and yet ANOTHER internet controversy!: going to church

by Wolfgang Hohlbein

Honestly, when all of this hubub showed up on my facebook feed on Monday, I was quite honestly just … bored. I read Donald Miller’s original article, “I Don’t Worship God by Singing, I Worship Him Elsewhere,” and my only thoughts were, “oh, that’s neat.” And then I read a dozen buzzfeed articles on cats. I really like Donald Miller, and Blue Like Jazz has been on my wishlist for ages, but this article didn’t say anything radical– at least not to me. Another person has discovered that– spoilerGod doesn’t just exist in church. Yay for everybody.

But then I saw so many conversations spring up– on facebook, on twitter, in comment sections– and it took me by surprise. Why are people talking about this? Some dude doesn’t regularly attend his church and this is worth talking about? Ok, then, world, you’re a strange beast.

And then this happened.

And this.

And… this.

And then The Gospel Coalition threw their hat in the ring.

And Donald Miller responded.

Even after following all of that, and reading through a number of conversations, I still don’t get it. Mostly because I think that most of the people having these conversations deeply misunderstood Miller’s original point, which was that church hasn’t been the best way for him, personally, to have a good relationship with God. Since that’s been true for me basically my entire life– and true for mostly everyone I know– it just seemed… ho-hum. Like he was just saying out loud what everyone already thought. Most Christians go to church, that’s true, but I think if we were all being honest with ourselves we’d admit that nope, church attendance isn’t really the cornerstone of my relationship with God.

I guess not.

Miller’s already addressed anything I would say about the general arguments, but there is one path in particular I wanted to follow, because it especially leaped out to me because of my religious background. It’s encapsulated pretty well in “Donald Miller’s Prescription for Spiritual Suicide” by Denny Burk:

I don’t know what else to say except that this is profoundly disappointing. Not only that, it’s also dangerous. It’s a recipe for spiritual suicide. I am not denying that people have different learning styles. I am denying that different learning styles in any way trump what God has said to us about His church. The scripture is very clear that the local church is the matrix for Christian discipleship. In short, you cannot be a follower of Jesus and be indifferent about the church.

First, and you all probably know I’m about to say this: anything that comes after “The Bible Clearly Says” is not something I’m going to give a lot of attention to. Burk almost lost me at that paragraph, but I finished the rest of the post, which he ended with how “nothing could be more dangerous to your soul” than … not attending church regularly.

I don’t attend church regularly, and I don’t for entirely different reasons than Donald Miller. A huge part of it is that I’m just not the healthiest person, but the biggest part of it is that almost nothing is more damaging to my faith or my relationship with God than going to church.

Seriously. When I muster up the strength to face a church service, I sit through the entire thing cringing most of the time. Most of my negative experiences have little to do with anything happening at the church service I’m in, to be clear. Most of the time, it’s because my pastor occasionally does or says something that reminds me of them— my abuser, my cult-leader– and, although it’s nothing really to do with this pastor, or this church,  I spend the rest of the sermon fending off a panic attack.

Rarely, though, something happens in a church service that makes me walk out of the building saying fuck it I’m not putting up with this shit anymore fuck it all to bloody hell fuck God fuck his church fuck all these bloody people I’ m never coming back to this fucking place.

Welcome to the inside of Samantha’s head when she’s disturbed by how blind the church can be to how evil the world is and how the church can hurt people.

Anyway, what I think most of Miller’s critics have completely and utterly missed is that a traditional church service is not the same thing as community, as worship, as anything like what’s described in the New Testament. I mean, it doesn’t take a Bible scholar to read Acts of the Apostles and see that church services mostly consisted of everyone getting together for dinner and then talking about Jesus. I don’t exactly need song leaders and sermons for that.

But, again, in all these conversations about “church” there’s a huge part that’s missing: there are people who have been abused by churches, by pastors, by religious teachings, and that most of what’s hurt them happened during church services. Telling people like us that avoiding our triggers, that staying mentally healthy, that struggling to have any faith at all outside of the environment that causes us so much pain is a recipe for suicide is wrong. That all of the people who don’t go to church for whatever reason are horribly bad, neglectful, uncaring, un-spiritual Christians– if we even get to be Christians at all, which according to people like Denny Burk, that’s not even an option.

No, I don’t go to church very often. But, honestly acknowledging that church is not a safe place for me, and overcoming all the mountains of guilt and shame I feel when I don’t get out of bed on a Sunday morning has been the best thing that’s ever happened in my relationship with God.

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  • I’m guessing you already know this, but I’m going to say it anyway, for someone else who might read and be dealing with the same thing and needs to have it pointed out-
    What you described about your feelings while in a service- those are the classic symptoms of PTSD anxiety.

    Same reason I haven’t been to church in about a year. Not because my church is abusive or not a safe place- it’s not. In fact, it’s one of the safest places I’ve found, which is why I’ve been a member for almost a decade now. But crowds are a trigger and now that I’m on my own I have to be careful about managing my issues, because if I fall apart, there’s no where for my kids to land.

    Take care of you, and ignore the yellers. They yell because they’re ignorant. It’s the still, small voice that needs to be heard.

    • I was going to say exactly this. I just wrote an entry about PTSD and it’s on my mind right now. Mary has the right of it.

      Also, just about nothing is weirder for me, as an ex-Christian, to watch Christians tearing each other apart over superficial bullshit like “is it okay to bring a water bottle to church?” and “ZOMG WORLD ENDING ALERT SOMEONE THINKS IT’S OKAY TO WEAR CARGO SHORTS TO CHURCH!!!ELEVENTY!!!” With all the stuff happening in Christian-land, this is what they’re concentrating on? Sounds a lot like someone’s figured out that fewer butts in seats means smaller tithes, and is now panicking.

      If there is a god and he’s a good guy, I seriously doubt he cares where you spend your Sunday mornings. Or Thursday nights. Or whatever VBS week is. Or the Annual Snake-Handling and Welch’s-Grape-Juice-Drinking Jamboree. But you get a bunch of sanctimonious and judgmental people together, and it doesn’t take long for you to start thinking that wow, this god who made quarks and quasars, who set in motion every law of physics there is, sure does seem like a bit of a micro-manager. I’ll be straight up with ya, gal: to me, Christians as a group are about the best evidence there is that there isn’t a Biblical god. You worship however you want, and connect with the divine however makes the most sense to you. I trust your guesses–for yourself, for how you connect with it–way more than I trust those who try to borrow authority to strong-arm and terrorize people. And I am glad you seem to trust yourself more than you trust them.

  • I’m saying this as an atheist, having been a fundamentalist, and stopping for a brief stint in progressive Christianity:

    When the Bible was written there wasn’t a Sunday Morning Service, a Sunday Night Service and and Wednesday Night Service. While they may have met regularly we don’t know if that was once a week, once a month, or once a year. Not only that, but the Church is not contained within the four walls of a building. The church is the community – the people. I find this sort of attendance shaming to be very self serving on the part of church leadership. It is, IMHO, in and of itself a form of abuse. It’s intended to manipulate.

    If you have regular contact with people of like mind – even if it’s here on the net you are not forsaking meeting. The Bible doesn’t clearly state you have to have any sort of formal church membership.

  • I don’t attend church very often and my spiritual life has never been better. I’ve gotten away from people trying to unscrew the top of my head and pour propositional crap into my brain. I’ve finally discovered how to have a real, living relationship with God. One thing that Burk’s response is also missing is the fact that some of the most spiritually alive people have been anchorites or others who choose a life of solitude. No, we don’t need Burk’s ‘church’ to not only survive…but thrive.

  • Donald Miller’s sentiment is something I can relate with. But I also understand the concern of people like Burke; condescending as he is. I read Hebrews 10:25-26 and get the impression it’s more beneficial to cynically sit through a Sunday service, followed by lunch with friends than if I’d just skipped service and met with those friends after. There’s just something about it all…I can’t place my finger on it exactly.

    For those who don’t just deal with cynicism, and instead feel something much more…intense, I really wouldn’t know what to say. On a personal level, I want all believers to belong to Church because the Church belongs to Christ. I’m not sure what that looks like for everyone but as diverse as the western church is I have to believe there’s a community out there for all of us.

  • Kreine

    I’d like to think the Divine is big enough & loving enough to meet us where we are, in a mainstream evangelical church or at a cafe or bar with friends. Or even curled up on the couch with our pet, listening to e-church because that’s all we can handle.

    I mean, srsly? The omnipresent God won’t show up for us if we don’t show up at some formulaic service? Puh-lease!

    I think some people are so upset about others not attending church because 1). they feel their own beliefs are being threatened, & 2). they’re afraid their congregants are going to realize attending church out of a sense of duty is pointless.

  • jamesbradfordpate

    Reblogged this on James’ Ramblings.

  • Thank you for sharing this. While I didn’t have the experiences you did in a church, I too find regular church attendance to be deeply damaging to my spiritual walk. The less often I go to church, the better off my relationship with God is.

  • Spot-on again with this one, Samantha. I was not as badly spiritually abused by my church background as you were, but I regularly spot cringe-worthy stuff at my church as well, especially during the sermons. You are absolutely right about the church being a faith community rather than an institution. It’s just constantly amazing to me how culturally driven Christianity has become, especially in this country.

  • Well said. It is sometimes impossible to get people to understand that church does not equal community, often it is more divisive than any community would seek to be.

    My in-laws are loyal church-goers of the Southern Baptist tradition. My sister-in-law was very into church and heavily involved with youth groups and mission trips and everything like that. My husband (the older sibling)… was not. Church was never community for him; it was a place that didn’t accept him for who he was, full of people who could never quite welcome him sincerely and were always doing so as a kind of “favor” to his family.

    Church, for me, was a community right up until I grew old enough to look at it with rational eyes. And then I stopped going, because I stopped feeling anything. I keep trying church, but it’s hard to FEEL anything, sometimes. I’ve had some luck with a local Presbyterian church. We had some luck with a Unitarian Universalist church, but there’s too much of a need for Jesus in me for UU to quite stick.

    I’m not sure what to do. So for now I kind of shrug, and try, and try and fail and try again, and think anyone trying to force someone to attend church through guilt-trips or emotional manipulation just… can’t see it. They can’t see how church can be a prison and not a place of healing.

  • While community is absolutely one of the cornerstones of the Christian faith, that doesn’t always equate to “going to church”. The institutional church system we’ve inherited from our parents and grandparents did NOT exist for at least the first few hundred years of Christianity, and if we put our minds to it and forgot about “the way it’s always been done”, we could probably come up with a better way of gathering in community.

    As a Pastor, I of course have an interest in getting the community together–that is the purpose of going to church every Sunday. But it’s not the only way that purpose is fulfilled, and if a particular church is failing at fostering community within itself and with God, it’s not doing its job, and people will of course stop gathering together.

  • Aibird

    What you said here sums up exactly why I can’t even enter a church most of the time. Thank you for saying this.

  • Is Denny Burk a walking Baptist joke? Way to care more about how many butts are in the pews rather than whether those butts’ owners are being spiritually enriched.

  • Those responses feel like gatekeepers, which is not surprising; modern evangelicalism is built by gatekeepers for gatekeepers. They’ve built a system in which they’re the ones who get to control what gets out and what gets in, and in doing so they’ve managed to build themselves comfortable little power bases that give them a nice paycheck and a sphere of influence that they apparently cherish, deeply.

    Donald Miller’s statements cannot be allowed to stand, because Miller pointed out that there are no walls. There is a gate, and the keepers are studiously there making sure that things go in and out, but Miller’s post (and the many that have elicited similar responses previously) point out that God does not live inside our little town with its little gate and the little people standing guard. Miller’s response points out that those gatekeepers standing guard only have the exact amount of power that we give them, and that we can leave — and come back — whenever we like. This is a dangerous idea for the gatekeepers, because it challenges the whole of their position. Their security and reputation and influence and very livelihood are on the line and depend on making sure that people don’t realize that there are no walls, just a single gate. Me? I believe in a universe that’s a hundred billion light years across, where God is just as powerful and just as intimate on a planet in a galaxy whose light may never reach the Earth as He is here in my life today. The Gospel Coalition and Christianity Today will never mean anything to the lives that God touches there — why should they have to mean anything to me, here?

    • I really think you’ve touched on something important here, Eric, and I thank you for saying it. I’d been noticing the same thing, but didn’t have the words to describe it until now. “Arguing about what hymns to sing while the Titanic goes down” was the closest I could come. I have been noticing as well that especially right-wing Christianity seems very hierarchical, with a very clear chain of command and deep roots in sexism, classism, and racism, and if someone’s not “submitting” to church authority, that person is stepping right outside of that hierarchy. Right-wing Christians can be a little fragile; they cannot handle someone saying their emperor is nekkid. I have quite literally lost count of how many of them I have heard saying that progressive/emergent Christianity is the biggest threat there is to Christianity–and you have to understand their mindset to understand how they can say something so ridiculous and patently absurd. To them, it is exactly that: the biggest threat there is to their entire paradigm. But they mistake the paradigm for the religion. Instead of questioning the paradigm’s validity, they condemn all criticism of it and shut down all examination of it. Sorry, I’m probably preaching to the choir here. But I’m starting to work out this stuff for myself and it’s exciting to me to explore new ideas like this. You said something useful and good here. Thank you for taking the time to do so.

      • Not a problem, Captain. If you’re interested in exploring these ideas (and many more) a bit more in depth, I highly recommend Fred Clark’s blog at It was Fred who I first read describing the concept of evangelical Christianity as a group of gatekeepers and it’s a metaphor that I quite like (obviously).

        • I read Slacktivist off and on, but I must have missed those discussions. I really like how Fred thinks, and as usual he’s hit it on the head with that conceptualization. It’s a really entitled mindset, the gatekeeper mindset, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a better adjective for evangelicals than “entitled.” They are absolutely convinced that not only is their approval required by anybody, but that without it, others shouldn’t be able to go about their private lives. They’ll happily force everyone around them to act like they do, even if they’re not even Christian–because acting right is better than believing, and I guess they think if they force people to act Christian, they’ll eventually convert..? I dunno. Doubt they do either. Centuries from now, you know folks will be pointing at the evangelical movement when they do Christianity’s post-mortem, if saner Christians don’t prevail first. I hope they do; I know Christianity is important to many people and I want to see a Christianity that is a better neighbor, one that actually practices its best expressions of love and charity. That Christianity is not anywhere in evangelicalism.

          Thanks again for the heads-up!

    • Larkin

      Really beautifully well-said.

  • What a wasted opportunity. Donald’s post could have sparked a good conversation about what is church? what is community? is there such a thing as sacred or holy space, and what makes it sacred? These questions are important, and by simply saying “The Bible clearly says my own opinion” they shut down any chance of real communication.

  • Read Donald Miller’s “rebutttal”, found it to be incredibly gracious and highly intelligent, was enriched and blessed. He explained so well the real issues at stake, and how fear is the underpinning of this controversy, and fear fuels judgment of our brothers and sisters in Christ. May Christ’s love grow in us and fear decrease!

  • OMG, you could have written my story right there. Excellent post!

  • Wife and I grew up faithful attenders, and most of our married life we continued. For a couple of years we attended church sporadically because all the churches in the city are so rabidly rapture minded. I got tired of biting my tongue or letting this stupidity slide. We missed the social interaction and friendship of a Sunday school, but church stopped being likeminded for me.
    Now we’re in a house church with eight to ten each Sunday. We’re all friends and care for each other. I don’t know how one of our members would be doing right now since she was widowed and having other women in the group who’ve lost a child or are widows help her through the pain. House church is the aspect of growth right now because they offer more to the members on a personal level.

  • helen sinclair

    You all need to accept that the bible is a lie and there is no god and church is evil. Accept it!

    • Hello Helen– and welcome.

      To be honest, I’ve always been a little confused by comments like this one. I’m willing to listen if you’re willing to engage, but I’m just curious– since there’s no substantive argument here, is there anything you’d like this comment to do?

  • Reblogged this on flamesword ~ watching in the shadows and commented:
    so much word. aside from also having the health problems, the sliver of faith that I currently maintain is so very dependent on staying out of church and other ‘religious’ activities as much as possible.

  • I also feel the same as you regarding Church attendance – I prefer a contemplative life and the need to attend Church on a regular basis is not important to me. However, Churches are a huge “Business” in the U.S. and many of the folks arguing for your attendance have a stake in those Churches surviving and thriving – their livelihood depends on it. I have been amazed at the new types of ministry careers that are on the scene now that were never even thought of a generation ago. A whole industry has sprung up. Cynical Statement: Churches need everyone to attend so they can get their 10% tithing (revenue). These big Churches have turned into entertainment venues.

  • JR

    My problem with Donald Miller and a lot of the comments is it so accurately shows the individualism that is rampant in NA Christianity. Is it all about me and what I get out of it, or has God given me a purpose — to give something? If we see church as our opportunity to give, then we will have to find some kind of community in which to give ourselves. That may look very different than the most common model (and for those suffering from PTSD due to church abuses, I am thankful that options exist, which might not have been the case a few decades ago). But to suggest that solitary spiritual search/reflection, etc, is compatible with Christianity I think is to read our culture into the Bible, not the other way around.

  • I don’t usually comment on blogs, so please forgive the stream-of-consciousness:

    My husband & I aren’t a part of institutional church at all. I was very concerned about how I could share life with other christians, during a near-total break from spending time with any follower of Jesus other than my husband, but the work of Jon Zens & Frank Viola (I’ve only read a little bit b/c, well I’m raising a 14-month-old right now, lol). It was just lovely & validating to read other people’s views on “church” as a living, breathing organism, otherwise known as community.

    Right now we’re involved in some small groups that gather periodically (attached to a church we don’t attend, but which is nice & with whom I may we doing some art gatherings) as well as a local house church (a group of just a couple families & college students, which meets in whatever home wants to host each week, sits in a circle, discusses whatever we’re reading in the Bible, then eats dinner together). This house church keeps a lot of the structure that does, admittedly, tend to trigger me…but I’ve had a strong feeling from day one that we might not regret going on a little journey with them. They really want true spiritual community & I think in time they may be willing to meet without a “leader” (a practice which, frankly, has been stifling & frustrating, even to them, though they aren’t ready to realize yet that stripping away some of their man-order will open us all up to God’s plans for the evening (not to chaos, but the the Holy Spirit, God being a “God of order” doesn’t mean he feels the need to tell a “leader” his plans for the evening in advance, heh).

    & meanwhile, we have wonderful, encouraging friends that we hang out with randomly over pizza (small towns are awesome) or that I spend time with during the week. & when one of us needs a little support (or a lot), a whole community is there for them. It’s pretty great.

    I had to separate myself from “church people” entirely for a while to get to the point where I can be an “organic church” type of person (who I’ve always been, really) without lots of guilt, but amazingly that separation, which I had been taught to fear my whole life, only deepened my understanding of Christ & of love & of truth & respect & what “fellowship” really can mean.

    • JR

      Baile, I’m sorry that your experience has been so negative in the past, and glad that you are finding a Christian community to grow in. I would like to challenge your idea that having a “leader” is a man-made construct. It is thoroughly biblical one. When God wants something done, he has always chosen a leader (not the leader everyone else expected, but a leader none the less). Jesus told his disciples to go and make disciples — “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28:20) That set up a teacher-student relationship. Acts is full of references to elders, including that they were appointed for each church (14:23 cf. Titus 1:5). Paul taught that God appointed apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers to prepare God’s people for works of service (Eph. 4:11-12), and gave instructions about qualifications for elders, (Elders would really be the most biblical term for what most churches call a pastor – 1 Tim. 5:17ff). That doesn’t mean leadership has been done right or that there isn’t a better way to do leadership. Leading doesn’t mean dictating (or even necessarily determining the order for the meeting). Jesus taught that leaders would be servants of all (Luke 22:26) by example. You may be reacting against a very unbiblical church, but to me it seems as if the one you want to create is just as unbiblical.

      • I don’t think it’s fair to accuse someone of being “just as unbiblical” as a spiritually abusive church because of a single word.

        • JR

          I didn’t accuse _Baile_ of being unbiblical — I challenged what seems to be her idea of an ideal church as unbiblical. I argued that a church without leaders is just as unbiblical as a church that has abusive leaders. That doesn’t mean they are equally evil, but they both can’t be supported by what the Bible teaches (and I’ve seen situations where “no leadership” lead to spiritual abuse, so the could easily be equally evil). I also carefully put in “to me it seems as if” — obviously this implies I could also be wrong based on not having enough information about her view.

          It’s so easy for us to pendulum swing, throwing the baby out with the bath-water (especially if even good things are triggers). I’m encouraging her to think about what the Bible teaches about how the church is supposed to be.

          Also, I wasn’t reacting to “a single word”—it’s a fairly long sentence communicating an ethos felt throughout the whole comment. Baile said she hopes the group will “in time … be willing to meet without a “leader” (a practice which, frankly, has been stifling & frustrating, even to them, though they aren’t ready to realize yet that stripping away some of their man-order…” I could be wrong, but it seems to me that equating leadership with “man-order,” suggests it isn’t God’s order (and therefore is unbiblical), calling it a “stifling and frustrating practice” also suggests its a man-made idea and clearly optional. The implication is that they will be so much more free and peaceful if they just get rid of the leader. She is looking for something “organic” (which usually is another code word for leaderless).

          Also, while Baile certainly implies she was part of a spiritually abusive church, there is no indication of the degree. I’ve known people to have triggers based on the actions of one person in a church, so in that case starting a church without a leader could actually be more unbiblical than the particular church she’s reacting against, which could be full of godly people who are doing their best to follow Christ. (Not saying this is the case, just saying that we really don’t know based on what she said).

  • I must be really odd or something because when I imagine my ideal “church community”… there’s really no preaching involved. I see a simple building, maybe. Sometimes not. I see suppers where everyone gathers and talks. Like a family does in those cliche images that never quite matched the families I’ve known.

    Spaghetti Sunday. Potluck. “What have you read this week?” “Oh? Do you think I’m wrong? What’s your opinion on this matter?”

    It’s people who genuinely care about each other and find any excuse to gather for good food, good fun, and good friends. Where disagreements don’t turn into fights that have more to do with prestige and position than with the actual subject of the argument.

    But I’ve learned that Ideals… usually don’t survive long in Reality.

    • Carrie

      This is a really beautiful vision of church. I would go to church if it looked like this.