ. That sort of vision considers the big picture, that God is really sovereign.

  3. 

    I recently heard Dr. Andy Bannister of RZIM speak on ‘does religion poison everything?’ His point was a good one. People poison everything. People are broken, thus, wherever we go we cause havoc. That could push us away from eah other, or it could show is how we need a saviour and our fellow believers.

  4. 

    I apologize if I misunderstand, but as I hear you I will disagree. No administrative, bureaucratic, regulatory corporation or system deserves to be supported since this form of religion is not just missing a little, it works in defiance of Jesus.
    Now, any person or persons, irrespective of labels or doctrinal demands, who love Jesus enough to love justice, walk humbly (as much as we can as humans) is the Church for me. I will, have and do stand with them, fight for them, am committed to them. But as soon as a group says I must submit to religious authority I have no place. When we replace prayer and fasting with committee meetings I become very skeptical.
    That said, I rejoice for you if you have found a group, whatever form it takes, where you discern the presence and working of Jesus. God is the Boss, not me. I follow the path Jesus sets for me, and I will teach what the Bible says about service, but I am not your (or anyone’s) personal judge.
    I just get up and loud when the freedom of Truth becomes a prison of creed.
    Sincere Peace

    • 

      In the Book of Acts, we see committee meetings to delegate food so that the pastors can preach. I see what you’re saying, but I think Peter’s first church of 3000 found a necessity to have a system in place. I think submitting to authority (that is also submitting to Christ, however imperfectly) provides a structure that ensures sound doctrine and accountability. I am not disagreeing with you, but I think there are many ways going about “doing church” then to simply throw away every institutional scaffolding. And in my experience, most churchgoers who don’t want to submit to loving gentle authority are really telling me, “I want to live how I want, thanks.” Even myself as a pastor must submit to authority. So I’m seeing this both ways, knowing neither way is perfect, but that not all institutions are obsolete and in fact do have beneficial biblical grounding.

      • 

        Sorry, a bit of semantics is sending us past each other. Example, I was called to a closed meeting and told to submit to the authority of the pastor (I was not a member, just went to the adult Sunday School class) which is contrary even to that denominational laws. They had a letter already written which they handed me banning me from their building and any related activities (so the meeting to hear the situation was a total fraud). That is what I am talking about when I speak of institutional religion, loveless power-mongering that defames Jesus. I do not refer to effectual gathering of disciples to forward the cause of Christ. I ask your forgiving indulgence that I was not more precise, for, as I said, I meant no disrespect to you.
        Peace

        • 

          Thank you for clarifying. I’m really sorry that happened; as much as I believe in and love the church, that’s happened to me almost verbatim. Definitely a reflection of broken man and very much opposed to the heart of God Himself.

  5. 

    I’ve been reading this week about Jesus’ intense grace toward His disciples when He was arrested. He knew exactly how Judas was going to betray Him, and even as Judas was doing so, Jesus called him friend. Jesus knew how and when Peter would deny even knowing Him, but He prayed for Peter and He ate His last meal with Peter (and all the disciples who would desert Him). He knew they would give in to fear, yet He washed their feet, spoke peace over them, and encouraged them in those last few hours. He didn’t pull back from them. That’s our model.

    • 

      Yes! It’s really tough though, you know. Jesus had a mission full ahead of him: to die for us. But church leaders don’t need to be crucified to be leaders. I’ve seen many pastors who continually give permission for their congregation to hurt them, without reprimand, and the pastors think it’s just “part of the job.” The church culture can be brutally punishing towards the pastor, and I’ve seen pastors who get zero encouragement or appreciation from their church. No one, not even the pastor, can live like that. I think it’s romantic to believe that ministry must be exactly like Jesus and Judas, and many times it will be so, but I also believe there’s a wisdom in the way that church leaders love on their people.

  6. 

    For me, the real problem is that I can’t find a very GOOD reason to attend church anymore. I always knew there were bad things (I attended church for 30+ years every week, usually more than once), but the good reasons seemed to outweigh the bad. Now I can’t find even ONE good reason. I honestly wish I could. I miss the community I USED to have.

    It strikes me that the reason you did not see dialogue from the churched to Miller is very likely simply because that’s not how the church operates. It’s my number one negative – lack of dialogue. I don’t think people need someone to talk at them anymore. I think we need a discussion. This is entirely impractical when you consider the size of a lot of churches. And so, this is what we do in our home once-a-month. We dialogue.

    One final thought: my 15-yr. old son has started attending a youth group meeting on Wednesday nights. He is going there because he likes one of the girls who attends. What my son needs is some honest discussion about the value of a holy life, virtues, character. Want to know what he hears every week? “Jesus is coming back and if you don’t accept him you will spend eternity in hell.” This is so not helpful as to be damaging! Teenagers today do NOT need to hear about a future possibility of hell – what they really need is for someone to tell them that bad choices can bring hell to earth, right here, right now, in their very lives.

    I know you would advise me to attend that church, to try to dialogue with them about what the teens need. Seriously? We were in church ministry for 20 years. I know all about what that kind of dialogue gets you – shown to the door. It breaks my heart, it really does – it hurts me more than it angers me (a nice change, actually). And I want to show them grace, so I will continue to drive my son to church on Wednesdays and keep my mouth shut. I will not cause division or pain to the people at that church who (I’m sure) genuinely love God. But sometimes I think they are not doing a good job at genuinely loving people. The agenda gets seriously messed up.

    Thanks, J.S., for your thoughtful and thought-provoking posts. I always enjoy reading!
    God bless,
    C

    • 

      That’s pretty rough. I think for every story I hear about a good church, there’s a dozen more that are causing disunity and just wreaking havoc on bystanders.

      I think also that I was trying to say both Donald Miller and the internet-Christians were criticizing much more than offering constructive momentum, so I was troubled by both sides. But Miller did in fact reply very graciously in his follow-up and then in his interview with Relevant Magazine. While I disagree with Miller’s method of “popular discontent,” in that he took the easy route in finding wrong with everything, I find it atrocious that the majority of internet-Christians ripped him apart. It’s like the ability to blog has suddenly made us all lose our minds and turned us into hasty reactionary keyboard mashers.

      I do hope your son finds a good church-community. There are still some out there. In my very limited opinion, I still believe in the institutional church and I don’t want to give up on her. Maybe in 30+ years, I’ll be changing my tune. Until then, I suppose I will keep shoving dialogue into the face of dogma.

  7. 

    And dialogue is EXACTLY what we all need, so keep it up, J.S.! :) I keep saying it, but I read and comment here because you have made it a safe place. Thanks for that – it means more than you can know to a whole bunch of folks who still want to have the conversation.

    God bless,
    C

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Exiting the Building does not mean Leaving behind Community | Thinking Out Loud - March 5, 2014

    […] as ministers (of sorts) in a church setting, I have had problems with said institution. I read one blog last week fueled by Donald Miller’s blog comment and the internet storm that raged as a […]

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